July 14, 2013

Radical Neighborliness



Sermon for Proper 10 C

July 14, 2013

Michael Coffey


















It’s the cliché of parables.

            You know it so well all anyone has to say is “good Samaritan”

            and you can tune the rest out.

I saw a comedy sketch video someone shared on Facebook this week.

            It’s a scene of Jesus teaching his disciples.

            He starts telling them the parable of the Good Samaritan.

            He says, “You see, because he’s a Samaritan, but he’s good!”

            And the disciples just say:  Yeah, yeah, we get it, Jesus. Enough already.



I would feel that way in telling and preaching on this story again

            if it weren’t for something I find incredibly important to hear:

                        We cannot take neighborliness for granted in our culture.

                        It is at the core of the biblical notion of living life,

                                    and yet, it seems to be a more and more alien concept for us,

                                    loving the neighbor.

When the lawyer, who isn’t a lawyer in our sense, but more of a biblical scholar,

            when he asks Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

            Jesus puts the question back on him, and the man gets it right:

                        Love God.  Love your neighbor.

                        The two are inseparable strands making up the chord

                                    of the biblical vision of life.

When the bible scholar asks Jesus his question,

            he isn’t really asking him, “What must I do to go to heaven when I die?”

            He is asking him something more like:

                        What is the meaning and purpose of my life?

What keeps me connected to the fullness of life in God?

Now the story gets interesting, of course,

            because he then goes on to ask “Who is my neighbor?”

He responded more or less:

I want to love my neighbor!

Help me make that easier to do

by limiting the scope of neighborliness…

I need some parameters here.

And so Jesus challenges the implications of his question

            by telling a story of neighborliness that involves

            Samaritans, a distant cousin people to Jews,

                        who were not much loved.

            Jesus pushes and expands the limited boundaries of neighborliness

            in order to help this religious man expand the boundaries

                        of his experience of the fullness of life in God.



Of course, if you have spent any time at all in church

            you’ve heard all of this and the story is that great cliché.

            Jesus tells it and we think:  Yeah, yeah, we get it Jesus,

                        love our neighbors even if they are different from us.

            And we quickly move on.



All of that would be fine, except for one thing.

            All of that assumes that we value and accept

                        that loving our neighbor is itself something good.

We need to seriously consider how our culture diminishes this value.

We need to honestly confess how little neighborliness there is in our lives.



In my experience of life in our late modern world,

            loving your neighbor is simply lost because of our greater value:

                        fear your neighbor and protect yourself from your neighbor.

            There are many factors that feed this anti-neighbor sense among us:

our American culture of individualism and privatization,

                        our political climate of suspicion of the common good,

                        our laws that allow carrying concealed weapons,

                                    even in our churches (unless we post signage forbidding it,

                                    which you might notice, we do not have)

                        our infrastructure of isolation and separation from each other.

            There are more, but you get the picture of how

            neighborliness is not something we are in a place to define very well,

            because it is at best a sentimental notion,

            but in practice it is something we have designed out of our lives.



When we moved from Alamo Heights to Circle C in southwest Austin,

            we experienced something new to us.

We have never lived in a newer, modern subdivision,

            For our whole lives, we have lived in older neighborhoods,

                        built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,

                        which were designed to be a place for neighborliness.

                        The infrastructure of lot sizes and house sizes

                        and walkability and connectability

                                    helped support the idea of neighborliness and community.

Our next door neighbor in Alamo Heights, Wanda,

            had lived their since 1960.

We called her the matriarch of the block,

            and her front porch was the gathering place for many visits

            and block parties.

We now experience that neighborliness is designed out of

            the infrastructure of our lives,

            and the notion of getting out and getting to know each other

                        requires more effort, and is not often even welcomed.



If you’re the news watching type like me,

            you’ve been watching the trial of George Zimmerman

                        and heard the verdict last night acquitting him of all charges

                        related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

            There are going to be all kinds of reactions to and disagreement about

                        the verdict and the trial and our justice system

                        and its capacity to reach justice for all people.

But it seems to me that regardless of the verdict,

we have in this real story an American parable of the end of the neighbor.

We still have a dead 17 year-old who was the neighbor.

            The neighbor, in this tragic event, but not only this tragic event,

                        is not the one we love,

                        but is the one we fear,

                        the one we install security systems for,

                        the one we arm ourselves against,

                        the one we patrol the streets looking at suspiciously,

                        the one we shoot and kill because we are fearful and suspicious,

                                    not because our neighbor has done anything to us,

                                    and certainly not because we love our neighbor.

            We might wonder if we even have any neighbors left to love.



So however all of this particular news story plays out

in the coming days,

            here’s where the biblical text is leading me today:

Jesus calls us back to radical neighborly living

                        in a time and place where love of neighbor

                                    is thought to be too simplistic, naïve, and risky

                                    to be a real possibility.

The cliché of the parable is that love of neighbor needs to include

            even foreigners and those who are different from us.

That is still a relevant message for us today,

            when racial, ethnic, religious, and economic boundaries

                        magnify the suspicion we harbor about our neighbors.

But even more radically and centrally,

            we are called to return to the neighbor as the object of our lives of love,

            we are called to return to the neighbor as the focus of our concern,

            we are called to return to the neighbor as the one in whom

                        we find the answer to the always powerful question of our lives:

                                    What is the meaning and purpose of my life?

What keeps me connected to the fullness of life in God?

            We can’t answer those questions as people of faith rooted in Scripture

                        unless we rediscover not only

the obligation and necessity of loving our neighbors,

but also the joy and the gift of doing so.

            Because it is in this mutual neighborly life of love

                        that we find the God of neighborly love who comes to us in Christ,

                        and neighbors us.



So  I have a proposition for the church today,

            our church, but the whole church in our American culture of fear and mistrust and isolation:

            The church’s mission in this day and age

                        is to live radical neighborliness regardless of the culture.

What if the church were known as

            those weird people who keep inviting us to into their homes

                        to share a meal and get to know each other?

What if Christians were known as those odd people next door

            who help us out when we are in need?

What if church folks got the strange reputation

            of being the people most likely to welcome the stranger into the neighborhood?

            What if congregations were known

as places in whatever neighborhood they find themselves,

where neighbors come together beyond religious and racial

and economic dividing lines,

and simply get connected to each other?



We may live in a culture where the whole infrastructure

            works against neighborliness,

            but that doesn’t mean the church can’t live a different

infrastructure of neighborliness layered over it all.

Rather than focusing first on getting everyone around us

to be part of the church,

            which you’ll notice was not Jesus’ answer

to how to live a life of fullness in God,

            what if the mission of the church was to enact a liturgy of neighborliness

                        every Sunday where all are welcomed, loved, accepted, healed,

                        and gathered around the dinner table and fed?

            Well, that is what we do, so I want us to hear the deep significance

                        of our liturgical and sacramental life together?

            And then we keep exploring together how we live out the sacrament

                        of neighborly love in our fearful and anxious culture

                        where that kind of life is not easily welcomed.



Part of the problem with our Lutheran theological tradition is

we keep talking about grace

as if it can be known, experienced,

and proclaimed to and for individuals. 

But a biblical notion of grace shows us

that it is known, experienced, and proclaimed in community,

in concrete acts of neighborliness,

in shaping the world toward a friendly

and peaceful engagement with the other. 

If we struggle to know the profound depths of the Gospel today,

it is because we have isolated grace as if it were some isotope

that could be distilled and then infuse the world

with its radioactivity,

rather than the gravity that binds all things together

without isolation of one part from the other. 

What must I do to inherit eternal life? 

You can’t answer that apart from your neighbor,

and in that divine/human encounter,

grace will show itself more powerfully than we ever imagined.



The illusion that we are somehow separate from one another

            and only come together for interaction when we choose to,

                        or when it is comfortable,

                        or when we have something to gain from the other,

                                    is just that: an illusion.

The good news of God in Christ draws us together

            into the expansive vision of life lived in love of God and neighbor,

                        because by God’s grace in Christ,

                                    we are all bound together as one

                                    by the gravity of God’s grace.

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