Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman
Who is My Neighbor?
This is the second in a series of messages around the three questions proposed to us by Kelly Gallagher, the head of the UCC Central Association to which we belong. The questions are suggested to give us an opportunity to do both a personal and corporate assessment of ourselves while Charley is on sabbatical. Last week we talked about our personal and corporate identity as we considered the question, “Who am I?” Next week we’ll think about, “What is God calling me to do?” Today’s topic is a good one, and a timely one, “Who is my neighbor?” With all of the global and domestic controversy around immigration, I think there is no better time than right now to lift it up for us here at FFC. It’s such a complicated topic and it is such a divisive topic! Like so much of political discourse today folks can get so fired up on one side or the other that communication becomes impossible. Intolerance on both sides becomes the order of the day and that is just not the way it should be. Intolerance is just so incredibly dangerous. As an aside, I heard recently about a potential new connect group. This group would be made up of people from a spectrum of political views who will gather with the intention to air their views in a setting of careful listening and respect. Is such a thing possible? I say if it’s possible anywhere it is possible right here. Who knows? It might take on a life of its own and we might become the model for respect and tolerance that could spread locally to globally. Maybe that’s a bit too optimistic but it’s nice to dream, isn’t it? Anyway, we are not going to solve this problem this morning, but I hope that we might find a kind of base level understanding and perspective as we look at the topic of neighborness through a biblical parabolic lens. The parabolic lens is a play on words as we look at what neighbor means in the context of the most famous parable in the bible, the Good Samaritan.
It was pretty much exactly a year ago today that I happened to lead worship here. The lectionary text for the day happened to be this very parable. I shared with you the revelation that came to me as I prepared the message. I juxtaposed the roles in this story and it had fresh relevance and meaning for me. It occurred to me that the Samaritan and Jesus could be one and the same as he modeled selflessness, challenged social convention, and sacrificed at his own expense. The man who had been attacked and left for dead could be us. We are all too often beaten down both by life circumstances and even worse by our own doing with the chains of guilt that we carry with us. And, best of all are not our needs met with understanding, compassion, and mercy, by none other than Jesus himself?! And, what about those folks across the road? The ones who avoided the whole messy situation because it was inconvenient, or too risky, or socially unacceptable. Well, that would be us too as we likely avoid eye contact with the First Responder across the street. That was pretty much my message then, but today I chose to focus on this parable because it fits so well with our question, “Who is my neighbor?” And, so much has happened in the past twelve months, right? The election. The immigration ban. The tragic stories of boats sinking in the Mediterranean overloaded with families desperate to escape terrible, life threatening conditions. The swelling of immigrant populations in Europe. The mistrust of everything Muslim. The isolationism. What do you think when you see these stories? Are we like the priest and the Levite who are avoiding an uncomfortable situation? What do you think Jesus meant when he used the word “neighbor?” What do you think when you use the word neighbor? Are they the same, different, somewhere in between? The Samaritans and Jews despised each other. It had been that way for hundreds of years. They despised each other with a passion. Discrimination was passed down from generation to generation. No one questioned it. It was simply the way things were; the way things had always been; presumably the way they would always be. That is one of the most powerful aspects of this parable. Jesus steps in to break the cycle of misinformation, mistrust, intolerance, hatred, finger pointing, and fear. He demonstrates through a modeling of behavior that there is something holy in each of us. There is in each of us something so much deeper that connects us to each other below the level of our inherited concepts of discrimination. We just need to get there. I know it's much easier said than done. But if we can simply strive to embrace that which we hold in common, we too can be models of compassion, trust, and understanding. How do we acknowledge the holy spark that is in each of us? How do we open our eyes to witness our holy commonality while still respecting our differences? Better yet, how do we help others to do the same thing? It's fairly easy to identify who our neighbors are. They are sitting next to you. They live next door. They are in the next town. Anywhere there is a boundary there is a neighbor. You are on one side of it and they are on the other. So consider all the boundaries that we have. They spread out from the person next to you, to the next town, to the next state, to the next country, and, I suppose it's likely that someday we'll be able to say the next planet, galaxy, or universe. It's easy to identify a neighbor. Indeed our question of the day is “Who is my neighbor?” I've just listed them all. The challenge is how we react to, how we treat that neighbor, how we honor that neighbor as a creation of God. As our Poet Laureate Peggy Maxwell begins the poem we heard today, “Jesus said, 'You shall love your neighbor as you yourself.” How do we do that? What does it take for us to not be like the priest and the Levite who look the other way? I think that one thing which might be helpful is our understanding of boundaries. If a boundary defines who our neighbor is, is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. We need boundaries for all kinds of reasons. They protect our personal space. They define where it is we live. They offer us safety in our sovereign country. We need boundaries for our safety and our well being. Boundaries are essential. But, here’s the thing: a boundary is not a barricade. Boundaries are simply dividers that exist between neighbors. We don’t have control over them. But barricades are something we create. Barricades are optional, boundaries are not. Barricades are raised out of fear, mistrust, misunderstanding. They can be figurative and they can certainly be literal. They can be an invisible (or visible) wall that we wear; a wall that tells others “I’m not listening,” a wall that shows others I have my fingers in my ears. I’m right. You’re wrong. It’s a barricade that kept the priest and the Levite on the other side of the street. And, it’s barricades that prevent us from loving our neighbor as ourselves. We all have barricades. Some are conscious creations and some are inherited. Some we have control over and some we don’t. My suggestion this morning is that we direct our efforts at turning those barricades into permeable membranes. A permeable membrane filters stuff. It’s fluid and organic. It allows certain elements to come and go while preventing others from crossing. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if our personal permeable membranes (let’s call them PPMs for short) were open for love and personal connection while at the same time closed to fear, mistrust, anxiety, and hate. What a world that would be! Our PPMs open to each other’s God created essence. That lowest common denominator that we all share, that unconditional love and grace, moves fluidly between us and among us and around us, while at the same time the negative and evil elements of suspicion, guilt, and fear are blocked. I understand this is an ideal, but I also think that each of us has the ability to control our personal permeable membranes. We don’t all need to be like Saint Mother Theresa but we are able to exert some control over how we view things and how we react. We have the gift to be able to adjust our own filters. Simply being aware of that ability is a powerful first step on the road to creating a more perfect world, a more perfect neighborhood, and a more perfect and loving individual who we were indeed created to be. May God bless us in this effort.
Let us pray,
Holy God, help us to open our eyes that we may see more clearly our neighbors both near and far. Help us to acknowledge the holy human essence that connects us all. Help us to react with thoughtfulness and love as we undertake the building of bridges and the removal of our personal barricades. In Jesus we have the perfect model for perfect love. Grant that we may have the will and the skill to open our hearts to you and to those around us. In Jesus’ holy name we pray, Amen.