31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
January 19, 2020
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Theme song to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood “It’s a Beautiful Day in this Neighborhood”
Before the lawyer even asked it, Jesus knew his audiences’ answer to “who is my neighbor?” It was their literal neighbors, the people whose homes were on either side of them, the people who lived their lives and worshipped God in the exact same way. In the telling of the Good Samaritan, Jesus wanted to expand that definition of neighbor. Jesus sought to stretch his audience’s concept of who was their neighbor. Jesus wanted to teach them to love all of their neighbors.
Two thousand years later, most Christians have no difficulty with Jesus’ broad definition of neighbor. We embrace Jesus’ call to love all people as our neighbors, giving our time, energy, and money to “love” our housing and food insecure neighbors, to provide fresh produce for weekend backpacks, Christmas presents and Easter baskets, bus tokens for St. Vincent DePaul clients to get to much needed services. We understand that neighbor means more than the people who live on either side of us.
As we follow Jesus, it is just as important to love our neighbors as it is to love God. In their book The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door, Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon write how loving our neighbors helps us “become who we’re supposed to be… [and helps] our communities become the places that God intended them to be.” (Pathak & Runyon, pg 25)
They are talking about loving our literal neighbors, though, the people who live right outside our doors, the people we share a fence with, the people whose trees overhang our property, the people who have loud yippy barking dogs. Those neighbors.
And that’s where these words from Jesus get more challenging. There is something a little easier, a little less messy about loving our metaphorical neighbor. We can do it from a safe, uncomplicated distance.
If this metaphorical definition of neighbor is “our default, [ though, We’re called to love all people, everywhere.] it probably means that by trying to love many, we actually love very few.” (Pathak & Runyon, pg 51) Jay and Dave go on to write:
We have a metaphoric love for our metaphoric neighbors, and our communities are changed – but only metaphorically, of course. In other words, nothing changes. So in addition to thinking of our neighbor metaphorically, as did the good Samaritan, we need to apply Jesus’s teaching to our literal neighbors – real people with real names, phone numbers, and addresses.” (Pathak & Runyon, pg 34)
At about the same time Jay and Dave were writing this book, Sarah Harmeyer realized her life needed to change. She felt exhausted from the rat race and totally out of touch with God and herself. So she moved to Dallas and began discerning who God had created her to be. In her discernment, Sarah kept coming back to what she loves: “gathering around a table and celebrating others.”
So Sarah decided to take Jesus’ invitation to love her neighbor literally; however, Sarah didn’t know many of her new neighbors in Dallas so she decided to get to know them by inviting them over for a meal.
And they came! A lot of them came. More people than would fit in her house so she moved the meal to her backyard and asked her father to build her a 20 foot long table, a “neighbor’s table”, so she could host more meals and more neighbors.
That first year, Sarah set a goal to host 500 people at her neighbor’s table. She surpassed her goal and kept going. Those gatherings, that community inspired Sarah to launch a love mission – creating a company that builds custom hand crafted tables and a ministry that inspires others to host their neighbors.
Sarah loved God and loved her literal neighbors, and it changed her life. Loving her neighbors transformed her into the person God meant her to be and transformed her community as well.
Taking the Great Commandment seriously, loving God and loving our literal neighbors transforms our lives, our relationship with God, and our communities. We are all too aware of what happens when we don’t know our neighbors. We experience isolation, misunderstanding, and fear versus communities like Naples, Florida and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania profiled in Parade magazine last Sunday, which have longer life expectancies because of connected neighbors and strong community ties.
Connection is important. Connection is life giving: physically, emotionally, and spiritually life giving.
To have the abundant life Jesus promises to us, we need to love our neighbors, and as Jay and Dave write “to love someone, it helps to actually know their name.” (Pathak & Runyon, pg 37)
So do you know your neighbor’s names? Let’s start with your pew neighbors – those who are sitting around you in worship. When you look right, left, in front of and behind you, do you know the first name of each of those people? First and last? How about something more about them?
The first step in on the journey to loving our neighbors is to transform a stranger into an acquaintance and that means learning their name. If the people around you are strangers, I invite you to learn their names.
If you are already acquainted with those around you, take the next step and learn something more about them. Who is in their family. What they do on Monday.
And then we are going to get advanced. In your bulletin, there is a grid with the words “My Neighborhood” at the top. In the center is your home. Can you fill in the first and last names of the 8 neighbors who live closest to you? If yes, can you write down a piece of information about each of them? Something you cannot see from standing in your driveway and looking at their house? Really, really advanced, do you know their plans for the future, their hopes, fears, and goals?
Would it surprise you to know that Jay and Dave call this the “grid of shame”? Over years of doing this exercise, with lots of Christians, they have found that only “About 10 percent of people can fill out the names of all eight neighbors. About 3 percent can fill out [some additional info]… for every home. Less than 1 percent can fill out [hopes, dreams or fears] for every home.” (Pathak & Runyon, pg 36)
This neighborhood grid has just become your homework for the year. Just like your star gift, put it someplace you will see it every day. Let it remind you to be curious about your neighbors, to find opportunities to introduce yourself to your neighbors.
Some of you may have lived in your neighborhood for a long time. We have been in our house for a decade, and this is very much my grid of shame. I only know the names of three of our neighbors. I barely know who lives in the houses of all of the others.
I would like to love my neighbor more though. I would like to follow Jesus more faithfully so I am making a commitment to the ministry of neighboring.
And there are baby steps we can take as we grow in our knowledge of our neighbors and thus the ability to love them. Begin by sitting in your front yard more often. Walk across the street for a little conversation when shoveling your driveway this winter or doing yard work this spring. Consider hosting a block or neighborhood party this summer.
Loving our neighbor, knowing our neighbor is not easy. It’s likely going to be awkward at times, messy, even uncomfortable; however loving our literal neighbors is a spiritual practice that is just as essential for nurturing our Christian faith lives as prayer and generosity.
Loving our neighbor is important, because this kind of love, loving real people with real names who live in our real neighborhood, this is the kind of love that changes lives – ours and theirs.
Luke 10:25-37 and Galatians 5:13-14Jesus calls us to love all our neighbors, and when we understand that call as literal and love the real people who live in our real neighborhood, we have the opportunity to transform our city and the world.
Posted by First Congregational Church United Church of Christ Bristol, CT on Tuesday, January 21, 2020