Jesus tells us that we should not believe everything we hear. He quotes a familiar saying: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The first part of that saying (“You shall love your neighbor.”) is from scripture (Leviticus 19:18), but the second part (“hate your enemy”) was simply added on to the scriptural part, and it might have been popular at the time because of the political unrest in the area. However, Jesus makes it clear that hating anyone, even enemies, is not acceptable. Jesus tells his listeners that God cares for those people whom they do not like just as much as God cares for those people they do like, and if they expect to be thought of as Children of God, they must do the same.
Moses is saying something similar in Deuteronomy when he describes God as a king who is not partial, takes no bribes, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves strangers. He also reminds the people that they were oppressed in Egypt, and that should serve as a reminder to not oppress others in their new home. Our society is a little different from Moses’ listeners, but we still have the equivalent of the orphan, widow, and stranger among us. We still have people who need extra help, and we still have people who do not fit into the prevailing culture. Such people are not problems to be solved or groups to be shunned. Instead, they are pert of our world and as much beloved Children of God as we are. In many ways, when we look at a person whom we regard as different or unpleasant or dangerous, we are actually looking in a mirror and seeing aspects of ourselves – as Moses says: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Moses is instructing the people as they prepare to cross the Jordan to always remember that God is their king – the king who is not partial, takes no bribes, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger. That is an important thing for all of us to remember. However, if we also believe that God is one of us through the incarnation of Jesus, and shares our human life, then we are led to believe that God is not only our king – God is also our relative, and therefore we are all members of a royal family with duties and responsibilities toward each other, as well as rights and privileges.
Because of creation, we all bear the image of God. Because of the incarnation, God bears our image. The question we must ask ourselves is: “do we accept the duties and privileges that this relationship lays upon us?” Do we act our part as members of the family of a king who is not partial, accepts no bribes, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger? We are free to refuse those responsibilities, but if we do so, we must also refuse our relationship with God. If we do accept that relationship, not only as children but also as siblings and cousins of God (remember the incarnation), we must remember that we are worth far too much to waste time and effort on anything other than love. As Jesus reminds us: “You shall love your neighbor…”
Jesus also reminds us that we are not to believe everything that we hear. We sometimes hear people expressing a desire to return to the values upon which this country was founded. Many are quick to agree with that desire without carefully considering what it really means. That is dangerous, because although many of our nation’s founders were good people, our country was founded at a time when some of the moral values included slavery, violence toward women, drunkenness, breaking treaties with Indian nations, and slaughter of those Indian nations. We do not need to return to those values. We need to be like Abraham’s family that we heard about in our second reading today, and “desire a better country”. As the Letter to the Hebrews says: “If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind , they would have had opportunity to return.” Like Abraham, we should long to see the new homeland – a place of justice and peace. We are not there yet, but we should be looking to it and traveling toward it, so that like Abraham, we can “see it and greet it” from a distance. We also need to be careful to not be smug about our own most cherished ideas of justice and freedom – just as we are shocked at how many of our founding fathers could support slavery and genocide, we do not know which of our own values will seem barbaric to people two hundred years from now.
Abraham’s goal is mentioned as a “heavenly country”, and at times people have thought of that in terms of desiring to be taken away to a better place. Such an attitude has sometimes led people to allow the world around them to sink into despair as they wait patiently to be transported to paradise. That might be an easy way to live, but it is not an honest way to live as God’s family. We recite a psalm at the end of matins every Thursday that talks about God being in our midst so that: “Justice shall march in the forefront and peace shall follow the way.” That is a wonderful way to speak of God, but can it be said of us? If not, it should. Our vocation as Children of God is not to wait for heaven, our vocation is to bring heaven to our homes and nations.
We have been truly blessed here with local and national governments that are usually good. Of course this country is far from perfect, but we know we have the right and ability to work for its betterment. We should do that without pride or conceit, for in another gospel story, in the same breath that Jesus exalts his listeners as the light of the world and a city on a hill, he also reminds them that they are the salt of the earth – something so common that it is easily forgotten in recipes and is not noticed until it is missed. Sometimes some of us are called to be heroes and prophets like Abraham Lincoln or Harriet Tubman – lights of the world and cities on the hill, but usually, most of us are called to be common people spreading love and compassion as the salt of the world. We are called to live our dull lives in such a way that, like the psalm says: “Justice shall march in the forefront, and peace shall follow the way.
So may we be like Abraham – willing to leave the gods that our fathers served beyond the river and travel to a new home where God is not only our king, but also part of our family. May we see the city that God has prepared for our home, and do all that we can to bring it to the people around us. May we live our lives in such a way that: “Justice shall march in the
forefront, and peace shall follow the way.” AMEN