By the Rev. Eric O. Ledermann
February 20, 2011
First Presbyterian Church – San Bernardino, CA
Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18
Growing up my family was not particularly “religious.” We went to church every Sunday, but beyond that the rest of the week we didn’t necessarily engage the Christian faith we proclaimed. We could be counted among the multitudes that have emerged since the 1960s who have claimed the title of “spiritual but not religious.” The only meal we prayed before was Thanksgiving. I don’t think it was because my parents didn’t want to talk about religion, I think it was because they really didn’t know how. They taught my brother and I the basics: be a good person, but not too good because then people might think you’re weird; help people, but don’t put yourself out there too much or you’ll get hurt; do your best, but don’t show off or people won’t like you. I guess it was our own set of “you shalls” and “you shall nots”, but somehow I don’t think the Biblical writers would recognize it.
“Spiritual but not religious”—I have come to understand, finally, that this is really code for “I don’t know how to talk about my faith, and it’s just easier to not talk about it.” And we didn’t. Every time I asked a question my parents worked very hard to not answer it: “That’s just the way it is, Eric;” “I don’t know, Eric, can’t you see I’m busy watching TV?”; “Why don’t you call up Pastor Bob and ask him that question,” knowing I most likely would not do that—that is, until I actually did. My first real conversation with Pastor Bob was in high school and it was over an hour long—the questions that had been bottled up came flooding out like the dike had broken and nothing could stop it. He just sat there, smiling, receiving the barrage of questions and wonderings and doubts, holding them delicately, so compassionately, and so intentionally. He didn’t try to answer them all because he knew I couldn’t take all the answers at once. He was patient, kind, and open. He would say, “Don’t worry, just keep asking questions, don’t give up on your questions, Eric. God is faithful.” At the time I thought that was a pretty poor excuse for a pastoral response—another hidden “I really don’t know so I’m going to say this in hopes it satisfies you for now so I can get out of this conversation and get on with my life.”
But, I didn’t give up my questions. I kept asking, and I’m still asking. But some realizations have come to me over these many years of asking questions: 1) this Christian stuff is pretty difficult, especially since I realized that the more responses I receive to my questions, the more questions pop up in my mind—a never ending and sometimes vicious cycle; 2) so often while I’ve searched for “the right way”, I have discovered that there are many ways that are right for some people and not so right for others, which results, of course, in more questions; and 3) being perfect is not about being flawless, but about seeking to be the person God is shaping me to be, flaws and all.
The Christian life is more than about just a bunch of do’s and don’ts, or “you shalls” and “you shall nots”. The base of the word “question” is “quest”—we are all on a quest, to seek understanding, to seek fulfillment, to seek purpose, and ultimately, I believe, to seek the Holy One who created us, loves us, and continues to be present in and around us. In the Leviticus passage the author runs through this list of things, mostly dealing with how we treat others both in and out of our immediate communities, and then sums it all up with a final “you shall”: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” This is really three commands in one: at the base of all we are and do, we must look to the One who created, who loves, and walks with us, “I am the Lord”; and to love our neighbor as ourselves we must first recognize the presence of the Holy One within us, we must learn to love the person God is making us to be; and then, when these things are in proper priority (God and self) only then are we able to love our neighbor with the love of God that flows within and through us. As Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospels, loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, these are the most important things, the bare bones basics of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to be a child of God.
But let’s be honest here, this is a lot easier to say than it is to actually do. Loving your neighbor, even that neighbor who always runs his motorcycle in the middle of the night and shakes the whole neighborhood, even that neighbor who is just so mean to everyone all the time, even that neighbor who has vastly different standards than the rest of the neighborhood as to what actually constitutes a lawn, even that neighbor we only see once per week on Sunday morning but with whom we just can’t seem to connect, loving that neighbor is not easy. And it’s far easier to say than to do. I can tell myself I love them, but showing it, proving it, living it is a far more difficult thing. It means praying for them, and praying not that they may come to realize how wrong they are and how right I am, but that somehow we might be able to reach across this chasm that divides us and somehow, somehow come together to be sisters or bothers, to be connected. It means acknowledging my own fears as I receive their fears like Pastor Bob received my questions and doubts: delicately, compassionately, lovingly. It might take years to cross that divide, but the vision of “together”, the vision of “children of God” must be in the forefront of our thoughts and prayers, it means not giving up on our questions, our doubts, or fears. It means trying, and when that doesn’t work, trying again, and when that doesn’t work, trying again, and again, and again. Being a Christian, a follower of Christ, is hard work.
When we shared the Leviticus passage during staff meeting on Wednesday, one person commented: “Being a Christian is a lot like balancing the national [or state] budget [something we’ve been hearing a lot about in the past few weeks]: It’s a lot easier to just talk about it than actually do it.” We need to do the hard work of compassionately engaging and loving our neighbors, taking care of our community, taking care of the resident alien, and living into God’s vision of being “holy”—made perfect, made complete, by the gracious love of God, set apart for a special purpose, God’s purpose, showing the world that being a child of God is so much more than a bunch of “shall not” statements, but that it’s about being fully alive.
I realize now what Pastor Bob was really telling me when he told me to not give up on my questions, he was telling me how faithful it is to ask questions, to share fears, and that God would walk with me through them all. He and many other adults would walk patiently with me through my constant questioning, and my never being satisfied with the answers. In all those conversations it wasn’t about trying to agree or disagree, but about being in dialogue with one another, learning from one another and being shaped and reshaped by the presence of God within one another. Being faithful, I learned, was not so much about “right belief”, but about being able to respond honestly and compassionately in order to gain understanding and discover connection, even across spiritual, emotional, theological and even political divides.
Two phrases jumped out at me from the passages we read today: first, from Leviticus, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”; and second, from Matthew, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We are children of God by nature of just being human. God created the universe, therefore God created us, all of us, even those annoying neighbors. As I said before being “perfect” is about being made complete, being made whole, being filled, by our God who is complete, whole, and full. Trust that God has called you, trust that God is with you, trust that God is within you: love the self that God is making inside of you, love your neighbor with the very love of God that dwells within you, and find your purpose, find your fulfillment in the love of God that abounds. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it is so worth it!
Let us pray:
Lord, we live in a world where people seem to be growing farther and farther apart, divided by religion, politics, as well as race, ethnicity and race. Those who have gone before us have shared your dream of a world when all people will come together and live in harmony with one another. It feels good to talk about that, but it is so much harder to live it. Teach us, Holy One, how to reach across divisions and call one another sister or brother. Teach us how to love our enemies and pray for them and ourselves. Teach us your ways so that we may be made perfect, holy, and available for your purposes. Amen.