Proper 18B September 9, 2018
Won’t You Be my Neighbor: Loving those different.
Good Morning, It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood!
I was tempted to start my sermon today by coming in, and changing into a cardigan and sneakers like Mr. Rogers, while signing the “Won’t you be my neighbor” song,… but I didn’t think I could pull it off… and for me, its still way too hot outside for a cardigan!
Besides, that’s not really the point. Our sermon series, “Won’t You Be my Neighbor,” is taking its title from, of course, from the acclaimed documentary that came out in theaters this June about Fred Rogers, and the children’s television show, “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” that he produced and played in from 1968 until 2001.
Most of you know that here at St. Michael’s, we’ve been focusing on the theme of community ever since we began this liturgical year in Advent last December. This film fits right in with some of the aspects of Koinonia and Communty we’ve been focusing on.
Some of us went to go see the movie a week ago Friday, and I know many more of you saw it earlier this summer. I believe today is the last day its playing at the Byrd Theater in Carytown, but I just ordered the DVD so we may be able to schedule a congregational movie night soon!
Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian Pastor, who saw the powerful effects of television and wanted something for children that could help build a more positive world. Fred Roger’s ministry through the program consisted mostly of sharing God’s message of love with children, without the trappings of religiosity. He modeled meeting children where they were, helping them know that each person, no matter how different, was special and important. The Neighborhood was a place where each person was safe and accepted, and neighbors were people to get to know and share life with. The show dealt with some of the challenging issues facing children and society, while helping children trust in the adults who love them.
Of course, Mr. Rogers was not the first person to acknowledge the importance of our neighbors. It’s a very old concept, one we can trace back to our own scriptures.
Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This saying of Jesus is found in the Gospel’s of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and Jesus himself was quoting the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament in Deuteronomy and Numbers, putting together the two most important laws of the 613 that can be found there.
Love God, and Love your Neighbor as Yourself. Jesus’ great commandment is the verse that probably most influenced St. Michael’s leaders at in developing our mission statement five years ago to Celebrate, Love, and Serve. We Celebrate God’s Beauty when we love God with our heart, our souls, our minds and our strength – in everything from Beautiful Worship, to Bible Study, to Prayer, to our Stewardship of Creation. We Love God’s People and Serve God’s World when we love our neighbors as ourselves, and we seek to address the needs of our community, as well as to build authentic relationships with people both inside and outside our church.
So for the next few weeks, we are going to focus on the second part of the Great commandment To love our neighbors as ourselves, and specifically we going to talk about what it means to be a good neighbor, the way Jesus envisioned it.
We know from the story of the Good Samaritan and other scriptures, that neighbors are not meant to be narrowly defined as just those living close by. As we just sang in our hymn, “Neighbors are nearby and far away.”
But the focus of most of our sermons in this series will be on Loving the Nearby Neighbors, the ones that actually live in your neighborhood. It’s not that our far off neighbors aren’t important. They are. Very important. But often we take the neighbor thing so generally, and we think of everyone as our neighbor in a general and vague sense, that we only love “vaguely and generally.” We often neglect really getting to know and love our actual, close-by neighborhood neighbors, in any practical way.
Our lectionary scriptures from the Letter from James and the Gospel of Mark today point to some of those practical realities and challenges of what it means to really love our neighbors.
James, the brother of Jesus and head of the Church in Jerusalem, writes in his letter,
“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin….What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
James is saying we often discriminate and show prejudice to those around us. We give honor and seek favor with those who are richer or more influential. We marginalize the poor, or those who look or act differently than us. James calls us to put our words into action. We can say we love our neighbors and wish them well, but if we don’t do something about it, then our words and thoughts are useless. “Faith without works, is dead.”
In the Gospel story, Jesus is travelling through the largely pagan area of Tyre and Sidon, looking to escape the crowds, it seems. There, a gentile Syrophoenician woman finds out he’s in town and seeks him out so that he can heal her daughter. At first, even Jesus puts up the cultural barrier, claiming he was sent primarily to the lost sheep of Israel, the Jewish people, to proclaim the Good News there first, and that she’d have to wait… The language is shocking to us, and sounds rude. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But the word “dogs” Jesus uses here means the “Little dogs” that were pets. So, part of the household, just not at the same stature. But her answer disarms him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She knows the power of God through Jesus is so powerful that even a crumb would suffice. It also shows how Jesus’ understanding of his own ministry broadened through this encounter with a woman of a different culture and different religious background.
Both passages show us that when we as humans enter others who are different we often, even without thinking about it, start putting up barriers, showing favoritism, or discriminating. Both stories show us that God’s love and God’s desire for us moves beyond the differences we use to divide us.
Think about your own neighborhood and the people who live on your street. First of all, do you even know their names? What do you know about them? How are they like you, and how are they different? My goal for this series of sermons is that they might raise our awareness to actually being better neighbors in our own neighborhood. We want to become neighbors who love our actual neighbors.
One question congregational vitality experts say that a congregation should ask itself, “If your church were to disappear, who, besides your own members, would miss it?” That’s an indication to see if your church is a good church for the neighborhood. Are we at St. Michael’s relevant not only to those of us gathered here each Sunday? How do we make an impact in our neighborhood as we Celebrate, Love and Serve? Would anyone care if were gone? <pause> . I think the answer is yes, we do make an impact, and some people would care… but there’s definitely room for growth.
But let’s take that question and turn it to each of you. How good of a neighbor are you? If you were to move, would your neighbors miss you? Would you miss them? How well do you love your neighbors?
Today, you received as you came in, or will receive as you leave, a neighborhood card…(hold up) Over the next few weeks, see if you can fill it out. It’s a card to see what you know about you neighbors, and to inspire to get to know them better, so that you can love them better. I can see you are all excited about this assignment!
Before I go any further, let me tell you what this homework is NOT about. We’re not getting to know our neighbors better in order to get them to come to St. Michael’s. Sure, it would be cool if you made friends with your neighbors and at some point, they were interested in coming to church with you. But we are not doing this in order to recruit church members.
Secondly, we are not doing this in order to convert anyone to Jesus. Again, it would be really great if you developed relationships with your neighbors in such a way that they became interested in how your faith seems to enliven you, and they themselves might take steps to walk the path of Jesus. But let’s leave that up the Holy Spirit for now. All we are doing is trying to follow Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor.
The other thing this exercise is not about, is that this is not a stalking exercise. Don’t go home and start googling your neighbors or trolling them on NextDoor.com or whatever. Find out your information directly from the source, by actually talking to your neighbors.
So, look at this card.
The middle box represents your house. So think about those closest to you. Next door neighbors and those across the street and behind you. And if your neighborhood isn’t laid out this way, be creative. If you live on a farm, the neighbor next door may be half a mile away. I get it.
So, First, write the names of the people who live closest to you. How many do you know? Maybe you’ve lived in your neighborhood a long time, from back in the day where people really did get to know their neighbors. Maybe you have close connections with your neighbors. That’s great. Maybe you’ve just moved, and so, this is a good opportunity to get to know who your neighbors are. Starting with their names.
2nd, After you find out and write in their names, Jot down some other info. What else do you know? José likes fishing. Tyrone went to Virginia Tech, Naadira teaches history at the High School. Molly is a single mom.
3rd – Then once you know some basics, go deeper. As you get to know your neighbors, begin to discover what are some of their hopes and dreams? What are some of their challenges and struggles? Expect to share some of your own as well. It requires mutual vulnerability, as well as the willingness to look beyond the surface. It requires we be ready to set aside our prejudices and assumptions, and begin to love the people who God has actually given us as neighbors.
Finally, 4th – or maybe even 1st. Begin to pray for your neighbors. Pray for them by name if you know them. Pray for them by household if you don’t know them yet. Pray God’s best for them in all aspects in their life.
Jesus knew that this world would better reflect his kingdom if each of us would be good neighbors to those around us, loving them as we love ourselves.
Let me close by reading you the words of one of Mr. Roger’s other songs. “It’s You I Like.” Because, I think its what each of us, and each of our neighbors wants to hear deep down.
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.