Let me tell you the story of V Street versus 13th Street. It is my family’s story wrapped up in the story of my family’s hometown. (My apologies to those of you who have already heard it!)
My beloved hometown is just a stone’s throw across the Potomac. I am fond of telling people on my tours at the Library of Congress, that D.C. is not a swamp. It is filled with history, monuments, museums, and parks, and people from all over the world. Washington is a wonderful city.
My family’s roots are generations deep — in this most political of places. But my family has never trafficked in politics. I descend from a long line of barbers, plumbers, and bookkeepers. One of my great-great uncles was a purveyor of fish and my paternal grandfather was a tire salesman. All in the service industries, they made their home in Anacostia.
My dad grew up in a two-story row house on 13th Street. My mom grew up in a two-story town house on V Street. Just a seven-minute walk between them, just two-tenths of a mile apart.
But according to my dad it was more like a chasm: “Those V Street people!” I can still hear him rail. Apparently “those V Street people” spoke a different language, were not quite as intelligent, and bordered on the uncouth. They could not possibly hold a candle to those brilliantly enlightened people of 13th Street.
This, of course, made some of our family gatherings more than a little uncomfortable. But as a child, this made no sense whatsoever to me. My Grandma Cady’s house was just as much of a haven as my Grandma Peacock’s house. And my V Street grandmother was so much the better cook. It was a distinction without a difference.
But “13th Street versus V Street” was a way to build oneself up, while putting others down. Reducing neighbors to a caricature. No need to bother getting to know one another. “Those V Street people” were so very “other”, they never really belonged.
My family would not make Jesus very happy. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” the Pharisees asked him. Well, out of the 613, it is the one about loving our neighbors, of course!
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two, hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus’ answer echoes Rabbi Hillel’s – who came a century before him. Asked by an outsider to be taught the Torah while he was standing on one leg, the rabbi replies: “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”
But Jesus’ adds Leviticus and makes his answer explicitly about love. I would venture to say that loving God in the abstract is possibly the easier half. Loving your neighbor – real neighbors – is just plain hard.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
- Lev 19:1-2.15-18
Most of us walk around with Merriam Webster definition of neighbor in our heads, the one at the top of the list. A neighbor is “One located or living near you.” The people in our zip code or down the block. The people who belong to the same homeowner’s association.
But Meriam’s second definition is not like the first. Number two dictionary definition of “neighbor” is “fellow man.” Our “fellow humankind.”
So, what is the measure of the distance between the two?
Good old-fashioned sin. Not a word that pops up too often in our 21st century homilies. Sin is not a list of 613 broken commandments. Sin measures the distance between us and God.
“The power of sin is centrifugal” a sage once said. “When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything away. Bits and pieces of ourself, go flying off until in the end there is nothing left. Sin is whatever we do or fail to do that pushes us away from God. That pushes us away from our neighbor. Sin is whatever widens the gap between “us” and “them”.”
Urban. Suburban. Rural.
Christian. Muslim. Jew.
And of course,
Republican. Democrat. Independents, too.
This is the sin we need to confess.
We need to do some honest navel gazing, serious soul searching, conscience raking,
We need to stop spending so much time pointing out the speck in our neighbor’s eye – and, start the hard work of digging out the log protruding from our own. We need a “come to Jesus meeting.”
Also known as an “altar call”, in the Book of Common Prayer general confession together we pray: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed…”
But for our spiritual housecleaning, the Celts have a more personal version. Substituting “I” for “We”.
Jesus, forgive my sins.
Forgive the sins that I remember and the sins I have forgotten.
Forgive the wrong actions I have committed and the right actions I have omitted.
Forgive the times when I have been weak in the face of temptation and those when I have been stubborn in the face of correction.
Forgive the times I have been proud of my own achievements and those when I have failed to boast of your works.
Forgive the harsh judgements I have made of others and the leniency I have shown myself.
Forgive the lies I have told to others and the truths I have avoided.
Forgive the pain I have caused to others and the indulgence I have shown to myself.
Jesus, have pity on me and make me whole.
Remember those WWJD bracelets back in the nineties? Let me pose a variation on a theme: WWLD: What would love do?
The election is just ten days away. People’s anxiety is sky high and emotions are running amok. Partisan divides have cleaved the soul of the nation. It may be really, really hard to love our neighbor right now, but there is no escaping the impossible, improbable commandment.
So, here is a little exercise. Picture someone across the partisan divide. Be honest with yourself. What is your first reaction? What words or labels pop into your head? What emotions come up? Name them and claim them. Write them down.
And then in reverse, try to put yourself in their shoes. Try to take on opposing views. Write them down and sit with them for a while. Remember that your neighbor is just as passionate as you are about what matters to them most.
And then picture the two of you sitting down together face to face and heart to heart.
What would love, have you do? What would love, have you say? What would love require of you?
I am going to leave you hanging here. These are the questions we can only answer for ourselves. It will take a good deal of prayer and patience and humility. I know it will for me. But with God’s help, I am hopeful that V Street and 13th Street will finally find the intersection, meet in the middle like neighbors, find out what they have in common and find a way to get along.
- Pax vobiscum, Joani
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog