I grew up in small towns where we knew most of our neighbors, especially our neighbors with kids. Because everyone knew everyone else, our parents didn’t worry too much about us, as long as we let them know where we were going. We couldn’t get into too much trouble, because there was always a parent present to keep an eye on you and you knew that your Moms would talk to each other. But that was another time and another place, but it illustrates something about neighborliness – neighbors know each other and they watch out for each other.
There is a flip side of this idyllic scene that illustrates the problem of not recognizing each other as neighbors. I read a story about a stabbing in a convenience store. A couple of thugs stabbed a woman to death, but no one stopped to help. A video store camera records customers stepping over the dying woman and one person even took a picture with a cell phone camera. Now that’s not very neighborly, is it?
Every day we read about a neighbor killing neighbor, neighbor robbing neighbors, neighbor taking advantage of a neighbor. In Iraq neighbors are killing neighbors in the name of tribe or sect, and the same is happening in places around the world. Maybe you watched the film Hotel Rwanda. The movie tells about the genocide that took hold of Rwanda. In the course of this genocide, Hutus began to murder Tutsis, for no other reason than that they were from a different tribe. Many killed neighbors of long standing, and even more horrifying, we learned how Christian pastors were involved. It’s into the midst of this brutality that an unassuming hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina, stepped up and became a true neighbor. He wasn’t looking to be the hero, but he became one nonetheless when he turned the upscale hotel into a refuge for thousands of Tutsis who had no place to go. He could have fled, and yet he didn’t. As a result he became a neighbor who cared.
So, who is my neighbor? That’s what Jesus questioner asked. It’s a question that led to one of Jesus’ most famous parables. We know it so well that it’s really hard to say something new about it, but at the same time it has much to say to us. When the man asked Jesus about being a neighbor, Jesus told him that sometimes our neighbors will be unexpected persons. It might be a Shiite protecting a Sunni or a Christian rescuing a Jew from the Nazis.
Rather than focus on the parable, I’d like us to ponder the question of what it means to be a good neighbor. The man who questioned Jesus got the right answer – the neighbor is the one who shows mercy. In that vein, I’d like to suggest that a neighbor is one who welcomes, who cares, and who listens.
1. To Welcome
Do you remember the Welcome Wagon? This neighborly group would bring trinkets from the local merchants to new residents and welcome the newcomer to town. It’s a nice idea – they even visited us in Manhattan, Kansas.
The purpose of that organization is to offer hospitality to newcomers. We’ve talked about hospitality and what it means for the church to be a place of welcome. But I think Jesus has more in mind than making the church a welcoming place. I think in telling the parable he wants us to live hospitable and welcoming lives. That is a difficult challenge, because it’s not always comfortable to open our homes and our lives to strangers. At least it is for me. But it’s about more than simply opening our homes. It also has to do with the way we treat each other in daily life.
The other day I read a hateful letter to the editor in the Record. It basically said, if you’re not my kind of person then I don’t want you in my town. It was xenophobic in the extreme and its anti-Latino tone isn’t in keeping with the American ideal of welcoming the stranger. But as the recent demise of immigration reform legislation proved, there is a lot of fear in America, and the root fear is a fear of the stranger. I don’t blame the priest and the Levite for passing by. You don’t know who could be lurking in the brush. It’s better to pass by. Besides, you don’t know anything about the person.
But according to Jesus being a good neighbor means throwing out the welcome mat, even for one who isn’t my kind of person.
2. To Care For
Being a neighbor is about more than throwing out the welcome mat, it’s also about compassion. The man said to Jesus, it’s the one who showed mercy that is the neighbor. The Samaritan wasn’t a respected person in Jesus’ community, but he cared about the one in need, going well beyond the call to duty. The good guy in the story didn’t know the victim, and yet he put himself out. He was a lot like Paul Rusesbagina, because he did what was necessary to save a life. He didn’t see himself as the hero, but he did show mercy in heroic fashion.
3. To Listen
Now Jesus doesn’t say anything here about listening, but I think listening is part of what it means to be a neighbor. In fact, listening is what makes it possible to be a neighbor.
A couple of weeks back a number of us attended the Gang Forum. That was about listening. We listened to the stories told by young men who had made bad choices. They asked for our help and we considered their request. Then we listened some more to each other as we shared ideas that would keep young people out of gangs. We heard a call to be good neighbors and to watch out for each other.
Listening comes in many forms. The good thing about listening is that we learn from each other and we learn about each other. If you don’t know a Muslim or a Jew or a Latino or an African American or a homosexual, your information about such a person will be based on second hand information. We call that stereotype, and most of the time stereotypes are incomplete at best and usually distorted. This is one of the reasons why I’m involved in interfaith dialog. I want to understand the Jewish faith and the Muslim faith from the perspective of a Jew and a Muslim. Otherwise, I’m liable to let stereotypes define people of other faiths.
What does it mean to be a neighbor? I think it has something to do with that question Cain asked God? "Am I my brother’s keeper?" The answer is yes, we are our brothers and our sisters’ keepers.
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
7th Sunday after Pentecost