Who Is My Neighbor?
This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on March 14, 2021
1 John 4:16b-21
16 God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
We are in the midst of a Lenten series called Love Builds Up, searching together for a radical, bridge-building, world-transforming love that can repair the breach. Last week we heard The Greatest Commandment read and I promised that we’d spend more time this week on the second part, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
I’d like to begin by reframing it. I have found it really helpful to think about the Greatest Commandment and my relationship with God in two ways. Vertical and horizontal. Vertical in the sense that there is God and there is Me. God is strong, powerful, all-knowing, grand and transcendent. And yet that vast unknowable mystery that is God cares intimately about me, claims me as its own because I am made in God’s own image. Because of this relationship, I know that when I weep, God weeps. When I feel joy, God is in that joy. Because of this relationship, I know that I am loved and that I am made whole. This is a relationship God wants each of us to have.
God also exists in a horizontal relationship. In this way, God desires us to recognize that as we are created in the image of God, so is everyone else around us on this earth. And because God created us in God’s image and because God is love (as we heard in today’s scripture), we know love has been planted into the soul of every person; that each person has “infinite worth and dignity,” as Bishop Curry puts it. And it is the love in me that can recognize and affirm the dignity and image of God in you. “Everybody is God’s somebody,” the saying goes (Curry, Love is the Way, 145).
When Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, this horizontal relationship is what he was asking us to work on. And this is really hard for us because our survival instinct is to bubble up and take care of ourselves and our own. Remember what the opposite of love is? It’s not hate or anything necessarily angry or violent. It’s the much sneakier and more unnoticed action of self-centering and self-preservation. It slips into our lives and our churches and our institutions and often goes unnoticed, sometimes it’s even celebrated. Yet when fed and nurtured, a strict and unfaltering self-preservation will always make it harder to not only to love our neighbors, but to truly even see them at all.
Seen, but unseen.
I’m sorry to say, but Christians as individuals and churches as groups, have suffered greatly from a misguided belief that the only relationship that truly matters is each person’s vertical relationship with God. We’ve oriented our worship services and our offerings and our programs to be about each person finding their own personal salvation. This is not wrong. It’s just incomplete. The relationship you have with God personally is meant to be so rich and so loving that it transforms you into the version of yourself that is a good neighbor and it’s a whole church of good neighbors that quickly begins to look like the kingdom of God.
So who is our neighbor and how do we love them?
I remember a very specific conversation I had with my daughter, June, when she was about three years old or maybe just turned four as we were learning the word “neighbor.” At the time we had made a friend who lived next door. We would refer to this friend, Desiree, as our “neighbor.” Then another day we were walking down the sidewalk on Main Street and passed someone and I said “hello” in a generic, friendly way. And June looked at me and said, “who was that?”
Mama: “I don’t know.”
June: “Then why did you say hello?” (in a very concerned, we-don’t-talk-to-strangers tone).
Mama: “Because they’re our neighbor.”
June: “But you said Desiree is our neighbor because she lives next door.”
June: “And this person is a neighbor even though they don’t live next door?”
June: “Is that person over there also our neighbor?”
June: “Is Grandma our neighbor?” (she lives an hour away)
June: “Is Hannah our neighbor?” (my friend who lives in Kansas)
Mama: “Yes! Actually, June, we could even say that people who live on the other side of the world are our neighbors.”
June: (exasperated) “Then why don’t we just call everyone a neighbor?”
Mama: “Okay, then, let’s do that.”
I’ve told parts of that story before in sermons, and honestly, I’ll never get tired of how blatantly obvious it was to my child that we could just save time and energy and call everyone in the whole world a neighbor right from the start.
As my conversation with June highlighted, neighbors come in to our lives in all different ways. Some we happen to live right next to; others are around us all the time in other ways, in the grocery store, at the thrift store, sitting in the park, in the parent-pick-up line at school, but we may or may not notice; and still others remain neighbors only in a theoretical, aspirational sense across the world in a different country, far from us geographically.
I think many of us nod our heads at this concept. Yes, everyone is a neighbor! We can get on board with that. But if only it were that easy. It’s one thing to describe people as neighbors hypothetically, but it’s entirely a different thing to live alongside people as neighbors and truly mean it in the way Jesus intended.
When we talk about “loving our neighbor” from Jesus’ perspective, we have to remember that he was always on the look-out for not the obvious “neighborly types” but for the ones who were being intentionally left out. I mentioned last week, that this scripture Jesus chose as part of the greatest commandment- “Love your neighbor as yourself” came from a lesser-known passage in Leviticus in which immigrants, and those without enough were the ones highlighted as neighbors. Let’s let that sink in. And then in Jesus’ own ministry, we have story after story of Jesus making friends with outcasts- tax collectors in a day when the government was despised, women in a day when women were property, children in a day when children were to be seen and not heard, those who were sick in a day when sickness was viewed as unclean and a result of sinful behavior, and the list goes on. Jesus’ entire ministry was about defining who a neighbor is by finding the people who most needed love and then showering it upon them.
It has been said that the church is the only society that doesn’t exist for the good of its own members (William Temple). This is surely the church Jesus began, but is it still the church we have?
As we emerge from this pandemic period, we have an opportunity for a fresh start. To think about who among our neighborhood has been left out; who doesn’t have enough and how can we help fill the gaps. Sometimes this will be food and clothing, other times it will be [healing and safety and non-judgment] acceptance and justice. How would our church look different if it was oriented toward those who are not here: neighbors right outside our doors, and also the ones that are harder to see. The church I am describing, sad to say, is not your typical church. But we can’t settle for typical when the world’s heart is breaking open. Can we be a church that is more interested in the mutual flourishing of all, than the comfort and self-preservation of a few.
What will make this radical love of neighbor possible? Seeing, and I mean truly seeing, our neighbors. Seeing in the sense of putting ourselves in their shoes. Struggling through their struggles. Understanding their perspective. Walking with them through their pain. Celebrating with them their joys. Letting the God in us meet the God in them. This is that horizontal relationship at its best. Don’t neglect the horizontal part of your faith. Open yourself to a relationship with your neighbor. Maybe it’s someone who has been left out. Be that somebody who cares. And collectively we’ll be a group of somebody’s that care. We’ll truly be a neighborhood church, a kingdom-of-God church, a love-builds-(all)-up kind of church.
Here’s what you need to do. This week.
1. It’s hard to love people you don’t know. Meet someone new. Get their name. Make a connection. Let the God in you see the God in them.
2. If you can’t meet someone new (and I know it’s hard right now), reach out to someone you know, but would like to know better. Ask them what’s important to them. Listen to their story. Begin to truly see them.
3. Last, but not least, make a donation to UMCOR. You have neighbors all over this world and you will never meet most of them. But this church we are part of, The United Methodist Church, has committed to showing up when neighbors are hurting. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has been among the people at the scene of natural disasters and violent conflicts across the globe time after time. Support the neighbors you will never meet by supporting UMCOR.
Let us pray.