Won’t You Be My Neighbor 5
Passage: Matthew 5:38–5:48, Matthew 18:21–18:35
When I was growing up our neighborhood was full of good and wonderful people. One of our next door neighbors were the Wilenski family and Mr Wilenski had the biggest baseball card collection I’d ever seen. He’d let me look through it, showing off his favorites, at times letting me keep a card or two. Across the street were the Wongs who have mowed our grass or cut our lawns when our family has faced medical issues or been out of town. In houses up and down the street are women my mom has come to befriend and join in a neighborhood book club. Way down the street was my good friend Eddie who taught us more things than my mom would have liked and he had three sisters: one of whom is married to a former worship leader in this church and another of whom is married to the pastor of a church plant not far from here; like three minutes from here. It’s a small world.
We truly loved our neighborhood and a great many of the people in it. But there was no love lost between my family and the couple who lived in the other house next door to ours. If I could think back to one incident that set it all in motion I’d tell you. But there wasn’t one. They just didn’t like us. And we just didn’t like them.
One year when I was 11 I think I had a sleepover for my birthday. And for that birthday I got a light up nerf football. And my friends and I immediately wanted to play with it. It was night, they were all over. So of course we went outside to throw this new light up football around in the darkness. It was a great birthday.
And our next door neighbors complained to my parents about that for, I kid you not, 5 years.
My brother and I loved to play outside and we loved to play sports. We played soccer in our back yard, football in our back yard, home run derby in our back yard. We played tag in our back yard and man hunt in our back yard. We played all the games kids play in our back yard. I say they were our next door neighbors, and they were, but we lived on a corner so their house and yard was perpendicular to our house and yard. Their side yard ran next to and parallel with our back yard. And so from time to time while running around playing soccer or football or tag or what not we would meander into their side yard. Not far, we weren’t trespassing. We knew where our yard ended and there’s began and we knew what happened if we went into their yard so we tried to stay off it as much as possible, but you’re kids and you’re playing and sometimes you lose track of yourself. But more often than not, as soon as we took two steps into their yard one of them would come out and yell at us as if we’d killed their cat.
This went on for years.
At some point you’d have thought they’d build a fence.
Who wants to be miserable for years?
They did not like my family. We did not like them.
They did not want to live next door to kids. They didn’t like that my brother and I were there, playing, making noise, sometimes in their yard, as they’d say stomping down the Virginia clay whatever that meant. My brother and I didn’t like them yelling at us for just being kids. My parents didn’t like that they couldn’t just be nice and accept that children lived next to them.
Maybe we could have tried more. Maybe early on in that relationship there was a chance for us to understand each other and have some sort of relationship with one another. But all I knew was that by the time I knew anything I knew that they didn’t like us and we didn’t like them.
The fruit of neighboring, what we are hoping this series will mean for your life if you’re able to put these ideas into practice, is transformed relationships. We want to see transformation within our neighborhoods and within the lives of people we live closest to. I wish we had been able to see transformation within my family’s relationship with our neighbor. It would have made our lives better, it would have made us happier. If we had been able to go from a primarily antagonistic relationship to at least one of friendly acquaintances it would have been amazing to see that change and would have made for happier lives for at least my family, but I think for those neighbors as well.
Part of what we want to see in neighboring is transformation. When I think of an ideal neighborhood I think of the neighborhood my wife grew up in. She grew up in a place with genuine community. Where people knew each other, cared for each other, and were friends. Every major holiday has a neighborhood party hosted by a different neighbor. The relationships built there are so significant that we still get invited back to those parties even though we don’t live in that neighborhood.
When I think of neighboring, when I think of what building community around me could do, I think of seeing my neighborhood transformed into what my wife experienced growing up. I think of people spending time with one another, caring for one another, sharing life with one another.
But we also want to see life change as well. We believe that when Jesus is a part of your life, it makes more sense, amen? And if that’s the case then we also want our neighbors to come and encounter Jesus. To have the same hope, the same comfort, the same peace that has come to cover our lives.
But in order to get from here to there, from wherever you currently are to the desired destination there’s going to have to be some things that we take on. And it is Jesus who opens us up, opens our eyes, to what these things are.
39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This comes to us from Jesus’ sermon on the mount, his grand treatise on how we are to treat one another. And within it we see the hardest thing we will have to take on in our attempts to be good neighbors, on our attempts to live out the second half of Jesus’ great commandment. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Jesus says that if you love only those that love you, what good is that? Even those who truly don’t get it, the tax collectors who are the worst neighbors possible, they do that. If you want to be righteous, if you want to embody God’s love you are going to have to find a way to love those who are the worst. Those who hate you. Those who present themselves as not deserving love.
I didn’t love the neighbors that yelled at me. I didn’t love the neighbors who accosted my brother and I when we set foot in their yard, who held a grudge for years about an 11 year old playing with a toy on his birthday, who never sought any sort of reconciliation in all the years we lived next to each other.
If you want to see real transformation you’re going to have to go to those places, to those people. The those in your neighborhood you just can’t stand. And you’re going to have to find it in your heart to approach them from a place of love.
But the other side of this coin is that you also have to balance and prioritize and see every relationship as it’s own individual thing. Chances are if the pastor of my church growing up had preached a neighboring sermon series we wouldn’t have immediately become best friends with those neighbors. It’s unrealistic to say that the people with whom you have a negative relationship will become your best friends as a result of this series or that if they don’t you’ve failed neighboring. Instead see each relationship as an individual thing. Had my family become friendly, not even friends just like nice, with our mean neighbors that would have been a marked improvement. But some effort might have meant that we became even closer friends with the nice neighbors who lived next door on the other side.
We’ve talked about a number of strategies and ideas the last couple weeks, but with anyone who lives around us we will either be strangers, acquaintances, friends, or perhaps enemies. A reasonable goal is to make friendly acquaintances of everyone who lives around you and friends of one or two families. I imagine for many of us that would represent a ton of progress.
But how do we do this? How do we take those negative relationships and begin the process of transformation? Another piece of Scripture will be our guide.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Looking back I wish we could have forgiven our neighbors. They began the animosity towards us, at least I feel like they did, perhaps they would say we began it. But no matter who started what, I wish we could have forgiven them. I wish we could have embodied what forgiveness looks like.
As Christians we are the people who are called to embody forgiveness. Jesus tells this parable whose meaning in self-evident. The story packs a punch that even the worst preacher can’t dull. A servant owed his master an insurmountable debt. Three lifetimes wouldn’t allow this servant to earn enough to pay back his debt. So he is summoned before his master and is told to sell everything he has, including his life and the members of his family, in order to pay back as much of his debt as possible. He pleads for mercy. Mercy is granted. He immediately goes from that place and finds someone who owes him money. And rather than showing the same mercy he has received, he has the man thrown into prison.
This story began with Peter saying Jesus how many times ought I to forgive someone. Jesus here says seventy-seven times, in other places you’ll see seventy times seven. It’s above and beyond what was considered reasonable at the time. I can imagine the look of shock on Peter’s face. Jesus tells this story and it’s as if Jesus is telling Peter you don’t understand how much your God has forgiven you. And in the face of that great forgiveness you’re going to trifle with the exact number of times you need to be forgiving?!
If we are going to love our enemies we will have to forgive. If we are going to love our neighbors we will have to forgive. But we of all people have the most reason to forgive. After all God has forgiven us, after the grace God has shown us, we should be the most ready, the most eager to forgive. It is only in embodying forgiveness that we can approach our neighbors in a posture of love and acceptance. But in embodying forgiveness we witness to our neighbor in a particular way.
This is the way to transformation. Through embodying forgiveness, through loving those who harm us. That is the way to build community.
As we close I have three additional thoughts as we approach neighboring and seeking to see transformation within our communities. They’re not really connected and this is going to be a tad disjointed, but they’re important.
People can tell when they’re just a means to an end for you. If you’re only neighboring so you can get something out of it, whether its someone coming to church, someone meeting Jesus, or something you’d personally gain, people can tell if your motives aren’t pure. Don’t get into neighboring for any reason other than learning to know and love your neighbor. Because if you do your neighbors will know. They’ll see through it. And loving someone so that you’ll do what you want isn’t really loving, is it?
Don’t be afraid to get to the gospel
How many times in conversations with people do we talk about things that are important to us? We talk about our hobbies, our families, our favorite foods, sports teams, etc. And yet we clam up whenever it comes to our faith. Our faith should be at least as important to us as our favorite tv show! Don’t be afraid to speak about what you’re doing with respect to your faith, what you’re doing in church, how your faith makes you different.
But don’t bait and switch
This goes back to motives, but I think deserves its own brief mention. Who here has ever gotten a phone call saying they’ve won a free two night stay in a swanky hotel and all they have to do is sit through a short, thirty minute presentation about a time share opportunity? Then you are familiar with bait and switch. No one likes bait and switch. If you want to have dinner with the Jones’s across the street, have dinner with them. But don’t plan a dinner so that you can hold them hostage to have a conversation about faith. We need to make sure we get to the gospel. But that needs to happen naturally, after we have developed the trust of our neighbors, after we can rightly consider them friends.
We have spent the last five weeks talking about how we can live out the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We’ve talked about the why. We’ve talked about the extent to which we do or don’t know our neighbors. We’ve talked about strategies for how to do this. We’ve talked and talked and talked. And at this point, there’s nothing more to say except to release you to do this work. It’s a big job. It’s important work. But the good news is that the God who calls us to this work will be with us as we go forth. So let’s get to work, God being our helper. Let us pray.
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