It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Lectionary Texts: Luke 10: 25-37
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, July 10, 2016
- A Visit to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
Do you remember the PBS show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” that ran from 1968 to 2001? It always began with Mr. Rogers entering his fake television home, singing the familiar song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and changing from his work clothes to the less formal perfunctory sweater and sneakers, all the while singing the familiar song.
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Following this song of invitation, Mr. Rogers would then visit many of his neighbors, traveling to the Neighborhood of Make Believe via a toy train to visit King Friday, Queen Sara, and Prince Tuesday or visiting those in his own neighborhood who had different occupations and different interests. The point was that we did not have to all be the same to be neighbors. Everyone was a part of the neighborhood and everyone was invited to be a part of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Just as all were invited into his studio home, he, in turn, entered each of our lives and then essentially left everyone with the same message: “Go and be a neighbor.” “Go and do likewise.”
- A Look at the Scripture Passsage
We sort of hear the same thing in today’s passage. Now, this is probably one of the most familiar parables that Jesus told. It may be one of your favorites. The problem with those parables is that we read it, we nod, and we walk away. We no longer allow them to challenge us or even sort of make us a little uncomfortable. John Westerhoff once said that if a parable didn’t make you uncomfortable, perhaps make you squirm in your pew a bit, you probably haven’t gotten it. So, think about it as if you’ve just read it for the first time.
We read that it begins with a test of Jesus, perhaps a way of trying to catch Jesus up in his own words. Because you know as well as I do that this well-learned person, this lawyer, this expert in the Law of Moses, already knew the answer to the question before he asked, these words so much a part of the Jewish faith. “So, then, Jesus, (he asks smugly) what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (In other words, SAY the words. Let us hear it.) Because the words were known by every Jewish follower. The words were part of the Shema, the pinnacle of all Jewish prayers. So, he sort of get a bad rap for testing Jesus on something so well-known but it’s also pretty bold. The truth is he WANTED to live fully. He was sort of deep sea diving. “Show me Jesus; SHOW ME the path to eternal life.” You can’t really blame him. We’re all sort of looking for that.
And the response? Jesus didn’t tell him to go to the synagogue or to say penance or anything. Jesus put it very simply: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” Indeed, you shall love God with everything that you are. And, just as importantly, (in fact, in order to DO the first part) “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But just having the right answer does not necessarily mean that we know God. And when the man is told by Jesus to “Go and do,” he responds with his own tripping question. “And who,then, is my neighbor?” Because in the learned man’s mind and in the society in which he lived his righteous and good life, some were considered acceptable neighbors and others were not. Some were considered clean and righteous and worthy of respect according to religious law and some were not. Well, of course, the expected reply would be something like “your relatives and friends; those who live their lives the way you do in respectable and acceptable ways; those who think like you and believe like you—THOSE are your neighbors.
But Jesus, in true Jesus-fashion, turned the assumed law upside down. Don’t you hate that? Because it is not about laws; it is about love. And so Jesus tells what is now for us a familiar story: You see, there is a road that goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho, 17 miles long, dropping about 3,000 feet. It is hazardous and filled with thieves and robbers, who beat and strip this man and leave him for dead. Now note that Jesus does not describe the man. Jewish listeners would probably have assumed that he was one of them, a good Jew who happened into catastrophe. But, in all honesty, he could be anyone—no ethnicity, no particular religion, no certain economic status. All we know about him is that he is our neighbor. In essence, Jesus is saying “I do not know his name because it doesn’t matter. He is anyone who lies in need at life’s roadside.”
The first person that happens by is a priest who passes by. Now, in defense of the priest, religious law dictated that he could only touch those who were clean. (Of course, the caveat is that all the priest would have had to do was wash ceremoniously and then he would be clean.) Then a Levite passes by, also choosing not to help. As one who assisted the priest, perhaps he saw the priest pass by and assumed that he needed to do the same. (OK, maybe he felt that he needed to do what the priest did but, really, if the priest jumped off that rather steep cliff on the side of the road, do you think he would have done that too?) Truth be told, neither of them really had an excuse at all.
And then a third person who Jesus describes as one from Samaria approached the wounded man. Now you have to understand that the relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews was anything but friendly. There lands bordered each other. In fact Samaria was sort of between Galilee and Judea so to travel from Galilee to Jerusalem, one would usually sort of skirt around it along the Jordan River.
The Samaritans were not pagans. They were essentially another Jewish sect. They believed in God and they had a monotheistic understanding of the one true God, the YHWH of their shared belief. But where the temple of YHWH for the Jews existed on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the Samaritans instead worshipped God on Mount Gerazim near the ancient city of Shechem. Though both were bound by the Law of Moses, each believed that their line of priests and their way of religious understanding was the right one. What began as an argument in semantics some 1,000 years before the birth of Christ had escalated into a relationship based on hatred and violence and the perceived notion that the other was unacceptable.
So here is this Samaritan—an outsider, an undesirable—treating and bandaging the man’s wounds, risking defilement. He then picked up the man and took him to a place of shelter, giving the innkeeper money out of his own pocket for the man’s lodging. He did more than just supply bandaids, though. He entered the man’s life and shared his own life with him. Go and do likewise.
III. Being a Neighbor
We like this story of the hero Samaritan. It makes us feel good about human nature. So, it makes us feel good about ourselves. And it’s familiar—SO familiar in fact that we probably put ourself in the wrong part of it. As modern-day hearers, many of us honed in on the fact that the Samaritan shared what he had with a person in need.
The word charity, though, is not just about benevolent giving. It is taken from the Latin “caritas”, which means a selfless and unlimited love shown toward all. It is agape, that unconditional, unreserved, and indiscriminate love that comes from God. It’s a love that we sometimes have a hard time grasping. It does not rely on who someone is, or what status they are, or whether or not they are “one of us”, or even whether or not we know them. It doesn’t matter whether or not they deserve it. It draws no lines or boundaries. See, it is “caritas”, not our version of charity, that Jesus was talking about in this story.
It means that it is no longer enough just to be nice. It means that it is not enough to give out the time and money and love that we can spare. It means that this story is no longer about figuring out who your neighbor is. It means, rather, that we are called to enter our neighbor’s life and allow them to enter ours. It means that we realize that, as this passage says, love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. It means that we can become “fully human”, “fully made in the image of God” only by allowing ourselves to enter each others’ lives.
There is an African proverb that says, “I am human only because you are human.” We need to see one another as neighbors in order to experience the community that God created for us. We are all part of the neighborhood. We are all called to be a part of each others’ lives. Go and do likewise.
- So, Who Is My Neighbor?
So, who, then, is my neighbor? Whose life am I called to enter and invite to enter mine? Well, what this parable says is that the question is essentially moot. Turn and look at the person next to you. That is your neighbor. Do you see the one sitting several pews away with whom you disagree? That, my friends, is your neighbor. Do you see the man out walking down the road that you’re not so sure why he’s there? He is your neighbor. Do you see those people on the west side of Wharton that have been flooded twice in the last three months? They are your neighbors. Do you see the person with whose lifestyle you do not understand, possibly do not condone? That person, my friends, is your neighbor. Do you see that man who dresses differently, perhaps worships differently, the one that you do not understand and who may scare you a bit? That man is your neighbor. Turn and look at the person on the other side of you. Each and every one of God’s children is your neighbor. Maya Angelou said that “I note the obvious differences between each sort and type. But we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” This parable defines everyone—friend, acquaintance, stranger, enemy, foreigner, threat—as “neighbor”. And then tells us, that we shall love our neighbor as ourselves.
And when we love our neighbors with the same intensity that we love ourselves, the differences become just part of us. They no longer matter. The road is no longer wide enough to simply pass by on the other side. There is no person who is anything less than a neighbor.
Yes, sometimes, being a true neighbor is controversial and even dangerous business. Sometimes being a neighbor means risking or even giving up part of yourself. Henri Nouwen said, though, that “only when we have the courage to cross the road and look into one another’s eyes can we see that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.”
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
No one said it would be easy. We do tend to gravitate toward those who are like us. We all do it. It’s hard to sort of step over that boundary and go into a place where we are unsure, perhaps where we don’t even know if we’ll be welcomed and help someone. And we have a lot going on. Maybe the first and second passersby get a bad rap. Maybe they were tired. Maybe they were thinking about something else. Maybe they were running late. Maybe they were afraid. Or maybe they were discouraged and overwhelmed, thinking that they simply could not do enough to save everyone dying by the side of the road. The truth is. They are us—not bad people, certainly not uncaring people. They are people that live in a world that focuses so on differences that they forgot how to be together, how to help each other, how to love each other.
We know that all too well right now. This past week has been hard for us. What do we do? How do we react in a world that seems to be filled with such violence, such hatred of each other? The truth is, we have forgotten what it means to be a neighbor. We have forgotten what it means to love each other because we are human rather than what we can gain. We in the church are different. (Or we should be.) We are called to step forward, to be a neighbor, to be a peacemaker.
C.S. Lewis once said that “a church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members.” That’s an interesting thing to think about. I pray that it also exists to change us into who God calls us to be but if we read this passage, that change comes by loving our neighbor as ourself.
- Go and Do Likewise
So, maybe our problem with being a neighbor is that we are also wary at opening ourselves for someone to be a neighbor to us. It works both ways. There will be times in all of our lives when we are the one on the dark side of the road. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. What if the person that God sends to help us is not the one we planned?
When I was at a downtown church, I worked with an associate pastor that was always helping, always advocating for others, always trying to BE the neighbor. One day he was on one of the metro trains going to the Medical Center and he had a nosebleed. It was terrible. It began to drip down on his white shirt and really make a mess. Well there was a man sitting in the facing seat watching all of this. The man was obviously homeless. Terry said he was dirty, sweaty, smelly. And when Terry’s shirt began to be covered in red, the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief—a dirty, smelly, God-knows-where-it’s-been handkerchief. Terry politely refused, thinking, “no way!”, but his nose kept bleeding. So he leaned over and asked the man for the handkerchief. He then put the dirty, smelly handkerchief to his nose to stop the blood and the man smiled and said, “Keep it; you need it more than I do.” I asked Terry if I could share this story. He said that the man’s eyes that day still reflect the love of Christ in his heart and that that stands out as one of the most extraordinary experiences in his ministry.
See, the deal is, that is part of being a neighbor too—reaching out but also letting others reach out to you. It is the mystery of who we are. It is the way that we are neighbors in the name of Christ. Ann Weems writes some wonderful poems about being church and being people of the church. Part of one of her poems goes like this:
Sometimes they need the water;
Sometimes you need the water;
Sometimes I need the water.
Being a part of the Church means knowing that the cup is always filled in His name.
You know, this church has been doing that. This church, led by Stephanie and our youth have been helping those people that were so affected by the river coming up into the town. That is what we do. Because someday, they’ll help us. That is what God does.
The Kingdom of God is upon us. And not a make-believe one. In fact, glimpses of it tend to show up where you least expect it. So, look around the neighborhood and imagine it the way God intends for it to be and then go and do likewise. Look around the neighborhood. Look at all your neighbors. Look at everything that we share. Look around. God welcomes all of us to the neighborhood. And it’s always a beautiful day in this neighborhood.
In the Name of One who created us many individuals and then gathers us in as one.