Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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This sermon was preached at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, Maryland on June 17, 2018. It is the second week of the Worship Series “The Gospel According to Mr. Rogers”.

Luke 10:25-37

Hello Neighbors!

In 1968 when Fred Rogers started Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood he set out to change children’s television from consumer driven slapstick, to a show teaching children about life, love, and make believe.

He started every show with the song “Won’t you be my Neighbor?” and that was the question he was asking every single day.

Fred was a good neighbor. He was kind and gentle, he was loving and accepting. He never turned away a visitor and always listened to their stories with patience and grace.

One of the things I realized as I dug into this series is that Fred wasn’t teaching us (the viewers) how to be good neighbors by instruction. He was a good neighbor and lead by example. We learned how to be good neighbors by watching him.

Our job, our responsibility, was to respond to the invitation he proposed in mutual relationship at the beginning of each episode: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” And you wanted to say YES! After all, he’s always wanted a neighbor just like us!

In our scripture lesson this morning we get another story of a good neighbor. The story of the man who falls into the hands of robbers is a man in need of help, desperate help, as he is described in bad shape being left half dead.

A priest and a Levite avoided the man, crossing to the other side of the road, but the foreigner, the Samaritan, takes the man, cares for him out of his own pocket and makes sure he gets continued care.

The Samaritan answers the call of the dying man, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” and responds with a room and fresh bandages and an ongoing relationship of care. And by Jesus emphasizing the priest and the Levite ignoring the man, but the foreigner helping, Jesus is emphasizing to us that our neighbors aren’t simply the people who live down the street or speak our language, or even pray to our same God. All are our neighbors.

So… Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? Jesus asks. The one who showed mercy. And Jesus instructs the lawyer to “go and do likewise.”

Showing mercy, in other words, is being a neighbor.

But this is not a stand alone story, scripture explicitly gives this mandate “Love your neighbor” over 40 times and is implied hundreds. Even Paul in Romans 13 lifting loving your neighbor as the fulfillment of the law.

As we move through this series, we will be looking to embody the gospel through Mr. Rogers, we will strive to, in our own way, become more Mr. Rogers like, more neighborly, which is, merciful and loving.

As we enter this series, we must first start with ourselves:

Am I a good neighbor? Do I show mercy and love? Am I seeking others our in mutual invitation to be in merciful relationships with me?

What would it look like for me to be a good neighbor? And ask others to be our neighbor?

For our church to be a good neighbor? And ask others to be our neighbor?

For our city to be a good neighbor? And ask others to be our neighbor?

For our country to be a good neighbor? And ask others to be our neighbor?

As we watch this popular clip from the show I want you to observe all the ways Mr. Rogers invites Jeff Erlinger to be his neighbor in merciful, mutual relationship.

I want you to notice how he meets Jeff on the steps and sits to look him in the eye.

I want you to notice how he lets Jeff talk about things that may make us or others uncomfortable, but are very natural to him, how he lets him take his time showing off and feeling special.

Being neighborly may mean interacting with people who are different, who look and sound different, who may not be able to do the same things you do, who may sometimes make you uncomfortable.

Being neighborly means breaking out of your comfort in order to extend mercy. It means being vulnerable to learn something new, and accept someone not for what they can give you or do for you, not for what they have, but who they are.

Let’s take a look:

Go and do likewise

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The Empathetic Jesus

A few weeks ago I preached on comfort. The sermon, which I forgot to record, is still being talked about with parishioners. I was curious, it was interesting, but when something like this happens with parishioners I ask myself, what resonated so deeply?

Not to sound too judgmental, but often times I wonder how much common sense is really preached from the pulpit. So often our theology is toxic, especially around grief. God does not “need one more angel in heaven” and we are not always comforted that our loved ones “are with their king.” Because we are selfish and we want them with us (Steel Magnolias in case you didn’t catch the reference.)

And don’t even get me started on “you’ll see them again in heaven” because honestly, that’s not even Christian Theology.

So I preached on the real pain of grief and what Jesus did to bring about real comfort. Here’s the story, it’s long, but worth it:

The Death of Lazarus
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin,said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Empathy in grief is not easy, and Jesus gives us a road map. Here’s what I see:

Establishes Trust – Jesus has a relationship with this family, so when Lazarus is sick Mary and Martha send for Jesus. The area in which they live is a dangerous place for Jesus, the religious leaders are after him and could be deadly for him, but he shows up no matter the consequences. Also, he waited a few days, I mean “to show God’s glory” but still, he shows up even though Mary and Martha might be mad, because you never regret showing up, even if they are mad…

Meets Them Where They Are – We know the personalities of these sisters from a previous story. In it, we know Mary is the emotional one who sits at Jesus’ feet and listens, and Martha is much more practical doing housework. In our story Martha meets Jesus, she has a piece of her mind she wants to give him. Notice the exchange, Jesus has a very heady theological conversation. “Your brother will rise again.” But when he meets Mary there is no talk of resurrection, but he met her emotion with silence and emotion. Jesus weeps. It is a beautiful moment, but no less beautiful then his exchange with Martha, because in both circumstances he opens himself to their feelings in the places they are.

Defuses Tense Situations – Both Mary and Martha blame Jesus for their brother’s death. I think this is a crucial part of this story for us, as we blame Jesus a lot in our grief for taking away that which we love. Notice that he responds by not responding. In their grief both Mary and Martha need someone to blame, and Jesus is the target, and instead of shouting back at them, “That’s a damn lie” he simple holds them in their grief and says nothing. It’s the grief talking, and empathetic Jesus ignores the hurtful words and loves them in the midst of it all. This story could have ended very differently if he took the accusations personally, but he didn’t, he knew that we lash out at those whom we love most because they’re safe.

Remains Present – Immediately after the part of the story I quoted Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and yes, it is miraculous, but even though Jesus knows what will happen, he weeps with Mary and talks with Martha. He remains present in their grief because the pain of it is real, and always will be. He honors them and who they are by remaining with them in it, despite knowing it will get better. He is not too quick to make it all better, even though (unlike us) he can make it better immediately. Instead he remains present with them.

There’s a lot we have to learn from Jesus, but this, is so very important in so very many ways. Think about someone who is grieving. It could be from a loss of life, a relationship, a medical diagnoses, and take a page out of Jesus’s book.

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Jesus Wept by Daniel Bonnell