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Sunday, August 24, 2014

God's Preferred Future: Growing as Neighbors (Luke 6:27-31, Luke 10:25-37)


27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.

 

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31  Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32  Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33  A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34  The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35  The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36  What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

 

“Love your neighbor.”  Part of the Great Commandment, inseparable from the command to love God with everything we have.  The center of our religious practice, holiness that is both personal and social, two sides of the same coin in this command from Jesus to “Love God, Love neighbor.”

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Easy for you to say, Jesus, – you don’t have to live next to my neighbors.  I don’t even like my neighbors, how am I supposed to love someone I can’t stand to be around?  Someone who leaves their trash bin open and the wind blows it into my yard, someone who trims the trees on my side of the line, someone who always borrows my tools, and either doesn’t return them, or manages to break them before I get them back!  This is the neighbor you want me to love?  I don’t even know half my neighbors; I actually like them more than the others!”

Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Simple to say.  Sometimes difficult to practice.

For the last several weeks, we have been exploring the ways God is calling us to grow as a congregation as we move into God’s preferred future.  We give thanks for where we’ve been, we appreciate where we are now, and we rejoice that God’s not done with us, yet.  As good as our history and heritage is, God is calling us to even better things in our future.  With God, the best is yet to come.  Moving into that future requires some stretching.  Some deepening.  Some growing.  Where are we growing?  We’re growing in faith.  We’re growing in grace.  We’re growing as disciples.  And, we’re growing as neighbors.  May we pray.

I grew up in a city neighborhood where the houses were built between 1920 and 1950.  The houses were close together.  There were public sidewalks.  People parked on the street.  No one had air conditioning, and you could tell what everyone was cooking for dinner just by riding your bike up and down the street.  Summer evenings typically found the adults out on the front porch with a glass of tea or some other beverage of choice.  I knew the adults, kids, and pets of every home within a four-block radius, and they knew me.  If my friends and I got into any mischief, my mom knew about it before I got back home.

People in the U.S. feel less-connected to their neighbors now than they did fifty years ago.  It’s not that people are less-friendly than they used to be, it’s that our lifestyles have changed so that we interact with other people less and less.  Look at the way we’ve built our homes and neighborhoods.  Public, tree-lined streets with sidewalks gave way to cul-de-sacs in gated communities.  Big front porches gave way to private backyard patios and decks.  Attached garages became the norm.  Air-conditioning sent everyone inside to escape the summer heat.  Thanks to technology, you can buy gas, shop, and bank without ever having to interact with another human being.  Our world is much more convenient than it used to be, but there is a high price for all that convenience – a loss of our sense of community and connection.

Human beings are social creatures.  We are hard-wired with a need to connect with other people, a need which increases as our social space decreases, and in a world in which our neighbors feel less and less connected, the church is presented with an opportunity to fill that void, and be the place in our community where significant connection among neighbors happens.  For the people of God, being a good neighbor is part of who we are.  It’s intrinsic to being a follower of Jesus.

Consider the story of the Good Samaritan we read a few minutes ago.  A legal expert and Jesus are sparring back and forth on what is essential in the life of faith, and they eventually settle that it is to “Love God and Love neighbor.”  But the legal expert, as lawyers are prone to do, starts looking for a loophole, and asks, “But who is my neighbor?,” a definition which would necessarily define some as “not my neighbor.”  The lawyer is essentially asking, “Who don’t I have to love?”

Jesus tells the story of a man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road.  I imagine that man praying, crying out to God to send someone to help him.  Two respected religious officials come down the road, first the man’s pastor, then his favorite Biblical scholar – surely, one of these trusted, Godly men will stop to help.  But both avert their eyes, quicken their pace, and cross to the other side of the road as they pass by the man.

But then along comes an enemy – the most hated and despised person imaginable, and the half-dead man at the side of the road knows the situation is about to go from bad to worse.  Sure enough this enemy stops over the man – what evil trickery is he about to commit?  He looks at the wounded man for a moment, thinking to himself, and then reaches in his cloak, and pulls out the best antiseptic medicine he has and starts to apply it to the beaten man’s wounds.  He carefully takes the man into the next town, finds him a room, and calls a doctor to look after the man until he comes back in a few days.

Oh yeah - he was a Samaritan – a people group who were more hated than you can imagine.  Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which one was the neighbor?” and the lawyer is so disgusted by the story he can’t even bring himself to say “The Samaritan,” and can only mumble, “The one who showed mercy.”

It’s easy to love your neighbor when your neighbors are lovable.  What if the term “neighbor” also extends to those you despise the most?

When my Dad sold his house in New York, I went up to help move him down here.  I was cleaning out the garage, when a neighbor from up the street came by.  “So, your Dad finally sold the house.  These people who bought his house, what kind of people are they?”

Now, I’m not dumb.  I’ve known this neighbor most of my life, and know that he is one of the most prejudiced, racist people anyone could ever meet.  When he said, “What kind of people are they?” he was asking, “What color are they?  Are they white like me, or are they something different?”

I said, “You know, I don’t know.  I haven’t met them.  Dad went to closing on his own.  I do know that the color of their full cash offer is green, and that’s good enough for me.”  Like it or not, we have no control over who our neighbors will be.  So we may as well make up our minds to love our neighbors, regardless of who they are.

It’s not only individuals who are called to be good neighbors.  Churches are also called to be good neighbors.  I drive around and see churches who look very unwelcoming: chains across the parking lots, or condescending messages on their marquees that the church members probably think are clever but everyone else finds cheesy or offensive, but each of those things are a signal about their engagement with outsiders.  They send messages that repel their neighbors rather than draw them in.

A Methodist church in Charlotte had been established 70 years ago, in a thriving mill neighborhood.  Eventually, the mill closed, the neighborhood changed, but the church remained.  Most of its members moved out of the neighborhood, but continued to drive in for church, but fewer each year, and so the church was dwindling further and further down.  The church looked less and less like its neighborhood, and became increasingly fearful and eventually hostile of the people who now lived within walking distance of their church.

They organized a backpack packing event at back-to-school time on a Saturday afternoon, and low-and-behold, half a dozen people from the community showed up to help.  The next morning, 20 first time visitors showed up in worship.  They were all a different color than the established church members, and the church members sat on one side and the guests sat on the other, and no one from the “church” side crossed the aisle to greet anyone on the “guest” side.

None of the visitors came back, and the church was slated to close later that year.  The DS came for a meeting with the church members, who were angry that he was closing their church.  He had heard about this incident of not welcoming the people from the neighborhood, and said, “I’m perplexed.  You say you want to save your church, you want to grow, you want new people.  20 people walked in, and you did nothing to welcome them, in fact, you made them feel unwelcome.  Help me understand why you did that?”

One man stood up, crossed his arms, and said, “Because, they were the wrong kind of people.”

The Golden Rule is not conditional: “Treat others as you wish to be treated – only if you like them and they’re similar to you and you approve of their choices and it won’t put you out too much and they’re the right kind of people.”  Loving our neighbor does not hinge on who our neighbors happen to be, how much we like them or don’t before we know anything about them.  The question is whether we will commit to loving our neighbors no matter who they are.

Love God, and love your neighbor.  We ask, but who is my neighbor?  What kind of people are they?  It doesn’t matter.  Jesus reminds us that our neighbor is anyone and everyone.

This story is more offensive than we sometimes realize.  The words “good” and “Samaritan” had never been uttered in the same sentence, other than saying that they were “good for nothing.”  The story was as shocking in Jesus’ day as if he had told it as “The Good al-Quaeda” or “The Good Hamas” or “The Good ISIS” or “The Good Taliban” in our day.  I’d be offended if Jesus said that, today!  But, our offense highlights the significance of what Jesus says.

Whoever you think, “the wrong kind of people” are, that’s who the Samaritan would be.  It would have been bad enough to tell the story as if the Samaritan were the one beaten and subsequently helped, but to make one’s most bitterly-hated enemy the hero of the story?  That was too much.  It’s not only that our enemy is our neighbor.  The enemy has seen us as neighbor, responding with grace and compassion toward us.

If the person we despise most, one of the “wrong kind of people,” can see our sacred worth as a child of God and love us as a neighbor, might we rethink how we see and love others?  If grace has been granted to us, will we not grant it to others?

Growing as neighbors means that we have an increasingly positive impact on the lives of those outside our church.  Sometimes people ask, “Shouldn’t we just focus on who is already here?”  “No.”  The problem with that question is in the word, “just.”  Because, we should focus on who is already here.  We need to nurture the faith and relationships of the church family, we need to build the body up, support and encourage each other.  But we don’t do “just” that.

Growing up, there were things we did together to build and support and nurture each other, things we did inside the home to grow as a family.  We also did things outside the home to grow as neighbors.  It wasn’t one or the other; it was both.  We didn’t “just” take care of the family, nor did we “just” look after the neighbors.  It was both.  As church, growing as a family and growing as neighbors are not mutually exclusive.  We are called to do both.

It’s sort of like breathing – you have to breathe in AND breathe out.  What happens if you only breathe in?  You get so puffed up and full of your own hot air you eventually pass out!  And what happens if you only breathe out?  You give out everything you have to give until you eventually pass out!  There’s a rhythm to it, of internal and external – staying healthy requires both.

John Wesley famously said, “The world is my parish.”  By that, he was called to minister to those outside the church walls, to take the message of God’s love and grace to the people who hadn’t darkened the church’s doors.  He didn’t open the door and hope a few wandered in.  The early Methodists took the message beyond themselves, freely sharing God’s love with anyone and everyone.  Methodists have been in mission since the very beginning.  It’s who we are!  By focusing not only on themselves, but on those around them, they were putting their love of God and neighbor into action.  They were known as good neighbors.

In our corner of the world, our parish, how is Morehead Church known?  My prayer is that the people who live within our parish, our neighbors, the people God has entrusted to our love and care, whether they are members or not, whether they have ever darkened our door or not, will know us a good neighbor.  They will know us as warm-hearted and genuine, a people who share freely and generously of what we have, a people who give ourselves for others as Christ has given himself for the world, that we are more concerned with what we can do for them than what they can do for us.  With the help of God, we are called to be good neighbors.

Where are we growing?  What is God’s preferred future for Morehead Church?  We are called to grow in faith.  We are called to grow in grace.  We are called to grow as disciples.  And we are called to grow as neighbors.

May our neighbors know us as good neighbors.  Once they do, watch how many become part of the family.

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