Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?
July 14, 2013
Earlier this week, I was looking for a birthday card. I wanted to find the right one and they have so many to choose from. On a whim, knowing today’s readings, I suddenly began looking for a different card altogether. Do you know what kinds of cards are not at Walgreen’s – cards for neighbors. You know what they would look like..”Thanks for being such a good neighbor…nice fence.” Do you know where there are lots of conversations about neighbors? Dear Abby and Ask Amy. But those conversations are not about nice neighbors. Those conversations almost always begin like this: “Dear Abby, My neighbor has a dog…” “Dear Amy, My neighbors are copycats…” “Dear Abby, my neighbors children lack neighbors…there is a strange person leaving my neighbor’s house early in the morning…my neighbor is a troubled woman.”
To all of these letters, both Abby and Amy have three basic responses: “Mind your own business, “Speak to them politely, but firmly,” or “Move out or live with it.” What strikes me is that is all of this, whether people are good or bad, their identity as neighbors is defined by their proximity to the writer’s house. That’s how we all do it, isn’t it? My neighbors are those who live next door, or on my block, or in my area.
But today is about so much more than that. Today is about wresting our definition from self-centeredness to other-directedness. Today is about questions on how we give witness to our encounter with the living God. Today is not about people who lived long ago, it is about us who live today with more ways to communicate and stay in touch with friends and neighbors than ever before and, more than ever before, able to avoid the face to face, down to earth messy encounters that are the essence of what it is to be a neighbor.
When I was preparing for today, I could not get the words of that great 20th century theologian out of my mind – that’s right, Mr. Rogers. He asked: “Would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?” This is where we start – with a question for our childhood in faith. Children need to know that someone is open to them, willing to accept them and our first tentative steps on the path of love begin with letting someone else know that we will be open to them. What I notice is that in all that openness, we still require the other person to make the response and take the risk. They have to decide whether or not to be our neighbors. This is where the lawyer is when he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” His question easily could have been phrased “Who has agreed to be my neighbor? Who do I have to love?” And, like many of us in our lives, we will wait until someone volunteers or accepts our openness or at least our tolerance.
But in his story and his words to the lawyer, Jesus challenges us to shift perspective with the question for our adult Christian lives: “Who are you a neighbor to?” Suddenly we find that it is no longer enough to be open to others, it is a matter of declaring ourselves to be the neighbor to whomever we encounter, wherever we encounter them. What does that mean? The story itself is a clue. We are neighbors when we bind the wounds not just of those we like or who are like us, but of those who would cross to the other side of the street if they saw us coming. We are neighbors when refuse to take advantage of someone else’s brokenness or vulnerability and, instead, offer help and solace, even if it costs us something. This is neighbor no longer defined by proximity and similarity. It is neighbor defined by compassion, mercy and the recognition of our common humanity and origins as children of God.
(Different Services heard different stories here. This is the one the 11:00 service heard)
Just yesterday, a trial ended in Florida which touched the heart of an often divided nation. What would it have been like, we might wonder, if George Zimmerman had decided to be a neighbor to Trayvon Martin. Yes, we would like to live in that world. But if you want to glimpse the real risk we take when we decide to accept the challenge to do what the Samaritan did, then imagine this: that a few months or years from now, one of Trayvon Martin’s family members comes upon George Zimmerman beaten, bloodied, robbed, and, instead of passing by, stops to patch up his hurt and pay for his shelter. This is what it might be like when we live our lives as a declaration that we are neighbors to all we meet. A good spiritual exercise this week might be to think about people who have hurt you or your family or friends and imagine being their neighbor – healing their wounds, helping them get on their feet. And if that’s hard, pray and ask yourself why? What is getting in the way?
What might it look like – a life lived with the intention of being a neighbor and loving those we meet? Paul tells us of his prayers of gratitude that we can and do love all the saints because of the hope laid up for us. What is that hope? Maybe it is simply the confidence we have that the word of God does live and has planted seeds deep in the hearts of women and men who don’t become blind to color, race, status, religion, or orientation, but joyfully become neighbors and welcome them into their lives.
Maybe this is what Paul meant when he said, “Live a life worthy of the Lord…” Maybe his exhortation is to be laid alongside Jesus’ command to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise…” Because when we do that, when we become a neighbor and live that life…it looks like strength – to carry another person’s burdens or even another person just a little bit further down the road. It looks like first responders carrying civilians to safety in a disaster, like family members caring for a loved one ravaged by disease, disability, or deep woundedness of body, mind, or spirit.
It looks like patience, like parents reading the same book over and over again to their children, like people who open their homes, hearts, and checkbooks to those who have been displaced by acts of God or acts of human cruelty. It looks like the students I know and the people you know who build, tutor, or feed people they don’t know - whether in this city or halfway around the world. It looks like old friends, old couples, and long -time congregations who know each other’s great strengths and really rough edges and love them as neighbors and friends anyway, because that’s what makes them who they are.
It looks like joy at the sheer gift of life and faith and community and a world filled with the presence of God, marked in all kinds of ways by all kinds of people to whom we are called to be neighbors. It looks like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, like Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Ghandi. It even looks like a lawyer who had the audacity to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and got an answer that pushed him to go further and risk more than he ever bargained for.
And living a life worthy of the Lord looks like all of us when we stop waiting for someone to be our neighbor and start being neighbors to all we meet – wherever and whomever they may be. “Would I be your…Could I be your…Won’t I be your neighbor?” Who knows, maybe someday there will even be a card for it.