1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
[NOTE to my regular readers: Please accept my apologies for my lack of a post last week – I was vacationing in a locale that did not have working Internet access (I know, cry me a river). But to make up for it, I will insert some pictures from my trip at the end of this post – enjoy!]
Elijah Alfred Alexander, Jr. is 66 years old. He is a striking presence in
LaFayette Park, across from the White House, in that he wears nothing but a pair of jeans shorts ripped up both sides – like a loin cloth – carries a staff, and has snow-white, dreadlocked hair and a beard. He has been walking “this way of life” – barefoot and bare-chested – around the United States, even into Mexico and Belize, for roughly 30 years. He has set up his “office” (as he calls it) in LaFayette Park for the past two years. His purpose is to demonstrate that it is possible to live without the comforts of civilization as we face what he believes to be its inevitable end.
In his vocation as a wanderer, street prophet and lover of Wisdom, Brother Elijah (as I call him) encounters dozens of different people every day, from every walk of life. He is a friend to bicycle messengers, government workers, homeless people and tourists from around the globe who stop to gawk at him on their way to the White House. His picture is probably in hundreds of family photo albums around the world. The world, in effect, is his neighbor.
Our Gospel reading for this week has Jesus issuing the opinion that the greatest of the Lord’s Commandments are: “”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22: 37-40). Loving the source of all life seems fairly easy, in the abstract. It’s when we are called on to love our concrete (and sometimes very annoying) neighbors that the rubber really hits the road.
Needless to say, Brother Elijah has had a great deal of experience with the challenges of loving his neighbors. I once saw him calmly face down a drunk in a business suit who insisted on calling him a “negro” and accused him of “just wanting a hand-out”. Brother Elijah just looked archly at the paper bag in the man’s hands and said “Yes, I see you’ve been enjoying yourself.” The man harrumphed and stalked off to sit and pout on another park bench. I was in awe.
When I asked him what he thought about loving your neighbor as yourself, I got an answer that I am still chewing on: “Under reincarnation, I have experienced every single type of every single life form on earth up until this point. So if someone comes up to me with a certain personality attribute, I have already experienced that attribute in a previous incarnation – it’s a part of me! So I am loving my neighbor as myself, because they are a part of me – It’s the same as loving me!” That’s the thing about being friends with a prophet – you have to get used to having your mind blown on a regular basis.
So, getting back to loving our neighbor: If we take the really, REALLY big view – even if we might not believe in reincarnation – everyone is actually a part of us in a very literal, immediate sense. We occupy the same planet, we breathe the same air, we are a part of the same biosphere. This echoes the idea of the Body of Christ, in that – as Paul states – “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ … The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor” (1 Cor 12: 12, 21-23). We do not necessarily have to feel love for our neighbor in order to participate in the universal Body of Christ (God’s chesed – unconditional, Covenant-backed love). We just have to recognize that it’s there, and possibly attempt to contemplate it on a regular basis.
But for those of us who are not wandering street prophets who are at one with the Universe, or who are not mystics contemplating God’s chesed on a regular basis, how do we deal with with our neighbors when they are annoying or even appalling? Brother Elijah says that a sense of humor helps: “I had a prostitute come up to me one night, saying ‘Oh, I am SOOO tired. I haven’t slept at all …’ Of course, I knew what she wanted. I looked at the cup of coffee she was carrying and said ‘Maybe if you drank less coffee, you would sleep better!’ She laughed.”
And of course, remember to love your non-human neighbors, too! The pictures below are from Bonaire Island, Netherlands Antilles, just off the coast of Venezuela: