Being a Good Neighbor
This is my sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2022, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church as we celebrate our annual Homecoming . Our theme is Being a Good Neighbor and our scripture readings in worship are Micah 6:6-8, Psalm 8, Romans 12:1-8 and Luke 10:25-37. We’re focusing on the Micah and Luke passages.
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family and friends, everyone who has gathered for worship and celebration this morning! It is so good to be together.
I want to begin with a word of gratitude for the last year, mine and Teresa’s first year with you. Thank you for welcoming us and adopting us into the St. Timothy’s family. We are so happy to be here with you. Thank you for all you do, for serving on the Vestry, for leading and serving in various ministries around the church and neighborhood, for consoling one another, praying for one another and keeping tabs on one another through the best and the most difficult days. Thank you for showing up, smiling, even if behind those masks, in person and on Zoom, for reading in worship, for lending us your voices, and for sharing encouragements all along the way. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
And as we gather to celebrate this Homecoming Sunday and think on the year gone and to regroup for the year to come, it’s the perfect time to hear Jesus tell a story, that familiar and yet never-gets-old story of being a good neighbor.
A Good Story
The story begins with a question, “What must I do to have eternal life?” I know we often read eternal life as simply “personal salvation” or we hear the question as “how do I get saved,” but I’d invite you to expand your hearing of that question: “What must I do to really live… to live in a way that matters, to live in view of and in step with things which are eternal?” Because the answer is not all that individualistic or only about getting saved and going to heaven when we die… the answer from Jesus is both individual and communal, about the now and the then.
Jesus turns the question back on the asker and asks “what do you think?” And we really so often know the right answer don’t we? We aren’t dumb. We know what is right and what is good, we know how to live as in step with things eternal: we embrace our God in love, and we embrace our neighbor in love. The answer given to Jesus is a reflection of scripture, and it’s a really good expression of what Micah said: do justice, show kindness and humbly walk with God. The same understanding of what is right and good must have been on your minds as well here at St. Timothy’s when you crafted our mission as a church: to live in love, walk by faith and serve our community.
The story could have stopped there, right? I mean, that’s good stuff… in church we would say, “that preaches!” Love God and love others! Done. But wait… I don’t like all my neighbors! In fact, if we’re honest we’re pretty good at not liking a lot of people around us! In the text Jesus has to deal with the perfectly human follow-up question to loving one’s God and loving one’s neighbor….. yeah, but Jesus, you don’t mean that neighbor over there do you? I mean really, who is my neighbor? If you want to avoid anything, make it a philosophical or rhetorical question, right?
But Jesus is ready, as Jesus always is, to help us past some of these very human foibles we carry in our hearts. He tells the story that many of us are super familiar with by now. The phrase “Good Samaritan” is part of the English language and we use it to means someone who is helpful in the moment, right? In the story Jesus tells of a person who falls victim to some the rougher aspects of this life, beaten down, robbed and left in an undignified ditch. He’s passed over and passed by by folks who should know better, religious folks, good folks. But when our neighbors are dirty, hurt and complicated, it’s easy to look away isn’t it? When stopping to help and to be with our messiest neighbors means that we may also get a bit dirty, and maybe we’ll have to spend some time in that same undignified ditch, it’s all too easy to move along and find another neighbor to love. And so we come to the point of the story from Jesus: the question is not who is my neighbor, the question is will I be a neighbor? We will you be the neighbor? Will we be the good neighbors that the world around us so desperately needs?
Being Good Neighbors
The invitation from Jesus is to go and do likewise. We’re sent to be neighbors to the world around us. It’s an invitation to embrace the role of neighbor, not looking away, not ignoring or seeking an easier road, but seeing those around us and loving them, caring about them and even lending a hand when things get rough and dirty.
As we move into this next year, from now until next Homecoming Sunday, let’s explore the ways that we can be the best neighbors! It starts right here right now in that very pew, or at home on that very couch where you’re sitting. The people you see right now, or will see soon and visit with today… love them, see them, and make a promise to yourself that you won’t look away.
As you go through the coming week and the coming months, going to school, to classes, to work, coming to church services, going to the grocery store, on vacations, walking down your street and going about the routines of daily life, love the people you see, care for them and let your heart wrap around them even in the messiness and struggle in which we often find them.
The Samaritan in the story that Jesus told paid a price for seeing that neighbor and loving that neighbor. Money changed hands. The way Jesus tells the story it also sounds like that Samaritan had every national, ethnic, racial and religious reason to pass on by… but instead they tore down the barriers that might divide and the paid the bill for meeting someone else’s needs. And being a neighbor sometimes will come with a price tag, and the question of whether we are willing to pay with our money, time and energy.
But why? Why should we have to be the neighbor? Why should we have to humble ourselves and get dirty? Why shouldn’t we look away? Why shouldn’t we hurry past like the priest and the religious folks in the story? Why not just lower our heads and watch out for ourselves? Because we want to have that life too, right? Back to the question that started this off… we want that life of meaning, that life in step with things eternal, we want the kind of life that carries us through hard times and the ditches in which we find ourselves. Because sometimes we need a neighbor, too.
As we continue to emerge from the years of pandemic separation, and we try to make things familiar again in life and figure out what really living means, as we work to build back lives of purpose and joy and eternal’ness, to build up our church family and grow it with folks joyfully learning of God’s love and life, we’ll do that in the neighborhoods in which God has placed us and with the many neighbors with whom God has placed us. Together is how we find life. Together is how we love. Together is how we really live. Amen, amen and amen. ~ Rev. Todd
Let’s go a little deeper…
Join me in another post “A Starting Place for Being a Good Neighbor” for some practical reflection on being a good neighbor based on the Micah passage and the call to embrace justice, kindness and humility!
A Starting Place for Being a Good Neighbor
Ok, I want to be a good neighbor, but where do I start? Let’s try using the Micah 6:6-8 passage as a framework for being a good neighbor: embracing justice, doing kindness and growing our humility.
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”
Let’s look a little deeper…
Two of those requirements seem to express life with our neighbors: 1) advocating and acting for justice, and 2) crafting a life of kindness in our words and actions. Can we look around and explore what justice means for our neighbors? What are our opportunities to advocate for all people to have the same opportunities and to be treated with the same respect and dignity which we enjoy or demand for ourselves? Today’s culture wars in our society often seem predicated on winning and losing, as if dignity and respect were limited commodities which we either give away or keep. In truth, those are limitless commodities which we can share and give away without losing a bit of our own.
The third requirement, that of humility, seems rooted in our time with God and the intentionality we have for growing into the people God has called us to be. We need to make sure that we are filling our hearts with good things so that the fruit of our words and actions are good. (Luke 6:43-45) But remember, we aren’t putting on capes and becoming super heroes flying around and saving the world! We’re just people, fashioned and empowered by God’s love and grace, doing what we can to make little bit of difference for the people around us, sharing the kind of life that is really living.
Justice: what is right?
What are some ways we can advocate or uplift the cause of justice in our neighbors’ lives? The perfect place to begin is in prayer, but then we have to make sure that our prayer includes asking God to help us to act; prayer should lead to action. We can write to our political representatives to encourage them to uphold someone’s dignity or to protect our neighbors’ needs for justice. We can sign petitions and advocate for other’s rights. We can be voice for the marginalized and a voice of welcome for those who are being excluded. We can make sure that in our own language and choices we practice welcome, inclusion and uphold respect and dignity for all people.
Kindness: sharing joy.
What about kindness? Is there a need in your neighborhood you could help meet? Who do you know who needs a hand with something? Is there some litter that could picked up, someone struggling who could use an encouraging word, a note or a visit? Remember that kindness is sharing the joy that God has poured into our lives, not what someone has deserved or earned. We can be intentional about kindness; kindness is a choice and a lifestyle.
Humility: time with God.
And there’s our walk with God. How are we making time to be with God in prayer, meditation, study and conversation? How are we seeking God? There are many ways to grow our faith and our experience of God. We can read and study scripture and other supporting books and devotionals. We can spend time in quiet meditation or going for a walk with God, walking down the street or on a wooded path. We can immerse ourselves in music and praise. We can find a spiritual director or friend to help us go deeper in prayer and listening for God.
Making a plan.
What’s keeping us from sitting and prayerfully and choosing an issue of justice, an act of kindness and a practice of spending time with God on which to focus for the week? Imagine the intentionality of choosing an issue of injustice to confront in ourselves and our society, a concrete way we intend to be kind to the people around us, and a practice of growing our faith, and then placing reminders around for us in the coming week. What could we accomplish? How much better would the world be for each person in it who actively embraces justice, kindness and humble growth?
Here’s how this might look, choosing intentions for a week or even a month, developing habits and embracing our place in community as a good neighbor:
- Justice: One group of people who so often get treated as political pawns and not as human beings are the poor souls seeking asylum in our country. I’m going to learn about the situations they are fleeing from in their home countries, and learn about the groups local and national who are helping them, and I’m going to see how I can be involved in supporting these most vulnerable of neighbors.
- Kindness: When I go for my neighborhood walks I’m going to take gloves and a trash bag and get all the litter I can carry! And if there’s a neighbor outside they are going to get a big smile and greeting from me. I hope to greet and get to know a neighbor I currently don’t know.
- God Time: I’m going to start every day with a five minute quiet time, using my phone to set a timer, to just sit and sip my coffee and read and meditate on Psalm 42.
What would your intentions look like?
October 28 and 29, 2012 Redux in 2016
Oct. 29 ~ Civility is marked by humility, patience and candor. #civility
Oct. 28 ~ Civility offers the needed apology. #civility
I knew eventually I’d hit a day when it slipped past me to get a saying on civility posted before falling into an exhausted sleep, and that was yesterday! I’m sorry.
That means today is a double day! And civility does offer the needed apology. Incivility doesn’t apologize because the apology is so easily stopped by anger, pride and the desire to be “right” or to be “dominant.”
It’s that base of humility, patience and candor that allows civility to function. On such a solid footing one’s own mistakes are clearly seen, reflected on and owned. Owning mistakes and offering apologies unlocks new vistas of discourse.
October 22, 2012 Redux in 2016
Oct. 22 ~ Civility is humility on parade! #civility
Because humility, like civility, is one of those strengths that never gets old, never fails you, never goes wrong! When we showcase civility we are letting humility put on it’s “Sunday best” and strut down the street with a marching band!
Little Big Things
I am so grateful for the three young men that Teresa and I have raised, because past all my own failings, each of them teach and encourage me on a daily basis. Recently, Isaac caught me off guard with a reminder to be thinking of others before myself.
I have said for years, and when I was a pastor I preached it, that we should not fight to get the front spots in a parking lot when we go shopping. “Think of someone who might be arriving just after you who needs that closer spot,” I would say. “We’re all healthy and we can easily walk an extra fifty feet. We should be thinking of others in practical ways that help them have a better day.” I often made the bold claim that this was an important spiritual practice to help make a kinder, better world.
A few weeks ago the family came and joined me at the Mall for dinner when I got off work. Since Teresa drove up with the boys we had to decide who was driving home with whom, and Issac ended up with me. As we exited the Mall, and he saw my car right up front by the door and he says, “Wow, dad.” “What’s up?” I asked. “You parked really close to the door.”
Ouch. Like every good person caught not quite walking like they’re talking, I started to rationalize for my son. I immediately began with something like “Well, you see, when I arrive for work really early in the morning there aren’t many people here and the older folks walking for exercise at the Mall have already arrived and found parking.” Blah blah. And my son says, “Hmmm.”
As I thought more about it I realized that getting caught like that was a better occasion to humbly thank my son than to undermine one of the central things I’d been trying to teach him all his life. Later, I did thank him for the reminder and promised to park further back from then on. And I did start parking further back the next day.
I’ve been praying my daily prayer for several years now, “Let me love, let me learn, let me serve.” I’m glad for the little reminders along the way to stay on top of my game. I’m glad for the humbling that comes from raising our kids. I’m glad that God sometimes answers daily prayers not always with more things to do, but with needed reminders of who to be.
Nov. 23, 2013 Civility in Xian Scripture
November 23, Civility is a reflection of humility.
Proverbs 3:34, “He mocks proud mockers but shows favor to the humble and oppressed.”
There is an undeniable stream of thought in scripture that highlights the thrill God feels in elevating the poor and disenfranchised, often at the cost of the rich and un-empathetic who have prospered while their neighbors suffer. It’s not a stream of thought that supports a hatred of rich people or a disdain for wealth, but certainly does remind us that God doesn’t judge our value based on our financial bottom lines. In contrasting generosity and greed Jesus famously said, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” (Matthew 20:1-16)
So the Proverb above warns us against a pride which isolates us from God’s favor. God prefers a person to live in humility instead of an inflated idea of self. God favors the oppressed. I think it reflects on God’s character that the joy of the Divine is found in favoring the least able and most needful. God doesn’t sit back and revel in one person’s great accumulation of wealth and pride in self, but in the opportunity to lift another from despair or to reveal that person’s hidden and less known value and worth. I get a strong sense that humility is actually the inner wealth we carry and live, while pride is an infection that can grow from the accumulation of material wealth. I said “can,” not must.
God mocks the mockers. Among the lessons for civility we find in scripture, this one rings loud and clear. A prideful, disdainful attitude that mocks and decreases another’s value is not in line with the movement or favor of God. God isn’t laughing with you when you tear another person down. But a humility that reveals the worth of the other person is joining God in the Divine disposition.
I think civility will be a natural outgrowth of choosing to reveal and support the other person’s value and dignity. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with everyone, but I sure better not value myself over them. I can disagree with someone while still protecting the inherent value of their life, opinions and aspirations. It’s not just that God loves an under dog, God loves to fill gaps of inequity and oppression. Civility, and the humility from which it grows, will create fewer of those gaps by affirming and revealing the value and dignity of others.
Chick-fil-A vs. Muppets… What A Bummer
I have avoided writing or saying much on the Chick-fil-A vs. Muppets squabble. I like Chick-fil-A’s sandwiches and their slaw is awesome. And I like the Muppets, a lot. But since I didn’t even realize they were doing business together, it’s no heartache for me that they broke up. I suppose that I have been most afraid that saying something lends validity to the squabble, but it’s grown big enough to captivate a nation without any input from me (said tongue in cheek, since probably twelve people will read this blog), so here goes…
It’s been common knowledge my whole life that the Chick-fil-A tries to mix it’s owner’s values with the way they do business. They’ve always been closed on Sundays. I’m pretty sure they used to have Veggie Tales toys and prizes, and I am quite sure they have had other kids toys of that tied into Bible stories and characters. That’s who and what Chick-Fil-A has always been. I have to wonder what the Henson folks were thinking when they entered into a business relationship with the group if they weren’t aware of this.
Chick-Fil-A has given money to organizations that promote heterosexual marriage and oppose same-sex marriage. However, I’ve not found any articles or accusations that they have discriminated against people in their hiring/firing policies or broken the laws of our country. I’d be curious to know if they have had such accusations or problems.
Then, there’s the actual quote that this whole broo-ha-ha has grown out of… did you read it yet? Before presenting the quote, I’d like you to do something: Stop thinking about gay marriage! Gay marriage doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in the article, and Mr. Cathy wasn’t asked about it. Try for a moment to step back and let the quote be itself: “‘We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that,’ Cathy is quoted as saying.”
Ok, so this guy is all about the “family.” And he invokes the idea of a “biblical definition” of the family. We can all read different things into that depending on our theology and cultural experience/tradition. We can even safely assume he would include defining family as based on the marriage of a man and a woman. But he didn’t decide to go there. When he expanded on things he said this… “We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives.” What? What?!
I understand that someone reporting on this story may not be up on all the conservative Christian vocabulary that gets thrown around, but I’ve not heard a single friend or Christian writer respond to “first wives.” Now, if Mr. Cathy were Mormon, then maybe he would mean that those men in his family aren’t polygamists. But he’s Baptist, and “first wives” means that they don’t practice the ultimate evil (at least it was before gay marriage supplanted it) of divorce. That quote is a direct slap at divorced people, not gay people, by it’s own explicit content.
Of course, we can assume he would exclude gay marriage from his “biblical definition,” but he chooses to hang his hat on the absence of any “second wives” in his family. I know a lot of Christian friends who have been like “Whoo Hooo, let’s go support Chick-Fil-A!” who are also divorced, the spouses of second wives and even, dare I say it, “second husbands.” Why aren’t they aggravated at the lack of grace Mr. Cathy showed for divorced people? I think it’s because of the great law of media that once a story has been framed one way, it doesn’t get a second framing. A wise friend who spent years in news broadcast around the DC area let me in on that media law, and it’s so true. The story was framed around gay marriage, and there it has remained.
Plenty of people have written on the absurdity of this public debate over eating at Chick-Fil-A or not. I haven’t seen anyone actually pointing out that Mr. Cathy was blithely devaluing divorced people, not gay people. Why not? Because the story was framed about gay marriage, and that framework holds, it sells, it galvanizes, it’s fires people up on both sides of a silly culture war that no one will win. And that framework has no place to process the “first wives” vocabulary.
So, what do I do with the “first wives” thing? I would say to the divorced people out there, the second wives and second husbands, “You’re welcome in my church family!” I say that because my biblical definition of family is inclusive of biblical things like grace, love and humility. We don’t distribute labels in our church family like “divorced,” “first” or “second.” I personally thank God for my wife, not because she’s my first wife, but because I get to share life with an amazing woman. I’ve known many people who felt the same about their second spouses. I’ve spoken with and read things by gay friends who felt that way about their partners and spouses.
What do I do with the whole “gay” thing? I would say to gay people out there, married or not, divorced or not, “You’re welcome in my church family!” I say that because my biblical definition of family, whether we’re talking about my biological family or my faith family, is based on biblical things like grace, love and humility. We don’t distribute labels in our church family like “straight” or “gay.”
Grace, love and humility. God forbid I ever make a move or say a word to win an argument or achieve dominance in any cultural arena of thought, if I have to trade one single opportunity to show grace, love or humility to claim that win. So where’s the grace, love and humility in this whole Chick-Fil-A vs. Muppets carnival? I’ve not seen much on either side of the argument. So, it’s not my argument. I’ll let Chick-Fil-A and the Muppets handle their own fight, after all they’re the squabbling couple. I’ll just keep trying to find those moments when I get to live the grace, love and humility the Bible has taught me. And I’ll pray I’m better at it today than I was yesterday.