Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sermon: Why are THESE PEOPLE my neighbors?

Joshua 9
Luke 10: 25-37

People who attend a worship service have come a long way in their understanding of who their neighbors are. For decades and sometimes centuries, what it meant to be part of a congregation in North America was to be part of an ethnic enclave of people (some of these enclaves still exist, and new enclaves are forming). These enclaves may have had some interaction with other enclaves, but it was easy to have social and cultural norms reinforced, especially during church. If you wonder how this ethnic cultural reinforcement works think of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The Finns had their own church, the Germans had their own church, the English had their own church, the African Americans had their own church, the Scots had their own church, the Norwegians had their own church, the Danes had their own church. Some people in this congregation may have a memory of a marriage or a relationship that was considered dangerous because a Norwegian married a Swede, a Roman Catholic married a Lutheran, or if someone of Northern European descent married someone of Asian descent. Sometimes boundaries aren't negotiated on ethnicity, but political affiliation or theological perspective.

The challenges continue, though the scope of that challenge has changed. The understanding of how we evolve in our relationships with neighbors is often conditioned by recent history and the stress we experience in the world which we live. When we experience stress in relationships, it is tempting to gain immediate relief in those relationships rather than attempt to negotiate their complexity. One of my favorite past times in the midst of stress in relating to my neighbors is to engage in some righteous indignation about the superiority of my perspective. In my Big Fat Greek Wedding, when a Greek father is considering the stress that his Greek daughter is marrying a non Greek man, Costa Portakales directs some disgust to his future son in law in Greek, "my people were developing philosophy while your people were swinging from trees." Sometimes people will join me in my anger, and for a few minutes we experience relief. Other times I pause and reflect on my stress, and realize that I am a fool. Sometimes I don't want to consider that God looks out for my neighbor.

In the midst of the stress of negotiating relationships that we do not understand, we go to our principles of faithful living. Christians go to church, gather in Christian community, and study the Bible as a means of negotiating the world in which we live. The Bible often provides us with a foundational understanding of what it means to relate to God and one another. Some biblical writings are easier to negotiate with others. "You shall not kill" is little easier for most people to reconcile than "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." The question posed by the "lawyer" in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan reflects how challenging neighbor relationships can be, because we struggle to relate to the identity of our neighbor. Are our neighbors merely our kin? Does our roster of neighbors include only the people who live in close proximity? How is proximity defined? By city, county or national boundary, maybe college football fan base? Going to University of Washington's Husky Stadium for a football game yesterday it was interesting to see who is the neighbor of a Husky fan. Cougars are not neighbors (even though Cougars and Huskies are neighbors in Washington). Ducks are not neighbors (even though their state is adjacent, and Ducks live among Huskies. (Any mixed marriages of colleges out there)? But Michigan Wolverines?  They aren't in as close proximity as Ducks or Cougars, but they were named as neighbors. Why? Because they beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish! Is our neighbor the person who shares the same ethnic heritage? Is our neighbor the person who shares the same political or theological perspective? In North America, we are able to deal with our understanding of neighbor a little differently based on the sheer fact that we have the ability to move if we don't like how the relationships are going with our neighbors. We move to the suburbs, then we move back to the cities, and so on. Understanding of what it means to be a neighbor is constantly shifting.

The people of the Ancient Near East, in the times of the Bible, did not have the means of mobility that we do. In some ways, we are both mobile societies, but one thing we have in America is space, and lots of it. But people in Bible times have the same struggles with defining the meaning of neighbor as we do, with a lot less space with which to work. If you travel to Israel and Palestine one can see the diversity of people living in a very tight space. When we go to the Bible for guidance in the stressful world of negotiating neighbor relationships, the Bible isn't particularly unified about who our neighbor really is, and I think neighbor confusion is reflected in our public discourse. Sometimes that confusion comes to a violent head, as we have seen recently in the fervor related to Pastor Terry Jones and his congregation in Florida creating an event to burn the Quran, the Muslim holy book. This seemingly insignificant local event became known worldwide, because it served as a lightning rod for the stress related to how Americans negotiate a mosque being built near Ground Zero in New York City. The vitriol exchanged in public discourse is stressful in itself. It's tempting to blame "the media" for the fever pitch coverage of the topic, but often times "the media" reflects the state of the public. This is a relationship of neighbors, and it's not simple, especially when lives are on the line.

How do Christians negotiate a complex web of relationships? How does God?

I offer you the Bible story in Joshua 9 as a means to think about God's action in the midst of complex neighbor relationships. The story tells readers about the Gibeonites, a group who lived in close proximity to Joshua's people in the land of Canaan. They were a group set up to be exterminated according to God's call to Joshua. His conquest in Jericho and Ai were already documented and a reputation for their strength was well known throughout the region. The Gibeonites were aware that Joshua's people were to show hospitality to those who lived far away from Canaan, so they made it look like they came from far away in order that they had a better chance to establish a covenant between the two peoples. The Gibeonites used deception, and the story documents that Israel did not consult God in their dealings with the Gibeonites. A covenant was established between the peoples. When Israel discovered they had been deceived, the leaders were furious they had been tricked, and wanted to destroy them. But Joshua believed they should hold to the oath to God about peace with the Gibeonites.

The circumstances of neighbor relationships change in Joshua 9. An underdog people is spared in the midst of Israel taking possession of the land of Canaan. Why does God not intervene in this story if all the peoples of Canaan are supposed to be destroyed? Is God not only looking out for Israel, but looking out for people who are not part of Israel? Joshua 9 reveals that neighbor relationships are not as cut and dried as we think, and actually in flux. It also reveals that God is looking out for our neighbors, even the neighbors who are different than us. Circumstances matter. Lives hang in the balance. Circumstances matter in Joshua 9, and they matter in public discourse around the mosque near Ground Zero.  Listen Up TV has been reporting on the complex web of relationships around Ground Zero--people who have lost loved ones on 9/11/01, as well as Muslim and Christian leaders close to the situation. Their video clip is worth your time (with more forthcoming). Though Jesus gives his followers an ethic of being a neighbor is rooted in mercy,
today's examples provide us insight to the complexity of what it means to be a neighbor, to show mercy in the midst of anxiety, fear, vitriol and demeaning public discourse is an extraordinary act of faith. We cannot do it alone.

If we think of Jesus' last days on Earth, Jesus acted with mercy in the midst of fear, anxiety, vitriol. The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 is a microcosm and foreshadowing of Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus had the power of God to crush his enemies and punish those who betrayed him, yet he extended mercy to all of them. Though retribution for the injustice showed to Jesus was justified, Jesus' resurrection overcomes the fear, anxiety, vitriol and demeaning act of crucifixion and brings love and forgiveness to the world.

Ground Zero is hundreds of miles away from much of the US and can seem distant, yet the discussion still matters. What can Christians do in response to the mercy of God in Christ? Faith in Christ is one thing. Keeping public discourse calm in the midst of anxiety is another. Our everyday actions may seem small, but they matter. St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) showed some mercy to their Jewish and Muslim neighbors by posting a message of peace to their neighbors of different traditions on their church sign (quite a contrast to Burn A Koran Day in Florida). How is God calling you to share mercy in the world? How is God calling communities of faith? The life, death and resurrection of Christ reveals to us each day that the power of mercy can transform the world.


  1. This message needs sharing to contrast recent antagonist messages voiced from certain Christian circles. I applaud your effort to share the calm influence Christ offers the world, but unfortunately all too often rejected.

  2. Jon--

    Thank you for your comment. I hadn't seen such anxiety in public discourse and in the congregation in a long while. I hadn't really planned on addressing these topics. I decided about 3-4 weeks ago that I was going to preach on Joshua 9--and the text spoke to me about living as a neighbor in a pluralistic world. The Jesus ethic in the Good Samaritan is more a response ethic, whereas Joshua 9 reveals that boundaries of who is a neighbor is not as clear as we often think. God seems to look out for outsiders as well as insiders. Thanks for stopping by the blog--come again!