This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Howell, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Mark 12:38-44. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
“And who is my neighbor?”
That was the follow-up question that someone once asked Jesus. First, that person had asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” and Jesus answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength,’ and the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Jesus speaks these words in the 12th chapter of Mark, just before our passage today.
When the writer of the Gospel of Luke tells the same story, the original inquirer the asks a follow-up question. “And who is my neighbor?” He may have been seeking to clarify, but it seems more likely that he was trying to justify the ways he was already limiting to whom he was connected and related.
“And who is my neighbor?”
I find myself thinking about that when we ponder the story that is before us today.
Jesus begins by sharing a word of warning about religious leaders. He says, “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes” — I notice that I’m the one wearing a robe today — “and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
They devour widow’s houses. . .
Jesus had noticed the patterns of behavior in these particular leaders and the harmful impact their actions were having upon the lives of vulnerable neighbors. And what’s more, Jesus saw into the hearts of these leaders and noted how tempting it is to desire the power of affirmation, recognition, and religious admiration. He also instructed his disciples to steer clear of this.
Jesus noticed so much about the people around him, about the world around him. He looked into the heart. And he looked upon his neighbors and our neighbors from his own heart, uplifting their worth, walking alongside them, loving them, and declaring them to be a part of God’s Kingdom. He invites all of us into that same Kingdom alongside vulnerable neighbors.
Jesus spent his life noticing.
Jesus spent his life uplifting.
And so, the story continues. . .
He sat down opposite the treasury, and again, he began to notice things.
The story tells us that many rich people came and put in enormous sums of money. These enormous sums didn’t go unnoticed. The sound of them clamored through the air. The treasury of the temple had long, metallic receptacles that were shaped like trumpets, and people placed their offerings inside. Sometimes, they flung their offerings inside these receptacles, and when all those metallic coins made contact, the sound went before the givers, and all took notice. So what happened when Jesus saw the rich, the powerful, and the leaders of this religious institution making spectacles of themselves only to be followed by the little tinkle of two copper coins given by a vulnerable widow?
Jesus saw her. He called attention to her and voiced his observations perhaps because the others, including his disciples, said nothing and noticed nothing. Some around them were too busy making spectacles of themselves. Why would they value the great sacrifice of this widow?
The tragedy is even actually greater than ignoring her: The people surrounding her had the resources to help and come alongside her, and yet they were spending their time “devouring widows’ houses.” This woman, this child of God, gave all she had to live on in the very same receptacle as those who were willing to destroy her. She gave to God, and Jesus uplifted her gift. But the story has tragedy in it too. I think Jesus wants us to notice this, just as he noticed it.
“And who is my neighbor?”
Mother Teresa used to say, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.”
Are we aware of how deeply we belong to one another? How far will those boundaries stretch? Who be included? Who will be viewed with worth? Who will be uplifted? Who will be seen, known, noticed, cared for, valued, and empowered through the lens of neighbor? Through the lens of kinship?
Because if the most vulnerable of this world and noticed and loved by Jesus, if they are uplifted as people belonging to the Kingdom of God, and we are invited into that Kingdom, it means that we are invited into that Kin-dom. We are invited to all our barriers breaking down, for our sense of relatedness to expand, to be one family together, one humanity together, living in this creation that God has spoken into being and loved with all God’s being.
It’s that freeing. But it’s also that challenging because truly, if we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten that we belong to one another. And let’s be honest. Quite often, we have forgotten that we belong to one another.
Our nation honors veterans today, and we rightly give care and respect to the members of our families and larger circles who have entered national service, and at times, known the pain of wars. They are deserving of our care and respect. I wonder, do we also have a sense of kinship with veterans who are currently experiencing homelessness? Do we have a sense of kinship with poor, young men and women who would prefer never to enlist, but feel that is their only way out of poverty? How far does our relatedness go? Sometimes, we have forgotten that we belong to one another. I know that I have forgotten.
Today, so beautifully, we have blessed these shoeboxes. We don’t know the names of the children who will receive them, but we know those children do have names. We hope that when they receive them, they experience a sense of love and value — love from God, love from neighbors like us. I wonder, do we also feel a sense of relatedness when these children become more visible to us? When they are enduring poverty and have tangible needs? When they are fleeing violence? When children just like them end up in the stories of our news cycles, are they still our neighbors, or are they viewed primarily as symbols, maybe even objects of debate? Sometimes, we have forgotten that we belong to one another. I know that I have forgotten.
Today, we also saw and heard the beautiful report from the Romanian Mission Team. How wonderful it is to see that this congregation is in relationship with neighbors across the world. Not simply going for one week to give things away but to be truly in relationship with one another, to delight with one another in care, mutuality, and kinship — to see those who are often forgotten, and for all of us, including the team itself, to see and experience the presence of God in the presence of one another. This is the kind of partnership and kinship that Jesus keeps calling us to again and again.
“And who is my neighbor?”
The truth is, we never arrive fully in these relationships, certainly not through our own efforts. But again and again, Jesus is calling us…
It makes me wonder, what might Jesus want to uplift in this congregation? How might Jesus want to challenge each one of us? How might Jesus be inviting us now once more to love our neighbors — to love our neighbors as ourselves — more expansively?
I am grateful that Jesus sits with us too. I am grateful that Jesus notices us in great love too. And that love beckons us into a calling that keeps emerging, a calling that keeps challenging, a call that keeps expanding.