October 21 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture Lesson: Luke 10:25-37
I’ve been reading a book entitled, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door, written by two Denver-area pastors, Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon. In this book, they describe a gathering by the city’s Christian pastors to meet with and listen to the area’s mayors, city managers and other city officials to try to identify some of the area’s greatest needs that their churches could hopefully address and help with. They wanted to know what the most important thing their churches could come together to do to make a difference in their community. The Denver mayor pulled out a piece of paper on which he had made a list; he began to read several of the things off the list: “I would like to live in a city in which there are no isolated elderly shut-ins, no at-risk children, no single moms living below the poverty level…” He ticked off several other things from his list, then folded the paper and put it back in his pocket. Then he looked at all of the pastors in the room and said, basically, if you could just get all of your people to learn how to be good neighbors, I don’t think we’d have any problems. Ouch. The pastors in the room have written about how convicting that was for them. Here, they had called for a meeting to find out how the church could be an answer to some of the city’s biggest challenges and were basically told, if you could just get your Jesus followers to actually take Jesus seriously about that “Loving your neighbor” thing, I think that would be enough.
They go on to reveal that one of the city managers in the meeting even went so far as to explain that as they look at the data and information across their area, there is no noticeable difference in the way that Christians and non-Christians treat their neighbors. Another ouch! The mayor went on to explain how they get calls all the time from people complaining about the lack of programs to address real human needs inside the city; and so the city tries to address these concerns by starting new programs, but that often, public funding will run out for these, and then the people who might have been helped in some way by these programs are left to go back to their previous realities. What these pastors were hearing and beginning to understand was that if we could convince believers to take Jesus seriously, to love their neighbors, then we could start a movement by which people actually take care of each other out of relationships instead of programs.
When I picked up this book about a year ago, I have to admit that I was convicted, too. As a Christian, and now as a pastor, I’m sure that I still have much to learn about what it really means to love my neighbor the way that Jesus intends. Around the time that I received my appointment to Maple Grove, our country was celebrating one my childhood heroes, Mister Rogers. If you’re my age or older, you may remember his public television show for children, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” This year marked the 50th anniversary of the show, and was celebrated with an in-depth and nostalgic documentary this summer titled, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” If you are too young to recall the television show itself, maybe you know of the new animated show based on one of Mister Rogers’ beloved puppets, Daniel Tiger. And if you know nothing of Mister Fred Rogers, by the end of this series I think you may be just as amazed as I am at the wisdom and insight he shared through the years, especially with children.
So when I realized that I would be pastoring a church which was taking steps to become something new in the midst of a new and growing neighborhood, I knew that it would be important to explore this book from other pastors about a movement of intentional neighboring; and I couldn’t resist sprinkling in some of the spiritual truths I’ve learned from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood along the way.
As we begin today, I’m going to do something that Mister Rogers often did when he was asked to speak to crowd; he would say: “Since you were little, there have been people who have smiled you into smiling, talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving: now, take some time to think of the people in your life who have helped you. Some may be here, some may be far away, some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are deep down you know they've always cared about you. They've always wanted what's best for you and encouraged you to be the best within you. Take one minute to think about them - I'm going to time you.”
[moment of silence]
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Fred Rogers entered seminary right after college, but dropped out just a year or two later because he felt God was calling him to minister to children through the new invention of television. He hated what he saw was being offered as entertainment to kids, slapping pies in each other’s faces, and other acts which he considered to be dehumanizing and demeaning. So he started working on a children’s program as a musician and puppeteer, and eventually completed his Masters of Divinity over eight years of lunch hour classes. When he began his own program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968, he felt he had a holy responsibility to communicate right to the heart of children. Even though he never spoke of religion on the show, or identified himself as a Presbyterian pastor, everything he did on the show came out of his deeply held belief that every person was a son or daughter of God, created with sacred worth, and that the most important thing anyone could do was to let children and adults know that they are loved. He said that each day when he entered the studio, he would pray the same prayer, “Let some word heard here be Yours.” He stated in an interview once that he believes The Holy Spirit translates our best efforts into what needs to be communicated to that person in his or her place of need. “The longer I live, the more I know it's true," he says.
We used for our call to worship today the words he sang at the beginning of every show, which invited each person watching to “be my neighbor.” Mister Rogers discovered over 50 years ago the same important truth that Pastors Jay and Dave were learning at their city meeting in Denver – that everyone longs to be known and loved, and that as Christians, our most important responsibility is to make that possible. Mister Rogers’ invitation to “be my neighbor” was an invitation into a relationship. He truly believed that the space between his message on the show and the person receiving it was ‘holy ground’ – a space where God’s Spirit could work. And the message of the Neighborhood was always that “You are special and so is your neighbor.” And that “if somebody cares about you, it’s possible you’ll care about others.” He once pointed to the biblical passage of 1 John 4:9-12 as his central message on the show, to communicate not only that you are loved, but also the importance of being loving. The scripture says, “9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Being a good neighbor means 1-knowing that God loved us, and loving God in return; 2-accepting ourselves for who God created us to be, and loving ourselves as God loves us; and 3-loving others, specifically our neighbors, as ourselves.
Pastors Jay and Dave explain in their book how we Christians have a tendency to overgeneralize the Great Commandment to love our neighbors, or to think of it too metaphorically, and reduce it to a cute slogan on a car magnet or bumper sticker instead of taking it’s message seriously. In today’s scripture, a man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus asks him how he interprets the law. The man correctly answered, “to love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and [to] love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus responds, “Do this and you will live.” The man likely thought he was already doing that. And so, to justify himself, the man asks Jesus, “but who is my neighbor?” Because, he likely was NOT already loving people the way Jesus intended. So he was looking for loopholes. And it’s likely that many of us look for loopholes when it comes to loving others, as well.
In this instance, Jesus assumed that this man already lived in a tight-knit community like most people did back then – a community of people all from the same tribe, who looked the same and thought the same. And so Jesus told a story about a Samaritan, a person who was ethnically different, who lived in a different geographic area, and who thought and believed differently than this man and other Jews. In this story, it was the Samaritan who turned out to be the good neighbor. And so Jesus was teaching us that loving our neighbor extended to those who are not like you, those who are from some ‘other’ tribe, even those you are taught to hate.
I think we have a tendency to listen to this story and overgeneralize it to say, Ok this means we have to love everybody… but then we look for the loopholes. I love the people I work with, I love the people I'm friends with, I support missions and ministries that support others, and that shows that I love them - and all of that is true! But are there people right in front of you that you dismiss or ignore? How do we learn to be a good neighbor to the people right in front of us - our actual neighbors, those who live in our actual community? Even if they don't look like us, or think like us, or support the same college football team, or political candidates as us?
One of the other things those pastors learned in their meeting with city leaders is that people who have close bonds with people who live around them live longer; that in neighborhoods where people know the first names of those who live around them, crime is down 60%; and that when natural disasters happen & systems are overwhelmed, it is neighbors helping neighbors that recover the fastest. In other words, learning to be a good neighbor not to metaphorical “others” but to your actual neighbors who live close to you, is one of the most important ways that you can live out the Great Commandment to love your neighbors. So this book, The Art of Neighboring, presents churches with a process to help all of us learn how to do a better job of being a good neighbor.
In your bulletin today is a worksheet that looks similar to a tic-tac-toe board. The house in the center square is your house or apartment. So take a moment right now to write your name in the center square. The squares surrounding the center square represent the eight closest neighbors to you – the eight closest homes or apartments. And I’m going to give you a couple of minutes right now to right in the first names of the adults who live there. First names only for now. Go ahead and write them in.
Now, I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of you could fill in the first names of all eight squares? If you couldn’t, you’re not alone. The vast majority of Christians can’t do this either. Only about 10% of the people who have been through this exercise in other churches were successful. But your goal for the next week is to learn those names. Yes, really! I want you to take this home today and put it on your fridge or bulletin board, or tape it to your bathroom mirror, and then look for opportunities to learn the names of your closest neighbors this week. I’ll go ahead and tell you up front that this will not be the last time we do this exercise together! If the single most important thing we can do to make a difference in our community is to love our neighbors, by learning to care for each other through relationships instead of through programs, it might help to start by learning their names – even if it’s someone whose name you’ve learned before, but forgot because you decided they weren’t important enough to remember.
The hope is that throughout this series we’ll progress together from the neighborly “wave” as you pass each other entering or leaving the neighborhood, to saying, “Hey, How’s it going?” to saying, “Hey, Ken, how are you?” to saying, “Hey, Ken, could you give us a hand with this?” to saying, “Hey, Ken, was that your daughter I saw visiting this weekend? It must be hard to only see her once a month. How’s that going?” It may feel awkward at first, but there’s no shame in walking over to that neighbor you see in their yard or driveway and saying something like, “Hey, I’m Melody, I live in the green house over there. And I know we’ve met, but it’s been a while since we’ve talked. Can you remind me your name?” Or “Hey, I’m sure you’ve seen me zipping in and out, and I’m really sorry I haven’t been around to say hi lately. How are things going?” Chances are that your neighbor probably feels the same way, and will be relieved that you made the first move.
Now I know that you’re not all extroverts, and that for some of you, the idea of initiating conversation with someone you don’t know well is about as pleasant as the idea of a root canal. So you may have to be creative in the way that you try to get to know your neighbors. Take your spouse or kids with you, and ask them to do the talking – once someone else has broken the ice, it will feel less scary. And as Mister Rogers would say, “I’m proud of you for the times you’ve said, ‘yes,’ when it meant extra work for you, and was seemingly only helpful to somebody else.”
Mister Rogers focused his television show and its messages to preschoolers, and by extension their parents and families. He thought that it was important to instill these messages of knowing you are loved and that you can be loving in return to children at the earliest age possible, when their minds and hearts are still being formed. The truth is that some of us, even those of us who watched Mister Rogers, didn’t believe those messages or lost hope in them once we experienced the ‘real’ world. But our hearts and minds never stop growing, and it’s never too late for us to take these messages to heart. Besides, don’t we make the real world what it really is? Don’t we grownups today have the opportunity to change the very world around us by living counter to the ways the world lives? Jesus thought so – his message for his followers was centered on loving others. This was God's plan for building the Kingdom of heaven on earth - that as people come to know God and experience God’s love, their hearts will turn with love toward the people closest to them, so that when they begin to see your love, they will see God, and will come to know God and experience God’s love, and then turn their hearts with love to the people closest to them… Can you imagine that domino effect now? Can you see how YOU are part of God's plan to build a Kingdom - a NEIGHBORHOOD of love across the entire globe, starting right here with your own community? This kind of love and relationship-building - this kind of neighboring can literally change the world!
May it be so.