Love Every Neighbour
Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-24; Luke 10:25-29
So, here’s a question for you: If you were a person from the Bible, who would you be?
Not who would you like to be but with which Biblical character can you most identify? Who are you most like?
Perhaps you can identify with the woman of Samaria who challenged and was challenged by Jesus’ teaching. Are there times that you feel more like Job, wrestling with the question of suffering? Do you see yourself as a Cleopas, journeying alongside Jesus, recognizing him in strangers and surprises? Or perhaps this morning you’ll display the characteristics of Eutychus, the young man who famously fell asleep during one of Paul’s more verbose sermons.
So, if you were a person from the Bible, who would you be?
It’s not, of course, a truly serious question but one of those you find in magazines, and on Facebook alongside which animal are you most like or what superpower would you have, allowing you to enjoy hours of narcissistic procrastination. The best kind! And it won’t surprise you to learn that there are plenty of places on the internet where you can take such a test. So this week, for the purposes of this sermon of course, I took seven such quizzes to discover which Biblical character I am most like. I dutifully answered a number of probing questions such as what’s your favourite junk food; who’s your favourite ninja turtle and what was Jesus’ coolest miracle, to find that the Biblical character I am most like is…Moses. Or Abraham. Or Job. Or David, Mary, Joshua or, interestingly, Delilah! That’s right, each quiz offered a different answer, suggesting that either I display so many wonderful characteristics…or personality flaws…that I can’t be reduced to just one Biblical character…or that these quizzes are indeed a load of nonsense!
And yet, whilst we cannot take such quizzes seriously, the question of how we relate to the people, situations and stories from scripture is a significant one. Do we view The Bible as an account of believable characters facing relatable scenarios in their realistic relationships with God or is it full of larger than life characters facing over the top situations that have little to do with our lives today?
Take Elijah, for example – one of the few Old Testament characters I wasn’t assigned! During his life, Elijah was fed by ravens, called down fire from heaven, oversaw the slaughter of several hundred false prophets, had a bounty put on his head, parted a river and was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and all that’s before his New Testament comeback on the Mount of Transfiguration alongside Moses and Jesus. It’s not exactly a CV with which I can easily identify.
And today’s encounter with him in Zarepheth doesn’t immediately help. It’s a story we first began last November, on Remembrance Sunday in fact, when Elijah was sent to the town by God. There, as we heard again this morning, he met a widow and her son as they were about to eat their last few scraps of food before lying down to die. Elijah asks the woman for some food and drink, and assures the woman that her bowl will not run out of flour, not her jar run out of oil. Food is provided, vulnerability bears a miracle, hope springs eternal.
Well, sort of. For as we read on, we hear that the boy gets sick, grows more ill and eventually dies. His mother is, understandably bereft. Not only has she lost her only child but, in a land in which there is no help from the Government, no benefit system to provide for her, she has also lost all hope for any provision in her later years. Distraught, she blames Elijah, the ‘man of God’ for her son’s death. Elijah then takes the boy away, prays, performs a somewhat bizarre healing ritual and God answers Elijah’s prayer, bringing the boy back to life. The mother is thrilled, acknowledges that Elijah truly is a man of God and finally, we have a happy ending.
It’s an engaging tale replete with twists and turns, doubt and faith, suffering and joy and of course, there are things that we can learn from it but it’s just…well, I’ve never been caught up in a natural disaster, nor have I shared a meal with a mother and son who were literally starving to death. And although food, more particularly cake, seems to be in never-ending supply round here, there isn’t much call for an overabundance of flour and oil in our daily living, whilst the prayer to bring someone back from the dead is not one that I have ever uttered. Perhaps, then, some theological acrobatics will be needed in order for us to hear what this story might have to say about our faith today.
Perhaps. But before we don our leotards and set up the trapeze, let us look at our New Testament reading in the hope that it might shed some light on the issue.
In this familiar pre-parable passage, the teacher of the Law asks Jesus about the ultimate transaction – what must he do in order to receive eternal life?
Jesus, never one to answer things straightforwardly, answers the teacher’s question with two of his own – ‘what do the scriptures say?’ and ‘How do you interpret then?’ – to which the man responds – ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’. As answers to Jesus’ questions go, this one’s not bad at all and Jesus acknowledges this, saying ‘You are right – do this and you will live’. But the lawyer isn’t finished yet for he asks Jesus, “Well who is my neighbour?”.
When we looked at this parable last September, we remarked how the lawyer often gets chastised for asking this question; how he is often accused of trying to boundary or limit his love. Perhaps he is. Or perhaps he genuinely wants to hear what Jesus will say, after all the command from the Old Testament on which the lawyer is basing his answer comes in the middle of a passage that also talks of putting people to death; that could be seen to condone slavery and which doesn’t exactly promote a feminist outlook on women’s rights. And it’s a question which is as contested today as it was two thousand years ago for we live at a time in which air travel, telecommunications and the internet mean that, in some ways, we’re more connected than ever before whilst walls and fences are being erected all over the place in order to keep neighbours out. We live in a society in which billions of pounds are spent on weapons that could destroy continents whilst we argue over spending a fraction of that cost welcoming displaced children seeking refuge. We live in a year in which UK referenda, mayoral elections and presidential campaigns have all been dominated by a narrative of fear of the foreigner.
It is into this context that this year’s Christian Aid Week speaks in it’s slogan – ‘Love Every Neighbour’ [click]. ‘Jesus calls us to love our neighbour as ourselves’, this year’s posters declare, ‘and not just the ones next door or at the end of the street. This is the week we love every neighbour’. This is the challenge from Christian Aid. And this is the story of our neighbour, Morsheda.
I don’t know what struck you most from that video. Perhaps it was the sight of Morsheda’s house immersed in water or the story of her son falling into the river. Perhaps it was hope seen in the lives of Feroza and her family, of her concern for her less fortunate neighbours or even her words that, now with a cow, some seeds and a house above water level, she describes herself as ‘wealthy’.
Whatever the case, the film reminds us of the reality of the conditions which some of our neighbours in Bangladesh have to endure. It tells us of the lives of Morsheda, Forenza and their families – our sisters and brothers in Christ, our neighbours and fellow children of God.
All of which takes us back to the figure of Elijah and my lack of imagination. You see, though we might find it easier to relate to the likes of Job, Cleopas – perhaps even Delilah! – in Christian Aid week, we are invited to be Elijah.
For Elijah came across a foreign widow and her son who were suffering – who were starving because of the conditions they found themselves in. In spite of the mother’s efforts, all hope seemed lost but Elijah, who had cares of his own, did not walk away but instead interceded for the woman and her son. He prayed, he begged, he questioned God and through Elijah’s actions and prayers, God brought the boy back to life. And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
This Christian Aid Week, we are encouraged to do the same. To provide food to the hungry and hope to the hopeless. To pray passionately, give generously and transform stories of scarcity and death to songs of abundance and resurrection. To share the good news of Jesus, to witness to a God of extravagant love, to love every neighbour.
This year, within this community, you can support Christian Aid Week, you can live Elijah and love every neighbour, in a number of ways:
- Give to Christian Aid (envelopes or dungball!)
- Collect for Christian Aid – door to door collection/collect at Tesco’s in Upper Boat on Wednesday 18th May
- Attend Christian Aid fundraiser next Saturday evening – 7:30pm, 14th May
Thousands of years ago, in a faraway wilderness, a forgotten woman came to glimpse God’s justice, wonder and love through the prayers and actions of a foreigner. The same can happen again today.
“God is supporting me,” Morsheda says in the material. “He has given me the support of my neighbours.” Let’s prove Morsheda right. Amen.