Won’t You Be My Neighbor 1
Passage: Matthew 22:34–22:40, Galatians 5:13–5:15
In 1992 my family and I moved into a new house. I was six going on seven at the time and my little brother was four. And after the moving truck had come and gone and we were getting settled into the house I took my brother to introduce ourselves to the neighbors. So we walked up and down the street knocking on every single door and when folks answered I’d say, “Hi, my name is Matt and I have red hair and sensitive skin. This is my brother Kris, he’s allergic to mashed potatoes.”
I heard recently that there’s some skepticism when I tell stories about myself and my family as to whether or not they are true. And trust me, these stories happened. I truly did walk up and down the street telling people of my little brother’s ultimately fictitious mashed potato allergy.
When I was growing up my first friends were the kids in our neighborhood. Upon moving back to Virginia in 1991 we moved into a neighborhood that had a ton of kids around my age. And we’d play kickball in the culdesac, hang out at each other’s houses, etc. We moved to a new neighborhood in 1992 and that neighborhood also had a lot of kids. And we’d play street hockey in the street, home run derby in my back yard, and over the summers we would walk to the pool everyday together.
I know my experience isn’t new or unusual, in some respects its really normal. Except for me walking up and down the street talking about sensitive skin. That is the opposite of normal. But making friends in the neighborhood, playing with kids in the neighborhood, it’s how we grew up. When we moved from one neighborhood to the other, sure we’d still see some of those friends from time to time, but the assumption was that we would make new friends in our new neighborhood.
Something has happened in the twenty-five or so years between then and now. Something has changed. Something is different. At least it is for me.
I’ve lived in my neighborhood for three and a half years now. Same house. And I don’t know whose house has kids in it. I don’t know if any houses have kids in them. I see kids from time to time walking to school or the playground. I see a random bounce house in the front yard of a house near me every now and again. But I don’t know if they have kids my kids age. I don’t know what people in my neighborhood do for a living. I think some are retired, but otherwise my best guess is if they have anything printed on their cars. Outside of two houses, one of which is a fellow United Methodist clergy, I don’t know the names of the people in my neighborhood.
I wonder how many of you feel yourselves in a similar position? I wonder how many of you can think back to a time when you knew your neighbors, where either you as a child or your children or the neighborhood children played together? Am I getting too smaltzy or cheesy if I say I wonder if you remember when we built communities instead of housing developments? And I wonder how many of you that do have good relationships with your neighbors, who do know your neighbors, I wonder if that stems from being in the neighborhood for a long period of time, perhaps even as long as back to that time when it was expected we knew our neighbors? I wonder how if you know many of your new neighbors?
I think we have lost something in losing touch with our neighbors. I think we do ourselves and our communities a disservice when we disconnect or don’t chose to connect with those living closes to us.
That’s what this sermon series is going to be about. Rediscovering the art of neighboring. Because it’s something I feel, and I’ll bet most of you feel it to, we have all let slip.
But from the outset I want to say I’m preaching to myself moreso than I’m preaching to any of y’all. Because I’ve let it slip. And I’m going to need to be more than convinced, I’m going to need to be convicted and called if I’m going to take the steps necessary to be a part of building community in my neighborhood and getting to know my neighbors.
Because if I’m honest I’d tell you I don’t have the time or energy to take on something like this. I work, I parent, I have friends and family outside of my neighborhood and I have to manage those relationships. I don’t know if I have any more bandwidth. And here’s the thing: my home is my refuge. Or at least I want it to be. When I come in from work or from being with family or friends, and after my kids are asleep, I want my home to be a place of rest. I want to to be my retreat. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. It’s why we have man caves and she sheds. It’s why homes come with places to find retreat, quiet, solace. It’s why I have a deck, not a front porch.
So this isn’t something many of us will feel comes naturally. It’s going to be a process. It’s going to require thought and intentionality. It’s going to require things for us that will feel like work. And so to begin with we are going to look at why this should be a priority for us, why this should be important. And that reason comes to us from Jesus.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
So I feel kinda bad for the Pharisees. We really like to harp on how terrible they are or they were. We talk about how they nit picked every single item of the law and made people follow it down to the letter. But let me give a brief defense of the Pharisees. Ancient Israelites believed there was a direct correlation between adherence to the law and God’s blessing of the people. The prophets point out way back when Israel was an independent kingdom that if they didn’t follow the law that God would give their promised land to someone else. And so the Israelites went into exile. In Jesus’ time Israel and Jerusalem are controlled and ruled by Rome. And all Israel wants is to be a free and independent kingdom once again.
So in comes this group called the Pharisees who very strongly believe there needs to be reform within the people Israel. There needs to be a great awakening that calls people back to righteousness and Torah observance. And they become obsessed with following every single part of the law. We often think of the Pharisees as being self-righteous and holier than thou. But on some level what they wanted to do was to follow the Law as God had called them to. And they thought this was the way to get back into God’s good graces.
There’s plenty of things problematic about this, at least as Jesus will come and teach us what God is like and what it is that gets us into God’s good graces (hint: we don’t actually get into God’s good graces, by God’s good graces God loves us no matter what). But for now, in their defense, I don’t think they were trying to shame others as much as model for others what they believed would bring about the shared ultimate desire for the people Israel. That’s the long way of saying “their hearts are in the right place.”
But anyways, because they are obsessed with properly observing the Torah because they thought that’s how Israel would flourish and prosper, they spent a lot of time parsing and arguing the Torah. Life presents situations that force you to prioritize different parts of Torah. The classic example is what do you do if your donkey fell into a pit on the sabbath. Driving your donkey out of the pit would be working on the Sabbath but leaving your donkey would result in animal cruelty which Torah forbade. And if you believe the ultimate hopes and dreams of your people and your country rely on you doing the right thing, you’re going to spend a lot of time figuring out what that right thing was.
It’s not a far cry from saying in this situation which law is more important, treating your animals well or observing Sabbath, to then saying well which law is most important. What is the most important commandment? This was a common debate topic of Jesus’ day with different famous teachers putting in their own answers.
So the Pharisees come to Jesus to get him to weigh in. What is the greatest commandment? And Jesus said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
So when the teach you how to preach there’s a big word for when you talk about what what the Bible says means. That word is exegesis. And every sermon you read the Bible and do your exegesis. Well today the exegesis is simple: When we talk about neighboring we are talking about the what Jesus said was one of the two most important things for us to do.
But beyond saying just do it because Jesus said so, which to be fair isn’t the worst reason to do something, why is loving our neighbor that important? Why would Jesus think that half of the way the law could be summed up was to love our neighbors? For that I want to turn to Paul where he quotes Jesus.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
Paul writes this letter to a Galatian church that was rife with conflict. They were a church that was biting and devouring one another and being destroyed in the process. The conflicts centered upon how the Law, how Torah, applied in the lives of new Christian believers. There were some who said that Torah observance and circumcision was necessary. Paul comes in and says you were set free from the Law by the love of God in Jesus Christ. But that freedom doesn’t mean we can be horrible to each other. Rather, the freedom we find in Jesus Christ is a freedom to love one another. You fulfill Torah when you love your neighbor. For the church in Galatia what was needed was to see, understand, and love each other. That is how their community would be built up and more forward.
You’re driving home from work and you drive by that house. Their grass has been overgrown for weeks. Six weeks ago your first noticed they needed to cut their grass. And every day in between you’ve passed that house thinking why haven’t they cut that grass yet. By now its become more than an eyesore. It’s a hazard. What manner of wildlife could be living in that mess of grass and weeds? You’re driving home and you think this is the day. Enough is finally enough. So you call the HOA and file a complaint against them. I mean, what else can you do?
You’re going out for your daily errands and you see a bunch of kids playing out in the front yard. Shouldn’t they be in school? You wonder if you shouldn’t call the school district on them.
Or you’re out walking your kids to the playground and you walk past the home that has a group of teenagers. And there’s loud music coming from the backyard and the unmistakable scent of an illicit drug. Where are their parents, you think. No one seems to supervise them. I have young children and these teens are a hazard to our well being. Perhaps its high time someone called the police and let them sort all this mess out.
These aren’t hypothetical situations, they’re our neighborhoods. And we are quick to judge these situations, quick to view these as problems for authorities to solve. We view these situations as issues, as impositions on our house as our oasis, as our refuge.
What if the house whose yard is overgrown is home to a man who is battling colon cancer. And he’d like nothing more than to mow his own yard but he can’t make it out of his bed most days. And his wife is doing all she can to take care of her husband, the kids, and keep at bay the grief that if let in would crush her?
What if the houses with unruly children and youth aren’t so much problems to be solved but an opportunity to influence? What if these children and youth are looking for a safe place to hang out? What if the children need an advocate to get into school and an adult to guide them there each day? What if the youth are craving someone to welcome them into their home, to provide structure, to help with homework, to help guide them?
What if the problems in our neighborhoods are problems at all. But opportunities.
Opportunities to serve.
Opportunities to love.
Opportunities to take care of each other.
What if Jesus told us to love our neighbors because our neighbors and our neighborhoods and our communities are a gift to each other? What if Jesus told us to love our neighbors because it is through neighboring that we take care of one another?
At Spirit & Life we have always believed something a little crazy. The standard model in churches is that the one pastor takes care of the many people. At Spirit & Life we have said that, yes your pastor should care about you, but get into a small group because in sharing life with people in a small group you will receive more and greater care by a group of people than one pastor could ever give you. What if this idea worked in our neighborhoods too?
We are at the start of a journey for these next few weeks. We are going to listen to our Lord’s command to get to know our neighbors, to know their names, to learn to call them friends. To hear about their hopes and dreams. To know what’s going on in their lives. And in so doing perhaps we can see the opportunities for ministry, the opportunities to share God’s love that are present to us where we spend the most of our time. And perhaps we can learn to see the things that might have annoyed us about our neighbors, the things that trouble us, the things that worry us, the things that make us wary of those people are the very places God is calling us to bring His love. Let us pray.
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