Lent: The Springtime of the Soul
A Biblical Commentary for the Third Sunday in Lent
By Rev. David H. Rommereim
Neighbor-ology: Who is the Guest?
In an environment where neighbors are constantly changing and individuals break from their families migrating from job to job, ancestral memories tend to be short, sweet, and shallow. We spend a little time in quick energetic moments and let not the stories linger and be retold from different perspectives. We are quick witted and short storied. Our roots are becoming shallow.
In a borough like Brooklyn we understand that this transition from one homeland to another is commonplace. It is well known that one in five North Americans have something to do with Brooklyn. Either they lived here on their way to somewhere else, or they have family, or have transitions into the borough from another part of NYC due to the economics of apartment rentals. We are also aware that in a part of Brooklyn like Bay Ridge we have a large percentage of residents who have spent their entire life here. You can still hear Brooklynese spoken in pizza joints and bars.
This long-term, short-term residential community produces a discrepancy in our faith communities because the long-time members have nothing at stake in holding their traditions intact since they have been doing the same things in church for decades.
But there is something at stake. If they were to seek to mature and grow into a new era, whereby most new residents have no memory, no glue to hold them into the pew.
I write this note on"neighbor-ology" because I have noticed in a place like Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, change comes not through program nor creative agendas of ministry. It comes through the change of heart. And that is the only way a congregation will become relevant to the new neighbor. It is a matter of what Dr. Kusake Koyama calls, Neighbor-ology. That is, the converging of the old traditions with a new spirit of hospitality to the new. And that hospitality is not simply being nice. That hospitality means that the stories from the older tradition need not be told unless and until the stories of the newcomer are fully shared.
I remember a story from a Lakota shaman who overcame drink and went back into his spiritual roots, the ground of his being. He said that the contemporary noise of fast moving people, migrating from job to job, person to person, place to place makes him feel the way he used to feel when he was drinking the white man's cheap beer. He was watering himself too much, moving too fast. He also watched his younger generation do the same, even without drinking themselves to death. Fast movement with fast talk. They were kindred spirits, even in the negative kindred bonds that could be developed. He thought that he and the contemporary speedy non-drinkers were "watering so quickly and so much that there was no place to set down roots." The slightest wind would knock him over. It is the same as over-watering plants in the garden. With too much water plants become so full they have no time to grow. They end up with shallow roots. The slightest wind would blow them over. "No challenges, no roots," he would say.
He remembered his ancestors telling him to water the plants slowly and less often. They wanted him to learn how to grow roots deep so when the north wind came in through the northern desert, the plant would stand up and be tall. Remembering his grandparents' wisdom, he began to water himself less and less. He would water slowly and the roots began to grow again, deep. Rapid moving persons are like those who water their gardens quickly and often. The roots tend to grow quickly produce a lot of foliage but brake off at the slightest twinge of a challenging moment. Those who remain, or find place to nurture their roots, tend to move slowly, so that the roots may move deep into the earth.
There are many biblical references to this sort of stability. The "Oak of Mamre" is one such metaphor. It grows in the harshest places because the watering is slow and rooting is deep. Neighbor-ology is a term I first heard from the Japanese Theologian, Kusake Koyama. It is discussed in his book "Water Buffalo Theology." There he discusses the Christian principle of neighborliness when it comes to the obligation of People of The Way (the pre-Christian community). The earliest believers were challenged to treat the neighbor with dignity. It came in that old Hebrew maxim, to treat their own lives with love, so that they are able to love the neighbor. Neighborly behavior also comes into play in the work of Soren Kierkegaard who discusses "Works of Love" being those moments when pure love is expressed to the other without any 'quid pro quo' necessary. To love and not need any love in return is the pure form of love based on the obligation shared by Jesus of Nazareth. Neighbor-ology is also envisioned through the lens of our faith in the God of our ancestors. Hospitality, radical hospitality has been the litmus test of good, honest, obedient faithfulness. Just turn to Genesis 15 and watch Abraham and Sarah experience hospitality at its best.
I write this note simply to remind us that in this age of tension, of financial challenges, and job scarcity, the tensions between people mount. The issue of racism continues to exhaust north Americans. We have yet to work through the diligence of hospitality as it affects our relations between race and nationality. It is only the diligence of our principles of faith that keep us from fast talk, violent talk, or bad talk. In our culture where anger tends to move quickly to a street fight, it remains our prayer that the values of Jesus remain at the forefront. Such values may be best known as being a good neighbor.
Neighbor-ology forfeits the anger of racialized tensions and gives it over to shared dignity and mutuality of respect. I continue to attend to these principles of Christian behavior when it comes to our neighbors. It is a wonderful opportunity to watch faith in action as we seek to follow God in healing a broken world.
Now this is the commandment-the statutes and the ordinances-that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children's children, may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long.
Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"
Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,' -this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.
I remain, Rev. David H. Rommereim