31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
January 12, 2020
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
In Jesus’ time, to be a part of a community was the difference between life and death. Literally, if you were cast out of your community, forced to live on your own, you would not survive.
In our time, more and more people are choosing not to join communities. Membership in service and social organizations as well as churches is down. Bridge groups, Bunco gatherings, and block parties seem to be a thing of the past, and most people do not know the people who live around them.
With social media and technology, we are connected like never before, and yet, ‘in our increasingly connected world, people have never been more lonely.’ (Anonymous)
Dr. Rebecca Harris, in her article “The Loneliness Epidemic”, writes how loneliness might be the “next biggest public health issue on par with obesity and substance abuse.” Because “A recent review of studies indicates that loneliness increases mortality risk by 26%.” (https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/the-loneliness-epidemic-more-connected-than-ever-but-feeling-more-alone-10143206.html)
In our modern times, we can survive without community however we cannot live without community.
Because human beings are social animals. We want to belong; we need to belong. Emily Peck-McClain in her work as Visiting Professor of Christian Formation and Young Adult Ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary, has found that even young adults who are in the DC area for as short a time as a 6 week internship want community, seek out community. (Leading Talks Ideas, Episode 38: “Young Adult Ministry: Moving from Aspirational to Instructional” featuring Emily Peck-McClain)
We have been made by God to be connected, to live in community, and yet true connection and authentic community seem to be in short supply in our modern world.
The world is in need of connection, and we, as the Church, can help because the Church’s very essence is connection. We believe in the Triune God: God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit connected in one. Jesus calls the Church to be one body in the one Spirit. Jesus’ and the Church’s teaching show us that we are better together, better for each other’s prayers, gifts, love, and support.
In the coming weeks of Epiphany, we are going to explore connections, connecting with strangers, with neighbors, with Christian community, with friends, and with Jesus, and well beyond the season of Epiphany, we are going to engage in this ministry of connection because the world needs more connection. And we, as Christ’s church, can answer the world’s need.
So today, we begin with strangers. When the lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”, I am pretty sure the lawyer never expected to hear about a person from Samaria, because Samaritans were not neighbors, they were strangers.
Which is interesting because Jews and Samaritans actually had a lot in common. They were both descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They both “worshiped the Hebrew God, kept the Sabbath, and practiced circumcision, but [there were also differences. The Samaritans] did not recognize Jerusalem as a sacred city and they accepted only the first five books of the Bible as scripture.” (Life of Jesus, pg 314) Jews saw these differences as insurmountable and looked down on the Samaritans as being less devout, calling and treating them as strangers, outsiders.
As a despised minority, some Samaritans then lived up to these negative expectations and robbed Jews who had the misfortune to travel through their territory, which reinforced the disparaging stereotype, causing Jews to keep their distance from all Samaritans, fulfilling the other definition of the word stranger – someone with whom you have no personal acquaintance.
In a “Street Car Named Desire”, Blanche DuBois famously says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” (Tennessee Williams) Will Rogers, the well-known humorist, was often known for saying “Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet.”
Jesus tells us to love all our neighbors, and the author of Hebrews tells us to offer hospitality to strangers. And yet, love and hospitality are not our gut reactions to strangers. Instead, we think “Stranger Danger”.
In his book Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell explains that one of our problems with talking to strangers is the illusion of transparency. I was totally under this illusion before hearing Gladwell’s book. The illusion of transparency is the “tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others” and vice versa, our tendency to overestimate how well we understand the mental states of others. (Wikipedia)
Essentially, if I laugh out loud, you might be very inclined to think I am amused or happy. There are some people though who laugh out loud when they are nervous, upset, or extremely uncomfortable. Their friends and loved ones know this about them, but what about strangers? What do strangers think if they see that person laughing at a graveside, a car accident, a time of crisis?
Because of the illusion of transparency, strangers think that person is amused, which leads to distancing themselves from the laughing person, looking down on them, and treating them as strange and a stranger. Which is probably the opposite of what that person needs in that moment.
But that’s the whole point! They are a stranger. We don’t know them. We don’t know why they laugh or cry or shout. We don’t know what has happened in their lives in the moments leading up to them being in our life. They are strangers. They are unknown to us, and they will remain unknown to us if we continue to be afraid of them, continue to hold them at a distance or make assumptions about their background and behavior.
Jesus’ story about the “good” Samaritan challenged the assumptions of his audience, including the lawyer. They all thought they knew who their neighbor was – a fellow Jew, someone who kept the law just as they did, someone who believed in God exactly the same way they did.
The story about the “good” Samaritan challenged their assumptions about who was a neighbor. The story of the good Samaritan challenges our assumptions about who is our neighbor. Jesus tells us quite clearly, without any nuance, that just as we love God with our whole hearts, souls, and minds, we are to love others, all the others, even those we think are strangers, even those we think are strange, extending to them the same kindness, compassion, and understanding we would give to our own family and friends.
Unfortunately, stranger danger is very ingrained in me; however so is the fact that the calling to love God and love others is not the great “suggestion”. It is the great commandment. We cannot truly, faithfully follow Jesus and the way of the cross without loving the stranger. So how do we override the fear or simply caution, we have of strangers?
I am inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s recommendation – with caution and humility. With caution and humility. It’s okay to not treat every stranger you meet as a potential new best friend. It’s actually good to take your time to get to know someone new, to be curious about them and their thoughts, emotions, and life experiences. Cautious can be respectful, especially when we are open and do not default to stereotypes, especially negative ones.
Before you talk to a stranger, when you are in the middle of a conversation with a stranger, take a deep breath, always take a deep breath and keep a sense of wonder and humility as you interact with this child of God. They could become a new friend, or they could simply be someone who for a moment needed someone to be the light, love, and peace of Jesus Christ in their lives.
We do not hear about the Samaritan’s return to the inn. We do not know if the Samaritan and the man he rescued became friends or even ever saw one another again. We do not know how their story ends.
We only hear how our story begins – to love our neighbors, to love our Iranian neighbors, to love our Pentecostal neighbors, to love our food and housing insecure neighbors, to love our grumpy, prone to call the police neighbors, to love our Millennial and Boomer neighbors, – to love ALL our neighbors – because everyone is a beloved child of God.