…[Y]ou 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.’ … ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus takes his audience back to the basics.  Since entering Jerusalem and overturning tables in the Temple, he has been engaged in arguments with a series of interrogators, all lined up like trick-or-treaters with eggs in their bags and shaving cream in their back pockets. The chief priests ring the bell and want to know the source of Jesus’ authority. The Pharisees and the Herodians are next, with a trick question about paying taxes to the emperor. Ding dong! The Sadducees want to know if he believes in the resurrection. And Jesus doles out the airtight responses, one after another, until they no longer know whether they are the trick-ers, or the trick-ees.

Finally, in today’s story, a scribe watches all this and takes everybody back to the basics: “Which commandment is the greatest of all?” Biblical storyteller Richard Swanson paraphrases: “What is the core of Torah observance? What does it mean to be faithful in a world where power seems to be more valuable than truth?” Jesus first points the scribe toward the One and Only God who created and liberated God’s children and holds them in the palm of his hand—you’re to love that God with every fiber of your being—heart, mind, soul, and strength. And then Jesus offers the corollary to that, the embodying counterpart. Jesus says look around you at the people you share this world with. Love them. He uses the Greek word, “agapeseis” (root word “agape”), meaning mutual care and active interdependence. This is not a passive love—it is a responsive and responsible love. Jesus says that the challenges of the present moment are opportunities for hope if people remember that they have each other, and that God has them. You are not alone, Jesus says. Love God. Love your neighbor.

But. Who is my neighbor?

In Luke’s Gospel, in a similar discussion concerning the Commandments, a young lawyer asks this question. Mark the Evangelist doesn’t include it, but it hangs there nevertheless; who is my neighbor? In Luke, Jesus’ responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is an invitation to find our neighbor in unexpected guises, even if it is someone, like the Samaritan, that is so disrespected and disregarded as to barely merit personhood. Jesus says that to love God and love neighbor is to understand that what God loves, we are called to love as well, even if it is difficult.

Who is my neighbor? Perhaps we’re about to find a way to reframe that question.  But first I want to tell you about a lecture I heard in seminary. Teresa Berger, Professor of Liturgics, began by saying, “I’d like you to put your notebooks away, and just listen.” (That got our attention.) She asked us to imagine what our worship would be like if we didn’t put human beings at the center of it; if our worship of God was Creation-centered instead—as it says in Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork.” What if our worship was marked by the awareness that humans join not only with angels and archangels, but with the earth and the air and all that lives therein? What would that be like? What would our churches be like? What would our communities be like? Our world? If we had the humility to see ourselves from a broader, less anthropocentric, perspective? 

This is not an academic question. It is an existential question, especially in the context of the United Nations Climate Change Conference that convenes today in Glasgow. The hosts’ goal is to “keep hope alive” of keeping global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees Celsius in order to prevent the worst consequences of human-induced climate change. We have less than a decade in which to reduce emissions sufficiently to keep our fragile Earth below that 1.5-degree threshold. Less than ten years.

What does this have to do with worship? Everything! How we value and honor and understand our place in the intricate web of Creation has everything to do with how we respond to Creation’s cries for healing and restoration. We become what we value. We become what we worship.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer offers a Native American perspective on the challenge and the hope of this moment in the life of our Grandmother Earth. It is a beautiful and heart-gripping memoir, and I hope to gather a book group in the coming year to read it together. The main theme that Kimmerer has woven through her narrative is the dynamic of gratitude. When Creation is in balance all creatures—two legged or four (or six or eight), winged or finned, scaled or furry, even plant or mineral— we are all related in a dance of giving, receiving, and reciprocating. This involves both sharing the gifts we receive from one another and our responsibility to share our own Spirit-given (or God-given) gifts in a way that is generous and sustainable. In order to do this in a Creation-focused way we need to see our fellow Creatures, animate and inanimate, as having their own personhood; to see them not as subject to object but subject to subject. When we see our world from this perspective—as fellow persons in a tapestry of all created beings—we can’t help but see that fouling the air, warming the oceans, destroying the fertility of the soil and the extinction of species isn’t just the collateral damage of human progress, it is a grievous wounding of those with whom we share our very lives. 

Who is my neighbor?

We don’t have to appropriate Native spirituality and practice in order to benefit from this wisdom. St. Francis preached to the birds and called the Sun and Moon his Brother and Sister. Celtic Spirituality is Creation-focused, seeing the presence of God in all things. But Indigenous cultures do have much to teach us, and we have much to learn in order to find our way forward out of the depletive, extractive, overconsumptive behaviors and policies that have gotten us to this crossroads. 

It is tempting to give in to despair. I cringe when I fill my gas tank. I buy local organic hydroponic lettuce—yay!—packed in plastic containers—damn. I think of how I depend on my clothes dryer. And my hair dryer. I have come to confuse needs and wants—I guess a lot of us do that. And it’s easy to think the problem is too big—that we’ve made too much of a mess to ever clean it up. 

But I refuse to believe that. The wounds to our Earth are deep but there are countless people and organizations doing the hard work of healing, repair and restoration.  For example check out this past week’s e-news for a periodic segment from Gabe Alfieri called, “Being the Change: Local Actions Toward Global Impact”,  in which he gathers eco-tips and links that are not only helpful, but hopeful, because they take us beyond the numbing headlines to energizing agapeseis; mutual care and interdependence. Showing our love for God and our neighbor through a dynamic of gratitude.

Kimmerer offers this hopeful image: 

“We have enjoyed the feast generously laid out for us by Mother Earth, but now the plates are empty and the dining room is a mess. It’s time we started doing the dishes in Mother Earth’s kitchen. Doing dishes has gotten a bad rap, but everyone who migrates to the kitchen after a meal knows that that’s where the laughter happens, the good conversations, the friendships. Doing dishes, like doing restoration, forms relationships.”

Who is my neighbor? Now we can reframe that question.

Who isn’t?