There Goes the Neighborhood – a sermon

Sunday, July 10th, 2016 – the ninth Sunday of Pentecost
New Song Christian Church, Liberty, MO
Scripture: Luke 10:25-37
Hymns: “My Hope Is You”, “We Can Make a Difference”, “Eagle’s Wings”, “Breathe”

At the top of the podcast, I asked the congregation at New Song to go home and listen to the new Switchfoot/Lecrae song “Looking for America” in the context of this sermon and the events of the week of July 4th, 2016. Once you’ve finished reading the sermon, I would ask that you do the same – it is embedded at the bottom of the page.

“There Goes the Neighborhood”

As Jesus was speaking to the crowd, a lawyer stood up to test him. “Teacher,” he said, “who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “There was a man in a city in the south. He was without a home, and he sold music to get by. One day, another homeless man called the authorities to inform on this man. When the authorities arrived, they forced the man to the ground and then they killed him.”
Jesus continued, “The next day, another man in a city in the north was stopped by the authorities. He informed them that he had a legal weapon that was registered in his name, and then when he reached for his identification, the authorities killed him.”
And then Jesus said, “The day after that, many people gathered to protest these senseless deaths. The authorities were keeping watch on them and ensuring that the protests remained peaceful. Without warning, a young man who had served in the military opened fire on the authorities, killing five of them.”
Jesus looked at the lawyer. “Now which of these, do you suppose, was a neighbor to his fellow man?”
The lawyer, astonished at Jesus’ question, replied, “None of them, for they did not love their neighbor as themselves.”

It has been one hell of a week, and I do mean that in the sense that a little corner of hell managed to find its way to earth this past week. It seems nearly impossible to believe that it has been a mere six days since ISIS suicide bombers carried out attacks on one of Islam’s most holy sites, the Mosque of the Tomb of the Prophet in Medina, but that was, indeed, just last Monday. Since then, we’ve seen two more defenseless black men shot and killed by police, and a horrifying attempt at retribution saw the pointless and brutal deaths of five Dallas police officers.
It seems like every time something tragic happens, people respond absolutely the wrong way. Instead of reaching out to their neighbors in love, they double down on their hatred and bigotry. When forty-nine people were shot and killed and over a hundred were wounded in Orlando, the correct response was found in the presence of hundreds at blood banks across the city, lined up for hours in the summer heat to give life-saving blood. The incorrect response was found in taking to Twitter to essentially say, “I told you so.”
That happened again this week, of course, when a completely deranged former Congressman (and I use that term lightly, since he served all of one two year term) decided to take it upon himself to blame the President and the Black Lives Matter movement for the deaths of the five police officers in Dallas. Indeed, rather than expressing compassion and sympathy for the city of Dallas and for the families of the fallen officers, he stated that the President had somehow declared war on “real America”, and that he was going to pay a price.
It would’ve been remarkably difficult for him to be any further away from loving his neighbor than that.
So, when Jesus told this parable to the lawyer, he was very intentional about what individuals he used to tell the story. In making the wounded man’s benefactor a Samaritan, he was reaching out across racial and ethnic lines. Samaritans and Jews had been, if not mortal enemies, then at least holders of significant grudges against one another for centuries. An apt comparison might be to say that the Samaritans were Scotland to ancient Israel’s England, although there are no records of Samaritans dressing up in blue face paint and rampaging against the Israelites.
This divide was so intense that when Jesus is recorded as talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel according to John, the fact that he was talking to a Samaritan was even more unacceptable than the fact that the fact that he was talking to a woman. Jesus had a tendency to turn up his nose at societal convention, instead doing his best to place everybody on a level playing field. And so, when it came time to deliver to this lawyer a lesson in who’s your neighbor and who isn’t, he decided to show two of the holiest of Israel’s holy men as being unneighborly, and have the wounded man’s benefactor be somebody thought of as the lowest of the low in Israelite society.
Here’s the thing that we have to understand about this parable, though. While Jesus was all about upending convention and tradition in order to make straight the path to the kingdom of God, in this case, that was probably not the point of his words. No, in this case, he wanted to demonstrate to somebody whose living it was to argue semantics and simple points that anybody could show love to anybody else, at any time, in any place. It didn’t matter who was showing love or who was being shown love – even the least of these had the capacity to show love to another one of God’s children.
And so, given Jesus’ insistence that anybody is capable of showing love to another, that even the least of these can act in love toward somebody toward whom he has generations of racial and ethnic antipathy, why is it so incredibly hard for people in this country to act in that way toward one another? I say that because I hear, all the time, that this is a Christian nation. I hear about how if only the heathens in this country would change their ways and follow those who are telling them a better way, then surely things would get better.
It’s funny how so often, the same people saying that are the ones looking toward grieving communities and insisting that, instead of saying “Black Lives Matter”, they say that all lives matter. Instead of showing those communities love and allowing them to speak out in their grief, they try to force an agenda on them. Really, not particularly neighborly.
And what of those who try to make a stand on the grounds of “If you’re not for us, then you’re against us”? It seems to me that in most things, a Samaritan and a Jew wouldn’t have had the same mindset, but it’s not as though the Samaritan came up to the Jew and said, “Well, you’re not one of my people, which means you’re not necessarily for me, so you must be against me.” It would’ve made for a pretty terrible parable.
But, again, that’s where many people seem to make a stand. Instead of attempting to reach out toward those who disagree with them, they act like those on the other side of an issue are the enemy. The running narrative seems to be that if you support Black Lives Matter, you can’t possibly support the police, even though that’s patently untrue – the Dallas Police Department, the very department that was viciously attacked the other day, has been one of the leaders in productive law enforcement engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement. Unless the Dallas PD has suddenly developed a particular case of self-loathing, it seems as though they were acting as neighbors, and reaching out to work side-by-side with those on the other side of the issue.
So, I guess that perhaps those people who say that this country would be better if more people would “act like Christians” are sort of right, although probably not in the way they’d like. No, if more people would be willing to reach out and embrace their neighbors in love – as Christ commanded – then this country would definitely be in better shape.
And that’s something that I’ve been taught since I was a kid. You see, back when I was young, there was a very popular minister on television, although he wasn’t what you’d think. He wasn’t a televangelist, he didn’t want your money, and he certainly didn’t want you to believe that just because you claimed to be something, that made you better than anybody else.
No, he spent decades of his life on television every weekday morning, teaching children about the value of such virtues as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control – the fruits of the spirit as given to us in Galatians 5. He spoke often of the neighborhood, and invited children each morning to be his neighbor, as he was to them.
It was a neighborhood of inclusiveness, and one where all people were expected to show love for their neighbors, just as Jesus commanded in Luke 10. Now, some of you have probably guessed where I’m going with this, but for those of you who haven’t figured it out, the minister to whom I am referring was a Presbyterian teaching elder, the Rev. Fred McFeely Rogers, who from 1963 until 2001 was the creative mind behind and host of the television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers was the kind of person who exemplified, both in his public life and his private life, the ideal of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self – it was the entire conceit of his show. And he once shared words that his mother had shared with him, words that are perfect for a time such as this:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in the world.”
Sometimes, those helpers are the ones who are struck down by disasters, as we saw in Dallas. Sometimes, the ones we trust to be helpers are instead the ones who cause hurt, as the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile can testify. And in some cases, no amount of helpers are enough to help prevent horrors from being inflicted upon a group of people who have already experienced untold persecution, as the LGBT community of Orlando can testify. But in all those cases, when you clear away the grandstanding and the rancor that inevitably follows, you will see the response that Christ commands of us: there will always be people demonstrating love, helping their fellow men and women, being to them as the Samaritan to the Jew, no matter straight or gay, male or female, Muslim or Christian, black or white.
This last week has seen many dark days in our neighborhood. So it is incumbent upon each of us, as followers of Christ, to look to a hurting world, to stand up next to our fellow man, and no matter the differences between us, join with them to create a new tomorrow, and have it be a beautiful day in the neighborhood indeed.
Amen.

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