(Matthew 7: 7-12; Leviticus 19: 13-18)
As we wrap up our “living biblically” journey this Sunday, you’re probably aware of the method that author A.J. Jacobs used in his year-long endeavor: prior to its beginning, A.J. did some fairly extensive Biblical research on the various laws and customs, and then throughout the year chose a particular element to focus on. To try it on, like a new shirt, see how it feels. So for a period he focuses on praying. Another time he tries shepherding. And another time, as we saw a few weeks back, he’s taking small pebbles to Central Park and looking for people to stone.
All of which is quite different from the way ourbiblical journey unfolds, is it not? Real life rarely follows a script. I mean, there are some things we can control, but most of the time life just happens. And when it does, “living biblically” is not as much about us dictating the terms of how we follow God faithfully, as it is responding faithfully when life throws us a curve ball.
Today’s story is one of those stories. And I’m going to warn you, it’s a bit of a sad story. It involves a neighbor of A.J.’s in his small Manhattan apartment building. We don’t know much about her, because A.J. didn’t either. We meet her throughout the book as A.J. reveals her in bits and pieces. We know her name is Nancy; we know she’s an older lady living by herself with no known family. We know she’s an artist with a fairly strong hippie streak, and that her claim to fame was a friendship with the late Jimi Hendrix and a drawing she made of him that became one of his album covers.
This is a story about A.J. and Nancy, and how living Biblically sometimes just happens. Listen:
Day 272. A few days ago, right before Labor Day weekend, the hallway outside our apartment began to smell. Julie called the building staff; they “checked it out” and found nothing. Over Labor Day, our neighbors all left Manhattan. The building was empty except for me, Julie, our kids, and that smell. Which got worse.
On Tuesday morning, I woke up to banging in the hallway. The building handyman, Victor, was outside apartment 5I – the one owned by our sweet hippie neighbor Nancy – trying to pry open her front door with a hammer. Four medics lingered nearby, occasionally clicking their walkie-talkies and speaking in low voices.
I knew before one of the medics asked me the question: “Have you seen your neighbor in the last few days?”
It took Victor a half hour of pounding before he broke down the door. He went in, reemerging a few minutes later.
“Alive?” I asked.
He shook his head.
I told Julie when she woke up. She sat down on the couch and put her face in her hands and didn’t talk for two full minutes. Finally she looked up, her eyes red. “I saw her a week ago and she was all worried about me and how I was holding up. What’d she die of?”
“They don’t know yet,” I said.
Whenever something happens, I always try to think of a biblical precedent, a story that will help me put it into perspective. But with Nancy’s death, there really is none. The Bible doesn’t talk much about living and dying in solitude. In biblical times, the smallest unit of society wasn’t the individual. It was the family. But Nancy had no family, no husband or children, just a handful of friends, few of whom she saw often.
That night, as Julie and I lay in bed, I say, “Maybe we could . . . say a prayer.”
Julie looks at me like I just told her I’d signed on for a second year of “living Biblically. “You serious?”
“A prayer of thanksgiving,” I say. ‘I find them helpful. We don’t have to call it a prayer. We just give thanks.”
Julie pauses. “OK.”
“Maybe we’ll start out simply.”
Julie says, “I’m thankful for our health and our kids.”
I say, “I’m thankful we got to know Nancy.”
Julie says, “I’m thankful you’re ending your living Biblically journey soon.”
The memorial service is held a couple of days later. It’s in the apartment of a woman who knew Nancy a little bit. About ten people show up. Her high-school friend Dan reads letters she’d written over the years, painfully honest notes about her loneliness. We pass around the album cover she designed for Jimi Hendrix. Several people say something along the lines of: “She had a troubled life, but at least she found some peace at the end with her dog Memphis.”
Now there is more to come with this story, but I want to stop here for a minute. Because oftentimes, when life happens, outside our agendas and our plans, it’s not always easy looking at it through the lens of faith that is so important to us. Sometimes there aren’t easy answers; sometimes the way forward is not obvious. And yet, these are precisely the moments when our faith, and the faith of those around us, really matters. Because that’s when we learn that God is not outside the confusion and struggle and uncertainty, but right in the thick of it.
A.J. had a hard time with Nancy’s death. But it was more than just her dying, don’t you think? I mean, it’s Manhattan, for heaven’s sake – 1.6 million people. Folks are dying there all the time. No, I wonder if the crux of his struggle, personally and spiritually, was the fact that this woman had been his neighbor, lived right down the hall from him; but was someone he knew only peripherally and felt he should’ve known better.
And why was that? Was it just proximity? Was it that she was kind to him and his family whenever they ran into each other, or because the stories of her life were so intriguing?
Let’s let A.J. tell us himself:
If you try to literally follow Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – well, you can’t. That would mean putting your neighbor’s dreams, career, children, pets, and finances on par with your own. This is why it’s usually reinterpreted in the less extreme – but infinitely wise – version known as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
While Nancy was alive, I didn’t do so well with the Golden Rule. Here she was, my literal neighbor. Two doors down. And I had made a half-hearted effort. I never invited her to dinner. I never helped her get her Jimi Hendrix book published. I never bought her a gift to repay her for the ones she bought my son Jasper.
I did get a chance to partially redeem myself, though. A few days later, three men in white Hazmat suits came to clear out Nancy’s apartment. They had stuffed everything—her clothes, her frying pans, her papers—into black plastic garbage bags, about a dozen of which lined the hall.
I tied a red bandana to my face, put on some yellow dishwashing gloves, and stepped past them into the apartment. “Just looking for something real quick,” I said before they could ask for identification. I wove my way through the mess on the floor, and there, on a table in the corner, I found a stack of papers. I flipped through it. It was a very rough draft of her memoir. I took it. “Thanks!” I said as I walked out.
When I got back to my apartment, I sat on my couch and read the handwritten pages. It’s a tough but lovely memoir. I don’t know if it’ll ever get published. I hope so. But in case it doesn’t, here’s a sentence on page forty-one that stopped me short. It is about her sketch of Jimi Hendrix, the one that became the cover to one of his albums. Nancy wrote:
“Eventually, I sold the original to the Hard Rock Cafe, not only because I needed a little money, but because I was afraid that, if I were to die, it would be put on the street, like all stuff is put on the street when people die, in a black plastic bag. Now it was safe. And it would live on beyond just me.”
I love what A.J. did, going in there and salvaging a piece of his neighbor before it got stuffed in a black plastic garbage bag forever. And I Iove even more the fact that there was no commandment telling him to do this. Because sometimes, commandments and laws are not what come first. Some things are etched on our hearts before they are etched in stone, or in Leviticus or in a gospel story. And maybe that’s why A.J. took it upon himself to carry on a piece of Nancy’s life when she was no longer able to carry it herself. Because built into our DNA as creations of the living God is an innate longing to honor and cherish and treasure life! And not just our own, but all those around us.
I know I’ve shared this story with you, but it bears repeating, especially in this day and time. When I was in 11thgrade, I had an English teacher, Mrs. Norton. She was not my favorite. A little rough around the edges, if I’m honest. But one day in class, we were talking about the interplay of characters in some novel we were reading; and Mrs. Norton dropped in our laps a wonderful little gem that has profoundly affected the way I live my life. She said:
Every person that you come into contact with in your life,
No matter how long you know them, or how short,
Every person becomes a part of who you are.
How deeply profound and spiritual and biblical that is! Because what it means is that it is not just my parents and my brother and my wife and boys who are part of me. It’s not just all of you, who I love dearly, who are part of me. It also means that guy in the grocery line behind me the other day who shared his discount card when I didn’t have mine – he’s part of me. That young woman in the auto shop who tells me how much I owe her when I take my car in to be serviced – she’s part of me. That group of native American youth I prayed with before their traditional dance at Triennium last week – they’re part of me. Now and forever.
So the law says, “You should love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do unto you.” But what does that mean? Is it like my brother, when he and I were kids, in an escalating argument, who punches me in the shoulder; and when I ask him why he punched me he said, “Well, the Bible says you should do unto others as they would do to you, and I wanted to beat you to it!” Which is a true story, by the way.
No, here’s what I think it all means, and what I think A.J. was getting at: I think you and I are meant to treasure each other. And not just the people we already know and love, although it’s easy to take them for granted too. I’m also talking about the others; the people we know peripherally but who are still part of us. The “Nancy’s” of our lives. To see them as the gift of God that they are, and to celebrate their life not just when they’re gone, but while they are still with us.
Can you imagine, people of God, how different things would be if we truly put that into practice – if we, members of this faith community and the body of Christ, treasured everyone as creations of the living God? It is, I believe, needed now more than ever. Now, when voices are aiming to push us further and further apart. Now, when heated rhetoric seeks to divide rather than unite. Now, when the principalities and powers of this world are placing us on a dangerous trajectory, one we’ve been on before in human history, one that never ends well.
Now, more than ever, the world is looking to us as the church to speak our voices into the conversation with these powerful and life-giving directives:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Don’t ever forget that everyone is a part of us.
It begins with us, my friends. So here’s my challenge to you this morning. Before you go to bed tonight, before the sun sets on this day, Iet someone know how much you treasure them. How much you love them. The ones close to you, and the ones on the periphery.
Do that, and then when you wake up the next morning, do the same thing tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and every day you have left.
Because with each day, my treasured ones, I realize how spot-on my English teacher was: every one really is a part of us. A life to be treasured; a gift from God to be celebrated; a neighbor to be loved.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.