“Neighbors, Near and Far”
October 16, 2022 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
I am so grateful to have had Pastor Tom fill this pulpit last Sunday. It seems he thought we needed more time to discuss the series “Putting Christ back into Christianity” and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I think you’ll probably find a seed of that theme within every sermon you’ll ever hear at this church going forward. We are living in a transitional moment when the authenticity of Jesus’ movement is at stake. In everything we do or talk about here at Cobleskill United Methodist Church, we must be looking at the heart and passion of Jesus’ teachings and life. Everything we need for a better a world, a kingdom of God on earth kind of world, is there.
And so today we’re talking about neighbors. Neighbors were not just the kind of people you could run next door and borrow a cup of sugar from, although I’m sure Jesus would have approved of that, too. For Jesus, being neighborly had a more expansive meaning. It meant being vigilant and keeping a look out for opportunities to show God’s love, even when it was inconvenient or counter-intuitive. He illustrated this idea with the now-famous parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is of a man who gets robbed and beaten, and then if that wasn’t enough, he gets ignored. Ignored not just by strangers, but by religious leaders who walk right by him in the ditch. Finally, someone sees him and shows him tenderness. This person is a foreigner though, a Samaritan, who was the last person the robbed man might have expected to help him. Jesus tells us being a good neighbor means crossing boundaries to see one another’s humanity and extending love.
Neighboring someone can mean physically living next door, but it can also mean existing in proximity. Sharing a road, as these two travelers did in Jesus’ story. Sharing a community, as we do with everyone who lives in Cobleskill and Schoharie County. Sharing a planet, as we do with all of God’s creation. And, as I talked about with the children, sharing a connection through geography and tradition.
I remember when I first arrived in Schoharie County as a brand new pastor and people would ask where I was from. I was proud to tell them that I had grown up in Appalachia (appaLATCHia), in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. And they were proud to tell me that I had mispronounced Appalachian (appaLAYshian) mountains. It turns out, even though you pronounce it wrong (haha), Schoharie County is actually part of the Appalchian Mountain range, nestled here in the foothills of the Catskill. Back in the 1960s when the War on Poverty was initiated, Schoharie County was at the northern end of the federally designated “Appalachian Region.” Whether you say it Appalachian or you say it Appalachian, this mountain range makes a neighborhood of sorts.
My family moved to a place called the Red Bird Missionary Conference in the hills of Kentucky when I was 4 and we lived there for the next decade. Red Bird, and the area of southeastern Kentucky that it covered, had historically been underserved. The economy was fragile, poverty rates were and are still incredibly high, and today the population is susceptible to catastrophic flooding events and epidemics of drug abuse. Because this area is traditionally underserved and disadvantaged, the Church, has committed to supporting it through our shared connection. My family moved there because as a “missionary conference,” Red Bird asked for pastors from the larger neighborhood to come and serve local churches in central Appalachia where clergy were scarce. United Methodist Churches from around the country counted themselves as part of the “neighborhood” and supported our family and the ministry of the churches in Evarts and Wallins Creek where we served.
I count those years of my childhood as the foundation of who I am. Up close, living in that mountain community, it was hard not to see God’s abundance in the warmth and pride of the people. There was unmatched compassion and spirit in our church where saints worked together for the Kingdom of God. Yet this was a community and a region that had become known not for its abundance but for its scarcity. It had become easy for Americans to use its coal, underestimate its people, decimate its landscape and then walk away.
Yet the church remained. And because these communities had strong churches and persistent people, hope remained alive. The church invested time, energy and saw that hope multiply. Today the Red Bird Missionary Conference is at a crossroads moment. I want to first share with you a short video they put out to start telling their story.
One day this summer when I was in the office, the phone rang and I answered it. And a guy on the other end said, “Hello, my name is Rev. Jim Savage and I’m calling from the Red Bird Missionary Conference. We’d like to come and visit you. We’ve heard of Cobleskill UMC and the Schoharie Region and the support you’ve given us over the years, and we want to come and share about what we’re up to.” The conference sees us here in Schoharie County and Cobleskill as part of its neighborhood. I have never met Jim and he didn’t know my family, but we quickly made plans for him to come and speak. Unfortunately, at the last minute we had to delay his coming to the Spring sometime. But he still made a video to share with us. In this short video he’s going to tell the story of how the Red Bird Missionary Conference has leaned on God to guide them in a new direction for the coming chapter. Let’s have a listen.
Under their new, broader name Central Appalachian Missionary Conference, the folks in southeastern Kentucky are still in need of support. They are using resources of leadership they have begun to cultivate from within their own context to the powerful needs of their communities, devastating flooding, widespread economic depression, and the epidemic of drug abuse. Jim followed up with me to suggest that there are three main ways we can continue to be good neighbors with our Appalachian neighbors to the south. 1. Pray for transformation to continue in this underserved area. 2. Help support this transformation from our own financial abundance. 3. And continue to help with recovery efforts in the form of work teams, as we’re able.
I see an opportunity here for us to be in relationship with these neighbors to the south. Although we have more resources and a stronger economy here, it’s because we share some of the same geography and culture, we know something about the problems that affect them to a much greater degree. Like a shared road between two travelers, we can empathize with the risks and the despair that natural disaster, drug abuse and poverty can bring.
Small steps we can take today are first, praying, and second, giving. Longer term, we as a church can think about how to grow our financial giving through our Outreach Team. Thank you for opening your hearts this morning to a neighbor. For the next two weeks we’ll be talking more about neighbors, but for now let’s pray together for Central Appalachia.
Let us Pray.