Won’t You Be My Neighbor

Sermon preached September 11, 2011

Text: Romans 14:1-12

Mr. Rogers routine with sweater and sneakers.
Many of us grew up with at least one person who wanted to be our neighbor, or helped introduce our children to everybody’s favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers. I admit that I was a little older when Fred Rogers came on the scene and remember more the spoofs about him when I was in college. Yet as I had children of my own, and as I heard more about this man, who, by the way, was an ordained Presbyterian minister, I gained a deep respect for him and for his work. His idea of being a neighbor and recognizing that everybody’s fancy, everybody’s fine was rooted in his understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
Neighboring, being a good neighbor. This fall, a number of churches in our community, cutting across denominational and theological lines, have agreed to emphasize the importance of neighboring, rediscovering the art of neighboring. What would happen if we all, in these various churches, took Jesus’ words about loving our neighbor more seriously, the neighbors we literally have living around us? What if we made an effort to move from strangers to acquaintances to perhaps a level of friendship with the persons around us? It could make a difference for the quality of our life as a community. This theme will be weaving its way in and out of worship through the fall. One part of this emphasis on the art of neighboring is to invite us all to get to know those who live around us – the houses next door, the houses across the street, the houses behind us. For some of us it may be the few apartments near to us. For others there may only be a neighbor or two, but the invitation and challenge is to get to know these people for no other reason than that it is a good thing, for no other reason than that such relationships enhance the quality of our life together as a community.
Of course, we do not have before us Jesus’ words about loving our neighbor this morning. They will come up October 30, a day when we will also have a potluck following worship – great way to love your neighbor. Plan to come and bring a neighbor if you wish. Bring a little extra food because I am going to invite college students just to come! Anyway, we don’t have Jesus’ words about loving our neighbors before us today, we have this text from Romans 14. It is an interesting process when I try to work with both themes and lectionary texts. The Lectionary is a series of Scripture readings in a three-year cycle that many mainline Protestant churches, and the Roman Catholic Church use regularly. That’s why if you listen on the radio to, say, a Lutheran sermon, you may hear the same text in worship here. Each week there is a Psalm, a Hebrew Scripture reading, New Testament reading and New Testament reading from the Gospels. We have some choice. What is interesting is that sometimes when I want to touch on a particular theme, none of the texts really fits. I go off lectionary then, and I am going to do that some this fall. Today, however, I think Romans 14 is a great text for thinking together about neighboring as a response to God’s love in Jesus Christ, neighboring as an activity for the people of God who follow Jesus.
Actions are rooted in attitudes, and can also shape attitudes. The attitudes I see commended in Romans 14 to the people of God who follow Jesus are the foundation for good neighboring. Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling…. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves…. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?… Each of us will be accountable to God.
There is a deep encouragement to openness and acceptance in these words. Welcome. We are relational persons – not living to ourselves or dying to ourselves. Be cautious about judging, knowing that our final accountability is to God. Somehow we need to make an intelligent distinction between judging in a judgmental way and judging in a discerning way. We cannot help but make judgments if we are ever to decide anything at all. When we became a reconciling congregation, we made a judgment that this was more deeply in keeping with the Christian faith. When we undertook anti-racism work, or when we said that as a congregation we would refrain from using the word “illegals” as a noun, we made judgments that these actions were more deeply in keeping with the Christian faith. There is a difference between being discerning and being judgmental, and maybe one way to think about this is to distinguish between judgments about adequacy and judgments about inclusivity. I think being a reconciling, anti-racism congregation is more adequate to the Christian witness of faith than other possibilities. I would not judge someone who still struggles with issues of the acceptance of GLBT persons or someone whose position on immigration and the use of the language of “illegal” is different from mine to be outside of the Christian faith, however.
Welcome, openness, acceptance – these attitudes, these virtues held up in Romans 14 are part of the essence of neighboring. One might say, however, that Paul here is writing only for the community of faith – about the kinds of attitudes we should display here as people of God who follow Jesus. Maybe, but it is clear in other parts of Paul’s letter that he wants to draw the circle wider. Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 13:10: “Love does not wrong to a neighbor.”
Welcome, openness, acceptance – these attitudes, these virtues, are part of the essence of neighboring. If we seek to know our neighbors simply to convert them to our way of thinking, well, that’s not really neighboring. I am not saying discussions about faith or invitations to church are never appropriate, but they should arise out of a neighboring relationship that is first characterized by welcome, openness and acceptance. Do you know who your neighbors are? I want to build on this next week, but now want to shift to another context for neighboring.
Today is September 11, 2011. Those of us who are now adults probably remember where we were ten years ago today. Tom Wiig was in New York for a surgical conference with about 130 surgeons who were mobilized to provide triage and other help and the events of that morning unfolded. I was a district superintendent for The United Methodist Church in Northwestern Minnesota, and I was with the clergy of that district on a retreat. One of our clergy was leading the retreat, and that morning between breakfast and our first session, he approached me with news that something was happening in New York. We were at a UM camp, and so media was not great, but we were able to gather around a single television set and watch those horrific images of planes flying into buildings – images of flames, and smoke, and dust and destruction. We watched often in stunned silence. After a time, we prayed for one another and sent each other on our way to be religious leaders in our communities.
Neighboring in a post September 11 world is complex, and desperately needed. The events of September 11, 2001 made us all more aware of the diversity in our nation and in our world. It made us all more aware that we cannot be, as a nation and people, an isolated island separated by oceans from a diverse world. As people of God who follow Jesus, we are to be neighbors to all, neighbors to those who are like us and to those who are different from us – different culturally, socio-economically, and religiously.
One of the great tasks of neighboring in our time is to foster neighboring between Christians and Muslims. I am not ignoring other important neighboring tasks and we will be discussing them in the weeks to come, but focusing on a crucial challenge for our time. Together, Christians and Muslims comprise about 55% of the world’s population – about a third is Christian and a fifth Muslim. For the sake of the human community which shares this planet, for the well-being of each of our communities and of the other 45% of the human community, we need to seek ways to be welcoming, open and accepting of each other. We need to emphasize those many places in our traditions that speak unequivocally of our need to work together for justice, peace, and reconciliation. This does not mean we do not share our faith, but it means that we do so only in the context of a neighboring relationship that understands that our need to get along is paramount.
Being neighbors with Muslims in a post September 11 world is a challenge. It requires us to confront some of our own fears and suspicions. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, in an essay published this week writes the following (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/miroslav-volf/christianity-911_b_944153.html): In 2002 39 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of Islam and Muslims, whereas in 2010 that number jumped to 49 percent. The increase was not a fruit of deepened insight but of stronger prejudice. For many Americans, Osama bin Laden is the paradigmatic Muslim, an absurd conviction for anyone who has lived with Muslims. Prejudice is a form of untruthfulness, and untruthfulness is an insidious form of injustice.
Yet there are other signs, other movements. There is the story of Heartsong United Methodist Church in Cordova, Tennessee, on the outskirts of Memphis. Two years ago the pastor learned that a mosque had purchased property across the street. A few days later a sign appeared on the church property: “Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.” When the mosque was not ready for Ramadan, Heartsong opened its doors to the Islamic community to let them hold their prayers there. (Sojourners, September-October 2011). One member of the church who initially opposed the hospitality shares this story. “They were Muslim and Islamic and I grouped them all together as extremists.” But reading the gospels this person found “nothing in there that said I was doing the right thing by harboring these feelings.” He prayed “If this is a problem with me, take it from me. I don’t want it.” (Interpreter, September-October 2011) Neighboring.
As people of God who follow Jesus Christ, neighboring is our calling – welcoming, openness, acceptance. Neighboring is certainly more complex than donning sneakers and a sweater. But if we pay attention to the voice of Jesus, we will always be asking others, “won’t you be my neighbor?” Amen.