Mt Vernon UCC
From who to how…
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘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.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii (the equivalent of 2 days wages), gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37The lawyer said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
This neighbor stuff is hard. Who is my neighbor? Who is being neighborly? And how? Especially in our impossibly complex world these are difficult questions. The answers elude us.
When I was in Germany a couple weeks ago, I visited a refugee center in Duisdorf run as a partnership between our sister church in the Rhineland and a German government agency. It was a rather large operation offering meals, after school care, German language classes for kids and adults, help in filling out the reams of government forms all immigrants have to endure, and a range of other services.
Most of the immigrants being served were from the Middle-East and Africa. Our guides for the tour were a German born Muslim man whose parents had emigrated from Turkey many years before, and a young German woman, a social worker whose family had lived there for generations.
Half way through our visit I asked them how they accounted for Germany’s willingness to open the door to a million or more migrant people who essentially showed up at the border one day. It was more complicated than that, of course, but they knew what I meant. They both gave me a rather puzzled look. The woman replied, “Well, we couldn’t just leave them there”.
“Of course you could”, I said. “In my country right now” I told them “most of the migrant people crossing our southern border are put in prison. Their children are taken from them and warehoused behind chain link fences in old Wall Mart stores. It can be done. Why was it different in Germany?”
Still puzzled by the question, the Muslim man said, “It just seemed like the right thing to do”.
The religion scholar asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He’s really just trying to pick a fight, you know—something priests and rabbis and preachers of all stripes love to do. We love to beat up on the competition.
But Jesus won't play the game. Instead, he tells a story that turns the scholar’s question inside out. Instead of answering the question the lawyer asks, Jesus answers the question the lawyer should have asked; and opens his eyes to a new way of seeing.
Jesus seems to be saying, “You know who your neighbor is. Your neighbor is everybody. No, the real question is not Who? but How? How and when and where do I behave as a neighbor? How can I be neighborly?”
And that, of course is the point of the story he tells. If you love God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your strength and if you love your neighbor as yourself—then you will behave in a neighborly fashion whenever and wherever and toward whomever you can.
You will spend your money in a neighborly way. You will vote in a neighborly way. You will want your government to spend your tax money in a neighborly way. If your world is full of neighbors, you won’t support actions that harm them.
If you love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and if you love your neighbor as yourself, you see, then you will be neighborly even when being a neighbor is inconvenient or expensive; even when being a neighbor is unpleasant or dangerous; even when the person you are neighborly toward does not return the favor.
That is what it means to be a neighbor.
Now I’m not suggesting this is easy. It may even be impossible sometimes. Nevertheless, this is how we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.
Here’s the story one more time—a slightly edited version:
“Just then a professor of theology—an accomplished student of the Scriptures, stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher”, he said, “what do I have to do to get myself to heaven?” This was a trick question, of course. So Jesus answers, “You’re the Bible student. What do you think?”
The professor, happy to show off, replies, “The Bible says that I should love the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind and with all my strength, and love my neighbor as myself.” Then he rocks back on his heels and sticks out his chest as if to say, “Pretty smart, heh?”
Jesus looks at him, smiles and says, “Sounds good to me. Do that and you will be OK.”
That’s it, the prof wonders? No fight? No argument? What fun is this?
He shoots back, “Yeah, but—who is my neighbor?”
Who is my neighbor? The guy next door? The guy in the next county; what about the next country? What if she isn’t a good Christian; can she still be my neighbor? What if she’s Jewish or Muslim or an atheist, even? What if the person next door treats me badly; what if he’s a gang member? Can my enemy be a neighbor? There has to be some line between neighbors and non-neighbors, doesn’t there? Where do you draw that line? Who is my neighbor?
Jesus doesn’t take the bait; instead he tells a story.
“A businessman flew from New York to Kabul, Afghanistan—this was before the war. He had been sent by his company to open a new factory. On his first evening there he went out to get some food. Not knowing the city, he turned the wrong way into the wrong neighborhood and got himself beaten up by a gang who took his wallet and his passport and his clothes and left him for dead.
“A few minutes later a Christian missionary from Atlanta drives by on his way to an important meeting downtown, where he would be presenting his church’s plans to build a school for the poor in Kabul. That street was a shortcut; that’s the only reason he was there. He sees the broken body on the road side and thinks to himself, ‘Man, I wish I could help, but I just can’t.
“A little later a British diplomat drives by in the embassy limo. He slows down when he sees the beaten man move in the ditch. But he knows there could be trouble if he gets involved so he too drives by. He does call his secretary on the cell phone to tell her to call the local police. But he knows that will do little good.
Finally a Muslim shopkeeper—a member of the Taliban, comes by on his donkey cart. He sees the body in the gutter and without a thought for the identity of the wounded man, or for his own safety, he jumps from the cart and runs to his side. He stops the bleeding and washes the wounds and as best he can. He lifts the stranger into his cart, drives to a hospital and carries him into a treatment room.
“As the doctor is attending his new patient, the merchant empties out his money bag at the nurse’s station and tells the nurse, ‘Take good care of this man. I will come back tomorrow and if you need more money I will give it to you then,’ and he turns to leave.
‘Wait’, the nurse says. You have to tell us his name’.
‘I don’t know his name’, the merchant says.
‘Is he your friend? A relative?
‘No, no’, he said. I’ve never seen him before today.
‘But who is he?’ the nurse asks again.
“The merchant replies, ‘He is a man who needs your help. Take care of him. I will be back tomorrow’.
“Now”, Jesus asked the professor of theology, “which of these three acted as a neighbor to the man who was robbed?”
Like any good teacher, Jesus answers the question with another question. “Who is my neighbor?” becomes “Are you neighborly?”
Now, this is as important as it is difficult—
Loving God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, Jesus says, is accomplished by being neighborly. Think about that.
Loving God with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself means living in a world with virtually no borders; certainly a world not divided by nationalities or religions.
To Love God with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself is to see the world as God sees the world—through neighborly eyes.
(S) “God loves the strangers”, Moses told Israel, “providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
When we needed love, God loved us. When we needed of grace, God showered grace on us. When we were hungry, God fed us. When we were strangers in a foreign desert, God led us to green pastures. When we were alone, God kept us company. When we were separated from the child we love more than life itself, God sat with us while we grieved.
We know, don’t you see, what it it to be a stranger—an alien, an immigrant, a foreigner—in our our country; in our own lives. We have crossed borders and climbed over barriers of our own to get where we are today. God led us. We remember.
So we treat the stranger on our border today the way God treated us.
This is the gospel—the good news that has been given to us; The good news that is transforming the Creation into a neighborhood; a world-wide neighborhood—one person, one church, one community at a time;
A neighborhood where we can, if we choose, live as neighbors—black and brown and white, women and men, Christian, Jew, Muslim and atheist, gay and straight, young and old, rich and poor, immigrants who just got here and immigrants who came generations ago.
Neighborliness, you see, is the Kingdom of God.
Out of the abundance we have received—the, unimaginable, inconceivable, inexhaustible abundance of God’s goodness, we do good for our neighbors.
Really, how hard can that be?
“Which of these three acted as a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” Jesus asks the professor.
“I suppose”, he replies, “it was the one who showed him mercy.”
“Right”, Jesus says. “Now you go and do the same”. Amen.
on summer hiatus