[Have the congregation exchange names with one another during greeting time]
[Sing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” while mimicking Mister Rogers (changing out of coat and shoes into sweater and dockers]
Many of us here or your children had the opportunity to grow up with Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. I used to watch Mister Rogers all the time as a kid. I wanted to be in Mister Roger’s neighborhood. He was kind, gentle, friendly, and so were all his friends, like the mailman Mister McFeely. Mister Rogers was like the grandparent you always wanted. Every episode had something to teach us, but it also demonstrated what a neighborhood and being neighborly was all about. Trolley took us to the land of make believe where we were able to see how puppets like King Friday, Queen Esmeralda, and were able to live together in the kingdom of make believe. They cared about one another, resolved their differences, and learned something along the way too. I don’t know how many of you know this but Mister Rogers, Fred Rogers, was actually an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. I believe that in a simple way, Fred Rogers showed children what it was like to be a part of God’s Kingdom, just without the religious language. He demonstrated it day after day, care for and respect of others.
The Lack of Neighborliness
Mister Rogers learned what it means to be a neighbor from Jesus. Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself (Mt. 19:19),” “love each other as I have loved you (John 15:12),” and “you have heard that it was said, love your neighbors and hate your enemies, but I tell you love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you (Mt. 5:43-44).” Jesus taught what being neighborly really meant, it means being intentional about loving your neighbor no matter who they are or where they live, or what their need. In our Scripture this morning Jesus was confronted by a clever lawyer who thought he could test Jesus by asking him how he could inherit eternal life. It was a fair enough question. Jesus turned it back over to him, “what is written in the law (or the Torah, the first five books of the Bible), how do you read it?” The lawyer being very familiar with the law quoted two verses "’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ’Love your neighbor as yourself.’"
Jesus replied “do this and you will live.”
But the lawyer wasn’t satisfied with Jesus’ answer, he wanted to “justify himself” as the Scripture says or as the NLT translation puts it, he wanted to “justify his actions.” In other words he wasn’t looking for ways to demonstrate more love to his neighbor. He was looking for an excuse to justify his unloving actions toward people he didn’t really like. So he asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told a story, the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the lawyer’s question.
Of course we never do that, do we? We don’t look for ways to justify our unloving actions against others do we? ‘Well that guy had it coming to him for cutting me off like that.’ ‘She deserved it for what she said about me.’ Surely God doesn’t expect me to be kind to that cranky guy who lives next door does he? [Illustration of my parents unkind neighbor] Surely God doesn’t expect me to love my boss who seems to enjoy making my life a living hell, or the coworker who always acts nice to my face, but then backstabs me at every opportunity. Certainly they are not my neighbor, are they Jesus? I’m not expected to love them am I?
Jesus said, there was a man going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho where robbers stripped him, beat him, and left him half-dead. [Show the pictures of the road to Jericho] Here’s a picture I took of the Jericho road during our trip this past January, the road running from Jerusalem to Jericho. As you can see it’s not really much of a place you want to be waylaid on your journey because it’s desolate, it’s remote, there is no where to go.
Fortunately for this victim, a man walked by, a priest, a very religious person, a man who worked daily in the house of the Lord, the Temple. Surely he will stop by to help. Nope, he took one look at the guy and passes by on the other side. As God’s blessing would have it yet another man happened to approach, a Levite, a worker in the Temple of the Lord, another religious man, surely he will stop. No such luck, he passed by on the other side too.
Love With Skin On
In Jesus’ story he intentionally chose two religious individuals to be the first to pass by this poor man to demonstrate that religion or religious practice doesn’t necessarily equal loving God and neighbor. Just because you go through the religious ceremony, say the right words, do the right things, doesn’t mean you necessarily love God or his people. You are just going through the motions. I can imagine this lawyer had followed the law to the letter his whole life, but he didn’t understand what it meant to love God or his neighbor.
Loving one’s neighbor must be hands on, it is love with skin on. Jesus’ brother James writes in his short letter toward the end of the Bible:
James 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?
17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Faith is more than religious ritual, it is practical in its demonstration of love. These two men might have been religious but they didn’t know the heart of God. God’s heart breaks for those who are in need. Like these three travelers in the story, God places us in situations where we encounter someone with a need so we can do something about it. A listening ear, a meal, a prayer, hands on care. God provides and frequently he does it through us, his people.
The problem with the first two religious fellows was that they didn’t see their situation as God’s divine intervention. They didn’t see that God placed them there for a reason. They ignored their God given responsibility, and refused to be a part of God’s work. While the last one, a Samaritan, had compassion, he stopped and assisted the half-dead man.
Is it possible that God places us in positions where there is a need so we can do something about it? We can be Jesus with skin on to someone else. For those were here a couple of weeks ago when the missionaries to Haiti, the Cunningham’s, were here, Randy said he prays every day something like, “God, place that person across my path today that I can minister to or that I can help.” And God usually answers that prayer.
Let’s take this one step further. Perhaps God has placed people around us, such as our neighbors, whether they are the people who live next door to us or our coworkers. Perhaps they are not there by accident but because God somehow worked it out for them to be there so we can demonstrate God’s love to them in tangible ways. Over the four years I have been here I have heard people share concerns about how our community, our neighborhood, or our village has changed. We don’t know anyone anymore. People don’t share the same values as we do. But perhaps God has placed those neighbors there around us so we can touch their lives with the love of God. Perhaps it is our responsibility to reach out to them.
Let’s make this lesson tangible. By a show of hands, how many of you know all your immediate neighbors where you live, the next house down the road on either side of you and across the street? I mean more than just knowing their last name because it’s on the mailbox and the kind of car they drive. You’ve actually had a conversation with them. How many of you know all your neighbors two houses down? Three houses? I realize for some of you that may be a mile down the road.
[Give people a task to find out something about their neighbor.]
Loving Those Different From Us
The two religious persons pass by their neighbor not even desiring to check to see if the man was okay. But the next man, a Samaritan, had compassion and stopped and helped the man in distress.
What we often fail to appreciate in Jesus’ story was that it was a Samaritan who did this. Samaritans were the neighboring nation to the Jewish people, and they didn’t like each other very much, they were enemies. To give you an idea of the animosity they shared, one time in Jesus’ ministry a Samaritan village refused to allow Jesus to enter, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the village. And these were Jesus’ disciples!
Jesus was trying to prove a point. When God says we must love our neighbor, he doesn’t just mean loving the person who looks like us, acts like us, or will return the favor. Our neighbor could be very different from us. They may have a different ethnic background or different nationality. They may have different priorities than we do. They may have a different lifestyle than we would choose. They may listen to different music, it may not be the holy sanctified music you listen to. Our neighbor may not be Christian, in fact they may practice another religion, or have no religious affiliation at all. The point is, it doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from, we are commanded by God to be neighborly, to demonstrate love to our neighbor.
The Samaritan took care of the victim and it didn’t matter a lick who the hurting man was, all he knew was there was a need and he had the means to help. He did it himself and paid all his expenses without asking for anything in return. He didn’t get a tax break, or a pat on the back, or even a thank you out of the man. He did it because it was the right thing to do. The neighborly thing to do.
Frequently Christians do a good job taking care of our own, the other church going people, which is good we should be doing this, but we don’t always do a good job of taking care of our neighbor, those outside the care of a church family. People who may not have the love and support from their families or friends like we do.
The last thing I’ve learned from this parable is that loving our neighbor means we may sometimes need to get dirty. Scholars tell us the two religious characters may have crossed the road and ignored the man because he was all blooded up and may have been dead for all they knew. According to God’s commandment, a priest could not touch anything which was unclean otherwise it would make him unclean too (Lev. 21:1). A dead body was considered unclean. If he were to help the man, and it turned out he was dead, he would become unclean. If they did touch a dead body they had to go through a seven day cleansing ritual before they could resume their duties as priest. If they failed to do this, they were exiled from the community. Rather than take his chances he stepped across the road and passed on by. Better to remain clean than to get involved with this abused stranger, perhaps the next person along the road will help him.
Like the Levite and the priest who passed by on the other side for fear of becoming unclean, we often “pass by” people God has placed in our path, not desiring to get involved with their lives because we might get dirty. We might get mixed up with someone else’s messy life, their open wounds. I’m not just talking about physical wounds, I’m referring to the open wounds of broken relationships, emotional baggage, bad choices they have made in their life. After all, we argue, it’s better to remain clean, holy, than to get involved, we’ve got enough baggage of our own, we don’t need someone else’s as well. Maybe someone else will help them out.
The Samaritan however went the extra mile to care for this man he got down and dirty, he bandaged wounds with his own hands, he touched blood, he poured his own oil and wine on the man for healing, he hoisted him up and put him on his own donkey, he paid for the mans medical care out of his own pocket. He got involved and he was willing to get messy.
The Need for God’s Love
Being neighborly by God’s standard means more than just being nice putting a big smile on your face and saying hello every once in a while. Being a good neighbor means loving our neighbor, and doing it in tangible ways. Jesus taught and modeled this, as did Mister Rogers.
What’s interesting to me is that there is a whole generation of people who grew up with Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and learned what it means to be a good neighbor to others, yet our neighborhoods, communities aren’t any more neighborly than there were before, in fact some may argue it has gotten worse over the years. Why is this? Is it because people haven’t tried hard enough?
The Bible says if we are left to our own choices we won’t choose to love our neighbors, at least not consistently. History has proved this over and over. We have the God given capacity to love our neighbor, but we will choose to be selfish and look out for ourselves. The only way we can love our neighbors the way God designed us to is if God does a work within us and give us the capacity to love. God must change our hearts first. The way the Bible says it is “he will remove hearts of stone and replace it with hearts of flesh,” hearts of love for God and neighbor. God’s solution to accomplishing this was to send his Son Jesus. Through his death and resurrection he made it possible for us to be changed. If we admit our self-centeredness our sinfulness and believe in him and his power, he will change us, and make us into new people. The reason Mister Rogers Neighborhood was such a great place was because Fred Rogers was a follower of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the first step today is to recognize that you don’t have the capacity to be a good neighbor and care about others is because of your self-centeredness. You need God to do a work in your life through Jesus by the power of His Spirit. This may mean taking a step of faith and trusting in Jesus , possibly for the first time, or perhaps making a recommitment to him. The second step is to ask God to do a work in our heart to change us, to increase our love for others. It begins with me. The last step is to be attentive to what God is doing around you. Perhaps God has placed a neighbor, coworker, family member in your life because he wants you to help them and demonstrate God’s love to them.