To Whom Am I Neighbor?

March 11, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert


We find ourselves today on the fourth Sunday in Lent, this time of daylight lengthening, a particular time in the church calendar when we reflect upon the stories of Jesus and what meaning they have for our own lives today.  The reading from Mark today is a short passage that reminds us of the most important lesson that Jesus sought to teach.  When asked by a scribe in the crowd about which is the greatest commandment of all, Jesus blends two very important commandments speaking of loving God with all one’s heart and loving thy neighbor as thyself.  He says, there is no commandment greater than these. Of course, it had long been understood throughout all Jewish history that the most important thing was to love God with all one’s heart, all one’s mind, all one’s soul, and all one’s strength and Jesus extends this concept of love by emphatically saying, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. At that time, it was a new idea for his listeners that day.  That question about the most important commandment followed a number of other questions which Jesus had been asked by the crowds that gathered.  Sometimes the questions came from those sincerely wanting to learn and sometimes, there were Pharisees and Sadducees who were just trying to trick Jesus into saying the wrong thing, proving that he was not a holy man sent from God.   Let us pray, O God, you began your relationship with us as a community and you call us to care for one another neighbors and strangers, all connected.  Help remind us we are not alone and through our interconnectedness, may we better glimpse your plan for us here on earth.  Amen.

In Luke’s Gospel which I shared in the Children’s Time, this message of loving one’s neighbor is  illustrated by Jesus telling the story of the Good Samaritan.  Ultimately, the story shows that the ones who were expected to stop and help the man who had been robbed, beaten up and thrown in the ditch just walked by, but the Samaritan, the one who at that time would have understood well the pain of exclusion himself was in fact the one who stops.  Jesus asks who was neighbor to the man?  It’s an obvious question, but we might think of it through a different lens and ask ourselves, “To whom are we neighbors?”  We traditionally think about our neighbors as the ones who may live close to us or in our wider community, people whom we may know only a little or people we might turn to in need,  but Jesus  expanded that notion to say that to be a neighbor is to go out of your way to help someone who, in fact, you actually didn’t already know, to take the risk of stopping to help.

Many of you are probably familiar with a poem by Robert Frost, a fellow New Englander and one of our great poets from the last century.  More than 100 years ago, in 1914, Frost published his famous poem Mending Wall which begins,   “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and then he goes on to speak of the spring ritual that the speaker and his neighbor would pursue each year to walk the borders of their property and mend the gaps in the wall, places where the frost had pushed the rock wall boulders out of place.  And the speaker realizes that perhaps, at places, they don’t really need the wall between them, and the neighbor says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  But the poem ends with these lines…

“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.”

Certainly, Jesus did not abide by walls; he often was found outside the walls of the town, Jesus was a person who constantly broke down walls, always reaching out to those on the margins, breaking through social taboos and religious purity laws, speaking to women and Samaritans and healing the lepers who were forced to the outskirts of the town for fear that others would be contaminated.  These images are repeated again and again in the Gospels, and they are meant to leave the listeners with a challenge.  We are invited to reflect on times when we may have felt outside of a group or a church or a community.  And we’re meant to reflect on the times when we may have excluded others.  Good fences may make good neighbors for some, but good fences don’t make good Christians; good fences don’t help us understand our interconnectedness throughout the world.

The listeners in Jesus’ day were often left feeling more than a little uncomfortable, and we are invited to be uncomfortable too….to think about how inclusive we are in our lives and in our communities; how welcoming are we to people of different races or to new immigrants in our country, or to people in or outside of our social circles, or even family members we may sadly wish to exclude…and we are invited to think about the times when we have felt the great pain of exclusion.  Jesus was the great includer and that’s the model he left us with.  Something there is that just doesn’t love a wall.  People don’t like to be outside the walls.

When I was driving to church back in late December for our Service on New Year’s Eve, I was listening to a wonderful segment on NPR that really spoke to me.

The host had invited people to share stories about ‘paying it forward’, stories of kindness that spread from one person to another. The first speaker who shared her own story was a woman named Neilgun Kurdi, who is originally from Turkey.  She had left Istanbul 20 years ago and moved to California and it was there that she gave birth to her first child.

She recalled, “Back in Turkey, when you have a baby, it’s time for celebration. People come, and they bring food and gifts, and you’re never alone.”  But in a new country with a new baby, she found herself isolated, lonely and exhausted.

She shared, “On the third day of our arrival with our new firstborn from the hospital our dear friend whom we just met at the time – Nikki, arrived. And – I still get to choke up sometimes when I go back to that moment because she showed up with a pot of that nutritious, hearty stew that was going to feed us for the next two days. “ This act of kindness, of a pot of stew, meant so much to her and her husband at that  moment and  Kurdi has paid Nikki’s meal forward by cooking dozens more for new parents over the years, even ones she barely knows.

Kurdi said, “If I see that mother in a street and if I chat more than a sentence, then I would cook for her. I mean, it’s just – I don’t have to be super good friends anymore because Nikki didn’t know me when she brought that pot of stew.”  Imagine, her neighbor Nikki didn’t know this family but she saw a need and she took a risk and brought a pot of stew to this young family and that has made a big difference in their lives in the lives of other new parents over the years as she was inspired to do the same.

My close friend, Mer, recently shared a similar story about her mother who is now 95 and living in Florida.   Her mother was brought up in a working-class family in the coal mining region of Pennsylvania.  She has not had much exposure among her neighbors to those who are of different backgrounds than her own.  Over the past year, when they shop at the supermarket, they have often found two for one deals on products that her mom could use, but she doesn’t have room in her small fridge to store two frozen packages of chicken for example…and so my friend suggested to her mom that after they go through checkout that they look for a family who might be able to use the extra food.  Each week when they shop, her mom looks around and approaches an individual or a family to offer the food to them and explains the situation.  Over time, her mom has spent time talking to families who are Spanish speaking, translated by a younger child to the mother and grandmother who are with her.  Hugs are exchanged and sincere gratitude offered, but the truth is that in this simple gesture, Mer’s mother is stretching her own concept of who is her neighbor, even at the young age of 95…and she often spends the rest of the day talking about how moving that simple encounter was for her in that day.  At first, she was wary of going up to perfect strangers and offering the extra food, but she has been met again and again with gratitude and a few minutes of connecting with someone she never would have met if she had not approached them.

In 2011, there was a book published by a man named Peter Lovenheim called In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time.  He lives in a nice suburb outside of Rochester, NY and after a tragic murder-suicide just a few doors down from him, he realized how few of his neighbors he really knew and he decided to do something about it.  He thought about how he could reach out to get to know more of them and remembered how as a kid, he had such positive experiences getting to know the families of his friends when he slept over at their homes and spent the next morning exchanging conversation over breakfast.  So he did a bold thing…he began to reach out and explain his project to his neighbors, explaining that he wanted to get to know them….and eventually asked if he could sleep over and experience life from the inside and you know, about half of the people said yes.

As he was writing the book, he explored what it was that keeps people from getting to know one another.  He’s not a sociologist, but he did explore it from that vantage point and he noticed that there wasn’t much difference between urban, rural and suburban settings; people are increasingly cut off from one another.  He observed some of the changing dynamics that contribute to how we live today.  With more people working, including two career couples, there are just fewer people home during the day. We spend more time in front of the television and on the Internet.  Our homes have changed over the years. Houses and lot sizes today are about twice the size on average than they were a generation ago, so we’re just further apart from each other.

And on top of that, front porches have largely disappeared.  The author remembered that when he was younger if you put a fence up in your backyard, it was considered a slightly hostile act, but today, a lot of new housing construction comes with fences already built.

I can remember my own neighborhood growing up in Portland where neighbors looked out for one another, where we could borrow a cup of sugar when needed and when people brought casseroles at a time of sickness or loss.  My husband grew up on the northside of Chicago, but he remembers very similar dynamics where they had block parties and really knew the names of the families on the street.  However imperfect at times, it was a community and people did not feel quite so cut off, quite so isolated and alone.  We have lost something valuable over time.

And so today, let’s try to think of this familiar commandment shared by Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself” in a new way.  If we stretch our concept of neighbor, we just never know how our lives may be enriched or theirs.  As Frost wrote,

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.”