HOAs, the Law, and Us
In 2000, Sarah and I purchased our first home. It was a modest newly built house in the suburbs of Houston and we loved that home. We had selected it out of the developer’s binder of many different choices and outfitted with our personal preferences of paint, brick, countertops, and floor treatments, and we diligently watched construction from the poring of the slab to the laying of sod. We loved that home, and we would move back into that house today given the opportunity, save one thing, the Homeowner’s Association. The day we moved in, we had not even owned the home for 24 hours, there would be a lettered addressed to us, citing us for failure to mow our yard. I didn’t even own a lawnmower, so I knocked on a neighbor’s door and asked to borrow their lawn equipment. The next day there would be a similar citation for leaving the garage open overnight, still dated before our move-in date. I loved that home; I still hate the homeowner’s association. Neighbors who installed a playscape in their backyard were forced to remove it because it was visible above the fence line, another neighbor was forced to repaint after he chose a color outside, and might I add only slightly outside of the approved list of white, off-white, and ecru. Unapproved plantings, yard signage, cars parked on the street, oil spots on the driveway, and the list goes on. This battle would continue for all five years that we lived in that house. The strange thing was, after a while, I started to judge my neighbors for letting their grass grow too tall, or leaving their cars on the street overnight, or painting their house cream colored and not off-white. I would notice when someone installed a trellis that extended above the fence line. I would grouse at a car left on blocks in a driveway overnight. I suppose on the surface, however, that the homeowner’s association rules and regulations are about being neighborly. I know, I know, only the developer really benefits from these rules, and homeowner’s associations have historically been used to systemically enforce racism, and granted the rules are pretty superficial, but in some way, I would like to think it’s about setting some standards about how neighbors live together.
In Matthew’s Gospel this morning, Jesus continues his teaching in the sermon on the mount. Prior, Jesus has climbed to the top of a mountain, perhaps an allusion to Moses at Sinai, and begins teaching with the beatitudes, he then tells his followers that they are salt and light which we heard last week, and then assures his Jewish audience that he is not there to override, end, or give a new law, but to strike to the heart or the intent of the law. Here is where we pick up the story this morning in what are traditionally called the antitheses, “You’ve heard it said, but I say…” But I think it would be more beneficial to think of these as intensifications. Each teaching takes a law and illustrates what is at the heart of its intention. It is not enough to not murder, but do not even hate another. Don’t even call someone a fool. Already broke that rule on Mopac this morning. It is not enough to not commit adultery, but not even desire another. If we lived by this rule, the advertising industry would collapse. Not to mention Jesus’ teaching on divorce or taking solemn oaths. I mean divorce is part of so many of our lives and I know good people’s marriages end in divorce not because they set out to go there, but the difficulties of the world and life swept them to that point. As shocking and as difficult as the teachings are to us, I can’t imagine that they were any less so to Jesus’ followers. To hear your teacher altering and intensifying the law that you live your life by must have seemed scandalous as all would have recognized how short they fall of God’s Kingdom. Perhaps that is our reaction today. It is so much easier to be neighborly, if you will when all you have to do is keep your lawn mowed, your driveway clean, and choose appropriate paint colors. Perhaps Jesus would tell us homeowners, nope, that is not enough; you actually have to care about your neighbors.
I know this all sounds like hard work. I know this seems to be an impossible standard, but it is the Kingdom of God we are talking about here, I would presume we could expect nothing less than the highest standard. And for that reason, I also know that we will fall short. We will let each other down, we will let ourselves down, and we will let God down. But the good news is that in the middle of this passage is a note about reconciliation, a path back to God and community. A demand that when we recognize that we have wronged another, we first seek to be reconciled. We model this in our services every Sunday, as we make a common confession, and then we offer the peace, a time where we are not really supposed to be greeting each other and asking how the weekend is going but modeling the reconciled community in the proverbial kiss of peace. Therefore, we are a community that models and practices forgiveness and reconciliation every week as a sign of God’s mercy and then we carry that into our lives. Yes, the standards are high and the entry narrow, but mercy is the highest standard and forgiveness the widest gate. He is asking that we seek not a community rooted in the letter of the law or a community that strictly demands righteous behavior, but instead a community that seeks deeply to trust God and one another to spite our shortfalls.
This picture of the Kingdom that Jesus provides is one of deep care and concern for one another, to bar hate from your heart, to love when you would prefer to despise, to honor one another, and your commitments. These are the intentions of the law of Moses, and Jesus does nothing to override those intentions; he simply intensifies them.
So, taking us back to my homeowner’s association. My problem is that I, as well as some others in the neighborhood, started to assume that being a good neighbor meant to follow the rules to the letter. And the truth was, one of the best neighbors on the block, the one whom you could count on to have a cup of sugar, or look after your pets at no charge, or just check in on you periodically, they continually, and I mean always, let their grass grow too tall and their left flower beds un-weeded. And one of the worst neighbors who had the most immaculately manicured yard, would follow those rules to a tee and assured that the homeowners association knew when someone else had not. Neighborliness is hard to define and difficult to enforce, but maybe at the heart of the homeowner’s association rules is an attempt to define what it is to be a good neighbor. Let me reinforce, I am not equating the Mosaic Law with the trivial and arbitrary regulations of a homeowners association, nor am I equating their purpose. But at the heart of the law of Moses and perhaps at the heart of God, as Jesus teaches it, we learn what it means to be part of the community of faithful people reflecting the Kingdom of God. For our part, we, the people of Good Shepherd, are making our way, helping one another, doing our best, practicing mercy, forgiveness, and the love of God and one another. May we always aspire to God’s Kingdom.