Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself
– The Fourth Source of Our Living Tradition –
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, January 27, 2019

In the 1990s there was a television show that ran for five years, titled Babylon 5. It takes place in the future, a dangerous future, a frightening future when interstellar war threatens to decimate or even eliminate the life of the many intelligent species our galaxy – Human, Narn, Centauri, Minbari and more. Finally, at the end of the fourth season, the major external threats are driven away, the fascist government of Earth is defeated in a civil war, and the formerly non-aligned worlds form an Interstellar Alliance for mutual protection and to control against future aggression against each other. Citizen G’kar, a Narn leader, is selected to write this new alliance’s “Declaration of Principles.” G’kar is someone who grew up under the tyranny of a foreign empire, saw his planet decimated, his kinfolk killed, their natural resources plundered. He was tortured. And through it all and against all odds, he was transfigured with a gentle spirit and transcendent wisdom. The series is designed to draw us to love him. And we follow the writers’ leading. G’kar’s “Declaration of Principles” goes like this:

The Universe speaks in many languages, but only one voice.
The language is not Narn, or Human,
or Centauri, or Gaim or Minbari.
It speaks in the language of hope
it speaks in the language of trust
it speaks in the language of strength and
the language of compassion.
It is the language of the heart and
the language of the soul.
But always, it is the same voice.
It is the voice of our ancestors, speaking through us
and the voice of our inheritors, waiting to be born.
It is the small, still voice that says
We are one.
No matter the blood; No matter the skin
No matter the world; No matter the star
We are one.
No matter the pain; No matter the darkness
No matter the loss; No matter the fear
We are one.
Here, gathered together in common cause.
We agree to recognize this singular truth
That we are one
and this singular rule
That we must be kind to one another
Because each voice enriches us and ennobles us
and each voice lost diminishes us.
We are the voice of the Universe
the soul of creation
the fire that will light the way to a better future.
We are one.
We are one.

Unlike the dry, bureaucratic legalese of the statement of principles included in our own United Nations charter, G’kar’s declaration is poetry. It is holy writ. But bureaucratic language was the lingua franca of Earth’s twentieth century. And from it and the puritanical iconoclasm of early Unitarian Universalism comes the fourth source of our living tradition:

The living tradition which we share draws from Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves

Those are the words that appear in the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Yeah, the word “love” is in there. And this is the only place in the Association’s bylaws where the word “God” appears. But the language doesn’t cause the hair to stand up on your arm or on the back of your neck as you are moved spiritually to transform your life. It skips over the poetry and the storytelling and forces you to choose between empty dryness and following the finger, the arrow pointing back to ancient writings, where there remains some possibility of being moved by the presentation of the ideas.

Around 2,100 years ago, in the early development of rabbinical teachings, in the land of Israel, there were a couple of rabbis who were often in disagreement with each other. Shammai and Hillel. Shammai was a hard ass, but a great scholar who loved his tradition. Hillel had a gentler touch and great heart in his interpretations of the law. One day, a young man, a foreigner, an outsider who had been studying up on the beliefs and practices of the Jews but who was still was confused by a lot, he came to Shammai. “Rabbi,” he said, “if you can teach me the core of your religion in the amount of time I can keep my balance on one foot, I will convert and become a Jew.” Depending who is telling the story, maybe Shammai said, “Get the heck off my lawn!” Or maybe, he pushed him down the driveway and out the gate. Or, still again, maybe he threw a stick at him. Whatever he did, Shammai was angry that this whippersnapper, this foreigner, would ask him to teach in a few minutes what had taken him a lifetime to master. Anyway, the young man didn’t let that deter him and went to Hillel with the same question. “Rabbi,” he said, “if you can teach me the core of your religion in the amount of time I can keep my balance on one foot, I will convert and become a Jew.” With his typical gentleness, Hillel responded without acrimony. “That which you despise, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” Hillel didn’t spend his day teaching the young man. He gave the Cliff Notes to the Cliff Notes. A sound byte. Almost a bumper sticker. Did the foreigner convert? We find ourselves so satisfied, so soothed by Rabbi Hillel’s response that we don’t even bother to ask. You need a soundbite? Fine! Here it is. You want to really understand? Enter the intellectual and quotidian life of the tradition. It’s there. It will come.

A couple of generations later, along comes that itinerant carpenter rabbi from Galilee. The one we English speakers mostly call Jesus. And Jesus was also in an argument with some of his peers in his living tradition, Judaism. Sometimes there were harsh words and recriminations. Sometimes there was trickery. Other times there was entrapment. And one day some people who had been listen to his competitors came to him and said, “Rabbi Jesus, what is the greatest commandment that God gave our people?” They thought they’d given him a difficult question. Surely he couldn’t answer. He wasn’t all that, surely. Or maybe it was a trick question – after all, there are 613 commandments! How can anyone answer what their favorite one is in the moment – let alone the most important commandment? Which commandment says the most important thing about being in this living tradition? And Rabbi Jesus puts down his tools, turns to them slowly. He brushes off the sawdust and pulls himself up to his full height, takes a deep breath, and says, “The most important is, ‘Love God with all your heart and soul and mind.’ And I know you didn’t ask, but for the same money, the second most important one is so close to the first that you can’t fulfill the first without fulfilling the second: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Now that was a puzzler, because everyone in the tradition knew that God and their neighbor were definitely not in the same spiritual zip code. God was beyond description. Everybody knew that. But even in the first century, the human being was the subject of scientific inquiry and emerging medicine. Plenty of description to be had. How could those two Torah commandments be so close together?

Now the gang of buddies and budding revolutionaries that Jesus spent his time with had a hard time understanding things without a story. And the people who argued with Jesus didn’t always follow what he meant when he told a story. So he could kill the two proverbial birds, confusing his challengers and enlightening his friends at the same time. On one occasion, when Jesus was teaching that lesson from Leviticus about loving our neighbor, they asked, “Who is my neighbor?” It’s the perennial challenge by those wanting to escape human responsibility for the state of the world. In Genesis, after Cain killed his brother, God dropped by for a visit. “How’s it going, Cain? What’s been happening with you? Oh, I had something I wanted to tell Abel. Do you know where he is?” And Cain gets annoyed with the chitchat and the accusation embedded in the question and asks angrily, “Am I responsible for keeping track of my brother the way my brother keeps track of his flocks of sheep?” It is the loudest answer to an unanswered question in all storytelling history. So Rabbi Jesus tells the story we know as the story of the “Good Samaritan.” We have hospitals and other charitable institutions named for this unnamed person from Samaria. Let’s call him Harold. His people were distrusted by the Jews in those days. The two ethnicities were definitely not in the habit of helping each other. So Harold is tooling down the highway and sees Yakov, a Jew, beaten up, dumped in the ditch, and left for dead. You remember the story. Harold picks up Yakov, not even paying attention to the blood and mud he’s getting on the back seat of his Mercedes. He takes him to hospital and makes sure he gets only the best care. Yakov’s recovery is slow, his treatment expensive, and Harold pays the full bill, and comes to visit Yakov while he is recovering. Before Yakov was left for dead, the two would never have spoken to each other. But Rabbi Jesus tells his gang of disciples that Yakov was Harold’s neighbor even though they were members of different ethnicities, different peoples, and didn’t live anywhere near each other. Our neighbor is as close and as distant as any person whom we encounter and have the ability to help. Providing that help where we can – even at significant cost to ourselves – that is the nature

A generation or two after these stories were told, the teachings of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Jesus were still being echoed by Rabbi Akiva who taught “You shall love your fellow as yourself; this is a great principle in Torah.” The teachings embedded in Deuteronomy and Leviticus echoed and resonated through time, as a foundational teaching for all subsequent generations on both sides of the too often troubled relationship between Jews and Christians.

The Universe speaks in many languages…
But always, it is the same voice.
It is the voice of our ancestors, speaking through us
and the voice of our inheritors, waiting to be born.
It is the small, still voice that says
We are one.

Love God by loving your fellow human. It is not specifically or only the voice of Judaism or Christianity that this source points us to. Instead, it points us to what Judaism and Christianity point us to. The voice that also speaks through us and will speak through our inheritors, too. If we teach it from generation to generation. Judaism and Christianity provide a conduit for the stories, these teachers, the record of the discussions and arguments that lead us to the place where we know that love of our neighbor is and expression of the same thing we call the love of God.

In the song “On Wings of Praise,” which Kendyl Gibbons and Jason Shelton wrote as their poetic and musical exploration of this fourth Unitarian Universalist source, Kendyl’s lyrics say:

God of justice, God of mercy,
God of everlasting love;
Source of power, source of wonder,
Source of unending love.

Who is my neighbor, who is my brother,
Who is the holy mother and child?
Nation of covenant, kingdom of righteousness;
Home of the long exiled.

So who is my neighbor Yakof, my neighbor Harold? And where is my sibling Abel? Am I their keeper? The greatest ethical imperative of our complex and living tradition is to love God THROUGH loving humanity our fellow human, if love is active, not just a feeling, our fourth source is the living of our lives with love and justice.

The language is not Narn, or Human,
or Centauri, or Gaim or Minbari.
It is the language of hope, of trust
of strength and compassion.
It is the language of the heart and
the language of the soul.

Amen and Blessed be!

_____
Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley