This is the third sermon in a series called “Finding God,” where we are looking for God in the most routine places around us. Is the God of the Really Awesome Places also the God of Lexington?
SCRIPTURE – Matthew 22:34-40 – 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
#3 – …in the Neighbor
September 11, 2016
In this passage, Jesus gives a command that he puts on par with loving God, and that is to love our neighbor. How are we doing with that? I read a quote recently by spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, who said, “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear and do harm.” Pretty spot-on, right? That was written in the 1970s, and in the subsequent 40 years, we haven’t gotten any better at loving our neighbor. And yet, by not doing so, are be missing an opportunity to encounter God.
We’re in the midst of a sermon series called “Finding God,” in which we’re exploring the places we can find God around us, including the most mundane, taking-for-granted ones. This series stems from my recently completed three-month sabbatical, where I experienced God in some amazing places. Is the God of those places also the God of Lexington? And if so, where around here can we find God?
The word “neighbor” comes from the Old English words for “near dweller.” A neighborhood is formed when people settle into a certain geographical area and make it hospitable. That makes me think that my neighbors are those who live close to me, but we all know that just living on the same street doesn’t make someone our neighbor. So what makes someone our neighbor?
I’m remembering Mrs. Blackwell, who lived next door to Mom and me on Ellison Ave. in Louisville. I was a latch-key kid, with complete freedom from the time I got home from school until Mom rolled in from work. I often ended up at Mrs. Blackwell’s house, where she had a snack waiting for me. Her son, James, let me play his state-of-the-art Atari 2600 videogame system. He even had Space Invaders! They looked out for me, the only child of a young single mother. They were neighbors to us.
Could you imagine letting your kids roam freely and unsupervised for three hours today, flitting in and out of neighbors’ houses? Neighborhoods have changed a lot. People have gotten busier. Kids are involved in tons of after-school activities. In most households, both parents work, leaving less time for socializing. And we’ve become more keenly aware of the dangers that exist around us. Every time a car I don’t recognize turns down our cul-de-sac, red flags go up. The events of 9/11 were 15 years ago, and yet the fear fueled by that event still has a grip on our hearts. Our world has made it a lot harder to be good neighbors to each other.
That’s not the only way neighborhoods are changing. As older people move out, new people move in, and they bring with them different values, lifestyles, and ways of relating. We no longer can guarantee that the people who live around us also look like us or think like us. When our family moved here, we settled on Hunters Rest Ct., an 11-house cul-de-sac in southeast Lexington. At the time, our girls were the only kids on the block, and we were surrounded by an eclectic cast of characters, including a neighbor on one side we called “Crazy Mary” and a neighbor on the other who had a pool but never used it. It drove our girls crazy! We threatened to tear down the fence between our yards and rebuild it around the pool so it was a part of our backyard.
Slowly, we began to see turnover. At one point, there were three houses in our cul-de-sac for sale. Leigh and I tried not to take that personally. As of today, there are 16 kids on our cul-de-sac, and our little street includes a single Muslim mom and her two kids; a lesbian couple; a mixed-ethnicity Catholic family; a non-church-going good ol’ boy, his wife, and three kids; and a pastor and his family.
Our neighborhoods are changing. As human beings, we’re conditioned to group together around like-mindedness, and when the family next door doesn’t look like you or believe like you or eat the same food as you, there’s less of a motivation to get to know them. My non-religious neighbor faced this when he was considered buying the house next door. I was outside one day when they were looking at the house, so I walked over and introduced myself. We exchanged pleasantries, include what we did for a living. About a year or so after moving in, he confided in me that they almost didn’t buy the house, because he said he couldn’t imagine living next to a minister. Now he lets us use the pool anytime we want. But in most cases, if we don’t know or don’t like the person next door, we plant hedges, we put up privacy fences, we close our garage doors before someone sees us. We’re not always good at being neighbors.
Our neighborhoods may be changing, but the Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” is still the same. A lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” so Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. A Jewish man is beaten, robbed, and left to die. Two Jewish religious leaders see him and pass by, but a Samaritan stops to help. Samaritans were in many ways the cultural enemy of the Jews, so this twist in the story would have been unsettling to Jesus’ Jewish listeners. Jesus ends the story by asking the lawyer, “So, who in this story was the neighbor?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
So, according to Jesus, a neighbor is not defined by proximity or similarity, but by only one criteria: the ability to show mercy. The command to be a good neighbor is not exclusive to Christianity. Jews follow the teaching in the Hebrew Bible, which says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Hindu scripture reminds its followers, “This is the sum of duty: do naught unto another which would cause you pain if done to you.” And listen to these words: “Worship God and join none with Him in worship, and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, the poor, the neighbor who is near of kin, the neighbor who is a stranger, the companion by your side the wayfarer you meet.” Sounds a little like the 10 Commandments, doesn’t it? It’s from the Koran, the Islamic holy book. In fact, that book teaches that it is an offense to Allah if a person harms or annoys their neighbor. You can’t even annoy your neighbor? If that’s the case, I wouldn’t make a very good Muslim.
If every religion teaches the importance of being good neighbors, why are followers of every religion so bad at it? I think a lot of it has to do with the fear I mentioned earlier. Fear brings out our basest instincts and narrows our sense of belonging to self-preservation. When we feel threatened, we’re less likely to extend hospitality and mercy, and more likely to cluster in groups with those who look and think like us. Certainly, the events on this day 15 years ago heightened that fear in us. We feel safer when we see ourselves in those around us. In the Old Testament, the Israelites would often kill and conquer their neighbors rather than interact with them. That’s easy to do when they don’t worship the same God you do. But what do you do when you worship the God of all nations, the Creator of all tribes? What do you do when the call to show mercy doesn’t have a privacy fence around it?
Maybe you start by living out Jesus’ command. A year ago, one of our neighbors, Olawa, the Muslim woman, lost her brother when he was shot and killed at a park in Lexington. The family was struggling, not only with their deep grief, but with paying for the funeral. My first inclination was to keep to myself. Olawa is fairly private, and while I felt badly for her, this wasn’t my loss. But our kids had played together; we’d help shovel each other’s driveway; we’d shared food together at a cul-de-sac cookout. So several of us pooled together some money and delivered it to Olawa. We stood there on her porch – Catholics, Christians, Muslims, none of the above – and expressed our condolences and shared our shock and shed our tears. In our clumsy way, we did our best to show mercy.
The challenge for us in being good neighbors today is not only stepping out of our comfort zone; it’s also that the boundaries of our neighborhood have been blurred by technology. In the Good Ol’ Days, your neighborhood was defined by how far you could ride your bike before your mom got mad. But now, because of the internet, our world is a giant neighborhood. When I wake up in the morning, I look out our bedroom window to make sure everything in the cul-de-sac is in order. But then I read my email, or check a news website, or log into Facebook. By the middle of the day, I’ve checked on hundreds of people. I’ve sent them a text, or like their post, or commented on their status by saying, “I’m praying for you,” which is like delivering a virtual casserole to their doorstep. Some of them live next door, some of them live across town, and some of them live around the world. And yet they are all my neighbors, they are my spiritual “near dwellers,” because they have given and received mercy.
I had the chance to meet many of these neighbors this summer on sabbatical, and was reminded that each one of them had an amazing life, a story, a dream. There was Holly and Hank, the young couple who just had their first child and opened a BBQ food truck in Talkeetna, Alaska, to help make ends meet. Believe me, I didn’t want to eat all that BBQ, but I sacrificed in order to support their worthy cause. There was James, the church custodian of North Hollywood Christian Church, who opened his home and let me use his shower when I was running late. There was Red, the ice cream truck vendor in New York City who was working that job to pay his way through school as he earned his MBA. I don’t live near any of those folks, but they are neighbors because each in their own way showed me mercy.
So how do we deal with the Samaritan down the street, the one who painted her shutters that awful color, the one who uses his leaf blower at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, the one who has that other candidate’s sign in her yard? It might serve us well to remember the etymology of neighbor, which is “near dweller.” That term reminds me of someone else who chose to dwell near us, who moved from far off in order to be close to us, who took up an abode here on earth in order to abide with us. God, in the form of Jesus Christ, is our near-dweller, our neighbor, and each person who lives around us is the embodiment of that incarnation. God lives in the neighborhood with us, whether locally or globally, and therefore each person is worthy of mercy.
We have the power in our lives to draw our boundaries however we would like. We can put up our fences, close our doors, avoid eye contact, choose not to connect with people different than us. But I don’t remember Jesus every encouraging us to keep to ourselves. Instead, he called us to go out into the world, sharing God’s love and showing God’s mercy, because that’s what it means to be a good neighbor. On this day, when we remember how or world changed 15 years ago, do you think we could change this world again if we all tried to extend mercy to each other? Go and do likewise.