A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood?

Proper 10C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The lawyer who stood to test Jesus already knew the answer to his question. So do we. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”’ As Jesus made clear the real question is—can you be neighbor?

They are a nation of 125 million people, roughly 1/3 the population of the United States, yet the number of gun-related deaths in Japan is incredibly low. Can you guess how many? You can count them on two hands. In 2018, the total number of deaths by firearms was nine. Here in the U.S. that year there were 39,740, including 24,000 suicides and 14,000 homicides (Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, 2020).

Today, July 10th, is the 187th day of 2022. Yet there have been 306 mass shootings with at least four injuries or deaths in the U.S. so far this year.  That’s just 21 mass shootings shy of the 327 we had in total last year, 2021—with 178 days to go we’re on track to smash last year’s record number (Gun Violence Archive). How can we be neighbor? —to victims of gun violence? —to the perpetrators of gun violence? —to one another to reach a more rational, less fear-based approach to guns? Could being better neighbors do that?

The basic meaning of neighbor in Hebrew, Greek, and English is “to be near.” The beloved parable of the Good Samaritan encourages us to look for God’s grace in unexpected places and unfamiliar people. To love God, serve your neighbor.  To serve your neighbor, love God.  Devotion to God and service of neighbor form the double-helix of the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. Together they form the living structure upon which the whole chapter hangs.

They would appear to be opposites, yet each reinforces and inspires the other. The Good Samaritancares for and helps people. Next Sunday, the hero in our gospel from Luke 10 will be Mary, who sits still and listens to Jesus in contrast to her sister Martha who is frantic with many things.  These stories fit together –loving God and serving neighbor. They sketch the outline of a living faith. We can be better neighbors through our love and devotion to God.

You need to know in Jesus’ time people believed there was no such thing as a ‘Good Samaritan.’ It was an oxymoron. Samaritans were enemies of Judeans and vice versa. One startling lesson we draw from this parable is that we find those close to God by searching near those in need.  This is a better a better barometer of faithfulness than the ability to quote scripture and regardless of religious identity. To become open to a neighbor like the Good Samaritan is to recognize your siblings in Christ even among your enemies and to uncover our common fellowship with humanity.

Parables invite us to turn them over and look through them from every angle for what they reveal about God and about faith. I wonder, is Jesus inviting us to see God suffering in and with the person lying in the ditch? Through death on a cross Christ Jesus brought himself into solidarity with the oppressed of the world, with all victims of injustice, with anyone who has been beaten, abused, lynched, or forgotten.

Indeed, what about when life and circumstances conspire to throw us, or our families, or friends into the ditch? Many of us find it easier to relate to this parable if we get to be the one who helps rather than the one who is helped. We look upon our neighbor merely as someone who needs something from us, rather than as someone who has gifts. We learn important things when we are in the ditch about our own limitations and need for each other. When we are in the ditch it becomes easy to take measure the true size of other people’s heart.  So many of us desire only to impart strength, rather than to receive strength from others. True neighbors take turns being the hero for one another. Can you be neighbor both to receive strength and to give it?

 As you welcome one another, Jesus says, you welcome me. There I am in the midst of you. A somewhat comical story, said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery, has an older monk telling a younger one: “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world…it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?'”(From Dakota by Kathleen Norris)

There are limits on our energy and on our time and on how many people we can care for.  There is a natural tension between our need to be alone and our need to belong. Thomas Merton recognized a paradox at the heart of what it means to love God and be neighbor. He wrote, “We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others, yet at the same time before we can go out to others we must first find ourselves…Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and “one body,” will we begin to understand…Every other human is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of humankind… (Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1955, 1967), 13, 16–17. Note: minor edits made for inclusive language.)

A Greek proverb put it this way: “A society becomes great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” Neighborliness is not just about the people living next door, not even about people I know or might ever know. It is about God inspired caring for the well-being of each person, and all living things, as we would care about ourselves because that is indeed who and what they are.

Because of this, and because of our human limitations, the Hebrew prophets knew the most important measure of neighborliness is in the society, economy, and culture we create together rather than the compassion we carry only within ourselves. Do good neighbors allow neighbors to arm themselves with weapons of war? Do good neighbors allow alienation and resentment to fester and grow in their young people that they resort to violence? Do good neighbors allow fear and division to overshadow what they hold in common as children of God?

Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer has written a beautiful book called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) in which she talks about the Mohawk tradition of giving thanks at the outset of every communal gathering. It is a breath-taking example of a culture of neighborliness we seem to have lost but might yet aspire to.

Lawyers, government officials, and non-native people meeting with the tribe invariably look at their watches and roll their eyes with impatience.  The so-called Thanksgiving Address honors the communal nature of all life on earth. It seems to go on forever. Individuals may recite it differently, but generally, there is a petition of thanksgiving to the people, to Mother earth, to the water, the fish, the plants, the food plants, the medicine herbs, the animals, the trees, the birds, the four winds, the Thunderers, the sun, grandmother moon, the stars, the enlightened teachers, the creator, and finally, they conclude, “We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way. Now our minds are one.”

Kimmerer asks us, “What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of the democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence?

No declarations of political loyalty are required, just a response to a repeated question: Can we agree to be grateful for all that is given?” In the Thanksgiving Address, Kimmerer writes, “I hear respect toward all our nonhuman relatives, not one political entity, but to all of life. What happens to nationalism, to political boundaries, when allegiance lies with winds and waters that know no boundaries, that cannot be bought or sold? . . . The words are simple, but in the art of their joining, they become a statement of sovereignty, a political structure, a Bill of Responsibilities, an educational model, a family tree, and a scientific inventory of ecosystem services. It is a powerful political document, a social contract, a way of being—all in one piece. But first and foremost, it is the credo for a culture of gratitude” (p. 112, 115).

Now our minds are one. Let us join hands and hearts as God gives us that ability.  Let us strive together with God to be good neighbors with each other and all life again.