Questions We Ask God: Does God Really Want Me To Love My Neighbor?
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10, Mark 1: 14-20
This month I am preaching a series of sermons about questions that we might like to ask God. In some ways they are questions we already know the answer to, but we don't always like the answer so we have to ask again. The question is "Does God really want us to love our neighbors?" And I want us to think about that a little bit together.
Now there are neighbors and there are neighbors, right? Now I can't say anything about my neighbors because several members of this congregation live in my subdivision! But when I've lived other places, other times, boy, have I had some neighbors! You know what I'm talking about! There's always somebody in the neighborhood, no matter how carefully everyone manicures their lawns, there's always somebody that lets the grass grow knee high. Or there's always somebody in the neighborhood that's just the "neighborhood grouch." Or so on it goes. You have your own stories, you could tell them. I could tell mine. We all know that there are neighbors and there are neighbors! And God says "Love your neighbor."
The Old Testament lesson today interestingly addresses in a kind of back-handed way, the key underlying questions here. We know the answer to, “Does God really want us to love our neighbor?'' The answer is yes. But there are some underlying questions, aren't there? Who is my neighbor and what does it mean to love them? And our Old Testament story about Jonah addresses those questions in a wonderful way.
Jonah is one of the shortest, smallest books of the Bible. If you don't have anything to do at half-time today, you can read the whole book of Jonah during half time! And I would encourage you to do so. For those of you that are church people and Sunday School people when someone says the name Jonah, what comes to mind immediately? "And the whale," right? The problem with that is the story is not about the whale. The whale is not an important character. The whale is a minor character in the story. The story is really about, "Who is my neighbor and how do I treat my neighbor?"
Remember how it goes. Jonah is an Israelite. A good upstanding righteous man and God calls Jonah and says, “Jonah, go and preach to the Ninevites." Now let's unpack the geography and history a little bit here. Nineveh is a city and it was the capital of a major ancient empire, the capital of Assyria. Now the Assyrians were the most dangerous foreign power to the Israelites. Do you begin to see what's going on here now? Assyria is dangerous. Assyria is hostile and aggressive and is building an empire and Israel is a little country, not very strong, much threatened by the Assyrians. And God says to this fine, upstanding Israelite, ''Go to Nineveh." And what does God say? What's the rest of it? God says, "I'm going to overthrow. I'm going to destroy Nineveh unless they repent, so you go to Nineveh and ask them to repent." Now you see the problem Jonah has here? There's nothing Jonah would like better, and there's nothing Jonah's fellow citizens would like better than for God to squash the Nineties. They are the enemy. They are indeed the people that live in the capital city of the enemy's empire. They are the most dangerous people on the face of the earth to the Israelites. And God is going to wipe them out unless Jonah persuades them to repent. Interesting dilemma for our friend, Jonah, don't you think? And he does what you might expect. He decides to run in the other direction as fast as he can. So he gets on a boat and goes the other way. There's a big storm and that's where the whale comes in and after the interesting and unusual experience with the whale, Jonah is invited nicely by God a second time, "Try it again. Go to Nineveh." Well, after the experience with the whale, Jonah is not in any particular mood to argue with God about instructions. So Jonah goes to Nineveh and I imagine the scene is something like this. Now this is my imagination, mind you, but Nineveh is this great big city and Jonah is tiptoeing into town in the middle of the big marketplace each day and there are all sorts of noise and that sort of thing. Jonah tiptoes in and says, "Repent, Repent. God's going to get you if you don't repent!" I imagine Jonah trying to get away with fulfilling the terms of his assignment but in such a way that he hopes it will fail. But much aghast, I think, Jonah discovers that all of Nineveh repents, and they are saved. God doesn't overthrow them. God doesn't destroy them. And it's all Jonah's fault. Can you imagine the reception Jonah gets when he comes home? Well, think about this. This wonderful story suggests to us that when God says to love our neighbor that our neighbor is the most dangerous, disrespectful, most disliked, most hated, most uncouth of the people around us or in our world. Our neighbor is the person we most wish that God would squash. And what did Jonah do for the Ninevites? What was the way in which he expressed his love for his neighbor? You notice, by the way, that I don't think Jonah ever learned to like them. Loving the Ninevites wasn't about having warm fuzzy affectionate feelings towards them rather Jonah's task was to do for them what they most needed. They most needed someone to declare to them God's message to repent and that is exactly what Jonah did for them even though he hated them. And there's our story. Our neighbor is the person who is most dangerous, and disagreeable to us, and our task is to do for them that which they most need. And that is a hard assignment, but the whole message of the Biblical tradition says to us that that is the assignment that God has called us to.
Let me close with two other stories along this line, more modern stories. In the early 1990's a woman named Flo Wheatley who was from a little village called Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania had a child with a medical condition that required them to go to New York City for treatment. Flo took the child to New York City for treatment in the dead of winter. It was colder than cold. One of things that she was struck by was the homeless people in the city, on heating grates, tucked up into doorways and that sort of thing. She noticed these people and wondered how she could do something. She also noticed one of them had what appeared to be a hand knitted or crocheted blanket, and that gave her an idea. When she returned to Hop Bottom, she went through her children's wardrobes and found a lot of old clothing, a few bedspreads that they didn't use anymore and she used this material to make a very rudimentary, but warm sleeping bag. She called it an "ugly quilt." And the next time they went to New York she took the sleeping bag and gave it to a homeless person. That homeless person's response to her was of so much gratitude that when she got back home, she made another one. She and her husband, Jim, the first year made eight of those "ugly quilts" and gave them to homeless people. Their neighbors caught on to what they were doing and thought it was a wonderful thing and before you know it, a whole lot of people in Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania were making "ugly quilts." Before too much time passed, the word had spread around in other places and there developed an organization called "My Brother's Keeper Quilt Club." By 1996, 49,000 ugly quilts had gone through the garage and been distributed from the Wheatley home. When asked in an interview, "Why did she do this, how did all of this happen?" She said, "You start where you are and you do what you can." Sometimes in the face of the need of our neighbors, we are intimidated. We are overwhelmed by the dimensions of the need and we feel powerless and we end up doing nothing. And Flo Wheatley understood. "You start where you are and do what you can."
The other story, is actually a quotation from a German pastor and theologian who lived in Germany in the middle part of the 20th century. His name was Martin Niemoller and after the war looking back upon himself and that time, he wrote these words of confession. "When the Nazis came for the Communists, I kept quiet because I wasn't a Communist. And then they came for the Jews and I kept quiet because I wasn't a Jew. And then they came for the trade unionists and I was quiet because I wasn't a trade unionist. And then they came for the Catholics and I was quiet because I wasn't a Catholic. And then they came for the Protestants and there was no one left to speak."
Which is going to be our story as we look at the people that we find dangerous, the people that we don't like very well but who have real human needs? Will we be the Flo Wheatleys of our time or the Martin Niemollers? God said love your neighbor whoever your neighbor may be. And God means it.
Dr. Carl L. Schenck
1. Crawford, Roger, How High Can You Bounce?, 1998, pp. 210-211