When Jesus taught about loving your neighbor as yourself he turned the whole idea of neighbor upside down. The neighbor who had always been understood as my kinfolk, my friend, the people like me, was abruptly and uncomfortably transformed into the one whom I most despise and least want to be around. I don’t think the two are incompatible. Tom Breidenthal, now Episcopal bishop of Southern Ohio, wrote that the neighbor is the one who is close, so close that he or she can easily get under your skin in the most irritating way, and does. That neighbor can as easily be my beloved as my enemy or both. It is the intimacy of our relationship, whether good or bad, in which I might learn how to love as God loves, in which I might move from the abstract idea of it to the concrete reality of it. Then, and maybe only then, that love growing in me might flow out with greater compassion into a larger and more complex world. To learn to love one’s neighbor in the worst of moments is what enables one to love all persons in any moment.
Getting under your skin is a phrase we use without much thought, and it usually has to do with some minor event that throws off our emotional and spiritual equilibrium, and forces us onto a detour we did not know was there and do not want to take. But sometimes the idea of getting under your skin is more about tragedy than anything else. Tragic events can do that in such a big way that whatever emotional and spiritual equilibrium we had, and whatever path we were on, will never be restored to the way they were. When holy compassion, Christ driven love, can flow into us as healing balm for us and through us into the lives others in the midst of that kind of tragedy, then we can also become more able to truly love the far away neighbors whom we do not know in the circumstances of their lives that we have never shared: those starving of famine, whose lives have been shattered by war and terrorism, whose children are dying of preventable diseases, whose governments oppress and enslave.
There seems to be something perverse in that doesn’t there? Wouldn’t the world be so much better if we could learn to love without all that combination of everything from minor irritations to soul shattering suffering? Maybe it would, but that’s not the way the world is, and the way the world is, is what we have to work with.
And so, from the prayers of my tradition, I close with our Collect for Friday:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.