Mr. Rogers and neighborliness have come up quite a bit recently. Typically, in the language of the Christian church, neighborliness equates simply to being courteous to others, and being just nosy enough to feel safe in your home with the people around you. Unlike Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, ‘acting like a neighbor’ is not a revolutionary concept. Here in the Pacific Northwest, neighborliness is a tolerated virtue. We all know it’s good for us to be pleasant to the people we meet walking on the street, but anything beyond talk of the weather and doting over someone’s dog is intrusive. The funny thing is we often want to know those who live around us–and I do hear stories of breaking through–but to what extent? When my neighbor slips into some dire circumstances, what is my responsibility beyond listening over a fresh casserole?
I must confess to you that I make a terrible neighbor. I like to know my neighbors’ names, but I usually just recognize their dog. I don’t bake cookies for the new couple down the hall. In the elevator there’s just enough time for a smile and a sentence or two about the weather, or a furry friend. Unless the other person starts talking, sometimes I’ll barely say hello. I don’t even have a patio.
I hear many inspiring stories of people getting to know their neighbors, inviting them over for a bbq, helping them or asking for help. Those are all really great stories. For those of us who tend to be introverted, though, they place great value on the gift of starting a conversation, and can ultimately blanket us in feelings of guilt for not meeting such standards. Getting to know people in the shared spaces of our work, school or even church is challenging enough; to add another requirement can be debilitating. It also keeps the focus on individuals, and away from a church community, as a whole.
There is a difference between church-goers practicing the art of neighborliness, and a congregation functioning as a neighbor where it is. We tend to choose one over the other. One depends upon households. The other depends upon volunteers.
Who is my neighbor? The answer may begin with Stanley next door, but for me it reaches out to the man who sleeps in the doorway of the insurance business next door, and to the Real Change vendor at the grocery store around the corner. It includes the folks who attend church nearby and, when I am at church, it includes the restaurants in the basement or those who live in the apartments across the street. My church community desires to be a good neighbor to the young people who live on the Ave, like when we were an overflow location for the youth shelter. But then I wonder: am I going to build relationships with each and every individual I encounter in those spaces? Probably not. So then, what does it mean to be a neighbor?
Reading the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) I am struck by how inconvenient it is to love your neighbor. First of all, the man who was robbed was nowhere near his home, and it was the Samaritan who switched up his travel plans to get the man to a hotel. Secondly, it means crossing all kinds of boundaries. Those listening to this story from Jesus would have considered Samaritans to be religious enemies, so for a Samaritan to dare to touch a Jew of that time was offensive beyond belief. Here in Seattle, I am reminded of boundaries every time I take the light rail to the airport. It swings east through low income neighborhoods, past Latino Pentecostal churches, a Buddhist monastery, Ethiopian shops, and newly developed tract housing with small porches but plenty of parking. There is nothing in my daily routine that would bring me into contact with folks from these neighborhoods, yet they are certainly my neighbor if for no other reason than simply their otherness.
I have no good answers to any of the above questions, and Jesus’ parable is intended to upset us. What I suspect is that neighborliness has to do with seeing the other in front of us, always. Neighborliness has to do with keeping our eyes open, our routine flexible, and our hearts pliable. In any given moment we are both the one on the road who can offer help, and the one who needs help. There is also another reading of the Good Samaritan–one that positions Jesus himself as the one who shows mercy, who picks us up out of the ditch, takes us to a safe place of rest, anoints us with oil to bring healing, and covers our debts.
This is not a story to read lightly, nor should we seek to gather x number of principles for the next sermon. Instead, let us contemplate this merciful Jesus, and thus learn to love our neighbors.