There is a lot of commanding going on in today’s readings. In the Torah, the law of Moses, there are 613 commandments. We have probably all heard of the 10 Commandments. In the reading from Leviticus, the Ten Commandments are summarized in 8 statements. And then, in the readings from Matthew, Jesus says that just 2 commandments are greater than all of the others. It really seems like Jesus lets us off the hook here: just two rules to follow rather than 613 or even ten!
But, of course, when we try to condense all of the teaching and wisdom of the Ten Commandments into just two sentences, we end up with two pretty weighty commandments. First, we are told, we shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. And, secondly, we shall love our neighbor as ourselves. We need to love God, and we need to love our neighbor.
We hear a lot about loving our neighbor as ourselves, but what does it really mean? In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis explained, “This is what is meant in the Bible by loving [our neighbor]: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.” So it’s not going to cut it to like our neighbors as ourselves: we have to love them.
But let’s look to the Leviticus for a moment. In verse 18, we have some of the very same language that Jesus uses in Matthew: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if we look before this, in verse 17, we see that even though “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin” you also “shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” In other words, we need to correct the sins of our neighbors, or we are guilty of those sins ourselves. Remembering that all children of God are our neighbors, I can say pretty safely that we’ve all seen neighbors commit atrocious, horrifying sins. Are we suddenly guilty of these as well, simply for not reproving our neighbor?
This all sounds like a terrible burden. Not only do we have to love your neighbors, but we have to make sure that they aren’t sinning as well! That’s an awful lot of responsibility. But we are blessed that in this place and this tradition, there is a leader who we can look to who can help us understand how to love our neighbor by reproving their sins.
Raise your hand if you know who “Pauli Murray” is—it’s fine if you don’t know.
Most people haven’t heard of her. I certainly hadn’t before I came to Yale. Even though Pauli Muarry was one of the boldest pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement, she is virtually forgotten, as she was a woman and a lesbian. Pauli Murray was born in 1910. In 1940, fifteen years before Rosa Parks would make national headlines, Pauli Murray was placed in prison for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Murray was the first African American to receive a doctorate from the Yale Law School. She spent decades of her life fighting segregation in higher education, founding justice organizations including the highly influential National Organization for Women, and writing poetry and memoirs. In 1977, she was the first black woman to become an Episcopal priest.
So what does this have to do with loving our neighbor? What Pauli Murray can show us is the value of living in God’s active love. Pauli Murray spent her whole life excluded: from Columbia University because they did not accept women, from the University of North Carolina and Harvard Law School because they did not accept African Americans. She was incarcerated, in prison for challenging segregation and in a psychiatric ward for her sexuality. And, daily, she was belittled and shamed for her race, her gender, and her sexuality. Pauli Murray never left these practices of harm and exclusion unchallenged. Every step of the way, she acted, as the New York Herald Tribune would put it, “in anger, but without hatred.”
Loving our neighbors as ourselves means viewing individuals who perpetrate harm as our brothers and sisters in Christ—and helping to end the wrong that they do. Pauli Murray loved the people who harmed her—university administrators, police officers, and lawmakers as well as her friends, her family, and her colleagues—enough to call them to change their behavior.
A few weeks ago, when someone drew Swastikas on this campus, students responded by covering the hateful and harmful images with messages of love, hope, and reconciliation. This is the tradition of Pauli Murray, and, indeed, the tradition of Christ. We must all take steps to overwhelm hate with kindness, harm with healing, and sin with the love that God offers us.
Just as we all sin every day, in our thoughts and actions, we all see sins every day as well. God calls us to love our neighbors enough to do something about these sins. Every loving step that we take—from the largest legal battle like the ones Pauli Murray fought, to the smallest prayer said for the hearts and minds of people that do harm—is a step towards God.
We must love God, and we must love our neighbor. That’s all we need to do. If we accept these simple challenges that God gives us, we have the potential to change the world, because God’s love is stronger than humanity’s sinfulness. What will you do the next time you see a sin? Will you stand by, or will you step in with a love for your neighbor and a love for what is right?
We won’t always succeed in stepping in when we see harm. But even though we stumble, God is always with us as we intervene. God always loves us and loves our neighbors as well. And God’s invitation to the table of reconciliation, growth, and forgiveness is always open.