Last in series: The Joy of Neighboring
Unfortunately, the recording of this week's talk was lost due to technical difficulties. But you can read Nader's transcript below...
One of the church programs I have enjoyed doing the most is called the Alpha course. It is a course that is run in many different types of churches around the world and it helps people to explore the fundamentals of following Jesus. In many ways it’s a lot like the BLV Dinner Groups with the Pastors, which is kind of our community’s version of the Alpha course.
One of the joys of doing this course was that every time I did the course, at least one person had an ‘aha moment’ where Jesus finally became clear to them. One of those times, I had a woman who had searched high and low for faith, and it wasn’t until she came to understand that the central call of Jesus was love that she decided this was it. This is what she’d been looking for my whole life. The God who calls us to love more than anything else. That was when she decided she would become a follower of Jesus.
You see she had found out something of great importance in Christianity. In fact, when Jesus himself was asked what is the most important commandment, he said it was to love God, but then, as Kyle mentioned last week, he followed it up immediately by saying that the second most important commandment is like it, and that is to love your neighbor as yourself.
In a different discussion around this same verse, one of the people learning from Jesus wanted to get a bit more detail, and so he asked a more specific question “well Jesus who is my neighbor?”. I don’t know about you, but I really love that question.I want to try to rephrase what that man is asking in modern terms, I think if Jesus were here today, and I was in that man’s shoes who was talking to him, II would ask something like this: “Jesus, what exactly do you mean by love my neighbor? Who are you referring to? Is it the people living in the two apartments next to mine? Is it everyone on the floor? Is it the whole building? What about the people I work out with at the Gym? What about the people I work with? I mean Jesus, where does it stop? I mean are we really supposed to love AAAALLLLL our neighbors? I mean Jesus, aren’t you being a bit ambitious here? Could we be a bit more pragmatic?, could you help us draw a line around something more doable?’
To answer that man’s question, Jesus told his number one greatest hits parable of all time, the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is so well known in fact that it has become part of our language. We have laws that are called Good Samaritan laws, so that in some states, if you stop to help somebody, they can’t sue you if you mess something up, like if you do CPR and break someone’s ribs, which I hear happens with some frequency, they can’t turn around and sue you.
Before we go any further then, let’s read the parable and see what Jesus is trying to tell us:
Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
I think There are three essential points that Jesus is making here,
The first tugs at what maybe all people intuitively know in their heart: that “religious” people can’t ignore this commandment. It feels intuitively hypocritical. It doesn’t matter if you pray and you fast and you are called by God to be an incredible pastor like Kyle or Vince, if you don’t take care of someone like that when they’re hurting, you are missing one of the two most important commandments. That’s why the parable begins with the reference to the priest and Levite, who were a special category of religious figures. He’s saying that even if you do all that these religious leaders do, and you miss taking care of your neighbor when they need you, you’ve missed the bigger picture.
To drive the point home further, we get to the second point, and here Jesus makes it so the guy who gets it, the guy who understands how to be a good neighbor, is someone who the Jews did not like, a Samaritan. Last week you heard Kyle talk about how Jews did not interact with Samaritans. Samaritans were considered folks who didn’t get the Jewish religion right. They had watered it down by intermarrying with other religions. You heard Kyle last week talk about how Jesus broke the rules by talking to a Samaritan woman at the well. Here he goes again. Jesus is saying that at the other extreme from the Jewish religious leaders, here’s this religious nobody, and because he cares for this man, he actually understands God’s message better than the religious leaders.
The third point Jesus is making is that it can be costly. This religious nobody went out of his way to care for this man. He put him on his own donkey, which meant he himself had to walk. He tends his wounds, and pays the innkeeper out of his own money to care for him, and doesn’t even stay to hear the man say thank you. That’s the religious ignoramus who gets it far better than the religious leaders and scholars.
Those are the three main points of this parable, first that “of course faith should be all about loving your neighbor”, second it doesn’t matter if the person who needs help is different than you, and third is that it can be costly.
EMOTIONAL VS PHYSICAL WOUNDS
Now we turn to 21st century Chicago, and there are people who are wounded all around us. Their wounds are real, even though they are not physical. Maybe their wounds don’t turn them into completely helpless victims by the side of the road, but they are hurting.
Mother Theresa used to say that loneliness is the modern day leprosy. She talked about a marginalized man she came up to one time in a major city and she shook his hand. His response was to tell her how much he appreciated the warm touch of a human hand. He had not felt that in such a long time.
Folks we are surrounded by people who are hurting. In fact, I’m sure it’s not news to you to hear that life is hard. We all have our disappointments. We have our challenges. We face discouragement. Like I said, life is not easy.
What makes life better however. What gives life joy. What makes it all worthwhile is relationships. We all know instinctively that if we are in loving relationships, we can handle hardships way better than we could otherwise. Relationships function as a healing ointment for our wounds. So if we look at the parable of the Good Samaritan with those lenses, we can see that in order to care for, in order to be an agent of healing to the people around us, who are all hurt by life in one way or another, all we really need to do is to be in a caring relationship with them.
Last week Kyle talked about overcoming the awkwardness to reach out to others in conversation, specially to reach out to people who are not like us, people who are not in our immediate circle. I think that is so important and so right on. I was on a business trip recently and visited a church in another state. I was there in the entire period between the first service and the second service, the busiest time for churches with two services, when people are leaving one service and coming for the next, when all the coffee and the bagels are out... Regardless no one talked to me except a couple of the pastors. I couldn’t believe it. No one would take that awkward step to say hello to a stranger.
Beyond awkwardness, I want to focus today on overcoming our own wounds, our own fears, in being there for others. In my experience, I used to be so afraid that if I spent time with people on the margins, they were going to suck me dry of every ounce of emotional life that I had. And since I didn’t have that much to spare, I didn’t go near anyone who looked suspiciously like they might need me.
I wish I could tell you that I’m all changed now and I’m very Holy and I don’t have that problem any more. I’m still a work in progress as I’m sure my wife and kids will attest to, not to mention all of you who know me well, you know I’ve got a long way to go. But something did change for me about ten years ago.
About ten years ago I began to realize that I myself, in my own way, am just as broken as the same people I was avoiding. When I started to be able to see that with humility, I began to realize that my wanting to be with people who had a minimum requirement of coolness was only because somehow I believed if I was surrounded by that minimum level of coolness, I could believe the nonsense that I was cool myself, and I wouldn’t have to be humble and admit that I’m broken and don’t even meet my own minimum requirements of coolness.
When God helped me to see this, he also gave me the grace to humble myself and accept it. This set in motion something really weird. It removed my need to be around the cool people. Somehow I had more grace and more compassion, and a desire even, to be with the not so cool people. Now please don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean that I stopped caring for all of you super cool people out there, I just learned that I like cool people more when they let down their coolness and let me support them in their brokenness.
HOW RELATIONSHIPS HEAL
Regardless of whether they let their guard down or not, or whether I am talking to people who are part of the A crowd or not, or whether such a thing really exists or not, or whether it even matters, the question really is how do we express love for our neighbor through these relationships? How do we turn a relationship from a surfacy how are you to one where the other person finds healing, encouragement, and affirmation?
Probably the single most important factor is the focus of the relationship. Maybe you’ve noticed that in some relationships, when you are having a conversation with someone, you’re not really listening to what they are saying, you are just waiting for your turn to talk. Let me ask you, how does it feel to be on the other end of that? How do you feel when the other person is just waiting for their turn to say something? How much encouragement do you feel from the relationship? How much life does it give you? I’m guessing not very much.
When we are in a relationship that we want to extend love through, it can’t be about us. If all we are doing is waiting for our turn to talk, guess what, it’s mostly about us. Making the relationship about the other person, showing genuine interest in what the person is saying, is crucial.. We can’t encourage or affirm someone by shifting the focus to ourselves. The focus has to be on the other person.
Notice that we see that in the parable as well. It is not necessarily spelled out, but you get the impression that the Good Samaritan is clearly not focused on what he will get out of this for himself.
Now that can be costly. When I focus on someone else, I am intentionally not focusing on me, I am giving up some of my own airtime. Of course like I said earlier, Jesus has already told us that it is costly. The Good Samaritan put the man on his donkey like we said, which meant he had to walk instead of ride, and at the end he gives the innkeeper money to care for this guy and promises to cover all future expenses as well.
To go back to Mother Teresa, one thing she used to encourage people is to give love until it hurts. What she found was that when you do that, the hurt goes away, and there is only love left.
At this point you might be thinking “OK but where does it stop? I mean if I am befriending people who need friends all the time, when do I get to see my own friends?” That folks is the million dollar question. What is Jesus really saying here?
One time I had a Jesuit priest tell me that when he used to teach high school, he used to really challenge his students to be radical in their love for God. In particular he told me there were two students who seemed to really get it. He pushed them to give it their all, he told them that if they were really committed, they should go live among the poor in the inner city. These two guys took him up on it, and they moved into the inner city to live with the poor like he had challenged them. He then went on to tell me that a few years later, he was checking up on them to see how they were doing and he found that they had burned out. They had lost any sense of fulfillment in their spiritual lives. They no longer had any real connection with Jesus. They stopped wanting to follow him entirely. He told me that he finally learned that people had to have grace for what God is calling them to. The same is true with loving our neighbor. If we go back to the question of where does this stop? This is the answer folks.
The answer is that we live out following Jesus by the strength and the energy that he gives us. When we try to just do it out of a sense of guilt or religiosity or other motivations, we end up doing it in our own strength, and that is ultimately a dead end.
The real answer comes in being sensitive to how God is nudging us, because when he nudges us in a given direction, and we follow through on it, he gives us the strength and the energy for it.
We are each given some level of grace, a free gift of compassion from God for others. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are acting on that grace or not. Notice in the parable, it says that the Samaritan had pity, or compassion in other translations, on the wounded man. He felt a stirring in his heart. It is that stirring that we need to pay attention and respond to.
Sometimes we are one step back from that. It may be we don’t feel any desire to love our neighbor. We are just happy with our friends and we don’t want to be bothered. Yet we feel God nudging us to want to love, we feel something is missing, and we suspect that this is it. That is probably God nudging us to ask for a loving and compassionate heart. I know for me, many times, that is where I have to start.
You may have heard me talk about Henri Nouwen before. He is my spiritual hero. He was a Dutch Catholic priest who was also a psychologist and a very prolific writer. He was teaching at Yale Divinity School and had always felt that God wanted him to serve the poor in Latin America. When he got the opportunity to go to Peru and serve there, he jumped on it. After some time there however the place just got to him. He just didn’t have the grace to live there. So he came back to North America and went to teach at Harvard for a short time. Then he went and worked with the mentally and physically handicapped near Toronto, and that was where he lived the rest of his life. That was where he had the grace to take care of his neighbor. It was still costly like his experience in Peru, but this time it gave him life instead of draining him…
GRACE TO LOVE AND PAY THE COST
The next question then is how do I get this grace? What if I don’t feel this stirring of compassion to bless other people in relationship? My suggestion there is first of all to take notice. When our hearts feel hard, it is important to know it. This is not a lower priority item. This is at the top of the list. If my life lacks compassion for people who can’t love me back, that is a flag I need to pay attention to.
Second, if I’ve noticed it, I can simply take it to Jesus to ask for the grace I need. You can ask him to break your heart for the people around you. Ask him to give you the heart of love that would cause you to cross the street to take care of someone’s needs. Ask him for the grace to be willing to pay the cost.
I don’t know if you have the same problem I did, and you’re afraid of being sucked dry. Or if you are afraid of the awkwardness of building relationships that may feel uncomfortable. Or if you need to be surrounded by messages of acceptance all the time because of your own wounds, and you can’t see yourself giving to others because you don’t feel you have all that much to give in the first place.
Regardless of what obstacles you may be finding, I am going to suggest that you ask God for the grace to take a step further. Ask him for the grace to show you what may be obstacles to loving your neighbor. It is at the top of the list folks. It is not something we can afford to ignore.
To close I am going to pray for us for exactly that...