How do we love our neighbors when they are so different than us?
This morning, we conclude our series on our call to protect and cherish all of God’s children, and I think Jesus’ words here help us to tackle one of the biggest difficulties to fulfilling that call: the dynamic that is often referred to as the generation gap. There are plenty of ways to define the generations in our culture, but let me use Heather Henson’s this morning as a starting point to the conversation. If you were born from 1927 to 1945, you are classified in the Silent Generation. The Builders. What Tom Brokaw calls the Greatest Generation. If you were born from 1946 to 1964, you are classified in the Baby Boomer generation, named for the baby boom after World War II. If you were born from 1965 to 1980, you (we) are part of Generation X, sometimes called the Lost generation. If you were born from 1981 to 2000, you are part of Generation Y, or the Millennials. Sometimes called the “me generation.” And you are currently the subject of 72% of all articles on the internet. (No, not really, but sometimes it seems like it.) And if you were born since 2000, you are part of what is sometimes called Generation Z, a generation still in the making.
If you start to research and read on these generations, you will find that there is a whole host of information about characteristics of each generation. What each generation expects or needs or how they act or behave. Basically, there are sets of generalizations and expectations that surround each generation. And those generalizations are pretty deep in our collective psyche. Let me tell a story to demonstrate.
The other day, I went to the gym to get in a few laps in the pool. I signed up for a lane at the front desk on the way in and got dressed and started to get in the pool. But when I got there, there was a person in my lane who less than politely suggested that it was their lane and they didn’t want anyone else in it. When I told them that the front desk had just told me the lane was open and that I was signed up for a half hour, they more or less said that they were there first. Not overly willing to fight for a pool lane, or that overly excited about swimming, I shrugged and went back to the locker room to put on clothes to ride the bike instead. Meanwhile, another patron at the gym, who had watched all of this happen, followed me out of the pool, up the stairs to the locker room, and to my locker to tell me that some people of are just jerks who think the rules don’t apply to them, and I was welcome to use his lane since he was about done.
Now, I want you to pause for a moment and fill in the blanks from your mind. How old do you think the first person was? The one who thought they were above the rules and didn’t think they applied to them? And how old do you think the person was who followed me to my locker to make a gracious offer and words of support? We’ll get to that in a bit. But if you’ll allow me a bit of a Rorschach ink blot test, what do your assumptions say about the way that you generalize the generations?
There is a significant danger when we make assumptions about people based on their age. Selfishness and narcissism are available to all of us, regardless of age. And grace and humility and generosity can be demonstrated from any age, any generation. Beware of those touting the dangers of the ME-first millennials. Or the narcissism of 20-somethings. Or anybody who uses the phrase “young people these days.” Because what will come out of their mouth next will likely be a stereotype and likely be less than helpful. Putting people into categories simply makes it harder for us to see them for who they really are. Now, can it be helpful to talk about generations and how they can be different from one another? Yes! Absolutely. But can it lead to stereotypes and generalizations that serve as a roadblock to the neighbor love that we just read about. Unfortunately so.
Throughout the stretch of Matthew that we have been studying, Jesus has been leading up to this passage with radical teaching. He has basically taken all of these groups that are considered in one way or another to be inferior, or broken, or unclean, and he lifts them up, one at a time, and proclaims that the Kingdom will be populated with people such as these. Flip through Matthew 18 to 22, and you’ll find a list of those considered by most people as less than desirable. In fact, if they were in a DirecTV commercial, they would be “less attractive Rob Lowe”, “socially awkward Rob Lowe,” and maybe even “creepy Rob Lowe.” Look at the list from the Gospel of Matthew:
Unwanted community members who couldn’t even get an invitation to a banquet
And, of course, children
One after another, Jesus takes the generalizations and assumptions of the people and turns them on their ears. And, of course, it all leads up to the crowning teaching of Jesus in this stretch, today’s passage: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. This has been called the hermeneutic of Christ: the singular teaching that defines purpose for Jesus and those who would call themselves his followers. It defines not only the greatest commandment, but really the key to unlocking all of the commandments. This passage becomes the way that Jesus interprets all of Scripture and really all of the life of faith. Put this stretch of teachings together and Jesus is saying that all of our generalizations and assumptions about gender or age or personality must come under the rigorous rule of these two commandments.
Richard Floyd calls this triadic love. Love of God. Love of Neighbor. Love of Self. These three must be held together as the rule of faith and the rule of behavior for all who would say they follow Christ. He explains it this way: “The church is called to cultivate the habit of triadic reflection and practice, to recognize that no discernment process is complete until love of God and neighbor and self has been expressed…The habit must be formed in a grace-filled community of faith where it is proclaimed and sung and embodied over and over and over again.”
The way we treat other people must pass through the standard of this triadic love. This standard of triadic love must be the way that we engage in community, listen to one another, treat each other, and see one another. Neighbor love crashes through the generation gap, and leaves it empty. As helpful as generational studies and historic trends might be, when they turn into stereotypes and assumptions, then they must come crashing down before the standard of this triadic love!
There is an old Rhonda Vincent standard, “You Don’t Love God if You Don’t Love Your Neighbor” that sums it up as only a bluegrass song can:
Oh you don’t love God if you don’t love your neighbor,
If you gossip about him, if you never have mercy
If he gets into trouble and you don’t try to help him
Then you don’t love your neighbor and you don’t love God.
Simple lyrics, but powerful truth. And I would press the point this morning that when we assume that “those old people” don’t have anything to offer anymore. Or “Baby Boomers” and their bully behavior… Or “young people these days” are this or that. When we think like this, we have given up on the standard of neighbor love and chosen to operate out of a hermeneutic of stereotype and generalization. Or for that matter, if we use any of those categories of “less desirable” that Jesus turned on their ears, then are missing the point of Jesus’ teaching. When we assume that in order to speak for God, one must be a certain age, race, gender or orientation, we are creating a new hermeneutic different than the hermeneutic of triadic love that Jesus preached.
How do we love neighbor when they are so different than us?
We open our eyes to who they truly are.
And can be.
Once again, how do we answer God’s call to cherish and protect every child?
When we believe that God speaks to us through the voices of children.
She is a promoter of education in Pakistan, especially the education of women. Despite the Taliban’s opposition, she has continued to fight for women’s rights and human rights in her country. In 2012, a Taliban gunman sent to assassinate her shot her three times, including in the face. Thankfully, she survived and returned to fight for women and education. She has been named to Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list, and just this year received the Nobel Peace Prize. Her name is Malala Yousafzai and she is only 17. Even more, she began her advocacy when she was 11, blogging about the importance of education.
He skipped the ninth and the twelfth grades and enrolled in Morehouse College at fifteen. He began at Crozer Theological Seminary when he was 19 and had completed his Masters and his PhD from Boston U by the time he was 26. He became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama when he was twenty five. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr., and he was not yet 40 by the time that he was assassinated, after leading our country in one of the greatest movements of civil rights that we have known.
He was a prophet in a time when there had been no prophets. For 400 years, the voice of God had been silent. There had been no one to speak the voice of God to the people. No one to share God’s message of hope and salvation.
Until a preteen showed up on the scene. And this snot-nosed kid was surrounded by a skeptical and experienced and clearly more-knowledgeable crowd of good church folk, many of them undoubtedly rolling their eyes when they heard him speak. Yet, there were others who believed and were amazed when he spoke about the Scriptures.
And when his parents caught up with him and demanded to know where he had been, this snot-nosed, youthful, preteen kid spoke the first words of Truth and Power in 400 years: “Did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house?” So are recorded the first public words of Jesus. And God’s message of hope and salvation were never the same again.
Anyone want to know how old the players were in my swimming pool parable? Sorry, I’m not going to tell you. Because it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we have two options in front of us, regardless of our age. Will we follow the rule of triadic love? Or not? Today, I invite you to follow the way of Christ, the call of Christ, and to see all who you meet as a child of God.