I recently discovered a show called “Undercover Boss.” It has been around for a while, but since I had missed it, I will not assume all of you know it. Each episode, a high-level executive, often the CEO of a company disguises themselves and take on a variety of mostly entry level roles in the company under the auspices of a show about changing careers or something similar. The bosses participate because they think this gives them an opportunity to learn how the business is doing from a different perspective. In one episode, the mayor of Shreveport, Louisianna goes undercover with the fire, parks, and police departments. He learns the fire department is forced to reuse gear in a way that is harmful to the firefighters and is able to prioritize purchasing spares. He learns that the parks department staff are paying out of pocket to feed local children and adjusts funding to create a food budget. The police almost immediately figure out who he is, so we do not see as much of their segment. This is one of the better episodes, because the boss was smart enough to see systemic problems and find systemic solutions.
In other episodes, the bosses fail to do this, and so, at the end of the show, instead of fixing systemic problems, they send the employees they worked with while undercover on a vacation they are too underpaid to take without this extra help. And sure, this is nice, and it helps those few people, but it means they are going to come back to the same conditions, and it leaves out all the other employees who are facing the same struggle. It shows that, for the boss, that employee only became a real person after they spent a day together, and all the other employees doing the same job are still just cogs.
Whether it is an episode with a boss who manages to take full advantage of the experience, or one who does not, the entire setup of the show depends on one, unquestioned truth: people do not treat each other equally. The show depends on everyone assuming that if these bosses just walked into a local branch, or walked the production line, the employees would be too afraid to say anything negative or to tell the boss the unvarnished truth.
And, at least in the episodes I have seen, that is an assumption no one questions. I doubt anyone here questions it either. I expect we all assume that it is true. I am certain every one of us can think of a time that someone else treated us like we did not matter.
We might say that we are not like that, we might think “I say it like it is no matter who is listening,” or “I treat everyone equally.” I think even those of us who pride ourselves on telling it like it is, who try to treat everyone equally could, if we tried, find a few exceptions, a few people around whom we filter, or self-censor, or a few times where we have been rude to someone because some part of us decided that person’s feelings, or just that person, did not matter.
If we face this truth about ourselves, it should frighten us. Listen again to the words of our Epistle today: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
This commandment that our Epistle refers to is the one sometimes called the Greatest Commandment, which appears in each of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew’s account reads, ““’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.”
Jesus, in this moment, is himself quoting even earlier scripture, Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The first of these commandments is from Deuteronomy 6, and while Matthew starts in the middle, Mark’s gospel includes the full verse, “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 might.” The first part of this quotation, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and is arguably the single most important verse in scripture for Judaism. This sentence, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” is known as the Shema, named for the first word when it is recited in Hebrew, and is an essential prayer that observant Jews recite twice each day, once in the morning and once during evening prayers. It is even tradition in some communities to make these your last words before sleep each night and before death.
The second part, which is quoted in each of the three synoptic gospels, is the following verse, Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” This is known as the V’ahavta in Hebrew, again from that first word and is also part of both the morning and evening prayers.
Jesus expands this central Jewish prayer with the addition of a passage from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus has taken two sections of Hebrew Scripture and linked them together in a way that elevates the love of neighbor. This is what prompts the question “who is our neighbor” and Jesus’ answer, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We are celebrating communion this Sunday, so I must save that for another sermon, but the message of that parable is this: your neighbor is anyone, and that especially includes those you do not want to be your neighbor.
The First Epistle of John takes this commandment and teaches it’s meaning. We are not all merely each other’s neighbor. We are all children of God and therefore we are all siblings in Christ. We are all not only called, but commanded to love one another, and, even more, John tells us that if we say, “I love God” and hate anyone else, then “we are liars.”
I do have some good news for you. Scripture does not use the word “love” in the same we that we do. We often use “love” as an extreme form of “like.” This morning, the first time we have had the 9 am service at St. Luke’s in about six months, I could easily say that “I love coffee.” I do. Honestly, coffee could take out a sponsorship on most of my preaching. But as much as I may or may not have developed a dependency on coffee, much as I might proclaim my love of coffee to the world, I do not love it in the way Leviticus, Jesus, and John talk about love.
Their love is not an extension of like, and for that we should be thankful, because most of us could talk about people we will never like, and I am convinced that anyone who says they like everyone is a liar, and that makes me not like them.
No, we are fortunate that is not how scripture uses the word love. “Love,” as used in scripture, is an active verb, not a feeling. “Love,” as used in scripture does not start with how you feel about people, but begins in how you treat people, especially the people you do not like.
If we truly loved one another as Christ commands, “Undercover Boss” would not work as a show. There would be no need for the boss to take on a disguise to get honest answers from employees. The bad bosses would not need to spend a day with a low-level employee to begin to think of that employee as a person who deserves time with their family.
If we truly loved one another, we would not have systemic divisions based on gender, race, and class.
If we truly loved one another, we would not have jobs deemed “essential” earning minimum wage.
The good news is this: we do not have to like everyone to love everyone. Learning to like everyone is far, far harder than what we must do: learn to act toward everyone with love. Treat everyone with respect, not because we know them, not because they have power over us, but because we finally recognize that we are all children of God. Thanks be to God.