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by Brian Keepers
A friend recently reminded me that most of the time we preachers are really preaching to ourselves, and the congregation gets to overhear it. This was certainly true for me yesterday. The text for the sermon was Mark 12:28-44, where a scribe approaches Jesus and asks, “Which commandment is first of all?”
Jesus famously answers him, “The first is, ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and 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.’ And the second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
There is something in Jesus’s answer that resonates with the scribe. “You are right, Teacher,” he says. “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Then Mark tells us that when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
One of the questions I posed—a question that was just as much for me as it was for the congregation—was this: What is keeping you from truly loving your neighbor as yourself? This question ended up following me home from church like a stray cat and it won’t leave me alone.
How would you answer it? My immediate answer is busyness. Life and ministry is so full right now and margins are in short supply. Recently I feel like I’ve been moving at such a hurried pace that I don’t even notice my neighbor—I don’t see the people God has put around me or directly in front of me.
But is that all it is? Or is there something deeper going on here? In her best-selling book Rising Strong, Brene Brown insightfully points out that when we encounter others in need, they hold up a mirror and expose our own need. And that makes us feel too vulnerable. Those of us who are privileged don’t want to acknowledge we have needs. We want to meet the needs of others, do the helping. That makes us feel good, powerful, righteous even. Brene describes the myth of self-sufficiency in which “helping is courageous and compassionate, and a sign that you have it together. Asking for help is a sign of weakness.” Her words cut me open and made me realize that busyness is only an excuse for why I don’t love my neighbor well. The deeper reason is because I, too, am afraid to face my own needs.
So here is something that is going to sound counter-intuitive to so many of us (especially all my fellow Enneagram “2” types out there, which happens to be a whole lot of pastors). What if loving our neighbor is more about learning to receive and be helped by others instead of always being the ones who do the helping and giving? What if we received the gift from our neighbor that we, too, have needs and that it is okay and really important to acknowledge this? In fact, acknowledging our own need may be the first step to entering and receiving God’s kingdom.
All of this makes me think of Robert (not his real name), who was a member of the first church I served in a small town in northwest Iowa. Robert was part of an influx of people literally from “the other side of the tracks” who started coming to our church. Most of these folks had never stepped foot in a church before, and nobody explained to them the rules for how to behave. They didn’t dress up, didn’t put on a façade, didn’t act like they had it all together. They came as they really were. It was beautiful and messy and gloriously disruptive for us good church people.
Robert was a registered sex offender. You can imagine how uncomfortable this was for many in the congregation. As I got to know Robert, I learned that he had been sexually abused as a child, which resulted in trauma that led to mental health issues, all of which contributed to his poor decisions. But Robert was also child of God, and he was kind and gentle and had a big heart. Robert managed to get a job that paid minimum wage, but he was still well below the poverty line.
One day Robert stopped by the church unexpectedly and said he had a gift for me. To be honest, I had packed my schedule tight that day and I really didn’t have time for this interruption. But here Robert was, standing there holding a couple plastic bags from Hy-Vee (the local grocery store). He told me that he had gone to Hy-Vee and bought some food to make me a special Pastor Appreciation lunch.
So we stepped into the kitchenette next to my study, and Robert went to work. He pulled out a large sub sandwich bun and a variety of meats and lettuce and tomato and all the fixin’s. I’ll never forget the smile on his face as he went to work making that sandwich. He also bought his favorite potato chips and two 20 oz bottles of Coke.
Now I know that Robert didn’t have the money for this special lunch, and yet he gave it to me out of love, out of his own poverty. For an hour we sat and ate, just being with each other. It was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me. Robert gave me a gift that day that I will never forget. It was the gift of learning to see someone as God sees them, and to be seen as God sees me. It was the gift of learning to receive, of recognizing my own need. It was the gift of learning to “be with” and not having to “do for.” It was the gift of learning how to love my neighbor and be loved by my neighbor.
May you always do for others
and let others do for you.
Next to Jesus, I think Bob Dylan says it best: “May you always do for others and let others do for you.” And when the opportunity comes, which may very well be at the most unexpected time and with the most unexpected person, God give us the grace to set everything aside to be fully present. Because in that moment we just might find ourselves not far from the kingdom of God.
Brian Keepers is the minister of preaching and congregational leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.