Won’t You Be My Neighbor

Luke 10:25-37

There is a decent chance that many of you are not familiar with the social media platform Twitch.   The best way to explain this platform is that it is like YouTube for live videos.  The videos on Twitch are all live streamed.  A lot of the content creators for twitch are video gamers, and they live stream their play-throughs for others to watch.   Those watching can comment and interact with one another in real time.  Twitch is a growing platform, which is especially popular with younger generations. However, there is an odd collaboration between twitch and public television.  On more than one occasion, there have been huge events where marathons of public television icons have been live streamed on twitch.  Thousands of people watched in real time together re-runs of shows featuring Bob Ross and Mister Rogers.  Often these episodes being watched were older than most of the people watching them.

These old, sentimental shows have found new life with a new audience.   Perhaps it is just the novelty of it, or perhaps there is something to the authentic kindness and care of these shows that resonate.   The simple fact is they just do not make shows like Mister Rogers neighborhood anymore.   The appeal of Mister Rogers is not just nostalgia, it is that through a TV he made us believe that we were his neighbor, he cared about us, and he believed we could be better.   Fred Rogers has an enteral reputation of being a soft, kind, grandfatherly figure.  However, he was not afraid to tackle hard issue and controversy, he just did it in the kindest way possible.  A great example of this comes from the shows first season in 1968.    Mister Rogers introduced a new character, Officer Clemmons.   Officer Clemmons became the first reoccurring African-American character on a kid’s television program.   Just months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when racial tensions were still high, and segregation of public pools was a hot button issue, an episode of Mister Rogers aired where he and officer Clemmons cooled off together by sitting down and putting their feet side by side in a small pool.   The message that Mister Rogers was delivering in this seemingly innocent scene was unmistakable.  When Mister Rogers asked in song, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”  he meant it.   Mister Rogers did not qualify who got to be his neighbor.

A lot has changed in the world in the fifty one years since that episode first aired.   A lot more has changed in the almost 2,000 years since Jesus first told the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Yet at the same time, so much has not changed.  The divisions and lines have changed but we still find so much that divides us.   We still find bias and mistrust.   Culturally, we still seem to wrestle with the same the same question asked by the expert in the law, “Who is my neighbor?”   Even though so much time has passed, the message of Jesus (and the example of Mister Rogers) can still help us answer that question today.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is arguably one of the better known stories that Jesus told.  After all even the phrase Good Samaritan is used in our culture to describe a helpful stranger.   However, there are some details to this story that we miss that would have been readily apparent to the original audience.   For instance, the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, is not exactly what we would think of as a road today.  The old Roman road is a walking trail today, and it was not much more than that in the first century.   This road is a 17 or so mile trek through desert.   At a good pace, it will take around six hours to make the journey, so it was a full day commitment.   Given that Jesus chose the road as the setting for his parable, it is likely that it had a reputation of being dangerous, especially if traveling alone.  These details help shed light on the actions of the people in the story.

It is easy for us today to characterize the priest and Levite in the story as cruel and selfish, but I am sure to the view of some they were sensible characters.   After all, the road was dangerous.   How did they know this beaten man was not left as a trap to lure them in?   The journey was already long and arduous.   If they were traveling on the road then they clearly had some place to be and reason for being there.  If they stopped to help, then they would be late.   The other consideration is the condition of the man.   He was left half dead, if he was dead then touching the body would make a Jewish person ceremonially unclean.  For the priest especially, this would have been problematic as he would be unable to do his duty.   Yes, the priest and Levite were being selfish.  They were thinking only of themselves, but it does not take a lot of imagination to see how easily they could justify it to themselves.

This is why the action of the Samaritans stands out.   Not only does he take the time to stop and help, not only are his actions selfless, but he helps someone different than himself.   There was quite literally some bad blood between the Jews and the Samaritans.   The bias and contempt that the first century Jewish people felt towards Samaritans ran deep.   The standard assumption is that a Samaritan would not help a Jew in the kind of situation, because they were “those people.”   Of course, since this is a story that Jesus is telling, the end is the opposite of conventional wisdom.  The Samaritan does help, and he helps extravagantly.   A Denarii was roughly equal to a day’s wage.   He gave up a decent chunk of personal resources to care for a stranger.   At the end of the story Jesus, turns the question back on the man and ask “who was a neighbor to the man attacked?”

Now it is at this point in the story, in children’s Sunday school class, I remember being told that the moral of the story is that “everyone is our neighbor.”  While that is a wonderful sentiment that is not quite what the parable or the scripture states.   The answer to Jesus question given in verse 37, is “The one who had mercy on him.”   The priest, for instance, and the man who were beaten were not neighbors.   The priest intentionally crossed to the other side to cement the fact they were not neighbors.  Our neighbors are the people we have mercy and compassion for.   The priest and the Levite went out of the way to not notice and pay attention to the broken and beaten man.  The Samaritan though saw him, noticed him, and responded.   Not everyone is our neighbor, our neighbors are the people we take the time and effort to notice.

This should have a profound impact on our own personal faith.   It can be easy to get so caught up in the story of the Good Samaritan that we can forget why Jesus told it.   This morning’s scripture begins with Jesus affirming that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  It is in response to this that the teacher of the law ask the qualifying question “Who is my neighbor?”  He was looking for a way out, a loophole, he wanted to be able to put people in a box of who he could love and who he could not love.   He wanted someone else to take the responsibility of telling him who he had to care for.  Instead, Jesus turned the question on him.  Jesus pointed out that what makes someone our neighbor is if we notice them and have compassion for them, and Jesus told the teacher of the law to “go and do likewise.”   That instruction, to go, applies to all who wish to follow Jesus today.

In order for us to be faithful disciples, we have to have neighbors, we have to have people we take the time to notice and have compassion for.  These two great commandments of love God and love neighbors are linked.  After all, we cannot properly love a God we cannot see if we do not love the people we do see.   In order to faithfully follow Jesus, we must be willing to go and do likewise.   We must see people, not as others, not as “those people” but as our neighbors.   We must have mercy and compassion for them.   Like Mr. Rogers we should sincerely be able to ask the people we notice and see, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

When it comes to doing that, my children have served as a great example to me.   When we previously move, we had next door neighbors.  Like, literally next door.  A lawnmower could barely fit between the two houses.   When we first moved, our new neighbors greeted us and my kids asked “Who is that?”  We told them they are our neighbors.  For the next several years, every single time one of my kids saw one of our next door neighbors they would shout out “Hi neighbor.”    Because they told us so, I know that hearing those little voices warmed our neighbors’ hearts every time.   My children have illustrated to me, that it does not take a lot to be a good neighbor.   The biggest part of being a neighbor is noticing and being present for another person.

I have been thinking about this for a while now, about five months actually.   Because it was about five months ago that I found out I was to be appointed here..   Over that time, as the appointment became announced, I would be at clergy gatherings or professional meetings, and it would come out that I was moving.   These conversations almost always went the same way.  They would ask where I was moving to, and I would say North Judson.   Then they would ask, “where is that?” and I would do my best to pinpoint this area of the state.  More often than not the person I was talking with would get the sense that I was going to a place not close to a big city and they would get a look of grave concern.   Often, this person would ask something along the lines of “oh, I see.  And are you are OK with that?”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I can tell you with all honesty that every time I affirmed that not only am I Ok with it, I was looking forward to the move with great anticipation and excitement.  I was full of excitement because I would get to be part of a community of believers that saw needs and met needs in their community.   For months I have been looking forward to being part of a church that clothed the children and fed the hungry.  I was full of anticipation and excitement because I knew I was coming to a church that saw and had mercy on their neighbors.   I have been excited because even though North Judson is not a big city the people of this community still need Jesus, and it seemed I was coming to a church that understood that and embraced the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Now that I am finally here, I continue to be just as excited and enthusiastic.   There are still people here who need Jesus, and I sincerely believe that God can and will use us to be the ones that introduce them to our lord and savior.   This is only possible though, if we follow the command of Jesus.  If we love our neighbor as ourselves.   The people who need Jesus are only going to be our neighbors if we take the time to notice them and have mercy on them.

May we as the people of God do that.   May we continue to notice the people around us, and may we choose to have them be our neighbors.  Once doing so, may we love our neighbors as Christ our Lord commanded us.  May we truly be able to say to those around us the same words that Mr. Rogers sung every episode as he changed into his comfy cardigan, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor like you, I’ve always wanted to live it a neighborhood with you.  So let’s make the most of this beautiful day, since we’re together we might as well say Would you be mine?  Could you be mine?  Won’t you be my neighbor?  Friends, if we can approach the community around us with that humble attitude I think we indeed find it is a beautiful day in the neighborhood where God is glorified, disciples are made, and the world is transformed.   Let us join one another and go make some new neighbors.

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