As we continue to anticipate Christ’s birth on this second Sunday of Advent, we consider what it means to follow the One who came to inaugurate a reign of justice and peace. In the Greatest Command (Mark 12:28-34), Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves. How does this call to neighborly love guide us in the ways of justice? What is the loving and just response to discrimination and exclusion? As we continue preparing to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we reflect on the themes of love and justice that lie at the heart of the Christian Gospel.
Allyson McKinney Timm is a theologically trained human rights lawyer whose commitment to justice ministry has been inspired by her faith journey. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Justice Revival, an ecumenical ministry dedicated to strengthening the American Christian movement for justice and human rights. A former member of Calvary Presbyterian, Allyson has taught human rights as a fellow at Yale Law School and previously led the Uganda Field Office of International Justice Mission. She has graduate degrees in divinity, law, and business and lives in Washington, DC with her husband, Simon.
Luke 1:26-38; 46-55
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
It’s a joy to be back here at Calvary Presbyterian Church, my beloved church home during the years I lived in San Francisco, and to see many old friends and familiar faces.
Since I was with you last, I lived and worked for nearly four years in Uganda, East Africa for over three and a half years, and investigated human rights violations in places like Tanzania, Sierra Leone, southern India, and South Sudan. I’m originally a lawyer by profession, and it’s always been my desire to be part of God’s work of justice in the world that has inspired my career in human rights.
Just as God once called me to Rwanda and to Uganda, some years ago God brought me home, and called me to share what I had seen and learned along the way here in my home culture, among my own people.
Much has changed in the world since I was with you last, but the most important things—and the source of our hope—remain steadfast and sure. It is a privilege to be here today to preach about that source of hope, which is the Gospel.
My sincere thanks go to your pastor, Rev. Joann Lee, who generously invited me, a recent divinity school graduate, into the pulpit. I believe she is a woman of faith! Thank you to the worship team and to everyone who has labored to prepare for today’s service.
Welcoming Jesus into our Hurting World
Mary’s prayer, which you heard this morning in the passage from Luke, foreshadows who Jesus will be—the one who inaugurates the reign of heaven, marked by justice and peace. Mary welcomes the Lord’s will in her life, and the world is transformed.
During this season of Advent, as we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth, we acknowledge with grateful hearts God’s initiative in coming to our broken and hurting world.
When we look around us, however, we see a world still crying out for the transformation that Jesus’ life and ministry initiated. If we look here in our own great and greatly troubled nation, we see just in recent months appalling displays of racial animosity mixed with fearful nationalism and clothed in our own Christian religion; we see horrendous revelations of harassment and exploitation of women and young people by powerful public figures; we see some politicians striving to strip away incomplete, but hard-won civil rights protections for our gay and queer and transgender brothers and sisters.
The Greatest Command: Love and Justice for our Neighbor
This is the world into which Jesus comes this Advent season. This is the world in which we are called to live out the greatest command of all: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
This commandment we know to be at the very heart of our Christian faith. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us it captures “all the law and the prophets.” And the scribe in Mark’s Gospel agrees. In fact, he goes a step further, declaring that this command is “much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This is our religion, essentially—loving God and neighbor, this is our worship.
If we delve deeper into what Jesus’ teaching on neighborly love means, if we explore the Torah passage from Leviticus chapter 19 that Jesus was quoting when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we learn that this neighborly love is actually the pinnacle of an ethical vision of justice—a way of living that involves treating all people fairly, and allowing all to share in the earth’s abundance.
The “love” Jesus calls us to is no mere sentiment. It is, rather, a sense of mutual responsibility. Love is the capstone, the ultimate expression of a commitment to treating our neighbors justly.
The Great Commandment of neighborly love assumes and includes justice. Doing justice, part of loving our neighbor, lies at the very heart of our faith, at the heart of the Gospel. And the Gospel continues the long tradition of justice renowned in the Hebrew Bible. Prophets like Isaiah and Micah exhort us to “seek justice” and “do justice,” reminding us that God loves justice, and expects us to be like God’s own self in this essential trait.
If love incorporates justice, then it only makes sense that there can be no love without justice, that treating a neighbor unjustly or unfairly is a fundamentally unloving act.
Can Discrimination be Loving, or Just?
Last February in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida the City Council amended a local Human Rights Ordinance to include LGBTQ people among those groups protected by this anti-discrimination law. This means that people of every identity are now (somewhat) guaranteed a fair opportunity to secure housing, hold down jobs, and to buy the goods and services we all need. The law exempts all religious institutions from these rules. It permits not only houses of worship, but religious hospitals, schools, and enterprises of every kind to continue discriminating. So human rights advocates think the law did not go far enough.
But two local pastors representing an influential Christian denomination in Jacksonville published an opinion article in the local newspaper to oppose those limited protections that had been added for LGBTQ persons. In fact, they continue to oppose this reform. They write, “Our sorrow [over the new law] does not stem from hatred… as Christians, we are motivated by the example of our Savior… to love all people. We stand against hatred and discrimination.”
Well, OK, it seems obvious that they are not against discrimination. The new law is against discrimination, but they oppose this law (which, by the way, hundreds of local clergy supported.)
Can they possibly claim that their position is loving? To know this, we must ask, can their position possibly be just? Because there won’t be any loving way to advocate lesser treatment of a certain group of neighbors, if such treatment is simply unjust at the end of the day.
A Testimony on the Harms of Discrimination
What I’ve seen of discrimination—from daily indignities to violent international atrocities—makes me skeptical that arbitrary discrimination sanctioned by the law can be just. In my experience, discrimination is always harmful, and at times downright lethal. Let me tell you a story.
When this church family bid me farewell some 12 years ago I was on my way to Uganda, to lead a program to help widows and orphans. There, as in many places, a widowed woman is extremely vulnerable. Typically, those who came to us had been quite literally cast out—from the small farm plots where they eked out a meager living. They had been exiled by more powerful relatives who didn’t value their lives or respect their human dignity, who saw them as a burden and wanted to steal their land. Colonial perversion of traditional African culture had spawned a nasty, pervasive form of gender discrimination.
We helped as many as we could out of the hundreds affected each year in one small district. By God’s grace we saw more and more women return to their homes, to resume farming their land and caring for their children.
But I refuse to let go of the memories of those we could not help—at least not quickly enough to prevent their fragile lives from slipping away—some while they were homeless, cast out by their communities, sick with HIV or AIDS, separated from their children. As women, they had faced a lifetime of discrimination—less chance to survive childhood, get an education, gain job skills, and nearly no chance to earn good money or buy their own property, given the culture of prejudice against them. The law was on their side, but too often patriarchal tradition won out. Eventually, some could no longer stand up under the accumulated weight of a lifetime of oppression. These needless human tragedies paint a portrait of discrimination, carried to its logical conclusion.
Or take an example closer to home: In our own country, women of color are three times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth—the sad toll of poverty, lack of health care, and chronic illnesses that plague disadvantaged communities.
Discrimination is always harmful, and can be downright lethal—whether it’s enshrined in the law, or simply written in our hearts. When we push people outside
the circle of belonging, when we exclude them—in subtle or in violent ways—we deny the essential truth that they are created in God’s image and dearly loved by God; we deny their God-given human dignity, and their inherent human rights.
The Good News
Discrimination strips life away—but this is not what God intended for us. Jesus came so that they might have life, and have it to the full. Jesus came so that we might have life, and have it in abundance.
The ministry of Jesus offers a vivid image of what it means to draw others in—tax collectors, sinners, bleeding women, the unclean—all are welcomed and cared for. Not only did Jesus heal and forgive, he drew hurting, alienated people back in to the community.
In so doing, he was true to the heart of the Torah. The passage from Leviticus that Jesus quoted tells us to treat everyone fairly: “you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” It warns us not to hate or harm the vulnerable: “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.”
The words of the prophets remind us continually not to exclude anyone, but to care for all outsiders: the widow, the orphan, the alien, the prisoner.
We serve a Christ who came to earth in human form, testifying to the value of human life, and who taught us that the heart of our faith is loving God with all that we have, and loving others as ourselves, acting in a spirit of love and justice toward the other. In doing this, we join Christ as co-creators of that peaceful and just Kingdom of Heaven that he preached and proclaimed.
Indeed, excluding anyone from the basic things we all need in order to survive—a home, a job, the ability to buy food and clothing—such exclusion is both unjust and unjustifiable. It’s impossible to reconcile with the Love Command. No one would want to be treated this way. At the end of the day, such discrimination is neither loving nor just.
The Lord has shown us a better way: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Greatest Command calls us to neighborly love, and to justice, for all.
 Mark 12:30-31