Saintly Activity

Palme de l'originalité des décos de Noël 2010Creative Commons Image by Christophe Brocas on Flickr.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is a fitting text for both a Sunday after Pentecost and All Saints Sunday.

According to Jesus, a mark of discipleship is this very act — loving your neighbor as yourself. While All Saints Sunday reminds us of and remembers those who have died, it is also a call to present day saintly behavior. I make no claims to be a saint. But I think we come pretty close when we act out this commandment. To be a saint, to sanctify, to be sanctified, to have in mind sanctification is to embody God’s way of life that sets us apart — not for the sake of proving ourselves to be better, not for the sake of one-upmanship, not for the sake of power, but for the sake of example, of model, of witness.

Why? So that those who observe how we choose to live and be in the world will catch a glimpse of the sanctity of God’s love, the holiness of God, and that a life of sainthood does not mean perfection or having your own feast day. So that there can be another way of being in the world besides self-service, self-aggrandizement, autonomy, and narcissism. When loving your neighbor becomes the first way to be in the world, the primary lens through which to view the world, the choice that you consciously make to live your life in your world, that is a radically different way to be than what our world lifts up.

While our world professes and wants to confess an orientation to the other, its behavior proves otherwise. We still can’t seem to get this right, as simple as it seems to be. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a false claim when poverty still exists, when people still go hungry, when shelter/safety is only known temporarily, when discrimination remains.

And loving your neighbor as yourself is a blatant untruth when the church continues to exclude, to rationalize selected and chosen participation, or to insist that Jesus and God didn’t really mean what they said. That neighbor refers only to those we deem worthy of God’s love. That neighbor means only those we have ascertained as acceptable. That neighbor represents a selected few who have manifested beliefs and lifestyles that match ideal Christian behavior.

This past week I was in Maine with pastors of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ thinking together about the question, “why preach?” These opportunities are essential, even life-giving times for me, a teacher of preachers and one who offers preaching advice when not preaching regularly or called to a congregation. I hear the daily challenges of parish life. I hear the challenges of serving with others who want the church to serve them. I hear the challenges of preaching in moments when a congregation seems to have lost the centrality of “love your neighbor as yourself” and when the pastor has become the least loved of the neighbors. Having been a parish pastor, I know these things, but they are all too easily forgotten once you find yourself surrounded by academia, the demands of theological education, and the pressing issues of seminary survival.

So, this week, I was struck by this very challenge as a preacher — to love those whom you serve as yourself. And how very hard that can be sometimes, let alone loving others outside of your flock as well. That’s a lot of love, and often we don’t have enough to go around. Not to mention how difficult it is to love ourselves. That presents its own massive challenges and is worthy of a column, or two or three, all on its own.

Loving your neighbor is a saintly activity. The choice to love the neighbor does indeed set us apart from those who know only what it means to love their own selves and stop there. Others will know what sainthood looks like, not because we are better or holier than thou, but because we have been called to see outside of ourselves for the sake of seeing the world as God does.

In part, that is exactly the surprise of this scribe’s response to Jesus in the reading from Mark. We expect him to be self-righteous, self-centered. Yet, he demonstrates the capacity to choose for himself, to choose God’s way instead of the way of the establishment, the hierarchy, the status quo.

Poet Mary Oliver says this about “love your neighbor as yourself”: “Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive — ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ — which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”

That is, in part, our problem. The glamorization of a commandment that should be exceedingly difficult. The declaration of a truth of the Christian life that is a rather feigned claim when we obey it only half-heartedly. The confidence in our ability to live this mark of faith when, if we are honest, we are consistently less than successful.

This commandment rings all too true for those of us called to love for a living. That’s a lot of loving and sometimes that love is very hard to come by. Whether it’s a council meeting that challenges your leadership, an email that questions your decisions, or an encounter that calls you out for not living up to pastoral expectations, loving your neighbor takes on a whole different meaning in parish ministry.

It’s funny, perhaps even ironic. This time around, we wish we could be more like the Jewish official. We rarely want to be that character when it comes to reading the Gospels. But this passage from Mark, this Sunday, whether you celebrate All Saints or not, invites us to get outside of ourselves so as to sense what it feels like, what it means, actually to love the neighbor.

I am thankful for this moment in Mark’s Gospel. While still dim, I am able to see some of what saintly activity looks like. I know I am not capable of this “superhuman feat.” But, at least I can try.