A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 5, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 10:25-37 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A week and a half ago, we held once of our every-four-months “Deepening Membership” gatherings. The subject of this gathering was “service,” and to get us going, I asked the people to share a story of a time they were involved in some act of service where they felt especially connected to God. Everyone (well, everyone except me) shared a story that included some element of connecting with other people, typically a person in need, sometimes with others offering service.

There is something about the experience of connecting with another person in the context of service that moves us beyond ourselves and into what a friend of mine call “The Big Love,” her preferred name for God. When we are connecting with our neighbor, we are connecting with God. When we love our neighbor, not just with mind and heart, but with hands and feet and voice, we are loving God.

This is the challenge Jesus makes to the lawyer who seemed to be looking for a loophole. “Yeah, I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but who exactly is my neighbor?” he asks Jesus.

Jesus answers with the story we call “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” And in the telling, Jesus reminds us that loving our neighbor may require that we cross socially-dictated boundaries. This is an over-simplification, but basically, Jews at the time of Jesus generally viewed Samaritans with a special contempt. While the Romans were viewed with contempt because they were the occupying, oppressive force, Samaritans were viewed with contempt because they claimed to worship Yahweh, the Jewish God, but not at the Temple in Jerusalem, and not guided by the same group of prophets. They were seen not just as pagans, but as perverters of the faith.

In the story Jesus tells, Jewish leaders ignore their fellow Jew, robbed and beaten at the side of the road. It was a perverter of the faith who came to the Jew’s aid. Even Samaritans, outsiders, people you look on with contempt, are your neighbors.

For millennia, from before the advent of agriculture, human cultures have taught that same is safe and different is dangerous. Brian McLaren says, “That belief probably served our ancestors well at certain points in our history. Their survival often depended on maintaining trust in ‘our’ tribe and fear of other tribes. That’s why they used paint, feathers, clothing, language, and even religion as markers, so everyone would know who was same and safe and us and who was different and dangerous and them.

“Driven by that belief, our ancestors spread out around the world, each tribe staking out its own territory, each guarding its borders from invasion by others, each trying to expand its territory whenever possible, each driving others farther and farther away. No wonder our history is written in blood: wars, conquests, invasions, occupations, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. The winners take all, and the losers, if they aren’t killed and enslaved, escape to begin again somewhere else.

“Eventually, because the earth is a sphere, our dispersing tribes had to come full circle and encounter one another again. That is our challenge today. We must find a way to live together on a crowded planet. We have to graduate from thinking in terms of ‘our kind versus their kind’ to thinking in terms of ‘humankind.’ We must turn from the ways of our ancestors and stop trying to kill off, subjugate, or fend off everyone we judge different and dangerous. We must find a new approach, make a new road, pioneer a new way of living as neighbors in one community, as brothers and sisters in one family of creation.”[1]

McLaren goes on to say, “That doesn’t mean all our tribes need to wear the same paint and feathers, speak the same language, cook with the same spices, and celebrate the same religious holidays.   But it means all our human tribes – nations, religions, cultures, parties – need to convert from what we might call dirty energy to clean energy to fuel our tribal life. True, the dirty energy of fear, prejudice, supremacy, inferiority, resentment, isolation, hostility is cheap, abundant, and familiar. That’s why our societies running it, even though it’s destroying us. More than ever before in our history, we need a new kind of personal and social fuel. Not fear, but love. Not prejudice, but openness. Not supremacy, but service. Not inferiority, but equality. Not resentment, but reconciliation. Not isolation, but connection. Not the spirit of hostility, but the holy Spirit of hospitality.”[2]

What that looks like isn’t always clear. Most of you know that we have a young man – he goes by the name Lucky – who is making camp in our memorial garden. We have connected him with an Abode Services social worker and we’ve set some rules that he’s supposed to live by:

  • His tent is supposed to be down and packed away by 9:00 a.m., and not set back up until 7:00 p.m.
  • He’s supposed to keep the area clean.
  • He’s not to be in the building unless Pastor Brenda or I are here.
  • When he has coffee or eats something, he has to clean his dishes.

Yet I can’t help but wonder: Is this the clean personal and social fuel of openness, of service, of equality, of reconciliation, of connection, of hospitality? Is this loving our neighbor? I’m not sure. I hope that in this case it is. But I realize it might not be.

Back in November, United Church of Christ pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi wrote a poem she titled, “The Good Syrian.”[3]

So the American is beaten up
in the parking lot, mugged,
at the Mall of New Hampshire,
and a Christian comes by
and doesn’t stop for a moment
because it is Black Friday
and there is shopping.

Then a politician comes by.
It is primary season
and both the Democrats
and Republicans
are thick on the ground
in Manchester, Concord, Portsmouth,
but the politician doesn’t stop
because his handlers
tell him it’s not a photo-op.
And finally a Syrian comes by
one of those who is –
as the poem tells it heartbreak –
on our streets
because home is like the
mouth of a shark.

And the Syrian is Muslim
and the Syrian is kind.
And the American
does not want him
for a neighbor.
But God put him there
in the answer
to questions about love.

Today is Faith Formation Sunday. We took a moment earlier in the service to thank our Sunday School Teachers and we took a moment to mark the important milestone in the life of one of our youth – his graduating from High School this month – recognizing that secular education plays an important role in the forming of faith. I said that one way to look at why the church exists is this: the equipping of people to be disciples of Jesus.

McLaren says, “[Churches] at their best are Spirit-schools of love, engaging everyone, from little children to great-grandparents, in the lifelong learning. In the school of the Spirit, everyone majors in love.”[4]

[Please watch from 5:57 to the end.  This video is the trailer for a educational series; you can learn more about it here.]

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention;
or a time when someone affirmed one of your unique gifts or abilities or when you appreciated the unique gifts or abilities of another;
or a time when someone came to your aid and acted as a neighbor to you, or a time when you acted as a neighbor to another;
or meditate in silence, simply holding the term “neighbor” before God. Open yourself to the depths of meaning in this beautiful term.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 43. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maren Tirabassi, “Parable of the Good Syrian,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/maren.tirabassi/posts/968297036567313 (posted 27 November 2015; accessed 4 June 2016).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

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