To Be More . . . Neighborly
Leviticus 19:1-4, 9-18
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
8 March 2020
We are to be holy because God is holy.
Kimberly Clayton in her commentary on this passage informs us that “how we love God is evident in every action we take” and so holiness is not about the grand gestures but the way we manifest the love of God in all the ordinary things we do. For the writer in Leviticus this includes how we harvest our grain, so we can use our imaginations to think of mundane aspects of our daily lives that manifest holiness. Ways every day that we are fair, kind, courteous, and respectful to others. Ways we every day consider others needs and don’t think only for ourselves. From how we drive on the interstate to how we treat the customer service person on the telephone to whether we safely return our grocery carts to the bins or let them roll around the parking lot damaging other cars. She writes, “In Leviticus holiness is at least not making life more difficult for someone with a disability or standing idly by when your neighbor is in trouble. . . . You are holy when you are fair to everyone equally, without being influenced by either pity or greed.”
The Book of Leviticus gives us a lot of guidelines that are intended to help shape our lives in a holy direction. But, as one commentator I read this week emphasized, we are always a work in progress, “swimming against the tide of prevailing human ways” when we commit to living according to God’s holiness.
And, of course, Leviticus isn’t the final word on holiness, but it does, according to biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann “[constitute] a long reflection on the form holiness may take for the people of God.” A key question in that conversation is how we are to treat other people, which is the essence of this passage in Leviticus 19 where we are told how to be fair to the poor and the foreigner and to love our neighbors. Of course we also hear that great question posed to Jesus in the Gospels, “Who is my neighbor?” And our entire biblical tradition has been answering that question with a constantly expanding vision.
Walter Brueggemann emphasizes this in his writings on neighborliness, which he takes to be one of the basics of the biblical covenant and, therefore, one of the basic ethical ideas that continues to shape us as the people of God.
At the center of our answer is the suggestion here in Leviticus that we must love ourselves. Sometimes that can be difficult for us. We humans can tend to self-loathing or narcissism. Whereas the healthy self-respect that empowers our love of neighbor can take some work.
Leviticus teaches us to first love our neighbor as ourselves. The circle expands from us to those we encounter daily. To be holy is to practice kindness and justice with those people.
One of the delights of living and working in this neighborhood, walking it streets, and sitting on my front porch the last decade has been familiarizing myself with the neighborhood’s residents. Last Saturday our nextdoor neighbors to the north, the Rossittos, invited us over for a cookout because the weather was so wonderful, and Angela and I sat and talked about all the interesting people we encounter.
Tuesday night Sebastian and I were at Don & Millie’s for supper and ran into our neighbor Doug who lives to the south of us. Sebastian hollered, “Doug, come sit by me.” We’ve developed a good friendship with Doug. He often takes our dog Nash for walks, and some pictures Sebastian drew for him after his partner died hang in his house.
The philosopher John Dewey said that democracy is a way of life that actually begins with neighbors meeting together to solve a problem on their block. In this era when we worry about the social fabric of the nation, one of the best things we can do is to develop good relationships in our neighborhood.
But the biblical tradition doesn’t end there. Already in Leviticus it asks us to consider how the poor are our neighbors and we must make sure we are collectively providing for them. Leviticus also asks us to consider the stranger among us, the foreigner, the sojourner, the immigrant and the refugee. Holiness as neighborliness includes caring for them. Brueggemann describes holiness as “restorative practices toward the vulnerable who have been diminished” by our culture.
One of the joys of this congregation’s ministry the last three years has been our sponsorship of refugee families. First with Shee Lweh and Gar Moo and now Hawa and Mobark and their children, we have helped to make a better life for people who needed it . Shee Lweh and Gar Moo had spent most of their lives in a refugee camp in Thailand. As children, they fled, from Burma, with their parents, to the camp in Thailand. They met in the camp and married and gave birth to three children. The kids knew nothing of the world other than the refugee camp before they flew to Omaha in the winter of 2017 and were greeted at the airport by a happy group of strangers from First Central. Now those kids are fully Americanized, according to Pat Lamberty, and Shee Lweh has a good job with career prospects.
Hawa and Mobark came from the Sudan, a nation ripped apart by civil war and genocide. We don’t know all the details of what they experienced fleeing their country and eventually ending up in Jordan before coming to Omaha last year.
We have lived into the holy vision of God through our welcome and support and care for these families, who now have a better life.
The biblical tradition does go further, though that step is not taken here in Leviticus. Jesus teaches us to also love our enemies. It’s a challenging, difficult vision.
At the center of this teaching is the idea that to be holy is to treat everyone as neighbor and not as threat. So we must learn when we encounter someone different from us not to treat them as other but to treat them with inclusive love. To be neighborly, then, includes confronting our biases and prejudices. Doing the often hard work of overcoming the ways we might have been programed as children. Learning the ways we participate in unjust and oppressive systems that privilege us and harm others and then working to correct those.
So, we work to make our language gender inclusive, because the Christian tradition has a history of harming women. We have declared ourselves open and affirming and worked to correct the oppression of LGBTQ persons. We have acknowledged the ways our facilities and programs have not been accessible to persons of all abilities and have worked diligently to correct these mistakes. We have confessed that mental illness is stigmatized in society, so we have committed to being more welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and engaged in order to undo that stigma. And we’ve explored and challenged our racial biases in hopes of becoming a more multicultural people.
All of this is involved in being holy as God is holy, in being more neighborly.
So, when our Long-Range Planning Task Force completed its work, neighborliness was one of the key opportunities we identified for this church to expand our ministries in the this decade. Our physical facility is strategically located and already a cultural anchor and asset to our neighborhood. Neighbor children learn to ride their bikes on our patio, people sit on our benches to rest and eat, they walk our labyrinth, they grow food in our garden, shop in our Thrift shop, and attend concerts and performances here. We imagined that we could expand on all that, becoming even more of a community center for our neighborhood and the city.
Among the opportunities we identified an invigorated Thrift Shop, a coffee and gathering area, activities and programs for neighbors including refugee support services, afterschool programs, classes on various topics, support groups, recreational activities, enhancing our exterior with benches, gardens, and a little library to engage the pedestrians of the neighborhood and more effectively communicate our values to passersby.
Being neighborly also means expanding our vision to be more engaged in service and justice work in our community. We are respected for the work we have done, but there is even more we can do, often working in partnership with others. A couple of years ago we were actively exploring options of working together with some of our sister churches, an initiative we need to rekindle.
And one of the main goals of the Long-Range Plan was an emphasis on Global Citizenship. At the recent Annual Meeting there was much discussion of how we can be more engaged in global ministries. I’ve scheduled the new executive minister for the UCC’s Global Ministries, the Rev. Karen-Georgia Thompson, to preach and lead a workshop in October. She’ll help us engage further in that conversation.
So, how can we be more neighborly? Let me count the ways!
This Lent, as you are thinking and praying and reflecting and considering for yourself how God is calling you to be more, consider these possibilities. How can you be more neighborly? And how can your Christian witness and involvement in this faith community expand our neighborhood?
For we are called to be holy as God is holy and our holiness is revealed in how we treat other people.