The three scripture readings we heard today seem to ring out justice in their very words, in similar yet different ways. First, Moses, who had led his people for 40 years through the desert, finally brought them to the Promised Land, the land where they would settle and finally be still and at rest, laying down roots for the generations to come. Yet Moses died right as they reached the overlook, never to step foot in it himself. His task was done and he had led God’s people to this place where their life could begin anew, even as his ended. Then, in Thessalonians, it speaks of the suffering of the disciples, and warns against this suffering being passed on to future generations, reminding them that their suffering must not prevent them from sharing the gospel, the good news, in a way that does not spring from deceit, impure motive or trickery. And then we come to the Pharisees, and a lawyer among them asking Jesus which is the greatest commandment, to which Jesus replies, “Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself.”
I feel like our world has forgotten this in recent times. There was a minor example that a friend told me about recently where a large department store was promoting a give away they had where, for every winter coat that was purchased, they would donate a new winter coat to someone in need. An angry potential customer said, “You want me to buy a winter coat, paying full price for it plus the taxes. Then you are going to give one away to some loser? I don’t think so.” While this may be something we smile at in our disgust at the response, it feels like a micro example of what is happening in the world at large.
One thing that has broken my heart this week is seeing the report that the parents of 545 children who were removed from their families who had come to our country seeking asylum, have been lost in the system. The children taken, the parents deported, leaving little hope of reuniting the families. When we care for our neighbors, we must care for those who come to us, legally, seeking help. Instead we have torn families apart, causing long lasting trauma for these families who were just trying to get help. And the children, many of whom will likely have no memory of their parents, will have to live with this trauma for the rest of their lives.
So as I prayed with these three passages this week, I kept remembering the Native American philosophy of the seventh generation. It has been found written from the Iroquois people who lived on the land we know as Northeast America, and is thought to have been passed down from as early as the 12th century, a philosophy that is echoed throughout the Native peoples from many tribes. The Constitution of the Iroquois Nation (The Great Binding Law) explains “seventh generation” philosophy as follows: “The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans — which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people. With endless patience you shall carry out your duty and your firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for your people. In all of your deliberations, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.” In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
In all of your deliberations, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Think of others, even those who have yet to be born. Think ahead to your great, great, great, great, great grandchildren! That is what Jesus is preaching as he says Love your God and your neighbor as yourself. Cast self into oblivion, cast thinking only for what is good and right for you as an individual into oblivion and think of your neighbors, think of your family seven generations in the future, think of your neighbors family seven generations into the future. This is what Moses did in his faithful act for forty years leading the people through the wilderness, knowing he would never live in the promised land. An act of selflessness, leading others to the place they will be able to call home. Casting self into oblivion for the sake of others, for the sake of the future. And for the disciples in Thessalonians, even though you, personally, have suffered, do all that you can to prevent that suffering from reaching future generations, instead tell the good news, tell the hope, work with gentleness and caring so greatly for others that they see the Love of God shine through us.
In all of this we are reminded that the justice work we do today is not nearsighted, but it reaches into many future generations, shaping their lives in ways we can’t even imagine.
As this election season continues to stir up name calling, self interest, division, as it uses the tactic of fear to entice people to vote for this person or that, as leaders steer away from speaking words of encouragement and hope in gentle ways and instead rile people up to anger, how different would it be if this were not so. If those campaigning spoke of loving neighbor, of the generations of those not yet born, if they spoke with hope and gentleness in their words, if they showed a willingness to lead us out of this desert time in our nation to a place where all truly were able to settle and find home, able to live free from fear and violence, were able to lead us to the place where all could live in harmony, loving God and one another, casting self interest into oblivion and truly living in a world that reflects God’s kin-dom thriving here on earth.
There is a quote floating around on social media that speaks to this. It says, “You can’t love your neighbor if you vote for people who will pass laws against them.” When I think of this I think of my literal neighbors. I live between a fiercely independent 92 year old widow surviving on a small fixed income who worries about rising medical costs and what she will do when she is no longer able to look after herself, and a young gay couple who both work in health care who are concerned about CoVid and the ways it is impacting the residents in the places they work with, as well as the judgement they face in some places if they are seen holding hands in public. They hope to start a family some days, and this also weighs heavily on their hearts. At the back of me there is a group home for disabled adults who face a high turn over of caregivers struggling to survive on minimum wages. Across the street is a single mom with two young teenagers, one of whom has special needs that means he cannot be left home alone, again working a minimum wage job as she tries to keep food on the table while helping her kids with hybrid distance learning and struggling to find child care for her son. And next to them is a mixed race couple with a young son, juggling work and daycare and studies while dealing with prejudice about the color oof their skin and their relationship. So when I pray about care for my neighbor, all these diverse needs and beauty and issues and dreams come into play, and when I think about the next seven generations, just from these immediate physical neighbors, then how do I act, what words do I choose, how do I vote, how do I work for a more just world for all of us?
And it breaks my heart that even asking this question is seen as a controversial stance. That we are in such a place of deep division in the world, that loving neighbor, near and far, is often viewed as taking sides on a political spectrum. That remembering the words of the Iroquois: “Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people,” can be heard as a challenge to an other’s core values.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, knew this well. While he was a student at Oxford University, at that time a university with strong ties to the Church of England, and which claimed to be a Christian university, John began to gather daily with a small group of other students to read the Bible and hold one another accountable. As they prayed with scripture this thought of loving God and neighbor really took hold of these young men, and they looked for ways they could love their neighbors. Rather than looking at other students, they looked at the city at large, and they saw the places where people were most in need…. The prisons, the hospitals, the orphanages. They began to visit the prisoners, teach the orphans how to read, took food to those in hospital. All good acts of loving neighbor. But their fellow students, most of whom would claim to be Christian, mocked them for doing this. They jeered at them and made fun, even while reading the Bible for themselves. This small group, called the Holy Club, who fasted, prayed together three or four times a week, and spent Sundays loving neighbor, became controversial in this university setting where students were often self serving, worried about their future standing in the world of business and politics, wanting to party and social network with their peers rather than seeing the needs of their neighbors right outside their dorm rooms.
But even while they heard the mocking and name calling from their fellow students, John, his brother Charles, and the others in their club, carried on following the greatest commandment, to love God and love neighbor. They balanced their studies with prayer and service, and shut their ears to the world that told them they were stupid, that called them fools, that mocked them with the name Methodists.
In this elite institution, these men cared less about their status and more for their neighbor. They spent any spare money they had on care for the other, for the future generations…. For think what a difference they made teaching the orphans, giving them a way to rise from poverty just by knowing how to read and write; and what a change they made in the attitude of the prisoners they visited, helping them break generational violence and lives of crime by having someone care about their souls, by having someone bring them the good news with gentleness and love.
As John Wesley continued his path of becoming a pastor and preacher, he continued to seek out his neighbors that others refused to welcome: the coal miners who would not be allowed through a church door with their filth and stench, the pub goers and drunkards who only heard words telling them about their sins, not that God loved them; the farm workers, the prostitutes, the poor. All those who were his neighbors, so often ignored by people like him. And he not only changed the lives of these people, but the lives of the seven generations that would follow them. For when someone steps aside from all that others think they can do, from the position in society they have been assigned, and learns something new, breaks a pattern of poverty, changes a history of abuse, repents from a life of crime,… then the generations that follow are all blessed by this. All it took was for John Wesley and his followers to recognize their position of power as white, educated men in the 18th century and to set aside self. In the words of the Iroquois, With endless patience they carried out their duty and their firmness was tempered with tenderness for the people. And they not only served the people directly, but used their positions of power to change laws, to better the life of large groups of people by creating policies that made change on national levels that ensured neighbors were loved just a little bit more than before.
So in the next weeks and months, let us strive to love and neighbor just a little bit more, to cast self interest aside and, “In our every deliberation, consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” May we not worry so much about our future, but lead others through the wilderness of this time, knowing we may never see the changes we are working for to make the world a better place, but work for them anyway. May we take our suffering and turn it to good, not looking to enact an eye for an eye philosophy, but rather using our pain and the pain of the world to help others grow in love. May we follow the greatest commandment in each decision we make, running our discernment through those three tests of loving God, loving neighbor, loving self, each in balance without putting self at the number one position. May we work for peace and hope and justice in our nation and in our world by spreading love with abandon. May we remember the great grandchildren of our great grandchildren, to the 7th generations, and work for justice and love for them.