Monday, August 30, 2010

Who are the People in your Neighborhood?

Luke 10: 25-37

I have many positive memories about neighbors as a child. The people who lived near my family were the source of friendships and a support network that provided both opportunities to give and receive help in times of need. I remember spontaneous gatherings for games, shared meals and outdoor excursions. Adults cared for neighbor children. Garrison Keillor affirms this sense of shared responsibility, if Mrs. Smith down the street told you as a kid to blow your nose, you blew it. Neighbor was not always a good term, there were always cranky people or people who didn't fit the neighborhood ethos, but there was still a sense of shared welfare--that person was still part of the neighborhood.

Not only was the meaning of neighbor taught through close proximity relationships, but through favorite television shows. The characters of Sesame Street sang a song about people in the neighborhood. The song lifted up the importance of each vocation to a good community life. Mister Rogers created a broader sense of valued vocation and helped children imagine how they might participate in neighborhood life as they matured. The songs matched with the actions in the neighborhood inspire me to this day. Mr. Rogers actions inspired his church--Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, ordained not because he showed a calling for congregational ministry, but his teaching of children the value of loving neighbor and neighborhood highlighted principles important to Christian faith.

Stories of strong neighbor relationships still exist in my anecdotal examination of neighbors, but the stories are fewer and far between. The hardest part about leaving Sioux Falls was leaving our next door neighbors. They were ex-Hutterites, communal-living Anabaptists who survived and thrived on shared welfare. They shared with us about everything they possibly could. It took me only 16 years of adult life to experience what I learned as a child in our 4 year relationship with our next door neighbors.

Is a discussion about neighbor relationships possible in an era where people connect less and less because of proximity and more on shared interests? Is a discussion about neighbor relationships possible after the events of September 11, 2001--a time when suspicion of neighbor became a response to fears of another terrorist attack on U.S. land? Is a discussion about neighbor relationships possible when U.S. immigration remains a controversial topic? These are not merely issues in the United States, but worldwide, though the world is getting smaller because of technology and urban population explosion, it doesn't mean that humanity is more adept at living in close proximity.

Today's Bible reading represents an exploration on the meaning of neighbor: the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is well-known in public discourse, not necessarily because people know the Bible story, but because the term "Good Samaritan" has come to mean someone who has extended their reach to offer someone an extraordinary level of help. Indeed, a legendary level of help is shared in this story from Jesus' teaching, but that is not the only important aspect of this story. The story is told because a scholar of God's law begins a discussion about the basic of God's law, also known as Torah.

This "lawyer" engages Jesus in a discussion about Torah. According to Richard Swanson, the lawyer is not antagonistic to Jesus, rather, someone who is attempting to understand the level of conversation. Neighbor was actually a challenging concept for faithful Jews in Jesus' day. In some cases, neighbor is understood as those in close proximity, but in others, the circle of neighbor is ever widening. Neighbor is challenging because Gentiles (non-believers) and enemies--those who would wish to do harm to Israel--are all around. Could they be considered neighbors, too? Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that OT understandings of neighbor can be quite fluid.

The lawyer asks Jesus after establishing a baseline understanding of Torah that inspires the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells a story that places acts of mercy of what could considered an annoyance at best, mortal enemy at worst, in the hands of a Samaritan. The Samaritan person is not considered good by faithful Jews. This is not a parable addressing the moral failure of the people who passed by the person left for dead at the side of the road, and it's not a parable about the goodness of the Samaritan. Public discourse has assigned the story meaning by the good actions of the Samaritan. Remember, the question is "who is my neighbor?" The question is not related to goodness. I think this is important because the value Jesus places in the story and the lawyer recognizes is that the action correlated with being a neighbor is an act of mercy.

I believe that the teachings that many people received growing up about what it means to be a neighbor are good teachings. Looking out for one another. Sharing what you have. Enjoying fellowship. Mister Rogers and Sesame Street explicitly taught children and their parents about what it means to be a neighbor. But in some ways, the teaching is a little dated and can drift into nostalgia fusion, where a particular brand of serving the neighbor becomes stuck in remembering the good old days. The good of Mister Rogers and Sesame Street is their recognition that many gifts and talents are valued for the good of the community, and these television teachers provide an appreciation for gifts and talents shared, while giving children an opportunity to imagine how they might share their gifts and talents for the good of the community.

Jesus does not advocate for a particular cultural brand of being a neighbor. To be a neighbor is not specifically to have or yearn for a fluid connecting backyard exchange with my neighbors as I did when I was a child. That may happen. But if my yearning for a particular kind of neighborliness prevents me from showing mercy to someone, then I am missing the point of Jesus parable. Showing mercy is the call of a follower of Jesus. Living in any community--in Port Orchard and beyond, in every profession, whether paid or unpaid, in every exchange we have on a daily basis, is an opportunity to share mercy. That is why this Sunday we are blessing people who work in Port Orchard. At least it is an opportunity to pray for you local postal workers, grocers, police officers, volunteers, custodians, teachers, bankers, retirees, nurses, artists, or any other local worker whom you can remember. Being merciful is not time or culturally bound. Jesus goes to great lengths to show mercy, even to the point of his own death, so that we may be free to share mercy, to go and likewise show mercy.

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