SERMON 7-10-22 Pentecost 5C St. John Woodward Ending Pastoral Relationship
Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
Do you remember the theme song from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood? “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.” (1) Through his example, his ministry of presence, his compassion, and understanding, Fred Rogers lived out on screen for millions of children in America, what Jesus teaches us about who is MY neighbor.
Neighbors used to be more than just the people whose house happened to be next to ours. I grew up in a small neighborhood of 1960’s suburbia, and in my neighborhood, lived as friends. We played football, rode skateboards and bicycles, and played games all summer long together. My neighbors would do anything for me and I would do the same for them. We cared for each another, helped each another, shared snacks, and ate dinner with one another.
Strangely, that world seems to be only a memory. something has changed in our psyche and neighborliness is not what it used to be. Today, we Americans seem to struggle with the concept of neighbor. There is so much strife in the world, so much internal divisions, and the idea of friends, allies, and neighbors seems to be a fleeting concept.
Some folks live in gated communities where we keep the right kind of people in and the wrong people out. Front porch sitting, where we visit with one another as our neighbors take their evening strolls is not the norm. We live in a culture in which, we pull our cars into the garage, close the door, go into the house, and never even know the names of those living beside us. So, we 21st century Christians now find ourselves in an isolated, private, and non-engaging way of life, and it is no wonder we cannot understand what Jesus is trying to teach us about MY neighbor?
Merriam Webster dictionary defines neighbor as “one living or located near another,” or more in line with our Christian understanding, our “fellow man (human).” The Greek word Jesus used for neighbor is πλησίον. It means “any other person irrespective of nation or religion with whom we live or whom we chance to meet.” (3) Jesus takes this well-understood definition several steps further, and teaches God's notion of neighbor is pretty radical, which means it may be radical for us as well.
For his audience that day, the words of Lev 19:18 echoed in ears of the legal experts who questioned Jesus. That scripture states, "You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." In Jewish tradition, neighbor was limited to only those within the nation of Israel. For many folks today, neighbor seems to be only those people who meet certain legal criteria, economic criteria, or social status criteria. Jesus redefined loving our neighbor as ourselves clearly and his definition left out the criteria of exclusion.
Jesus further explained this concept by relating it to a people who for Israelites were the ultimate outsiders. He made a Samaritan the hero of a parable he told, and this outsider was the true neighbor in the story. Jesus made the hero someone who outside the legal, economic, and social norms of the day, and it was this person who showed us compassion, love, and care for someone not of his own people. This person loved like Jesus loves.
In today's Gospel we hear, "A lawyer stood up to test Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Theologian Mark Davis explains the importance of this question asked of Our Lord. He writes, “I do not hear this as a question about ensuring that one gets to heaven and not hell, but a question about the whole matter and purpose of life itself. This is a “what is the meaning of life?” or “what is the chief end of humanity?” sort of question. (2) In other words, the lawyer is asking Jesus, "If I am your disciple, what is my purpose, what is my mission? Jesus does not answer his question, but asks him what the law says. The lawyer asnwers, “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; and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus tells him that if he will but do these two commands, he might discover is purpose in life and then, know how to live the life God intended for him.
That was not quite enough for the lawyer though. A generalized command to love all with whom we come in contact seemed to him to be too demanding, too difficult, and it wiped out the criteria he wanted to use to classify “who is in” and “who is out.” So, he asked Jesus, “who is MY neighbor.” It seems like a simple question and not a bad thing to ask, but the heart of the question is this, “who can I exclude from that list of people I must love Jesus?” If you can help me define who is MY neighbor, I can keep a list of the unworthy, unlikeable, and “less than” who are not my neighbor.
Jesus turns the whole dialogue upside down and tells the incredible story about an unlikely Samaritan neighbor. Remember Jews and Samaritans were not friendly to one another. Ancestrally, Samaritans are descendants of the Jewish tribe of Ephraim and tribe of Manasseh (two sons of Joseph) as well as from the Levites. In other words, they were family, but religious practice and doctrine differences made them and the Israelites bitter enemies. It is ironic Jesus chose a Samaritan as the hero of the story. Remember from last week’s Gospel, “Jesus had just been denied entry into a Samaritan village. James and John, in fact, wanted to call down fire and invoke a Sodom-like punishment on that village.” (2)
So, it was a Samaritan, and not a holy and devout insider priest and Levite that showed compassion, care, and love for the man who had been robbed and left half dead. Now what we also need to see in this parable is the extent of compassion, care, and love he showed the poor man. First, he bandaged his wounds and poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal (he walked while the hurt man rode). He brought him to an inn and took care of him; he even stayed with him overnight and nursed him back to health. He shared from his abundance and gave two denarii (two day’s pay) to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
The Samaritan did not merely show pity on the victimized man, he shared the suffering of the man and helped him in his circumstances. How then did he become a neighbor? He offered immediate triage for the man’s plight, he transported him, gave him shelter, offered ministry of presence, invested in his healing, and made possible ongoing care. That sounds like a model for us to become a neighbor because sometimes, the opportunity to become a neighbor is surprisingly unexpected.
Go and do likewise
In my second grade class in school, I learned once again, “Who is MY neighbor.” He wore dirty jeans, holey high top sneakers, and a plaid shirt that had not been washed in a week. The condition of his clothes said a lot about the life he must have lived at home. His name was John Wayne. This was no cowboy with a particularly distinctive swagger and well-known voice. No, this John Wayne was a quiet, shy second grader, who due to no fault of his own found himself every day in a particularly difficult situation. It was obvious that he suffered an impoverished existence. It was obvious to me at eight years old, that he was hurting, when one day while everyone else was eating lunch, I watched him pick up the scraps of potato chips the other kids dropped from their brown bag lunches. On the playground, the other kids made fun of John Wayne, they ostracized him from the group, and he suffered. Oh yes, he suffered.
I remember telling my mother about John Wayne that night, and then watching her cry because of what I had witnessed. Soon after that, every day for the rest of the school year, I came to class with two brown bags. One had my name on it and the other had John Wayne’s name written at the top. In both bags, my mother put sandwiches, chips, cookies, and money for milk and ice cream. My mom made it clear that I was not to just give him the bag and then join my friends for lunch, but I was to sit with him and share lunch together. Through a simple brown paper bag, I learned that suffering with others is not merely solving the problems of their plight, but it is sharing their suffering with them.
“How do we become a neighbor?”
Suffering is the reality in which, all of us find ourselves. Suffering is not fair, life is not always fair, and death is certainly not fair. It is not fair that young children in our own neighborhoods go to school every day with nothing to eat. It is not fair that hearts are broken when a spouse says goodbye to their soul mate at the time of their death. It is not fair that disease, famine, weather-related devastations, and war cause such pain and anguish in the world.
Suffering is not fair; it is simply our condition, and none of us are immune to its effects. The higher calling for we Christians is to suffer in love with one another and those outside our closest connections. So, how do we become a neighbor? When we see someone suffering, neighboring includes providing triage (or maybe helping them sustain life in the moment), it included transporting (if it safe for you us we may offer a way to get more help), it included sheltering (helping them find protection from what afflicts them). It included ministry of presence (being with them in their suffering as long as you are able). It includes investing (be willing to give from the abundance God has given us for others). Finally, it includes providing ongoing care (remaining connected to the afflicted until they are able to stand on their own).
Becoming a neighbor is how we Christians pass on to others, the abundant grace, compassion, and love God has shown and does show us every day. We are not called merely to show pity and write a check (although that generosity does help in some cases), but more than that, we are called to bear one another’s burdens. Maybe becoming a neighbor is not as difficult as we think, if we can drop the criteria of “who is MY neighbor. Becoming a neighbor may mean just bearing the burdens of the other, or it can be as simple as sharing a brown bag lunch like two little boys did so long ago, and for a few moments each day, one little boy’s suffering was no more. St John’s Woodward has been blessed for the last two decades plus, to have among you someone who understands what it means to be a neighbor. Mother Mary has served you all faithfully with grace, love, and humility.
As you leave today and as you are driving down the street and see a homeless man or woman, be a neighbor. As you shop in the store and see a distraught cashier at the register, be a neighbor. As you go to work this week and see your colleague struggling, or as you meet the person living next to you trying to make ends meet, be a neighbor. Remember the Christlike example of Mother Mary and remind yourself, “These are my neighbors.” Then go and do and be what Jesus says a neighbor is “The one who shows mercy, so go and do likewise."