Sermon preached by the Reverend Kevin Caruso, Associate Deacon
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 11, 2010
Kierkegaard saw the Gospel as a bountiful feast, a feast which often leads Christians and preachers in particular to try to stuff so much food into their mouths that they never can digest the whole thing. So, instead, this week while we acknowledge the bountiful feast that is before us in the Scripture, we will be focusing rather intently on savoring just one morsel so that we might more fully digest it.
As I read the gospel for this week, the question I found myself fixated on was: “Who is my neighbor?”
A quick mental association game with the word neighbor brought up an advertising jingle from an insurance company: “Like a good neighbor State Farm is there.” An image of Mr. Rogers welcoming countless children into his home. And warm memories of going across the street on snow days to go sledding with the Williams kids.
Neighborhoods are geographical areas you live in, right? And so neighbors are then those people you live close to. And as we all know, there are good neighbors and bad neighbors, neighbors we invite over and those we avoid, neighbors who spread gossip and those who bring food in moments of crisis.
“Who is my neighbor?” is one of those questions that at first seems relatively easy to answer… and yet as I thought about the Gospel, my cursory assumptions quickly gave way to the weight of the underlying complexity that emerged.
It is unavoidably true that in this gospel Jesus does not define who counts as a neighbor using geography. And so I was left considering the implications of having to readjust my notion of who counts as a neighbor. Loving God and loving neighbor are easy principles to affirm in abstraction but often difficult to live out in our daily lives.
In some sense, we are constantly in the process of translating abstract principles into concrete choices. Consequently, knowing who we count as a neighbor matters because it is an important part of how we make life choices. So, insofar as the lawyer was looking for a way to understand who his neighbor is so that he can follow the commandment to love his neighbor, I get it! In that way, his question makes perfect sense.
In some ways, it would be much easier if Jesus taught that what defined a neighbor had to do with geography. Yet, according to Jesus, who counts as your neighbor has nothing to do with sharing a picket fence or a cup of sugar. Your neighbor is not defined by proximity or by similar dispositions.
No. The one who was a neighbor to the man who had been beaten by robbers was the Samaritan who showed him mercy. For a Christian, a neighbor is then someone who shows mercy, or conversely someone to whom mercy is shown. It is a choice, the choice to act mercifully toward another, which makes people neighbors.
The issue seems to be that if the law requires us to love our neighbors we need to know who our neighbors are. Yet, in a way, this parable Jesus tells is a non-answer of sorts. He both defines who counts as a neighbor, and at the same time this definition resists our attempts to summarize it using some formula that can determine who is our neighbor. To put this point slightly differently, anyone can show you mercy, or be shown mercy by you, therefore anyone could be your neighbor.
One of the most interesting things about this understanding of neighborness is that it is not mutual, that is, it does not require the consent of both parties to be true! The Samaritan was the man’s neighbor based on his actions. The fact that the Samaritan was the man’s neighbor had nothing to do with the choices or actions of the man who was beaten and robbed. What this understanding of neighborness offers us is the opportunity to act as a neighbor regardless of how the other person feels about it.
The irony of the lawyer’s question is that while, it is an attempt to define the neighbor in a way that limits obligations, Jesus not only rejects the underlying motive of the lawyer, but responds in a way that undermines any attempt to arbitrarily limit who counts as a neighbor.
It is possible for anyone to be your neighbor, as shown by the Samaritan. And, you might be called upon to be a neighbor to even the most unlikely of people. In modern parlance, speaking of a Samaritan helping a Jew would be like speaking of an Iranian helping an Israeli. This story about the Samaritan and his overwhelming kindness is one whose weight threatens to break us with its heaviness. If everyone can be our neighbor and we are obligated to love our neighbor, then how can we possibly function? Can we really love everyone? Where do we even begin?
Yet, perhaps the truth of this passage is that Jesus does not say we are meant to be everyone’s neighbor. What, this parable does teach is that we cannot limit who God calls us to be a neighbor to. But moreover, with this passage Jesus insists we are not simply to be passive receivers of mercy but we are to be givers of mercy. Even if we can’t be neighbors to everyone, That does not absolve us from being neighbors to anyone. We are called to go into the world as a people who freely give of themselves.
And so, as I thought about this week’s Gospel, and I once again came back to this question. “Who is my neighbor?” It had shifted from an abstraction towards a question with concrete implications about how I lead my life.
Who is my neighbor in this world?
Who should be my neighbor?
Who is your neighbor?
Who is someone who has shown you mercy?
Who is someone you have shown mercy to?
And here in this community, this parable ought to have a special place. Any community which hopes to hold itself to the standard of radical hospitality needs to be capable of seeing the neighbor in all who come through these doors.
It is my hope that today’s Scripture will induce you to look with fresh eyes at those you interact with in your own life. That it might serve as one more encouragement to bear witness to Christ’s call to us to be a people who show mercy.
And I invite you to see St. Paul’s as a place where we can begin to understand what it means to be a neighbor. This place is one where we are called to embody the radical hospitality of the Gospel in every way.
It is here we make the commitment to wear name tags because we know the power of learning someone’s name.
It is here that we are reminded that we are all responsible for making this community welcoming to newcomers.
It is here that we have made the choice to insist on communion being open to all who wish to receive it
It is here we are called to make this a community of people who truly know one another by using the first 3 minutes of coffee hour to greet people you don’t know or you don’t know well.
Yet, perhaps the gift of St. Paul’s commitment to radical hospitality is that it has given us a place to learn and practice being a neighbor so that we can continue that practice of radical hospitality in the rest of our lives.
What can you do to reach your hand out to someone in need?
What can you do to acknowledge the humanity of the person in front of you?
Who are the people we pass by even as God calls us to be present to them and their needs?
It isn’t that we can be everything to everyone, but we can be a neighbor when that is what God calls us to be. For in this parable, Jesus calls us into the mission of redefining our own sense of neighbor, calls us to the task of being living and breathing bearers of mercy into the world.