- Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, 94
[Adapted from yesterday's message at The District Church: "Who is My Neighbor (and Why Should I Care)?"]
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘neighbor’?
One of the things about the Christian faith is that it’s very practical and very tangible—or at least, it’s supposed to be. In Luke 10, Jesus is asked by a lawyer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus replies, “Well, you’re an expert in the law—what does the law say?” And he says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” a sentence from the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), a sentence that would have been recited three times a day by devout Jews. And then he tacks on—rightly, according to many rabbis of the day—Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The people around him would have been like, “Man, this lawyer guy knows his stuff.” Because throughout Scripture, love of neighbor is lifted up, shown to be important to God.
But what does Jesus say? Does he say, “You have given the right answer; you will live”? No, he says:
“You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
How much easier is it to give the right answer than to back that up with the way you live?
We’ve just started an Art of Neighboring series at The District Church, and it’s based on the book by Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak. At the core of the book—and our series—is this simple question:
What if we all did what Jesus said and loved our neighbors — our actual, next-door, flesh-and-blood neighbors?
Dave and Jay tell the story of how, five years ago, a group of pastors in the Denver area got together to think, dream, and pray about how their churches might serve their local community together—they had a similar heart and passion for their city as we do. They invited their local mayor, and asked what the community needed and how they could help. He said:
The majority of the issues that our community is facing would be eliminated or drastically reduced if we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.
Now, as we’ll see, ‘neighbor’ can be anyone we encounter who’s in need, but I think it can be real easy for us to uncouple our understanding of ‘neighbor’ from ‘the people who live next door to us’ and then attach it to this large, nebulous group of ‘anyone who’s in need’, and actually end up loving neither. Dave and Jay put it this way:
When we try to love everyone, we often end up loving no one. If we are not careful, we can end up having metaphorical love for our metaphorical neighbors and the end result is that we actually do nothing.
That’s why we want to get practical with this ‘loving our neighbor’ thing.
We did an exercise yesterday where we took these block maps and we all tried to fill out the following information for each of our eight closest neighbors:
Other churches that have done this neighboring series call this ‘the chart of shame,’ because typically:
The point of the exercise is to expose the fact that many of us don’t know most of our neighbors’ names, let alone anything about them! But more than that, it’s meant to help us identify the gaps in our love of neighbor, and it’s meant to motivate us because we’re going to do this again when we close out this series in four weeks, and the goal is to have moved to a place where we can fill out a few more lines and, more important than that, where we know our neighbors a little better and can know how to love and serve them a little bit more.
J.R. Briggs, who spoke at our Leadership Community Retreat a couple months ago, found this stat: police departments around the country have reported that 80% of police house calls could have been avoided if neighbors simply watched out for and cared for others in their own neighborhood. And I just read a story about a woman in Michigan who passed away six years ago, but they only just found her mummified body because her bank account ran out of money to cover her bills and car payments. SIX YEARS AGO. Her neighbors said, “Well, she kept to herself, she traveled a lot …” My friend Duke, who posted it on Facebook, said: “Here’s a sad case for the importance of community: Stay connected; don’t turn into a mummy.” It’s also a case for the importance of good neighbors!
Let’s return to the story in Luke’s gospel. When we left them, Jesus had just challenged the lawyer not just to know his stuff but to do it as well. The lawyer’s embarrassed because he knows he’s not doing this as well as he ought to, so the text says (10:29):
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In other words, “Okay, Jesus, you make a good point. Now tell me whom I need to love; tell me whom I’m obligated to love.” In those days, Jewish teachers would use ‘neighbor’ to refer to ‘fellow Israelite,’ and this lawyer’s trying to narrow that down even more. See, he’s trying to figure out who’s in this category of people he needs to love in order to qualify for eternal life—what’s the minimum I need to do?
We ask that question a lot, don’t we? It takes different forms, though:
We try to shoot for doing the bare minimum; we aim for we can get away with.
In this case, Jesus answers the lawyer with a story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho …” (10:30). And the lawyer’s thinking:
What kind of man? Was he rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, holy or unclean? Because that’s going to decide how I feel about him. Is he the protagonist? Am I supposed to feel sorry for him? Or is he a Gentile, in which case he probably deserved it?
Jesus doesn’t say. Jesus doesn’t say anything else about the man, and I think that’s intentional, because he knows how our hearts work. We make similar judgment calls:
Is this person rich or poor, old or young, attractive or ugly, gay or straight, married or single or divorced, a good parent or a bad parent, Christian or non-Christian, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal?
And then we put people in boxes so that we know how to treat them. If you’re rich or young or attractive, I’ll treat you this way; but if you’re old or poor or homeless or mentally ill or not hot, I’ll treat you this way. Jesus knows that the lawyer is thinking like this, and so he purposefully leaves this out. Whoever the man is, he’s waylaid by bandits, stripped, beaten, and left for dead.
No other information given; apparently, no other information necessary.
A priest comes along, and “when he saw him, he passed by on the other side” (v.31). Then a Levite (a temple worker) comes along, and “when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side” (v.32). You may have heard their motivations presented in a couple of ways:
But the lawyer, and probably the people listening too, would have been nodding their heads in agreement, because they would have known that the Law of Moses says that if anyone makes contact with a corpse, he or she becomes ceremonially unclean. The book of Numbers says anyone who touches a corpse must then go through a period of cleansing, which would involve going back to Jerusalem and going through a purification ritual that would last seven days. How inconvenient would that be?
For priests and Levites, the requirements were even more stringent, because they worked in the temple—the house of God. Leviticus 21:11 says specifically, “A priest shall not go where there is a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father and mother.” The priests were to keep away from death and disease and ceremonial impurity—that was the command of God! Every single devout Jew who heard Jesus’ parable would have thought the priest and Levite were doing the right thing. They were obeying the law; that’s why they passed by on the other side of the road.
But a Samaritan …
Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. There was long-festering, deep-seated, religiously-sanctioned hostility between the two groups of people. To the Jews, Samaritans were religious separatists, who had built their own temple on their own mountain, and they were heretics because their holy scriptures were different. Worse than that, one Passover early in Jesus’ lifetime, some Samaritans desecrated the Jerusalem temple by scattering bones in it—that’s like someone coming into your house, picking up your favorite possession, stomping it into the ground, and then burning it to ashes, only a thousand times worse.
Think about the person you get along with the least—the difficult colleague at work, the irritating relative who sends all those chain emails and has all those opinions you disagree with, the person who used to be your friend until she betrayed your trust, the person who used to be a mentor until he let you down, the guy who lives on the corner and is always raving and shouting and cursing at you, the neighbor who stays up too late and plays their music too loud or has friends over at all hours. Now imagine Jesus lifting that person up as the protagonist—the hero—of the story. That’s what Jesus is doing here.
The priest and the Levite see the injured man and pass by on the other side; that was their legal obligation. The Samaritan “came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (v.33). The Greek word is a fun one:
It means, “he was moved in his gut, moved with compassion.” When was the last time you were moved in your gut—with compassion—for your neighbor—your next-door neighbor? One of my neighbors is really, really nice, but can also be a little socially awkward. And my problem is that I’ve put that neighbor into that ‘socially awkward’ box, which means that every time I think about interacting with that neighbor, my first thought is, Man, this is going to be awkward, rather than I don’t care what box others may put you in—you’re made in the image of God, I want to know your story. That’s how I think Jesus would want me to be.
The Samaritan doesn’t see Jew or Gentile, rich or poor; he sees a person in need, and he risks his own life—remember, who knows if the bandits are still around? He’s a Samaritan in Jewish territory; this wouldn’t have been the safest place for him. But he chooses to find out if the man is still alive rather than playing it safe. He doesn’t care about playing it safe; he doesn’t care about ceremonial cleanness; he doesn’t care about the letter of the law; he doesn’t care about who the man is.
“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them” (10:34). (The application of oil and wine was a form of medical treatment in those days.) Then he puts the injured man on his own donkey, checks him into an inn and puts his money where his mouth is, paying for his care, for food and for lodging. He meets the physical, material, financial, and emotional needs of the injured man.
Our neighbors are right on our doorstep; if we don’t even know their names, if we don’t know anything about them, how will we know how they might be hurting? How will we know what their needs are? How will we know how we can love them?
Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbor?”—in other words, “Whom am I obligated to help?” (I don’t know if you’ve ever been the object of someone’s obligation, but it isn’t fun.) Instead, Jesus flips the script and asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was the neighbor to the wounded man?” The sentence can also be translated, “Which of these three proved himself by his actions to be a neighbor?” He’s saying, “Instead of asking whom you’re obligated to care for, why don’t you ask whether you’re being a good neighbor? Are you someone who helps others in need, regardless of language, religion, ethnicity; regardless of whether you like them or not, or whether they get on your nerves or not?” See:
love isn’t what you feel when you like someone;
love is what you do to care for someone.
Jesus is saying to the lawyer and to his audience, “You’re following the letter of the law but forgetting the spirit of the law. You’re obeying the minutiae of the law but you’re neglecting the Great Commandment. Remember what you said a few moments ago—love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself?” Years later, the Apostle Paul would echo Jesus, in Galatians 5:14: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” and then in Romans 13:10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
But it’s real easy to do, isn’t it?
Sometimes, for as much as we say we want to be like Jesus, we actually don’t. We don’t want the inconvenience and we don’t like the sacrifice it’s going to demand of us. Being like Jesus means I can’t always be about my agenda; when someone is rude to me, I can’t be rude back; when I see the person on the street, I can’t just walk past them without looking at them, saying a word, praying for them, helping if I can. The life Jesus calls us to—the life we were made for—is a challenging one because it won’t let us sit where we are. Jesus doesn’t just ask us to think about these things and come up with the right answer; what does he say? “You have answered correctly; do this and you shall live.”
“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18). What if we loved our next-door neighbors? Not just like:
… but actually, by the power of the Spirit of God, beginning to care about what happens to them and being interested in what God might be doing in their lives.
And we do this—we care about loving our actual, flesh-and-blood, next-door neighbors better—because of what Jesus did for us. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). See the story of the Good Samaritan is, in some ways, the story of Jesus. Even though it wasn’t socially acceptable, Jesus came and took care of us; when others passed us by, he put his life on the line for us; he paid for us to be brought back to life, even at cost to himself; and even though the law says we all have sinned and the wages of sin is death, Jesus refused to just stick to the letter of the law but, going beyond that, loved us so much that he gave his life on the cross so that we might live. We love God, we love our neighbors, because he first loved us.
The homework for this week is threefold:
I’m real excited about this series because I truly believe that God is going to do something great in and through those of us who choose to step out. But I’ll be honest: I’m also a little nervous, because we aren’t just going to be asking you to respond by thinking about something; we aren’t just going to be presenting you with a good argument or with the right answers or with what the Bible says so that you can go away and tell someone else about the cool things you heard on Sunday; we’re going to be asking you to do it—to do what Jesus says.
As I’ve said, I’m on this journey too: this is challenging to me too. There are times when I give freely and joyfully of my time and energy to serve and care for my neighbors but there are also times when I really don’t. I don’t always love my neighbor as myself, but I’m trying more and more, by the grace of God, to love out of the love of God. Because I think that’s what God is calling all of us to; I think that’s the better way of life that God wants for all of us; I think that’s how our city is going to be changed—by all of us learning how to love our neighbors better.
What if we all did what Jesus said and loved our neighbor?
The thing about the commandment, “Love your neighbor,” is that it’s real simple; and yet, when actually done, has the power to transform a street, a block, a neighborhood, and yes, even a city.
I believe that.
[Adapted from the message at last night's Ash Wednesday service, jointly held by The District Church, Church of the Advent, and National Baptist Memorial Church. Listen to the sermon here.]
At Lent, we take time to remember the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. At Lent, we prepare ourselves for Easter, the time when we celebrate the most important event in history—Jesus’ death and resurrection. At Lent, we are brought back to and reminded of the truth that forms the foundation of our faith; and that is this:
We can’t, but God can.
On Ash Wednesday, we have ashes placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, and as that happens, these words (or something like them) are spoken over you, from Genesis 3:19:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Those words, which God spoke to Adam, are reminders of our mortality, our finitude, our limits. Those words encapsulate that truth that we can’t, but God can.
I have loved ones who are struggling with health issues, friends who are stuck in jobs that swing from great one day to abysmal the next, or are just difficult; I know people who are wrestling with addictions to alcohol and pornography, folks who are fighting to keep marriages together or raise their kids well, or who are feeling the weight of the aging process in aching joints and sore muscles, faulty memories and slower processing power. I wish I could take their burdens on myself and make everything well, but I can’t. I can’t even do that for the things that I have to face.
And that’s true at the most basic, fundamental level of the soul as well. As I’ve written before:
the presupposition of the Christian faith is that we can’t; the prerequisite for trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord is the acknowledgement that we need a Savior and Lord, and we need a Savior and Lord because we can’t. We can’t save ourselves, we can’t rescue ourselves, we can’t pull ourselves out of our own sins, heal our own sicknesses, free ourselves from our own addictions, repair all of the damage we cause other people or all of the havoc that’s been wreaked on our lives. We can’t.
There are a few practices that Christians throughout history and all over the world have done during the season of Lent; three of the key ones are fasting, praying, and giving to the poor. In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “When you fast, when you pray, when you give to the poor,” not “if”—he assumes that we will do these things. These practices, just like the season of Lent, bring us back to that truth—bring us back to both sides of that truth: we can’t, but God can. So hopefully these practices aren’t restricted to six weeks during the year.
Think about giving to the poor. Giving to the poor reminds us that we can’t but God can. Giving to the poor speaks incisively into the mess of voices that tell us that our money and our resources are our own: It’s yours to do with as you please. Giving to the poor is the action that says, “No, we are but stewards, called to discharge our responsibilities with the resources that God has blessed us with.” Even more than that, giving to the poor reminds us that money does not own us, but that we belong to God, that we are engaged in his mission of bringing freedom from materialism for ourselves and investing in the work of justice and compassion for others. But even more than that, giving to the poor reminds us that our Lord, for our sakes, became poor. And not just poor in comparison to being God—actually, literally, socioeconomically poor. So giving to the poor reminds us that Christ is in every face we see, in every person we encounter. That’s why we give to the poor.
Think about praying. Prayer reminds that we can’t but God can. What other activity is there that looks like it accomplishes so little, and yet can bear so much fruit? What other activity is there in which we seem to be doing nothing but talking to air—and not even that if we’re just listening to God—and yet proclaims the truth that our God can? William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid-20th century, was challenged by his critics, who said that answered prayer was just coincidence. He replied, “When I pray, coincidences happen; and when I don’t, they don’t.” Prayer is where God gets us to stop talking and instead to listen to what he might have to say; prayer is where we bring our agendas to the Almighty and he gives us his better one instead; prayer is where our words—our wise, persuasive, compelling smooth talk—meet the reality of a good and loving God, and we are reminded that in so many things, in so many things, we can’t but God can. Fuller Seminary president Mark Labberton says,
In Washington, D.C., it is said that power is measured by access. Prayer is about access to the God who reigns over all.
That’s why we pray.
Think about fasting. Some of us are fasting social media because we need a detox—how many folks are giving up Facebook for Lent? Others of us like to tie it in with a health kick, or some sort of dieting goal: I’m going to give up chocolate because I need to lose some weight; I’m going to fast candy because I don’t want to get more cavities; I’m going to cut back on this or that because I ate too much on Fat Tuesday and now I need to make up for it! And while that’s a nice sort of killing two birds with one stone, I’d humbly submit that if we miss the larger point of why we do these things, we miss out on the point of Lent. My friend Eugene Cho, who pastors a church in Seattle, wonders if God sometimes looks at us and says,
Umm, I didn’t ask you to give up coffee. I asked you to give up your life to me.
The point of fasting can be to give up luxuries, to remind us that we don’t need the things that the world tells us we can’t do without; it can also about giving up some so-called necessities, to remind us that we don’t need the things we tell ourselves we can’t do without. But ultimately, the point of fasting is to remind us that there is only one thing we can’t do without—and that’s God. Jesus didn’t eat for forty days and the gospels tell us that at the end of that time, he was physically weak but spiritually strong. He was physically weak because he had given up food for forty days, but he was spiritually strong because he had given up his life to his Father.
That’s what matters: whether we are spiritually strong, whether we have been fortified in our spirits by time with God, whether we have given our lives over to the Father. See, you can be physically weak or mentally weak or even emotionally weak, but if you’re spiritually strong because you’ve given your life to God, you’ll be okay.
You may be feeling physically great, mentally sharp, emotionally okay, but spiritually weak. And when you’re spiritually weak, you’ve forgotten the truth that we can’t. We live in a country whose primary narrative is the American Dream, the notion that if you work hard enough, if you try hard enough, you’ll succeed; and if you aren’t succeeding yet, just work harder, just try harder! You may be facing some troubles: pressures at work, challenges at home, financial issues, relationship difficulties, addictions and destructive habits. If we’re spiritually weak, we will try to will our way to a better future. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we can’t—and if we’re not honest with ourselves, sooner or later, our experience will tell us the same thing. We can’t …
But God can. Jesus was spiritually strong, even after forty days of fasting, because he had been reminded that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He had been reminded that in his own strength he could do nothing, but in the strength of God he could withstand the devil himself. He had been reminded that God can, and so what better way to face the challenges—and the joys—of life and death and resurrection than to give himself over to this God.
One last thing I want to say: I’m fairly certain those forty days in the wilderness weren’t a walk in the park for Jesus; probably not much at all like a Holy Land vacation. And yet it was in those times of being without, of being tested, of being stripped of the so-called necessities of life—it was in those times that God was strengthening him by the power of the Holy Spirit and preparing him for a work and a ministry that would forever change the world.
You may be going through a season of wilderness—or you may be about to begin one—a time when it feels like all around you is desert, a period where you feel like things that were central to your life are being stripped away. Maybe, if you’re willing, the God who can will bring new life by the power of his Spirit; maybe, if you spend time with him, the God who can will make you spiritually strong; maybe, if you give your life over to him, the God who can will turn your life right side up.
As we go through this season of Lent, as we remember Jesus in the wilderness, as we prepare ourselves for the great celebration that awaits us in a few weeks’ time, as we engage in those practices of praying and fasting and giving to the poor and whatever else you may choose to do during the coming weeks, may we be reminded that we are but dust, and to dust we will return; but also that the God who created the universe, the God through whom all things are possible, wants us—invites us—to live life with him. May we be reminded of that foundational truth of our faith:
We can’t, but God can.
“Vapor” is the new musical liturgy from The Liturgists (aka the folks from Gungor). It’s based on the teachings of Ecclesiastes, and it’s particularly appropriate given that Lent (the season of reflection, repentance, and self-denial) begins tomorrow.
This is about a month late in coming (since we got the first printing in late January), but I wanted to share with you The District Church‘s first annual report. I hope this is an encouragement to you of some of the things God is doing in, through, and with us here in DC. It’s definitely an honor and a privilege to be a part of it!
[Click on the image to view/download the PDF.]
Also, if you know anyone who’d be interested in doing a leadership residency with the church (like I did, when I started out), please let them know that we have such a program! I’d love to chat with them. More info here.