October 31, 2010

Luke 10:25-37

Reflection #1: “Stories of Good Neighbours: Wilson, Mr. Rogers, and Snow Angels”

At least one dictionary defines a neighbour as “a person who lives near or next to another.” Literally, that’s all a neighbour is… a person who lives close by… in the apartment above or below where you live… or in the house next door.

I have good memories of the neighbours who lived next door to my family when I was growing up. They were an older couple, just a little younger than my own grandparents… Mr. and Mrs. Chandler. They would wave a say “hello” whenever we walked by their house. They would ask about what we were doing in school or where we were off to on such a beautiful day.

When Mr. and Mrs. Chandler went down to Florida for a month each winter, one of us would get the job of checking in on their house… bringing in the mail, watering the plants, making sure that the furnace hadn’t shut off or anything like that.

I don’t remember the Chandlers doing anything really special for us, but they were friendly and helpful. And sometimes in the summer when they were sitting out on the lawn in the backyard, one or two of us kids would go over and sit on the grass beside them and just talk about whatever. They were good neighbours.

Just yesterday, after the funeral of one of our members, Betty Wilson, I listened to some women reminiscing about being good neighbours. These two women grew up on the farm and they were both neighbours to the Wilson family. They remembered great friendships between the neighbour kids, and coming and going between the houses. They remembered gatherings in kitchens and over card games… neighbours enjoying each other’s company. And of course, being there for each other when someone was in trouble or needed a little extra help.

Sometimes I hear people talk about the neighbourhoods that we enjoyed in the past with longing. It’s not like that so much anymore. People don’t know each other. People don’t seem to care about their neighbours anymore.

But I know that there are many examples to the contrary. Even though I don’t know my neighbours very well, we still engage in a friendly conversation as we’re coming and going from the house. And one of our neighbours even ploughs our sidewalk most of the time. He has a little machine, and I think he just likes to do it.

But I guess you really figure out who your neighbours are when you get into trouble and you need a little help. It was in the spring last year. My husband Nick was out of town for a conference and I was sitting on the couch, working on a sermon, on a Saturday evening. Suddenly, I heard my cat, Samuel, let out a terrible cry. He was supposed to be out in the backyard, but he had found his way over the fence and he was in the neighbour’s yard, facing off against the neighbour’s dog.

My neighbour, Tony, and I both rushed outside to see what was happening, but we were too late… Samuel the cat had scurried up a tree and was making his way higher and higher into the branches. Tony put the dog inside, and then came back out to try to help me to coax the cat down.

To make a long story short, I learned that night that good neighbours aren’t just the people who live next door. After no success getting the cat to crawl back down, I had to call a good neighbour from a little farther away, a good neighbour from the church with a taller ladder, a generous spirit, and the courage to climb up and get the cat to jump onto the roof of the house and then down onto the ground.

Reflecting on the theme of good neighbours, I couldn’t help but think of Wilson from the TV show “Home Improvement.” I wonder if some of you remember Wilson. He lived next door to the Taylor family, and he always seemed to be outside, working or relaxing in the backyard, waiting just on the other side of the fence for one of the Taylors to come out and ask for his advice.

Wilson was an interesting character. You never got to see his face because he was always hidden behind the fence… but he was always there, he was always wise and helpful, he was the ultimate “good neighbour” for a family that was just managing to hold it together.

If you are willing, I would like to invite you to take a minute to think about the good neighbours that you have enjoyed in your life. Maybe you will think of someone from right next door or a little further away. It could be a neighbour where you live today, or a memory from long ago. Take a moment to think about the good neighbours in your life, and then turn to your neighbours in the pew where you are sitting, and tell them about a good neighbour that you are thankful for.

Reflection #2: “Becoming Good Neighbours: Opening Up the Neighbourhood”

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He 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 neighbour as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

That was the question that inspired the parable of the Good Samaritan. “Who is my neighbour?” Is it just the person who lives next door? Is it just the people in my community, in my language group, in my culture, in my church?

If the most important commandment of God is to love God and love my neighbour, then I’ve got to know who my neighbours are… how far this commandment really goes… how much trouble trying to obey it is going to be…

Sometimes I really love the way that Jesus answered questions! Instead of simply answering the question… instead of saying, “Well, everyone is your neighbour, of course. Anyone and everyone that you meet is your neighbour. You’ve got to love them all!” Instead Jesus told a story.

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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He 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. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Jesus tells that whole story… presumably as a creative way of answering the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbour?” But by the time he’s finished telling the story, Jesus has changed the question. Did Jesus just start rambling and forget the question that he was supposed to be answering? I doubt it. I actually think that Jesus knew that the lawyer’s question was not a very helpful one to ask.

Just think about it. God wants me to love my neighbour, so I ask, “Who is my neighbour?” It’s like I want to narrow it down to make it a little easier. I want to figure out who is in and who is out so that I don’t have to love too much. I want to figure out the parameters so that I can know that my task is manageable, so that I don’t get overwhelmed by the challenge.

But as soon as we start trying to answer that question, “Who is my neighbour?” we start excluding people… people who live far away, people that we don’t know or understand, people who are not like us, or at least people who don’t seem to LIKE us.

Instead of entertaining such an unhelpful question, Jesus concludes his story by asking a new question of his own. He asks, “Which of these three, do you think (the priest, the temple assistant, or the Samaritan) was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Jesus doesn’t want us to waste our time and energy wondering and worrying about who might be worthy of our love. Instead, he wants us to think about how we can start acting like neighbours – like good neighbours – towards anyone we meet who might need our help.

While our tendency might be to get all wrapped up in judging the people around us in order to determine whether we should spend our care and concern on their needs, Jesus reminds us that the very people we are judging are often the ones who are stepping in to provide help to others who are truly in trouble.

The foreigner, the outsider, the excluded and disrespected one, the Samaritan in the story becomes the example of how to be a good neighbour. As usual, Jesus is turning all our expectations upside down… but if the Samaritan can do it, perhaps anyone can do it. It will take boldness and risk and courage to be a good neighbour… but if the Samaritan can do it…?

One of the things I believe that Jesus was doing by telling this story was “opening up the neighbourhood.” He was speaking to his own Jewish friends and neighbours, and they were a group of people who had clearly separated themselves off from others as much as possible.

It went along with the idea that the Hebrew People were God’s Chosen ones. They were special people with a special relationship with the One God of the universe. That was true enough. And in order to hang on to their identity and their faith and their life together as a People, they needed to keep themselves separate… to do things their own special way, to worship their own special God.

But as Jesus went about preaching and teaching and healing, I think he was learning along the way that God’s love is bigger and goes wider than just one group of people. Yes, the Jews had a special relationship with God, but God’s love was ready to go wider and to embrace all the many and varied people of the world.

And Jesus started to break through the boundaries of who was considered to be worthy of love or respect or honour. He spoke to women like they were people, and made them his friends. He wasn’t afraid to approach lepers and to heal them of their diseases. He invited himself over for dinner at the house of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. He went to parties with known sinners, and took time for the poor and the outcasts of society.

Once, on a journey outside of his own neighbourhood, a Syro-Phonecian woman begged for Jesus’ help. At first, he wasn’t very receptive. He didn’t have time for her. He was sure that his main duty was to the people of Israel. But something that she said to him changed his mind. He saw that she had the gift of faith, and once again, the boundaries were pushed back and God’s love spread out wider and wider.

As Christians, we are called to pay attention to Jesus’ stories and the things that he taught. But most of all, we are called to shape our lives according to the way he lived his life. As Jesus’ circle of care and concern opened up wider and wider, as he reached out across social boundaries and made strangers into friends, we are called to become neighbours to the people we encounter who need our help.

Do you remember Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood? It was certainly one of my favourite television programs when I was growing up in the late 70’s. I didn’t know it when I was a child, but Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister in the U.S. He was a Presbyterian minister who chose, as his way of serving God and the church and the world, to create a television show for children. That was his ministry, authorized and blessed by the wider church community.

Well, Mr. Rogers probably made a big difference in the lives of many children and families… teaching us to share, to care, to be kind, and to become good neighbours. Mr. Rogers’ ministry was wonderful! But Jesus’ ministry was even more than that! Jesus didn’t only teach us and show us how to be neighbours to one another. He didn’t only care about the transformation of our relationships with each other. He also transformed our relationship with God.

Imagine God like a far-away parent, trying to guide and help his children. For centuries of human history, God reached out to God’s children over and over. Through prophets like Moses and Elijah, Jeremiah and Amos and Hosea, God called out to God’s children… calling us back into relationship with God… calling us back to a way of life full of goodness and faithfulness and love. But we simply would not listen. We wouldn’t pick up the phone. We wouldn’t respond to the emails. God seemed so far away. It was like we forgot that God was even there.

So God decided to move right into our neighbourhood. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God came to be with us in the world. The Gospel of John says that “God became flesh, and lived among us.”

It’s like we suddenly realized that God is living right next door… like Wilson, the good neighbour, who is always right there… just on the other side of the fence… always available… always ready to listen… always waiting to help us, and encourage us, and direct us with gentleness and wisdom.

God has moved into our neighbourhood. And God has opened up the neighbourhood to include every one of us, each with a special place within the community. May God’s Spirit fill us, and help us to become the good neighbours that God has made us to be. Amen.