My alma mater, James Madison University, voted this past week to rename three of its buildings. For now, those buildings will carry temporary designations. The vote was simply to remove the names of three Confederate generals: Maury, Ashby, and Jackson.
This, of course, is a lesser known example of what’s happening across the country. Statues are coming down, whether by law or force. Universities are renaming or removing names. Princeton recently removed the name of Woodrow Wilson from its campus, including its prestigious public service school. In our own town, we’re experiencing this reality through our confederate monument and its flag that flies in front of the old courthouse.
Sides form, arguments happen, and people get hurt, both figuratively and literally in some instances. We might want to help, we might want to say the right thing, to somehow be a peacemaker, but exactly how do we do that? The issue is so divisive, so contentious, and even so venomous, that to involve ourselves at all is to risk much. But to sit in silence doesn’t feel right either. So what are we to do?
To that question of what are we to do, I hope to provide a place to begin through this sermon series. Not an answer, for answers will come through working and wrestling together as a town and a society. So often, the trick in life is not to find the right answer but to find the right place to begin.
And so today we embark on that place to begin: the golden rule. Today and for the next four Sundays, we’ll be examining what it means to live out the golden rule. I grew up with it, I know it from scripture, but I had never really thought about what it means. Who, exactly, is my neighbor? When I love them as I love myself, what does that look like? What changes can come, if any, as a result of following the golden rule? This is something that we all know, we’ve all heard all of our lives, but I wonder how many of us have stopped to ponder the golden rule? To consider it deeply and thoroughly?
Let’s embark on that journey together. If you find things here that are helpful and useful, I hope that you’ll share that with your friends and family members. I am continuing to post sermon manuscripts to the website and it’s easier than ever to share our worship through sharing on our Facebook page. In this era of heightened stress and discord, we can be the change we wish to see in the world if we will share what we find helpful and instructive.
So with that, let’s embark on the place to begin, the golden rule, as first articulated in the book of Leviticus.
Hear now Leviticus 19:9-18.
When Jesus states the golden rule as the second greatest commandment, he’s quoting Leviticus 19:18. Jesus quoted the Old Testament all the time. In a later sermon, we’ll examine the incident between Jesus and the pharisees where he quotes this verse. But for now, what we find is that the golden rule is a summation of the law.
Verse 18 is meant to summarize what has come before it. Note all the mentions of the word neighbor in the text we read. This is part of the holiness code, called so because of the frequency of the phrase, “You shall be holy as I, the LORD your God, am holy.” It’s the standard for this part of the code, that the people should be holy just as God is holy. This is not the work of the priests or the Levites or the temple officials, it’s not left to people like me in religious leadership to make right sacrifices and pray rightly so that God will consider the people holy; it’s up to the people, by their actions, to be holy.
And how should they be holy? By loving their neighbor as themselves.
Love your neighbor and don’t defraud him. Love your neighbor and don’t cheat her. Love your neighbor and judge him rightly. Love your neighbor and reprove her with kindness.
The golden rule comes after the gleaning verses that you’ve heard me preach before; the very place we find the inspiration for our gleaning habit that supports the backpack ministry through the food bank. And it comes after the rejoinder to worship God properly. All of it bound up by that phrase: You shall be holy as I, the LORD your God, am holy.
We like to think of holiness as something that God has; an attribute. We might think of holy as something that separates us from God, for we are not holy.
But that’s not the point of Leviticus. It democratizes holiness. Now, because of this code in the law from Leviticus, holiness is everyone’s responsibility. God expects the people to be holy. And they are holy when they treat their neighbor with justice; when they love their neighbor as themselves.
They are to be holy because they love God. They are also to be holy because when they follow the golden rule, their society functions properly and the people are prosperous and safe. When they choose to not follow the golden rule, their society falls apart.
We might feel like we’re watching that happen right now. The news reports all sorts of discord and disunion that might be easy to ignore if it wasn’t knocking on our own door. The conversation first ignited by the murder of George Floyd has changed into something else. As we rename buildings and tear down statues and debate doing the same in other places, including in front of our own courthouse, what we’re struggling with is how to tell our story.
This debate over how to tell our story as a nation has its importance: we’re struggling to figure out how we talk about our history as a people. History is always a moving target, told by the victors and those with power. We might like to think of history as static, but this is simply not the case. We’re always looking back at history through our modern lenses, reconsidering the stories of old. Once, we thought of ourselves first and foremost as citizens of a state; a Georgian before an American. In fact, calling ourselves Americans wasn’t a thing until the Teddy Roosevelt administration! The sovereignty of states mattered more than the federal government until Roosevelt expanded federalism at the turn of the twentieth century. Our national identity has been molded and shaped into what it is today; it was not always a thing. So, not only have we changed how we talk about our history; even how we refer to ourselves has shifted over time.
The authors of the Bible had the same debate with themselves. Various authors had agendas they pursued to push their particular narrative. For example, here in Leviticus the priests want to encourage the people to be holy so they can enjoy a stable and peaceful society. In their history, the authors of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles want to tell the story of how they became a big and important nation.
But the Bible does this remarkable thing with its history: it doesn’t hide the horrors. Here’s David, the great King, sleeping with Bathsheba, leading directly to the decline of his monarchy and a palace intrigue that causes his son Solomon to kill off his adversaries in order to secure his throne. Reading that story is like something right out of The Godfather trilogy. Here’s Josiah, the king who would save the people from their inevitable destruction by leading them back to holiness, running off into battle, after being told not to, and dying there, leaving the kingdom without crucial leadership. Here’s Solomon, turning into a pharaoh by enslaving his own people, saddling them with debt and taxes so that he could be rich.
The Bible doesn’t hide its horror. It tells the story, the whole story, so that there can be a reckoning.
Just like in Leviticus, the Bible reproves its neighbor by telling their story. And we get the benefit. For what we see in the Bible’s stories, especially the stories where they lay out their failures, shortcomings, oppression, murder, sexual immorality, corruption, political intrigue, greed, graft, and the like, is what happens when society fails to be holy.
In these moments, the Bible records the prophets who go to the people and say they are unrighteous; they have been found unholy by God and are called to be holy. In order to restore society to its just purposes and in order to experience peace and rescue from what threatens to destroy them, the people must turn back to righteousness, must become holy again.
And the prophets spell out what this looks like. Often times, they call the people back to following the law. Sometimes they give specific examples. And in just about every case, what do the prophets tell the people to do to be holy again and thereby to undo their societal ills and restore peace and justice?
Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus says in a scripture we’ll review later that the whole of the law can be summed up in those two statements. The prophets agree. Their own history agrees. For when the people did such work, like when Josiah was king, the people prospered and society found its footing.
Having a stable and just society, as the Bible records it, comes through following the law, which means loving God and loving your neighbor.
The message of the Old Testament, preserving its horrors and glories, its successes and failures in loving their neighbors and thereby being holy, is this: whether or not a society rises or falls depends directly on whether or not the individual people in that society love their neighbor as themselves.
Our actions, our little actions with our neighbors, have societal impact.
If that seems far-fetched, remember that it’s a place to begin, not the fullness of the answer of the question of how to fix our society. The fullness of the answer lies in deciding together how to tell our stories, preserving horrors and glories. The fullness of the answer lies in a new religious awakening that changes us all, even us who are already religious. The fullness of the answer lies in something beyond our imaginations because it requires the involvement of God, which requires our full submission to God.
But this is the place to begin. The golden rule is where the prophets point the people back time and again as where they should begin. It’s where Jesus points us in the gospels. That great reflective question posed by the band Bastille, “where do we begin, the rubble or our sins,” is answered by our holy scriptures: neither; instead, go love your neighbor as yourself.
The power of doing so comes through if we consider the power of kindness. When our neighbor helps us, we are more likely to lend a hand back. When our neighbor harms us, we are less likely to help them and more likely to either do harm or not prevent harm from coming to them. We had wonderful, amazing, neighbors in Macon. Their kindness was contagious. If everyone acted in just this way, it’s not hard to imagine a society of justice, peace, and joy.
It’s easy to hear this and point the finger at others, saying it’s the fault of others for not maintaining this holiness by following the golden rule. But that just makes us victims of someone else’s ill-will and makes us powerless to do anything about it. That’s not at all what Leviticus says.
It tells us that we bear responsibility in how we act. Getting others to do the same comes both through the movement of the Holy Spirit and the infectious nature of the kindness and justice we show to others. We don’t bully or force people to act rightly; we set the example and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest.
This means that if we want to experience peace and have a stable society, we must begin by following the golden rule as individuals. This is not the full answer to the question of how to have a more peaceful, just, and stable society. I wouldn’t want to say that I have it all figured out nor that the answer could be so simple by itself. But, so often in life, the trick to big questions is not so much to find an answer but to find where to begin.
And we can begin by taking a long, hard, look in the mirror, asking ourselves if we love our neighbor as ourselves.
Knowing that our neighbor, as generally understood throughout scripture, is anyone we directly impact.
That means, on our streets, we have neighbors. It also means our coworkers are neighbors, our fellow board members are neighbors, folks we volunteer with are our neighbors, our family members are our neighbors, even if we’re estranged from some. We also have direct impact on anyone who sees our social media posts, so our Facebook friends and twitter feeds and instagram followers are our neighbors.
It also means that the people we share space with are our neighbors. The people who live in Eastman and Dodge County, even if we don’t know them, even if we lead remarkably different lives, are also our neighbors.
When we consider all of these neighbors, are we kind? Do we render just judgments? When we need to reprove them, meaning when we need to confront them, do we do so with respect? Do we do so at all, for not confronting a problem is just as disrespectful as confronting it poorly. Do we profit by someone else’s blood, sweat, and tears?
More to the point today: do we slander our neighbors? Do we post or repost conspiracy theories, stereotypes, and other posts that demean or debase particular groups of people? Do we say or share things that show hate to be found in our hearts? Do you hold grudges against family members, former business partners, old friends, or people you see on Facebook?
Everything I have just mentioned is to be found between verses 11 and 18 in our scripture today. If we can answer yes to one or more of these, we do not love our neighbor as ourselves. We are failing to keep the golden rule. And in doing so, we are not just failing ourselves, not even just failing God, we are failing each other; failing our societal responsibility.
Because if I slander my neighbor, spreading gossip and rumors about her, I am undoing any good you are doing by being kind. If I repost to Facebook conspiracy theories about fringe groups or spread posts that stereotype or name call or even are just plain snarky, I undo any good that you’re trying to do reaching across divisions to build relationships. If I share a post that begins, “I normally don’t do this, but…” it will probably undo the good that you’re doing somewhere else because no post that does any good has ever begun with that statement.
We bear a responsibility to each other by following the golden rule. I submit to you that this is very challenging. I had a phone call the other night where I was very tempted to be mean and say things I would have regretted later. I was very tempted to lose my even-tempered tone and show my anger and frustration. I was very tempted by many things. I’m happy to report that I kept my composure and handled the situation well, but it’s very hard sometimes to love our neighbor.
Because sometimes our neighbor is just not very lovable. Sometimes our neighbor makes it very difficult to love them back. We know this from our families. But we also see this in those who are closed-minded, who see the world in black and white terms, who think that if you’re not for them and what they believe, you’re against them. There is no middle ground.
Those kind of people are particularly difficult for me to love. That was part of the trouble the other night on the phone. I see the world very differently and I struggle to understand how to relate to folks that see the world in such stark terms. That applies most especially to people on the far right and the far left. I have also had experiences, and I’m sure you can relate, where I reach out in love over and over again and only find resistance and sometimes harm returned to me. It’s easy, when rebuffed or wounded because of the love you showed, to give up.
It’s especially easy during a moment like this as a nation where the history, the narrative, the story being told of us as a people is binary, is black and white, is you’re either for something or against something. It’s very challenging to love your neighbor in this kind of moment. The story being told right now is not a story of loving your neighbor as yourself.
So let’s tell a different story.
We can tell a different story just by our actions. If in everything, in our private jokes we think will never be repeated, in our hushed conversations, in our social media posting, in our meetings, on our streets, in the boardroom, at the food bank volunteering, in our facebooking, in our text messaging and phone calling, if we will strive to always love our neighbor as ourselves, we will tell a different story.
Our lives will proclaim that a different life is possible. That the way to real, lasting, change in our society is through kindness and love not through bullying, force, demeaning others, or playing to people’s base instincts. We as a church, we as human beings, any one hearing this sermon regardless of whether you’re affiliated with our church or not, the more of us who live lives of loving our neighbor as ourselves, the more of us will tell a different story and proclaim through our examples that a different way of knowing each other is possible.
Leviticus tells that different story: a story of the stability and peace of a society where everyone focuses on loving their neighbor. We can’t force people to follow the golden rule. And if we tried to bully, argue, or force someone to do so, we wouldn’t be following the golden rule ourselves! No, we must instead choose lives that exemplify this bedrock principle of a stable society: love your neighbor as yourself.
We can be the change we wish to see in the world. We will be that change if our lives tell the right story; the story of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourself.
Does your life tell the story of loving your neighbor? Meaning loving everyone with whom you have contact, whether in person or virtually? Don’t answer that question quickly. Take a long, hard, look in the mirror. If you were to go back through your Facebook timeline, does it proclaim that you love your neighbor, everybody, as you love yourself? If you were to think back through the conversations you’ve had recently, if I or someone else was to overhear them, would we walk away saying you love your neighbor as yourself? If you were to think back through your interactions, even your inner dialogue, if someone could overhear what you say in your head, would they say you love your neighbor as yourself?
Does your life tell the story of kindness, of doing what’s just, of making the hard but right decisions, of counting the cost and then choosing to do the costly thing if it’s right? We need good leaders right now, more than ever. And a good leader tells a powerful story when she or he will do the costly thing and stand up for what’s right. In the ways you lead, is that you?
Loving our neighbor is about being kind, being just, even if that means having to confront or having to have hard conversations. Loving our neighbor means looking at ourselves in the mirror and asking ourselves, honestly, if we’re doing our part to be holy as God is holy. Is that you?
Loving our neighbor means listening, deeply, to the stories people different from ourselves tell. It means being willing to reconsider our own beliefs in light of their lived experiences. That’s the point of the stories project launched earlier this week. Tell your story, submit it for the website. And then listen with open minds and open hearts to their stories. These are our neighbors. Listening with empathy is loving our neighbor. Is that you?
We all have this capacity within us. As Abraham Lincoln said, it’s just a matter of choosing our “better angels.” It’s a matter of loving our neighbors as ourselves so that the story our lives tell is God’s story, a story we call holiness.
For that’s the task on us. Not blaming others. Not playing the victim saying it’s everyone else’s fault. Not becoming a worst version of ourselves by playing to base instincts or bullying or being mean on Facebook.
No, to look at ourselves and ask this question: when people see me, do they see God?
Because, if we really, truly, love our neighbor, that’s what will happen. That’s what it means to be holy as God is holy. That when people see us, when they experience the story of our lives, they see God.
What story does your life tell? Do you love your neighbor?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.