The Art of NeighboringSummer 2019 Worship Series
The Art of Neighboring
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The Art of Neighboring
It is great to be with you this morning as we start a new sermon series on the art of neighboring. For the last couple weeks, we talked about the greatest commandment, loving God and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, so starting this Sunday we’re going to ask, what if Jesus meant that about our actual neighbors.
Does anyone else watch more HGTV than they’d like to admit?
I like watching shows like House Hunters and seeing what people care about when they start looking for a new home. People seem to care a lot about the curb value, they care about the inside and outside of the house, how much storage there is, what the flow from room to room is, they worry about the countertops and whether or not there’s a finished basement, but I’ve never seen anyone on HGTV ask, who are the neighbors?
And if you think about it, that’s a surprising question not to ask because the people around us, in the grand scheme of things our relationships are worth more than our countertops.
When Jesus was asked to sum up and reduce everything in the Bible to a command he said: love God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself. But what if Jesus meant our actual neighbors? The ones that live right next door.
There was a lawyer that came before Jesus and he asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, like a great Rabbi, asks a question in return, “What is written in the law”, and it seems like this guy has been following Jesus for a while because without hesitation, they say to Jesus, “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.”
Jesus says, “You’ve given the right answer, do this and you will live.”
And that’s the thing, right, life isn’t about knowing the right answer, it’s living the answer, just like it’s one thing to know that a tomato is a fruit and it’s another to know that ketchup isn’t a fruit smoothie.
If you want to inherit eternal life, you want to truly be alive, don’t just know this, don’t simply say this or believe this, do this and you will live.
As Jesus continues this conversation, he goes on to show us that our convictions, our ideals, and values, they don’t mean much if we don’t live them out. Our faith, our values, they must be lived and embodied, or our faith and values, aren’t worth much.
In our text from the Gospel of Luke, the Lawyer goes on to ask Jesus, “who is my neighbor” and Luke tells us that the lawyer did this to justify himself. Lawyers, it seems, haven’t changed much over the years. Do you know why sharks don’t attack lawyers? Professional courtesy.
And we could keep making bad jokes about lawyers, because do you know the difference between a herd of buffalo and a team of lawyers? The lawyers charge more.
We could keep going, and I have more bad jokes to come, but the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke tries to justify himself because we all try to justify ourselves.
When we ask, who is my neighbor, we’re asking who isn’t my neighbor, we’re wondering who can we leave out of this love that God wants us to share.
Jesus goes on to tell a story that we talked about in July, and if you missed that sermon on the Samaritan you can find it on our Facebook page and website, but, in essence, Jesus tells this story of the Samaritan to show us loving our neighbor as we love ourselves begins with compassion, with opening our hearts to one another so that we can reach out and truly care for one another, no matter where they come from, no matter what they believe, no matter what.
Jesus shows us everyone is our neighbor, everyone is deserving of compassion and care, everyone counts. But sometimes by saying everyone is my neighbor, we avoid the implications of our day to day life. We don’t have to think about our actual neighbors, because we care about our neighbors across town, we care about our neighbors around the world, we care for our neighbors at work and school, we can’t be expected to love everyone, right? It’s not like we’ve found new ways to justify who we count as our neighbors.
If we turn ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself’ into a metaphor, then we have metaphoric love for metaphoric neighbors and our communities metaphorically change, or to put it another way, nothing changes at all.
Have you ever wondered about the invisible family that lives in your neighborhood? You’ve never actually seen them, but you know they’re around because every morning you see one car leave the house, and every evening it zooms back into the garage again. Most days you see a minivan come and go too, taking kids to school, soccer, karate, and violin lessons, but you only know what activities the family is involved in because of the different outfits they wear as they pile in and out of the car.
And what about that family that lives on the corner, the ones that leave their garbage cans out for days, or those folks that live down the street, the three adults that seem to be living together, what’s their deal? Or what about the house across the street that has a pile of newspapers building up on the stoop? Someone should make sure everything’s ok, but they could just be on vacation, so someone should check-in, but that someone’s not me, of course.
When you don’t know your neighbors, it’s really easy to make assumptions about them, assumptions that too often can keep us from getting to know them. But more than the assumptions that we use to keep us apart, for a lot of us, getting to know new people is hard. Most of us don’t like to feel vulnerable, we don’t want to risk rejection, we don’t want to knock on our neighbor’s door only to have them ask themselves, “whose campaign is at the door and how can I ignore them?”
Last week a bunch of yellow jackets moved into our backyard, and Irene was the first one to feel the surprise of a sting while taking our dog Leo out one morning.
It’s one thing for a bug to sting you or bite you if it’s afraid, it’s another when they sting you because they’re a jerk.
I knew I needed to get rid of the yellow jackets or at least try to relocate them. So I figured that I would spray their nest with the hose, slowly get flush them out of the spot they were invading, and, hopefully, they would all go on their merry way.
I started to spray their spot in the yard and they fled for a bit, but then they came back, so I sprayed their spot some more, and they flew off, but then went back in, so I put the hose on full blast and just let it go. And that’s when I got stung on my hand, and then my neck, and then in the stomach.
That’s when I decided that relocation was a little too kind for these yellow jackets.
I sprayed them, thought they were taken care of, but the next day one was flying around the yard. Then two. Then three. Then five. They were flying back and forth from an old piece of wood, so I pulled it back and opened up their football sized nest and was stung seven more times.
This time I made sure they are all gone.
I tell you this story because I want you to know that I can do hard things, I bravely stand up to bugs. Not only that, more Americans are afraid of speaking in public than anything else and I do it every week because it’s my favorite thing to do. But if you ask me to go door to door to my neighbors and introduce myself, I’m terrified. Because I don’t know my neighbors yet, and I don’t know if they want to know me, what if they ask me for a cup of sugar, what if they ask me to pick up their mail while they’re gone, what if they need me to be a neighbor, like Jesus says, that goes and does likewise?
But what if our neighbors are people just like us? What if, in the end, they, just like us, long for connection and belonging? What if they, just like us, need to know they are accepted and cared for?
Here’s where the rubber meets the road, and, just as a warning, this might sting a little bit. But trust me, this is not about guilt, it’s about the realization that if we are going to love our neighbors, we should know them because it’s almost impossible to care for someone that you don’t know.
So I want you to picture your neighborhood. Think about the closest eight homes or apartments to yours.
Do you know the names of the people that live near you? If you can give first and last names that’s great if you can only give first names that is fantastic.
Next, what do you know about them that you couldn’t just piece together by looking at their place from the outside? For instance, I know that someone down the street from Irene and me likes to kayak because I’ve seen it on the top of their car. I don’t know their name or where they like to go kayaking, so knowing that about them doesn’t count. Do you know, for instance, where your neighbors grew up, what their hobbies are?
And finally, what’s something that you would only know after getting to know them. What’s something that you know about your neighbors that you’d learn in more than an elevator conversation? What’s something meaningful that you’ve learned through interacting with them.
How did you do?
In, “The Art of Neighboring, Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door” Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon note that only about 10% of people know the names of eight of their neighbors, less than 3% know anything more than that, and less than 1% knows something meaningful about their neighbors.
I did terrible on this quiz because I barely know your names, let alone the names of neighbors.
Jesus told us to love our neighbors and, of course, this extends to people everywhere in need, it extends to the people we work with just like it extends people around the world, but it also means our actual neighbors, the people we live next door to.
But if you’re like me, your head is spinning right now. Because your schedule is already busy enough and the thought of becoming a good neighbor, meaning a neighbor that is neighborly, that gets to know their neighbors, sounds like just another thing to add to the to-do list. And if it doesn’t sound impractical, it may seem even scary.
And yet, Jesus tells us, over and over again, that the most important thing we can do is to love God with all that we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This simple plan offers and invites us to live a different kind of life because when we center our lives around love and take seriously the idea and practice of loving our neighbors, there’s a freedom, peace, and depth of relationship that comes into our lives. By becoming good neighbors, we become the people we’re supposed to be, and as a result, our communities become the places that God intended them to be.
So let’s turn this around for a moment because sometimes it can be easier to see how not following Jesus’ teaching can hurt us. Think about what happens when we don’t care for one another well when we don’t love our neighbor as we love ourselves. There are at least three things that this can lead to:
Isolation – I don’t know about you, but it’s really easy for me to leave my house every morning and not connect with anyone. I can come to work, and my office is in the sanctuary, with its own bathroom and coffee, so if I want to go to work and not see anyone, it’s really easy. But then there are days with meetings and event planning, and the meeting that you have to schedule another meeting, I can do all this work of the church without really getting to know anyone at the same time, because in a trustee meeting no one is that quick to bare their soul, right? And if I can say this about working in the church, I know we can say this about every job. It’s too easy for us to never get to know the people around us, and the less we know and feel known by those around us, the more isolated we become.
Not loving our neighbors as we love ourselves can lead to fear. Whatever we don’t know is scary. This is a very calm and safe neighborhood, and this hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure it will. I know, someday, I’ll get used to all the cars that tend to come and go, and then one car will stick around for just a little bit longer, and it will be different, and I won’t recognize the driver, and I’ll wonder, ‘just what are they up to?’
This is why not loving our neighbors as we love ourselves can lead to misunderstanding. When we don’t know our neighbors, all we have to go on is what could be the wrong idea about one another.
I heard a story not too long ago about someone that called their city to check on a neighbor, not because they were worried, but because there were two broken down cars in the driveway and the grass was getting too long. That homeowner got a ticket from city code enforcement, and a few days later the person that called learned from another neighbor that the woman living in that house was caring for her mother with cancer. She quit her job so she could be bedside with her mom.
Over and over again in the Bible, God tells us to love our neighbors, to love one another as God has loved us, and Jesus challenges us to put this love into action.
The neighbor that called the city on what looked like a run-down house with two broken down cars and long grass, once they heard the rest of the story they decided to do something. They got together with some other friends from the neighborhood and fixed the garage door, hung up some gutters that fell in a storm, and found a way to help her fix her car too. And maybe most importantly, in the midst of all this work, they got to know one another. All of a sudden, someone that felt isolated, alone, and misunderstood found community, connection, and understanding.
This fall, I’m inviting and challenging you to get to know your neighbors by putting Jesus’ words into action.
It may not be easy for you, it isn’t for me. When I think about being an intentional neighbor, getting to know my neighbors, I said to myself, out loud, ‘But I already have friends, I don’t need any more.’
Many of our lives are packed. A lot of us already have great relationships that we sometimes aren’t sure how to find the time for. But this is what I know, there are only a few things that I can do and take control of in this life, and if Jesus says something is important, I’m going to make it one of the things I do.
When it comes to your schedule, does your schedule shape your priorities, or do your priorities shape your schedule?
When we have friends online, when we can keep up with family around the country and the world, it can seem a little outdated to get to know our actual neighbors, but more than outdated it can even feel awkward. I know sometimes people don’t believe me, but I’m an introvert among introverts. I love my alone time. There are fewer things I like more than being by myself, which explains why I have a job that forces me to be with people most of the time.
Central to our ability to have the life that God wants for us is our willingness to love our neighbors.
So let’s get to know our neighbors.
Maybe you can bake and get to know your neighbors one door at a time with a plate of cookies. Maybe you can spend time on your front porch instead of your backyard. Maybe you can throw a block party and invite your neighbors to get to know one another because it’s never too late and it’s never the wrong time to get to know our neighbors. So go and do.
A simple hello can help to foster a small connection that, with time, will form the feeling of being part of a bigger family. When you make yourself available, you will be surprised what doors, and what hearts, may open.
Jesus calls us to love God with all that we have while we love our neighbors as ourselves and promises that when we do this we will truly find life. So let’s do this together. Amen
Will you pray with me:
Gracious God, we thank you for drawing us together, reminding us that you love us, and that no matter what we’ve done or left undone, you are always with us and your grace is always available. Help us to remember that we are called to love our neighbors, remind us, this week and always, that it is never too late to introduce, meet, greet, and know our neighbors. Inspire and employ us into this art of neighboring, so that the world may be transformed, starting right next door. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Invitations and Interruptions
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It is great to be with you this Sunday as we continue our series about the art of neighboring. If you missed last Sunday when we kicked off this series I’d invite you to visit our website gracedesmoines.org to listen to our sermon from last week, you can also read the sermon on our Facebook page. In your bulletin, there is a guide to prayer and study with daily readings, thoughts, and prayers that all tie back into our message this morning – I hope and pray that can be a meaningful part of your week.
This is the middle of our three-week series where we’re looking at what it means for us to take seriously the words of Jesus that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus urges us to reach out to our neighbors and this journey began, last Sunday looking at a passage from Luke 10 where Jesus meets a lawyer that asks him, what must I do to inherit eternal life? In this conversation about eternal life, about the fullness of life that God has for us now and into eternity, not once, but twice, Jesus urges, invites, even commands us to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus insists that we must do this, not simply think it’s a good idea, not merely believe that it’s true, Jesus says do this and you will live.
Last week I admitted that I only knew the first names of a few of my neighbors, and that’s because they go to church here. So I challenged you, and myself, to get to know our neighbors, to reach out to them and be good neighbors, because when we don’t know someone’s name, it’s really hard to care about them.
I did not go house to house, but Irene and I took our dog Leo on a lot of extra walks around the neighborhood and introduced ourselves to the dogs, and people, that we met along the way. It’s a small step, but it’s a step, and any step that you took this week towards loving your neighbors as you love yourself was a worthwhile one.
In the bulletin last week there was a chart that helped us evaluate how well we know our neighbors because Jesus consistently tells us that we should love them, that we should care about them, and that means we have to get to know them.
Some of you did great on these cards, I did not.
A couple of people said they knew the names of all their neighbors, another person told me about a block party their neighborhood just had, and at one of the welcoming gatherings last week our host saw their neighbor walking their dog outside and quickly invited them into the house, because they knew everyone up and down the block.
Last week there were around 225 of us gathered for worship and if even half of us reached out to a neighbor we would have made a positive difference in the lives of 112 of our neighbors.
Let me just say, this is not about getting 112 more people to church on Sunday, as much as I would appreciate that. This art of neighboring is about our faithfulness, our ability to witness to our faith by being a good neighbor, by reaching out, caring for, and giving back to our community.
Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves isn’t about where we spend an hour on Sunday, it’s about how we live the other six days of the week.
Can you imagine how the world, how the metro would change, if we all, intentionally, painted a picture with our lives of what it looks like to love one another as God loves us?
Jesus tells us that the pathway to eternal life goes through our neighborhood, by loving our neighbors as ourselves.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that we are to let our light shine before others so that they might see our good works. Our light shines in the way that we live, how we treat one another, how we work, how we relax, how we bless one another and give back to our community. When we let our light shine, others see God working and moving through us.
This is how we become the people that God made us to be, by loving our neighbors, so what is God calling you to do?
In this week to come, I’d invite you to reflect on the kind of neighbor that Jesus would be, by thinking about our reading this morning.
Luke tells us about Jairus, a synagogue official, that is struggling. Jairus was well known in the community, he was a leader in the synagogue and he came to Jesus because was in need. Jairus’ daughter is sick, she’s near death, and Jairus’ heart is breaking as he begs Jesus to come and be with his family.
Jesus hears this cry, this need, and Jesus responds.
Jairus is in a hurry, as you would expect, right. Every moment, for Jairus, is life and death, Jairus has a singular focus and begs, Jesus to move as fast as possible.
So Jesus goes. He starts moving through the neighborhood, towards Jairus’ home with haste to care for this 12-year-old girl.
Now, by this time in Jesus’ life, word has spread about him and in the neighborhood, the crowd starts to grow around him, people start to gather to see and experience what Jesus is going to do. The people press in, they don’t want to miss out, they want to be a witness to this powerful moment and as the neighborhood moves, like a parade, down the streets. And then a surprising, and interrupting thing happens.
This is what we read in scripture, “In the crowd was a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. She had spent everything she had on doctors, but none of them could make her well. As soon as she came up behind Jesus and barely touched his clothes, her bleeding stopped. ‘Who touched me’ Jesus asked.”
Can you sense what’s going on here? The whole crowd, the neighborhood, is on the move, they are trying to get to Jarius’ daughter as fast as they can, and Jesus is interrupted along the way.
In the excitement, anticipation, as the crowd is pressing in and moving forward, this woman enters in, she fights through the crowd so that she can reach out to Jesus.
Jesus knows something happened, someone reached out, and Jesus wants everyone to know who did it.
But there’s no time for this, there’s no room in Jarius’ schedule for an interruption. But Jesus says I’m not going any further until this interruption is important.
The crowd doesn’t know what to do because they’ve all been pressing in as they’ve walked along, it could have been anyone.
When I was in seminary I lived in New Jersey and at least once a month I would travel to New York because when you live in New Jersey you try to get out of New Jersey as much as possible. Could you imagine what would happen if I was on a crowded subway car, filled with people, jostling along, and suddenly shouted, who touched me?
Nothing would have happened. People yell stuff on the subway wall the time and no one notices.
But at this moment, Jesus notices, Jesus knows that something important, something special, something life-changing happened.
In the middle of your busiest day, while you are juggling everything you have to do, if someone bumped into you, tapped you on the shoulder, wanted a minute of your time, if they weren’t on your schedule, if you didn’t think you had time for them, would you slow down, would you stop everything, and give them your full attention?
Would you pay attention to the interruption that is right in front of you, right now, or would you only think about where you’re headed?
Jesus lets his schedule be interrupted.
Jesus is not going anywhere, he’s stopped to deal with this interruption because someone needed him and he needed to know who.
Would you do this on a busy day?
Would even you do this on a lazy day?
When you’re in the line at the grocery store, do you notice the people you’re with?
When the elevator starts working again, as you ride between floors do you give the other people on the elevator your full attention?
Do you want to know what I do in those moments?
I pull out my phone.
I call it multitasking, but it’s really ignoring the world around me. That’s how I handle those moments.
I try to avoid interruptions, I like the schedule I’ve set for myself because I know exactly what’s expected of me. I distract myself from others, from strangers, from unexpected occurrences, but let’s be honest, we don’t just distract ourselves from strangers, we can distract ourselves from one another.
We can avoid interruptions from friends, family members, by being distracted.
The photographer Eric Pickersgill took some moving, and striking pictures that demonstrate our distraction.
In these pictures, they removed phones and tablets; just look at the couples, these families, these gatherings of family and friends.
We really like to look at our hands, don’t we?
Too often we more engaged and aware of the rectangle that we keep in our pockets than the world around us.
I don’t think anyone really likes interruptions. We like our schedules and plans, but that isn’t Jesus’ way.
Jesus shows us that the art of neighboring can be found in interruptions.
How Jesus deals with this interruption teaches us two things -the first thing is that where Jesus is going is not as important as where Jesus is. Jesus teaches us to be in the present, truly with and for one another. Jesus is more concerned about this moment, what’s happening right here, right now than anything else.
Everyone else was looking forward, to where they were going, but Jesus stopped and was interrupted because he was present, not focusing on what was ahead because he was paying attention to what is present now.
The second thing that we learn from Jesus is that no matter what Jesus was doing, he was always approachable.
Jairus comes to Jesus, begs him to care for his daughter, and so Jesus sets out, purposefully, he moves through the neighborhood, he knows exactly what he needs to do, and yet, Jesus lets people come to him and interrupt him on his way.
No one ever had to say to Jesus, I know your busy, but…
Jesus let people know that he was approachable.
Could that be said of you? I’d hope that could be said about me, but I know it’s not always true.
How willing are you to stop and pay attention to the world around you?
If we are going to live into this art of neighboring, these are two things that we have to claim for our lives, we need to open up and be approachable, and we do that by being present in this moment instead of always looking forward to the next thing.
Every interruption isn’t valid, every notification on your phone doesn’t deserve your immediate attention. We can’t be pulled in every direction on a whim just because that’s where each moment leads us. We have to live with purpose and intention, and the interruptions that we let into our lives will tell us about what we value. What are the things that you would change your plans for? Who are the people that you would drop everything for?
Next week we’re going to talk about boundaries and the difference between being responsible to our neighbors and being responsible for our neighbors – there can be good reasons to have strong and necessary boundaries with bad neighbors, but at the same time, we have to be a people of grace, mercy, and justice and that means we have to be a people that are open to interruptions.
So let’s think about the woman that interrupted Jesus’ day. She has been sick, living with a hemorrhage for 12 years. She hurting, she’s sought out help, and things haven’t got better for her. Her life has been pain, frustration, and illness and no one has been able to help her.
For 12 years, she has lived with shame, carrying this weight alone. And then she hears about Jesus, about this great thing that he is going to do for Jairus’ daughter. She knows that Jesus is going to be in her neighborhood. For the last 12 years, she’s tried everything else so she might as well give Jesus a chance and this might be her only chance, so this woman that has been enduring, persisting, I imagine her crawling through the crowd. She gets to the place where she can see Jesus and all she can do is reach out.
She touches the fringes of his clothes, and she is healed.
But no one else is aware that any of this has happened.
This woman has been sick for years. She’s been burdened and alone for over a decade. And now she is healed, she is whole, and no one in the crowd noticed.
Until Jesus stops. He wants to know who touched him.
Can you imagine how that felt for the woman?
Jesus isn’t going to move until she tells the whole neighborhood what happened. At first, it must have been terrifying, because we all love to be called out and be the center of attention.
The text continues, “The woman knew that she could not hide, so she came trembling and knelt down in front of Jesus. She told everyone why she had touched him and that she had been healed at once. Jesus said to the woman, ‘You are now well because of your faith. May God give you peace!’”
It’s a miracle that this woman has been healed, and it’s a miracle that this woman has found her place in the community again. She’s no longer alone, she’s no longer on the outside, she’s physically cured, but more than that, she’s emotionally and spiritually saved because she’s no longer alone.
The power of this story is in the miracle it is found in Jesus’ ability to meet our needs, but there is another power that I see, and it’s in this woman’s willingness to ask for help, for her to say to her neighbors and Jesus, I need you, I can’t do this alone.
It’s the same power that Jairus had; what if he never asked for help?
Being a neighbor is about being approachable, it’s about allowing interruptions into your life, and it’s also about receiving gifts.
The best communities know the power of asking for help.
We can be open to interruptions, and we need to remember that sometimes we are the interruption.
Most of the time when we in the church talk about loving our neighbors it’s as if we’re the ones that can do it all, that nothing can stop us, that there isn’t anything that we can’t do.
We can and should give, but we also ask for help.
When was the last time you asked a neighbor for help?
I don’t like asking for help. I like to imagine that I can handle everything on my own. I’ve got everything under control, or at least I want you to think I do.
But if anything breaks in my house and it can’t be fixed by changing a battery, I have no idea what to do.
When it comes to gardening, I have a black thumb.
I can do a few things, but there’s a lot that I can’t.
When I moved into my first house, I had no idea what to do. Before that, I always had a landlord, so if something went wrong, I called them. Before that, I was living with my parents and if something went wrong, I called them and if something broke I asked my mom to fix it, because her dad, my grandpa, was a carpenter. She inherited some of those genes but they skipped a generation.
When Irene and I moved into the parsonage here, you all had done a ton of work before we got here – most of the rooms had been painted, the house had been cleaned, the wood floors were polished, but there were a couple of rooms that hadn’t been painted yet. A crew of people volunteered to take care of the last two rooms, and, because I want to believe I can do everything on my own, when they showed up, I really wanted to say, no, it’ll be ok, things will settle down for me, everything is ok, I don’t need your help and I can do it myself.
But instead I accepted their help and they experienced the grace that comes from giving of ourselves, offering ourselves, giving something away, because it’s in giving that we receive.
When you empty yourself, you find fullness. When you receive gifts, when you are honest enough to ask for help, you find peace.
Jesus said to this woman, go in peace. She receives a gift, and she now knows she’s never alone.
This woman has experienced neighborly love because it takes someone to receive as much as it takes someone to bless.
If all we do is give, and give, and give, the people around us can start to feel like projects instead of people. When we ask need help, when we receive, that’s when our neighbors become participants in this life that truly is life, the life that Christ invites us into when we go and do likewise. When we love our neighbors as ourselves, we let ourselves receive their love in return.
Seeing and Being Seen
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For three weeks, we’ve been on this journey, asking ourselves what it means to love our neighbors, our actual neighbors, as we love ourselves. Jesus says that if we want to experience the fullness and the depth of life, we need to love God and love our neighbors. Jesus tells us that this is how we find fulfillment, purpose, and peace, by loving God and loving our neighbors.
If we take Jesus’ words seriously, we should be the best kinds of neighbors. As we talked about last week, we should be known by our ability to be interrupted, even on our busy days, because we are approachable, caring, generous. And as much as we give, we should also be faithful people that accept and ask for help when we need it.
I’ve been inviting you to join me in this journey of neighboring, by getting to know your closest neighbors, so ask yourself, do you know their names? Do you know something about them that you couldn’t learn by looking at their front door? Do you know their hopes and dreams? Do you know their story?
When we began, a couple of weeks ago, I only knew the name of one of my neighbors, and now I’ve gotten to know a few more of them and I look forward to getting to know them even after this sermon series is done because I plan on being here for a while.
There is a life-changing impact in getting to know our neighbors.
I’ve heard stories, and maybe you have too, where neighbors got to know one another’s schedules, and then, all of a sudden, one day things are a little bit different, and they’re able to check in on their neighbor and sometimes that check-in can be the difference between life and death.
I heard a story not too long ago about someone that noticed a stack of newspapers building up on their elderly neighbors stoop. The neighbor decided to knock on the door, and they heard their old neighbor call out for help. They had been stuck in bed for 3 days, and their phone wasn’t working, the call button for help that they had wasn’t working either. They were stuck and scared, and a neighbor knocking on their door saved their life.
Something as small and seemingly inconsequential, knocking on a neighbors door, can make all the difference in the world.
The ways that we live into this art of neighboring, the ways that we seek to live out our faith by caring for others, by blessing and giving back to our community, our acts of faithfulness, however small, can lead to something greater than we could ever ask for or imagine.
In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples that those who follow him will do amazing things, that we will do, “greater things” than him. Of all the things that I wish people would take seriously when it comes to Jesus, him saying that we can and will do greater things is up there. Jesus tells us that his work isn’t done, and that we can do this, that we are trusted and empowered to be amazing. Jesus believes in you. Please take that seriously.
Our willingness, our courage, to enter into the lives of the people around us, will transform not only us but our community.
We’ve said this a lot over the last few weeks because it’s the point I need you to remember most: Jesus tells us that if we want to have eternal life, if we want to experience the depth and the fullness of life, then we have to go and do likewise, not simply think, not simply believe, but go and do this, be this, someone that loves God, and loves your neighbor. Don’t just know it, don’t simply think those are good ideas, do it.
A couple of weeks back, someone told me a great story about neighboring – their mother was starting to get confused and she was forgetting things from time to time while misplacing others too. One day their mother was going to come over for a meal, but instead of going into their house, their mother went into the neighbor’s house.
Her mother rang the doorbell, walked straight in, placed the food that she brought in the neighbors refrigerator and sat down at the kitchen table. And the neighbors just went along with it. They started to eat together, and even though everyone was a little confused, it was still nice to share a meal. Eventually, the mother asked her dinner hosts where her daughter was, and the neighbors, politely, said, “next door.”
When Jesus says the kingdom of God is within us, I think part of what he means is that the love and grace of God can be found within our hearts when they are open to one another.
There is something that happens when we give and receive grace.
The author and social worker Brene Brown writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”
Some of us have an Andy Griffith inspired ideal of neighboring, where if you needed a cup of sugar you just go next door. We imagine this time where people would sit and sip on their front porches while greeting their neighbors. But this idea goes back further than the 1950s. It goes back to the extravagant generosity of the first Christians and their neighborhoods where they would give, receive and share everything they had in common.
In Acts, chapter 2, it’s written that these early Christian neighbors would sell their possessions and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. It goes on saying that they spent time together in worship, that they shared meals with one another with grateful hearts, and that day by day the Lord added to their number as more people began to ask themselves, what do these Christians have that I’m missing, what is changing and transforming their life and mine?
As St. Francis of Assisi is credited with saying, share the gospel always, if necessary, use words.
I’ve heard it said that the front door of our homes is the side door of the church.
How we live at home, our openness, our approachability, the way that we greet people, the ways that we welcome folks into our lives, the ways that we care for one another demonstrates our faith.
If I were to knock on the doors of your neighbors and ask about you, what would they say?
I’m not sure what my neighbors would say, because most of them don’t know me yet, but I hope that they see me as a gracious, caring, person that embodies and tries to live with the mercy and joy of Jesus.
Your life may be the only scripture someone reads. We can, and are called to, share the good news of God with others, wherever we go.
At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives his disciples what we call the great commission. Jesus says to them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Jesus encouraged 11 people, to reach out, to remember, as the Psalmist writes, that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, to see the world and our lives as an adventure, one where we love God, love one another, and invite others to do the same, because together we get a glimpse of the perfect love of God.
Those 11 people, were asked, they were invited, to take Jesus seriously, to trust that God would be with them, and because of their faithfulness, we’re here today.
Jesus trusts us in this mission of transformation and renewal.
In the church, we talk a lot about the faith and trust that we should have in God, but have you ever thought about the faith and the trust that God has in us?
Jesus believes that you can do what he’s asked of you.
Jesus believes that you can make a difference.
Jesus believes that you can change the world.
Jesus believes in you.
To be perfectly honest, as I have been telling you to get to know your neighbors I haven’t had a lot of time to get to know my neighbors. Since the end of June Irene and I have packed up one house, moved into another, tried to settle in while learning about a new job and community, and if that wasn’t enough of a transition we got married too. We haven’t been busy at all.
One of the unique things about being a pastor is you are, somehow at the same time, the boss and the newest employee. I’m sure you all know how easy it is to be in charge of an organization that you’re just getting started at.
I haven’t been able to get to know a lot of my actual neighbors, but the church is right next door, so I have spent a lot of time trying to get to know you all. In the last couple months, there have been 14 gatherings in peoples homes where I’ve had the chance to learn about your hopes and dreams for the church as well as how you first came to Grace and what kept you coming back too.
There have been a lot of great things shared at these meetings, and we’ve taken notes at all these meetings too so we can identify common themes and set goals for our church. There are a ton of great ideas that you all have for programs and groups and events and ways that we can get involved in the community. It has been inspiring to hear all of your ideas – so I need you to hear this in return – your ideas are great, and I will cheer you on, but I can’t do everything.
Jesus believes in you, and I do too.
There are amazing things that you are doing and incredible ideas that you have and can accomplish, and I’ll support you, I’ll help you find resources, recruit volunteers, and more. But I need you to know that I can’t do it all.
Most Sundays there are about 220 of you, but 1 of me.
I’m just getting started here, so I need to be clear – I am not the church, we are. And we can do amazing things, we will make a difference in Des Moines and around the world, because Jesus believes in you, and I do too.
Now for something completely different. Imagine that you’re trying to sell your 1975, pastel yellow, wood panel station wagon. One day, the phone rings and Roy says he wants to come and see your car and you’re thrilled because you’ve been wanting to sell this 1975, pastel yellow, wood panel station wagon since 1975.
You schedule a time for Roy to come and see the car and Roy shows up and asks if he can take the car for a ride. Roy seems trustworthy enough, so you give Roy the keys and he gets behind the wheel, and just as he’s about to drive off, you ask him where his car is, and he backs out of your driveway while turning up the stereo, so since Roy walked from around the corner, you assume his car must be back there somewhere.
You think, good enough, and Roy drives off while you sit on the front porch.
And you wait.
And you wait.
And you wait.
Until it’s been about a half an hour and you want to believe that Roy is just being thorough. But after an hour, you’re not so sure anymore so you walk around the corner to see if Roy’s car is there only to see a few cars but you have no idea what car is Roy’s if Roy had one.
So you go back to your porch, and you wait some more.
After 2 hours, you’re convinced that Roy has stolen your car, so you call the police because that’s what you do when your car has been stolen.
It’s only natural that you would call the police and an officer would come to your home, talk to you, ask a few questions, fill out some forms, and then set in place the chain of events that follow in a police investigation.
Thankfully, the police find your 1975, pastel yellow, wood panel station wagon parked at a gas station a few miles from your house and they found Roy there too with some beef jerky and the best breakfast pizza in the world.
But here’s the thing – when the police question Roy about why he’s driving your car, Roy tells the police, “They gave me the keys, I thought that meant they were giving me the car.”
The officers then explain to Roy that you wanted to sell the and Roy says, “huh, that’s an interesting idea, I’ve never heard of that before.”
This afternoon, please don’t just remember a 1975 pastel yellow, wood panel station wagon.
Roy’s response is weird because it goes against everything we’re used to when it comes to how we buy and sell. We agree to terms, each party provides what’s been committed, and if you fail to do your part, there are consequences.
That’s why there are contracts, that’s why you have a pin code for a debit card, or a signature for a check, we make agreements and contracts. But now ask yourself, 4000 years ago, if someone rode off with your donkey, and you thought they were taking it for a test drive, but they thought they could keep it, who would you call?
Before we had all of the elaborate structures that attempt to maintain justice and peace, how did people trust one another to uphold their end of the deal?
The answer is – they made covenants, and in the ancient near east, a covenant was also a ritual, not simply a promise.
First, they would get some animals, like a goat or a dove, maybe a donkey, and second, they would chop it in half.
They would lay out the halves with a space between them, forming an aisle of sorts. Then they would stand side by side at the start of the aisle made up of animal haves and they would each say what they were going to do to hold up their end of the bargain. If you were in this aisle, probably plugging your nose, you would say something like, I will provide you with a 1975, pastel yellow, wood panel station wagon that makes an ominous rattling noise at 45 miles per hour. And Roy would say, I will gladly pay you $2,000 for such a majestic vehicle.
Then, you would walk between the halves of the animals while saying something like – may I become like these animals if I fail to uphold my end of this covenant.
Now, this sounds barbaric, backwards and weird, but it’s also profound because this is where the phrase ‘cut a deal’ comes from.
In early societies, these rituals were like glue, this was essentially the first insurance policy because like a good neighbor, your neighbor walked with you through this covenant.
Then think about a wedding. We go to a wedding to be a part of this ritual, this covenant, that is supposed to bind people together. No one goes to a wedding to see a couple sign a contract, we go to weddings to be a part of this ritual that binds us together.
All of this, of course, brings us to Genesis 15 where God promises to Abraham that a new tribe, a new people, a new neighborhood will change the world. God promises to Abraham that this new family, that God’s children, will outnumber the stars and that God will love, cherish, and care for each one of them as we do the same.
Because Abraham believed and trusted in God, they write in Genesis that God gave to Abraham righteousness, which is amazing, because in the ancient world it was commonly believed that the gods were distant, detached, and angry, people didn’t think the gods cared about them or for them so people made sacrifices all the time to try to appease their gods.
But in this story, God spends a lot of time insisting that God has plans, God has hopes and dreams, and God has a purpose for Abraham.
This was a brand new idea, not only can God be trusted, God isn’t angry or distant or indifferent, God is with us, God is cheering us on, God even trusts us.
God then tells Abraham that he is going to be given a new land to inherit and Abraham asks, how can I know that I will gain possession of it and God responds by saying – bring me a heifer, a goat, and a ram – so you know where this is going now, don’t you?
It’s written, Abraham got these animals, cut them in two, and arranged the halves opposite each other.
God didn’t have to tell Abraham what to do because Abraham knew what a covenant meant, they were cutting a deal, so Abraham does what people did in situations like this.
God then goes on to tell Abraham all sorts of things that are going to happen to Abraham and his people and then the sun sets, it gets dark, and it’s written that what appeared to be a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.
The smoking firepot was a sign of the presence of God and what’s interesting is that God passes through the animals alone.
And this is fascinating, because if God and Abraham are making a covenant, if they are cutting a deal, shouldn’t Abraham walkthrough too?
This odd little story from Genesis starts with something that people at the time would have been familiar with, but then it takes an unexpected turn, because Abraham doesn’t walk through the animals, because in this story, God commits to upholding both ends of the deal – even if Abraham fails to do his part, God will be faithful, God will keep the promise, no matter what.
It’s like if you said to Roy, I want you to buy this car, and I’ll give it to you for free and pay you $2000.
Sometimes, when we read the Bible, it’s easy to get distracted by the details, especially the ones that sound like a butcher shop instruction manual. But the promise that we see, the hope that we experience in God, is one where we don’t simply trust God, God trusts us.
Jesus says, love your neighbor as yourself, and God promises that even when we don’t get things right, the worst thing isn’t the last thing, because no matter what we do to mess things up, God’s hope, God’s promise, God’s covenant is still our blessing. There can always be reconciliation, there can always be a second chance because love always wins.
This leads me to the last thing about the art of neighboring – and that’s having boundaries. We are responsible to our neighbors, but not for them.
Loving your neighbor can mean saying yes, and it can mean saying no too.
We’re responsible to love, encourage, bless, pray for and serve our neighbors.
But we are not responsible for their success or failure, we’re not responsible for their faith, we’re not responsible for their finances, their marriage, or their happiness.
There is a vital difference between responsibility to and responsibility for.
In this covenant, with this trust that God has in us, God knows that we can’t do everything, but God knows we can do something – and sometimes that something is saying no. I don’t always know the difference between a hand out and a giving a hand, sometimes I feel like I could do more, other times I know I’ve done far too much. I can’t give you a simple rule for the boundaries of your relationships, I can only say that God wants you to experience and know grace and peace through healthy relationships with healthy boundaries.
We need to see one another, and be seen, as beloved. We should see one another in such a way that we can celebrate everything we can do, and be seen in such a way that respects what we can’t do.
It’s ok and even necessary to set boundaries. Sometimes it’s the most faithful thing that we can do.
This covenant, this trust that God has in us, it doesn’t mean that we have to do everything – God is carrying both sides of this promise. God is with us, for us, and simply invites us to reach out and share love with gratitude in return.
It is not easy for me to love my neighbors all the time, but I trust Jesus when he tells us that we can find life through loving one another.
We find this hope, this promise, this life, when we remember that Jesus tells us to love our actual neighbors, Jesus trusts us to love and care for the people closest to us, and everyone else too. And to do that, we have to be interrupted from time to time, so we need to be approachable, we need to be people that give help just like we receive and ask for help, so we have to know and be honest about what we can do, and what we can’t do.
This great commission, this invitation that Jesus for us, it’s an adventure to be lived, not a story to be read. So this week, may you enter into the adventure, may you reach out, knowing that God is with you, because Jesus believes in you. Amen.
Guide to Prayer & Study for this Worship Series
Read – Matthew 22:35-40
Notice – When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus chose not one, but two. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:4 and the second is from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus says that all other truths or orthodoxies depend on loving God and loving our neighbors. What makes these two commands essential? How do the commands depend on and strengthen one another?
Pray – Jesus, help me to love God with all that I am, and remind me that even if I fall short God still loves me. Inspire me to love my neighbors in all the ways you call me to. Amen.
Read – Luke 10:25-32
Notice – The story that Jesus tells is a familiar one to many of us. When we read it, we often think first about responding to people in need. Yet, Jesus told this parable to answer a question about being a neighbor. His focus was on how neighborly, or not, the people who passed on the other side of the road were. Are these people that you’d rather not think of as your neighbor? Have you ever felt your limits of who your neighbor change after getting to know someone(s)?
Pray – Jesus, let your story remind me that it is not enough to simply know the right words. Grow in me a heart that notices and cares for others. Amen
Read – Luke 10:33-37
Notice – In the first part of this story, Jesus tells us of two religious and pious men that didn’t have any real interest in acting like a neighbor. These men are contrasted by a Samaritan (a group of people that many Israelites regarded like like Palestinians today) who acted with compassion and grace. In the story, the Samaritan doesn’t simply offer roadside assistance, he puts the injured man on his own donkey, brings him to an inn, cares for him, and pays for the injured man’s stay. How does this story teach us about God’s generosity? What does this story teach us about not only giving help, but receiving it from others? How open are you to receive grace from others and God?
Pray – Jesus, I don’t mind being a good neighbor when it’s easy. Help me to be a good neighbor even when it takes a sacrifice. Since you have given me so much, God, help me give back to you. Amen.
Read – Jeremiah 29:4-7
Notice – In 597 B.C. the Babylonians took many Hebrews into exile and then destroyed Jerusalem in a final conquest in 586 B.C. During those years, Jeremiah wrote to the Hebrews that had been taken into Babylon. Jeremiah offers no false comfort, he tells them to settle down, to prepare for a long exile, and urged them, even in a foreign land, to be good neighbors.
Pray – Jesus, teach me to be patient, to live with an enduring hope, especially when life is hard. Plan in me a hunger and thirst to seek you, and to let you shape every aspect of my life. Amen.
Read – Romans 13:8-10, 14:10-13
Notice – In the letter that Paul sent to the churches in Roman, we see that the churches differed from one another. Some were mainly Jewish while others were mostly Gentile. Because of this, their customs varied and it was easy for them to criticize each other. How do you think these churches would have reacted to Paul’s words, “Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law”? Do you know anyone that is genuinely loving, but in other ways of their life seem to miss the mark? Is Paul right about love, or is he too soft on law breakers?
Pray – Jesus, help me to see beyond laws, rules and customs. Amaze me with the wonder of your love, teach me all the ways that living out your love fulfills your law. Amen
Read – Colossians 3:12-14, Ephesians 2:19-22
Notice – Both Colossians and Ephesians said that God calls us to be people who live in community with others. This doesn’t come about because of contracts or policies, instead, it grows organically as we commit ourselves to living “as God’s household.” “Love, which is the perfect bond of unity” becomes the force that binds us together, and builds us “into a place where God lives through the Spirit.” What aspects of Christian character described here would have the biggest positive impacts on the way(s_ you relate to your neighbors?
Pray – Jesus, sometimes I think love is weak, unrealistic, sentimental. Keep showing me the power of love, the amazing strength that bonds people together. Amen