- Parish House
The Rev. David Freeman, Senior Pastor
First United Methodist Church in Little Rock
Who is my neighbor? For Jesus this is as fundamental a question as “who am I and why am I here?” Every time Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, he gives the correct answer—the Shema—“You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” But each time he adds the second most important commandment—“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus links these two commandments so tightly that they cannot be separated. Loving God requires loving our neighbors and loving our neighbors requires loving God. Because of this, our neighbors are part of our identity as children of God.
The thing about loving our neighbors is that they are always changing. Your neighbors are whomever is next to you. So, if our identity is connected to our neighbors, then our identity shifts with the neighborhood.
Being the pastor of a church in YOUR neighborhood, I know the special challenges that come with the ever-evolving identity as a downtown church.
South African Methodist Bishop, Peter Storey, writes, “The features of a city church are different from a suburban church. In a suburban church, it’s like fishing in a dam or a pool. It’s quiet and calm and you know what to expect. In a city church, it’s like fishing in the sea. It’s often turbulent, always changing and you never know what you’ll find there.”
Downtown neighbors are beautiful and vibrant. They are eclectic.
I’m not saying that suburban churches have it easy. I’m only saying that downtown churches have our special set of challenges and opportunities. Defining our neighbors isn’t always clear-cut and loving them can test our depths of grace.
How do we love our neighbors when most of them leave the neighborhood at 5:00?
How do we love our neighbors when most of our interaction is when they ask us for money as we pass on the street?
…or our neighbors are the transient residents of the Bus Station,
…or our neighbors would rather drink in a hoppy IPA at Fassler Hall than taste the sweet wine of grace and commune with us?
As a downtown church, loving our neighbors is a tricky thing. It’s not always holding hands and singing Kum Ba Yah—it’s messy and awkward and sometimes frustrating.
It would be easy to lock our doors and shut our blinds to our neighbors. It would be easy to keep an internal focus and stick to just “lovin’ Jesus.” But our downtown neighborhood means we don’t have that luxury—we must have an external focus and we must always set our sights on our neighbors—because often our neighbors come to us.
This past spring, we had a break-in at our church. It wasn’t so much a break-in since the person came in through a door that was supposed to be locked but was inadvertently left ajar. He came in three different times, taking more stuff each time—the most significant thing he took was a laptop.
As it probably happens at Christ Church, we face these kinds of things from time to time—it’s part of being a downtown church. The thing that made this particularly painful was we knew this guy. From our security video footage, we could tell this was someone who has been around a lot—he’s come to us for help—we’ve developed a relationship with him. He is our neighbor.
So how do you love your neighbor when they hurt or betray you.
Our first reaction was self-righteousness—“We helped you and this is the thanks we get?!” Our anger blinded our grace and it was like we were seeking affirmation that we were good people trying to do something good but got no credit—no thanks. It wasn’t so much about him, but it was like we were trying to justify ourselves…
It reminds me of another guy who wanted to be faithful but ended up trying to justify himself.
Jesus is holding his weekly press conference with the fake-news Pharisees asking “gotcha questions.” A lawyer asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He throws the question back at him and says, “you’re the expert in the law. What does it say.” The lawyer gives the same response that Jesus gives each time he’s asked that question—”Love God. Love your neighbor.” Jesus waves the guy off and says, “You’ve answered correctly. Do this and you’ll live.”
Of course, the lawyer isn’t done. It says, “But wanting to justify himself…he asks, “and who is my neighbor?” He’s looking for affirmation. He wants Jesus to say something that makes it clear he’s a good and faithful person.
Instead of answering the question directly, Jesus launches into a story—at first it feels like a non sequitur—“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” And everyone listening, including the lawyer, would have said, “oh yeah, I know that road. I’ve been down that road before.” And they would have all known it was a notoriously dangerous road. Not only it is a rocky and a hard trek with great elevation changes, but it’s also known for being a place where people get robbed. Among the rocks and hills, there are lots of hiding spots for bands of robbers and thieves to hide out waiting to pounce on innocent travelers. Danger literally lurks behind every bend on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. For us it would have been as if Jesus said, “A man was walking down Asher Avenue or Baseline Road” or even “this guy was coming straight outta Compton… or 8 Mile Road in Detroit.” Some might even say…“A guy was walking through downtown Little Rock.” (GASP!)
Jesus begins telling the story in a way that everyone can relate. Basically, he says, “Imagine YOU are walking through the hood.” Jesus casts us in the role of the traveler.
And then out pops the gang of thieves who strip him, beat him, rob him, and leave him for dead. And since we’ve already been cast as the traveler, what Jesus says is “they stripped you, beat you, robbed you, and left you for dead.”
This would have come as a great shock to the lawyer. He is a man of high status and great respect. He is expecting Jesus to answer his question in a way that confirms his respectability and honor. But instead he makes him the victim of a heinous crime. As Dr. Tom Long writes, Jesus, “did not congratulate the lawyer as a man of good standing. To the contrary, he buckled the lawyer’s knees and threw him into a ditch… The lawyer who Luke says, ‘stood up to test Jesus’ and wanted ‘to justify himself,’ now finds himself face down beside the road. No longer in the stance of righteousness, he is now in the posture of dire need.”
I’m sure Christ Church isn’t like this– but I know over at my place, so often we come to church to justify ourselves. We tell ourselves, “We’re here to help our neighbors. We’re here to save them.”
We mainliners often take this commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves only as acts of mercy and service. We have the money. We have it all together. We hold all the power. They are poor. They are lost. They need us. And sometimes our faithful servanthood takes the stance of pity with an undercurrent of self-righteousness.
So, what does Jesus do? He buckles our knees and tosses us in a ditch. We came to church to justify ourselves, but we end up laying in a ditch in need of salvation staring up at our neighbors.
But Jesus isn’t done. It gets even harder as we’re laying there in the ditch in need of help from fellow travelers–first two religious folks and then a Samaritan. As soon as Jesus says “Samaritan” the whole crowd would have rolled their eyes—they know how this story ends—the Samaritan is certainly not going to stop. But in a plot twist of all plot twists–the religious people pass right on by—but the Samaritan stops. The Samaritan gets down in the ditch, bandages his wounds, places him on his own animal, takes him to safety, and pays his medical bills. It’s the most unexpected outcome because the person deemed the neighbor is most unlikely.
If it’s the lawyer laying in the ditch, he doesn’t want the Samaritan to be his neighbor—he wants the two religious people—the two fine upstanding people– who are regularly featured in Soirée magazine or society page—Instead he gets this lowlife who probably would show up at his church asking for help but wouldn’t hesitate to break in and steal a laptop.
Jesus’ story reveals the messy-ness of loving our neighbors—the icky-ness of realizing we are in need of mercy too—we must be loved back.
So, when Jesus asks, “Who do you think was the neighbors in the story,” the answer sticks in the lawyer’s throat–he can’t even acknowledge him as a person—He can’t even speak his moniker—Samaritan. He just says, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Then Jesus has one of his notorious mic-drop moments and just says, “Go and do likewise.”
Perhaps the question for us downtown churches is “How do we shift from the place that serves to the place that is served by our unlikely neighbors?”
How do we find our neighborhood as a place that gives US life?
After our break-in, we filed our police report, we turned over our security footage, we even gave statements saying we knew who it was. But none of that felt good. There was no grace in it. We began to talk about how going to jail wasn’t going to help our neighbor—it would only perpetuate or intensify his destructiveness. We knew he needed rehab. He needed a break. He needed someone to invest in him.
So, we consulted a lawyer, we met with the detective and we said, “We don’t want to press charges.” We said if he is arrested we’d rather work out an arrangement that if he’ll make restitution for the stolen items and maybe if he’ll come and weed our flower beds so many weeks so that we can develop a deeper relationship with him, we’ll let the issue go. It wasn’t that we wanted this to be a power issue that we held over him. We simply wanted a way to stay in relationship with him. We wanted to find a way that was redemptive—not retributive.
I wish I could tell you there was a fairy tale ending and we all lived happily ever after—but I can’t—our neighbor disappeared, and we haven’t seen him since—he’s probably still afraid we’re going to turn him in to the police.
But the process of searching for a different way to handle this situation—the process of seeking the way of grace was exciting us. Staff members who had grown jaded about some of our neighbors began to see a new light. It brought hope rather than bitterness or despair. Just the thought of seeking this different way gave us life.
Perhaps that’s what loving our neighbors does. It may be messy and hard…it may not solve all the problems of the world, but it brings light and life to us and to our neighbors.
And if loving our neighbors bring life to us…together we bring life to our neighborhood. For what is a neighborhood than a collection of neighbors? And if our neighborhoods are filled with life, we bring life to our city– for what is a city but a collection of neighborhoods?
How appropriate is it that this evening we also read from Revelation– of God’s vision of a new Jerusalem—a holy city. Perhaps that holy city begins with holy neighbors.
Christ Church—tonight you officially bless a new leader—and tomorrow is a new day. You get to move forward with a fresh vision-with a Rector whose eyes are clear and eager to find the way of grace. May you discover the life-giving work of loving your neighbors and transform this downtown neighborhood—and join God’s work of building that new Jerusalem right here in Little Rock at the corner of Capitol and Scott.