I am preaching again at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost.
A few years ago, I was in Billings, Montana. I was receiving an award that had a quite of bit of significance for me and so, I wanted my mother to be there. After I flew into the Billings airport, I waited for her to fly in from Memphis. The next afternoon, before the ceremony, we went out to the Little Big Horn National Monument.
To say that the view was impressive would be an understatement. You are on the high northern plains and the view is seemingly endless. There is literally nothing to obscure your vision as you scan the entire horizon and you have no concept of the distance to the horizon. As my mother and I drove from the Monument entrance, where the military cemetery in which the 7th Calvary soldiers killed in the battle are buried and the visitor’s center are located, to the edge of the monument area where the battle began, we found it impossible to visualize the distance and the immensity of the battle.
There on the high plains of the western United States we observed this wonderful portion of God’s creation in all its wonder and we stood in awe of the beauty of which we were a part. I could not help but think how it easy it might be to reach out and possibly touch some part of New York, so vast was the expanse of the horizon.
Then my cell phone rang.
The person who was covering my church assignment for me that weekend was calling with some last minute questions concerning the service scheduled for the next day. And if that wasn’t enough, as we were preparing to leave the parking lot to head back to Billings, an individual with Tennessee license plates pulled into the parking slot next to us. And it wasn’t just somebody from Tennessee, it was somebody from Shelby County (Tennessee license plates include a county listing). This individual was on his way to Alaska to begin a new job and wanted to stop at the Little Big Horn monument as he drove north.
Here we were, some 2100 miles from my home in New York and some 1600 miles from where I grew up, and yet those two neighborhoods were right there.
It has been said more times that one can count that technology has shrunk the world around us. My cell phone number is for the Beacon area but I can be reached at that number, even when I am not in the immediate vicinity. It was just a coincidence that we met someone from the same area where I grew up and where my mother lives (though later that day, I would be reunited with friends I have known for over twenty years who came from Tennessee, Michigan and New Mexico). It is possible with the proper technology, the right application of skill and a little bit of luck to be in contact with your home no matter where you might be.
The neighborhood that we grew up in is no longer the few blocks around the house but is almost the whole world. Yet, even the technology that brings the whole world into our neighborhood is a little annoying. When I am commuting back to Beacon from working in New York City, it is extremely irritating when someone carries on a conversation on their cell phone and talks so loud that everyone on train is privy to the conversation.
We have come to learn through technology that our neighborhood boundaries have expanded and no longer are contained by city limits, county lines, state boundaries, or national boundaries. Our neighborhoods cross all boundaries and everyone is now, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, our neighbor. It gives new meaning to the question that Jesus was asked in today’s Gospel reading, “And who is my neighbor?” (1)
The story given in Mark is the beginning of the story of the Good Samaritan told in Luke. (2) It is a story in which Jesus chooses the most foreign of outsiders to play the hero so that He can ask the question about who one’s neighbor really is. It is a story that demands that we see beyond the boundaries of time and place, just as Jesus reached across boundaries of time and place. It requires that we get close, so close that we are asked to share and take responsibility for each other’s pain and struggle.
And that is the problem when the neighborhood in which we live expands beyond the traditional boundaries. We are all human and what we are asked to do involves relationships that are often difficult to establish, let alone accept. Yet, the payoff for such a relationship is often very significant. It leads to a better understanding of the human condition; it helps us better understand ourselves.
Everything about who we are in the United States today works against this radical nature of “neighbor.” If we choose to practice the kind of radical hospitality that Jesus insists upon in the story of the Good Samaritan, we will at best be called idealistic and naïve; it is even possible that we will be told that we are traitors, supporters of terrorism, and unpatriotic. It is clear, however, that there has never been a more important time to redefine “neighbor” using Gospel values.
In the end, answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” hinges on allegiance. To whom do I owe care and concern? Whom will I invite into my community? How far will I go in my notion of a church that follows Jesus Christ into the world to seek out neighbors like the man who was left beaten for dead beside the road? (3)
The Old Testament readings for the next two weeks come from the Book of Ruth. This is important because it establishes the line that will lead to David and thus to the birth of Christ. But for today, it is a matter of neighborhoods and who is one’s neighbor that is the focus of today’s reading. (4)
We read of Elimelech and his family moving from Bethlehem to Moab because of a famine in the land and the problems that his family faced. The major problem was that Naomi and her daughters-in-law were widows. In the culture of that day, a widow had to depend on her husband’s family for support. This is what precipitates Naomi moving back to Bethlehem and encouraging Orpah and Ruth to go their own ways. Elimelech’s family in Bethlehem can take care of Naomi but there is no one who can take care of Orpah or Ruth. And since Naomi has no other sons and, as she points out, she is not likely to have any more sons who can care after Orpah or Ruth, she encourages them both to seek new lives on their own. These are the rules of the neighborhood and, at that time, universally the same among the various societies of the Middle East.
While Orpah accepts the decision and returns to her own homeland, Ruth declines. Rather than go to her neighborhood, Ruth goes into a new neighborhood. Just as Abraham forsake his family and his homeland in response to God’s command in Genesis 12: 1 and 12: 4, so too does Ruth move into a new neighborhood. It is not that Ruth is necessarily defying society but rather that, in accepting the God of Israel as her God, the definition of a new neighborhood is formed. All those who follow God are part of the neighborhood regardless of whom they are or where they live. The writer of Hebrews makes the same point when he points out that Christ made the one sacrifice for all. (5)
The writer of Hebrews also commands us, the readers of the word today, to free their conscience from the regulations of Mosaic Law and turn to Christ for cleansing. Those who do so truly serve the Living God and not dead works.
We are reminded of the neighborhood in which we live through the Communion that we celebrate today. As a Lay Speaker, I do not possess the ecclesiastical authority to sanctify the communion. In other words, I cannot do communion on my own. Without an elder in the church to sanctify the elements and I could not bring them here for the celebration. That is what has happened today. Reverend Evelyn McDonald of Grace United Methodist Church has blessed these elements at the first service at Grace this morning, thus allowing us to celebrate communion just as Grace Church is celebrating communion this morning.
Because our neighborhood does not end at the boundaries of Dover Plains but extends beyond, it is possible for us to celebrate communion. We are members of the United Methodist Church, which means our neighborhood extends beyond the boundary of Dutchess County and the Hudson River. It is a neighborhood without boundaries.
While travel from one country to another often requires a passport or some other official documentation, our neighborhood is one that is open to all who accept Jesus Christ in their hearts. We do not ask nor do we make demands on those who come to our table in terms of who they are or where they live or what they believe. Those who come to this table this morning must make the declaration of belief in their hearts and they must answer the questions that Christ puts before them.
As we come to the table this morning, we are reminded that Christ was the one who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity in which the faith of that time was so imprisoned. He did so in order to be free for the needs of the outcast, the hopeless, and the helpless. Christ warned us that we must be free to respond to the unexpected need that we may find by the roadside.
Instead of building walls that close in our neighborhood, we are encouraged to tear down the walls that keep others out. If we live in a world where the light of Christ is kept inside the safe boundaries of our neighborhood, it can never be seen. But when we respond to Christ’s call, when we take the light of Christ beyond the walls of the neighborhood, the light is seen by all.
Through Christ, the neighborhood was changed and became open to the world. Our call today is to witness the openness of God’s kingdom for all who seek entrance; our call today is to say that all are our neighbors, from the person that lives next door to the person that lives on the other side of the globe. Many of us have heard the famous statement made by John Wesley, “the world is my parish.” Wesley wrote it in response to criticism that he was not staying within parish boundaries or in church but was preaching the Gospel to anyone, anywhere who would listen. Interestingly, Wesley’s bold claim was a response to an attack upon the early Methodists for not toeing the line with regard to how things had always been done in Anglicanism. Smudged coal miners were not welcome in proper churches of Wesley’s day. Yet there is where Wesley felt the need to be. Just as Wesley saw the world as his neighborhood, so too should we.
Instead of being the one who asks “Who is my neighbor?” we are the ones being asked the same question. Shall we build walls that keep others out or shall we be the ones who see all as our neighbors?
(1) Mark 12: 28 -34
(2) Luke 10:25 – 37
(3) Adapted from “Who Is My Neighbor? Reflections on Our Changing Neighborhood in the Global Economy” by Rick Ufford-Chase in Getting the Message – Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel (Rev. Peter Laarman, Editor)
(4) Ruth 1: 1 – 18
(5) Hebrews 9: 12