In midtown Manhattan, near my office, there’s a huge public school on East 56th Street. For the last two months, that stretch of the street has been a beautiful oasis—almost completely deserted.
That changed this week. The kids are back in school.
Around 8:30, the sidewalks are absolutely mobbed. It’s wall-to-wall kids, from grade school up to junior high. Wednesday, I had to walk in the middle of the street just to make it to the next block. And for several blocks around, as you get close to the school, you see the same thing: kids in new clothes with new backpacks, heading off to class.
But you also see something else. A lot of the younger kids have company. They have their parents walking with them, holding a small hand. And more and more you see something that you wouldn’t have seen 50 years ago, when I was growing up: the one walking them to school is Dad.
So you see these lawyers and doctors and Wall Street brokers who live in expensive apartments around Sutton Place…holding hands with seven and eight year olds…reassuring them as they head off to school. Sometimes, you’ll see Moms and Dads. The walk to school is a family affair.
It’s heartening to see. And it called to mind something I read a long time ago.
About 25 years ago, a minister and teacher named Robert Fulghum collected some of his most popular sermons in a book that become wildly popular, and it’s still a best-seller: “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” One of the things he learned – and I quote: “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together. And be aware of wonder.”
If you wanted to sum up this Sunday’s scriptures in just a few words, there it is:
Watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together, and be aware of wonder.
The recurring message this weekend is one of community, solidarity, connectedness. We need one another—and we need to look out for one another.
First, watch out for traffic. We need to guard one another from head-on collisions with sin. “I have appointed watchmen,” the reading from Ezekiel tells us. “You shall warn them for me.” The Lord will hold us responsible if we see someone in sin and say nothing.
Secondly, hold hands and stick together. When looking out for one another, we need to do it using the most fundamental of Christian qualities: love.
“Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another,” Paul wrote to the Romans. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love is the fulfillment of the law.”
And finally, when we look out for one another, be aware of wonder.
Be aware of the presence of God.
As Jesus told his disciples: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
We need to honor one another. To protect one another. To be Christ to one another.
To love one another.
The reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans sounds so beautiful and promising. But let’s face it: it isn’t easy.
I’m not that great at loving at my neighbors, even the ones I like.
And what about the ones I don’t? What about the neighbors I’ve never met? What about the ones I want nothing to do with?
The guy who sits outside the subway with a cardboard sign and begs for change…
The homeless man on the subway who hasn’t bathed in weeks…
What about the kid down the hall who plays loud music and gets into screaming fights with his girlfriend every night?
What about anyone who is different? The young man you see reading the Qu’ran on the bus…or the hipster with the pierced lip…or the old woman who yells in the grocery store because she has lost her hearing and, in fact, may also be losing her mind.
These are my neighbors. Do I love them as I love myself?
Do I want to look out for them?
Do I see Jesus in them?
Perhaps more importantly: do any of them see Jesus in me?
Dorothy Day once said something I’ll never forget: “I really only love God,” she said, “as much as I love the person I love the least.”
I have a lot of work to do. These scriptures are a challenge—and a consolation: We aren’t in this alone.
Every day, we head to school with a parent holding our hand: the God who loves us, who wants to protect us—but who also knows he has to let go and leave us to make our own choices, our own mistakes.
But if we are attentive to our call as Christians, we strive to follow his commands, to fulfill his will for us.
This should be our heart’s desire: to endeavor every day to fear less—and to love more.
As we prepare to receive the Eucharist this morning, we pray to receive as well a deepening of that desire.
We pray for the courage and generosity of spirit to love our neighbor as ourselves— knowing that God’s love for us, and the neighbors around us, is limitless.
The scriptures assure us of this. And so, in fact, does Robert Fulghum.
“When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together. And be aware of wonder.”