Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the gospel lesson you just heard Jesus is questioned and tested by the religious leaders of his day for the third and final time, as recorded in the 22nd chapter of Matthew, this time asking Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” and for the third and final time Jesus offers an answer no one is expecting and they leave silent. Jesus lifts up for the leaders of that day and for us the heart of his mission and ministry: that we are called to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and spirit—essentially all that we are and all that we have—and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And in reflecting on what we know as the double love commandment, I am reminded of another lawyer’s question to Jesus that appears in Luke’s gospel when the lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, telling that lawyer and us, that love of neighbor doesn’t hold any boundaries—geographic, class, culture. That our neighbors are anyone in need.
Mother Teresa put it this way: that we have a specific task to give spiritual and material help to the poorest of the poor, not just the ones in the slums, but in any and every corner of the world as well. And that we do that by recognizing in them, and giving back to them, the image and likeness of God. Love God, love neighbor. I invite you to explore with me for a few minutes this morning that more expansive view of who is our neighbor and what love of neighbor and love of God looks like.
Many of you know that I just returned at the beginning of this week from being overseas, involved in looking at and being a part of ministry of our broader Anglican Communion. I did that through and under the auspices of the Compass Rose Society which is an international Anglican group that supports the Archbishop of Canterbury and the work of the Anglican Communion around the world. Part of my trip involved being in London where I had the privilege to moderate an international panel discussion on economic inequality from a global perspective. The members of the panel included Sam Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the Fields, Trafalgar Square, who has been a guest preacher in this pulpit; the Archbishop of Burundi, Archbishop Bernard; the Bishop of the Diocese of False Bay in the Cape Town area of South Africa, Bishop Margaret Vertue; and a member of the House of Lords, John Cope, not to be confused with the John Cope who is my husband whom I do not call Lord—many other affectionate things, but not Lord.
At any rate, we asked Sam to shape and frame the discussion and particularly from the lens of Christians and a theological perspective. Not surprisingly, he began with the issue of justice and he made the observation that justice is about freedom, justice is about rights. But there’s more there. That justice of freedom and justice of rights makes a life possible, but it doesn’t make a life. That comes with the justice of God and that we, as Christians, practice God’s justice through the Church. That it is when we lift up the light and the life and the love of God in Christ that we have an opportunity to make a life: a life of joy, a life of reconciliation, a life of resurrection. And
Sam closed his presentation with what I took as a personal challenge and I think everyone there did, as well. He said, “I carry two songs in my heart as a Christian, a song of justice and a song of love.” The heart of Jesus’ ministry and mission was to love God with all that we are and all that we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Carrying Sam’s framework and the conversation that ensued within me, some of us journeyed on to Cape Town to see what our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion are doing in their time in their context. How are they embodying this double love commandment?
Much of our time was spent in the townships in and around the Cape Town area and for those of you who have been to Cape Town you know that it’s a breathtakingly beautiful city, but much like Washington, it is also a city of contrasts. I was so humbled by the difference that people are making embodying that love of God and love of neighbor to transform and to share the light of Christ in their context. There’s not enough time for me to tell you about all the places we went to and all the things that we experienced. But let me just offer one.
Journey with me, if you will, to an area called Lavender Hill. It was created decades ago when during the time of apartheid the residents of the District Six area, which is one of the tony sections of Cape Town right at the base of Table Mountain, were forcibly removed from their homes, relocated to the Cape Flats by virtue of the color of their skin and their race. Today in Lavender Hill there are some 100,000 residents. The unemployment rate is probably around 75 percent. It is one of the most dangerous, toughest, violent areas in and around Cape Town. Its nickname is gang land. The rule of law there is one gang against another. And as we were in our van weaving through all these alleys, we pulled up on the sidewalk in a place that I could not believe we were going to be asked to get out of our van and go into because it was that menacing. I’ve been in a lot of dangerous, violent looking places in my life but nothing quite like this.
As we got out of the van and crossed into what looked like the same sort of tin, wood, cardboard shack that was all around it, we crossed the threshold to encounter five of the most joyful women I have ever seen in my life. They were joyful because they had finally realized a vision and a dream that seemed impossible given their circumstance. For years they had this dream of planting a church right in the heart of the most dangerous area lifting up hope where there was no hope, joy where there is no joy, light and life and love where those are rare. And God bless those women. After years of worshiping in Joyce’s home, one by one more people were gathered into that light and that life and that joy and that hope and that possibility, so that they had to take what little furniture she had out of the house in order to come together to worship. Then they had to move into her backyard and more and more people were drawn to that hope and light and life and love.
But their dream was to have a church and on Trinity Sunday this year they planted St. Thomas Church right there—tin, wood, cardboard—a church that is smaller than this platform where on Sundays they worship and praise the Lord and 50 people come. Now, they had to scrape together rent of 600 rand which is about $55 a month. I have no idea how those five women have pulled that off but they have and St. Thomas is Holy ground. And they haven’t just rested on that extraordinary miracle. Their next vision is to get another little plot of land where they will build a community center that will be a safe haven in this very dark desperate place and my money is on those women. When we left they, of course, sang and what song did they have in their heart? “Siyahamba —We are marching in the light of God.”
Sam Wells challenged me. Those five women challenged me. I challenge you: what song has God placed on your heart? What song has God placed on the hearts of all of us? Those five women have banded together to make a difference. What might we, if we march out of this place in the light of God, make in our neighborhood, in our context? What song are you carrying in your heart today? Amen.