Be a Neighbor

Scripture:  Romans 13:8-14

Because of my position in a church, I have an unique cross section of facebook friends.  I have spent years working with youth, so I am facebook friends with teenagers as well as several people now in their twenties.   I also have been in United Methodist churches since social media became a thing, so as people from older generations started using facebook I have many of them on my friends list as well.   This sometimes creates some unusual groupings.  There is a particular type of facebook post that people like to share.  It is the “remember this” nostalgia meme.  Often these posts will feature some sort of semi-obscure pop culture picture that is immediately relatable to anyone who liked it when they are younger.  Because of the cross section of facebook friends, I very rarely remember these things.  It has happened on more than one occasion that someone older than me will post one of these that shows a picture of something that I recognize as being from the 1960’s or early 1970’s but I have no clue what it is from, and then right under that someone younger than me will post something from a mid-2000 kid show that is equally foreign to me.  There are very few things that can span the generations, especially things that we remember in a way that activates that childhood nostalgia.  However, I can think of at least one or two such shows.  Let me know if this creates any kind of nostalgic feels in you:

Mister Rogers neighborhood aired nationally from 1968-2001.   Even though Fred Rogers passed away over a decade ago, many PBS stations still show an episode of his show at some point every weekend.   For a couple of generations, Mister Rogers is their grandfather in the TV.  Perhaps, this more than anything was the secret to the show’s success.  Even compared to the kids shows of the 70’-80’s Mister Rogers had a much slower pace with simple and less bombastic visuals.  However, the onscreen persona of Mr. Rogers was more or less the same as Fred Rogers.   By all reports he was a gentle and caring man with a  desire to nurture and love children, and somehow that all came through the TV.   Over the course of thirty three years Mr. Rogers inspired millions of children to be friendly neighbors.  It should be  no surprise then that Mr. Rogers was also Rev. Rogers, a minister in the Presbyterian church, because the idea of being a good neighbor is biblical.  

This morning’s scripture is about being a good neighbor and it is an especially fascinating one because it shows up in Romans.   For people who have quite a bit of church going experience under their belt this scripture might immediately sound familiar.   It is possible that some of you recognize the command “love your neighbor as yourself” as something that Jesus said, and he did.  The gospels record that when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he lists two and he includes “love your neighbor as yourself.”   To help put this in context, even if the earliest potential dates for the writing of the gospels are used, the writing of Romans still predates this.  Paul wrote the letter to the Romans as a way to teach the start up church.  The letter was meant to give them a summary of the most important beliefs of this fairly new Christian faith.  That means that what Paul is writing here is not just a quotations of the gospels, but rather love your neighbor as yourself was a teaching of Jesus that the early church embraced.   This is why what Paul wrote and what is recorded in the gospels is so similar.  Jesus said the law and all the prophets hangs on the command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, and here Paul states that love your neighbor sums and doing this one thing fulfills the law.   

The command love your neighbor as yourself, naturally begs the question “who is our neighbor?”   This very question was asked of Jesus and he told the story of the Good Samaritan.  You can read the story for yourself in Luke Luke 10 but the too long; didn’t read summary is that anyone who is in need is our neighbor, or more specifically those who are in need that we take time to help are our neighbors.   While there is a lot of truth to the Good Samaritan story, we need to be careful not to overthink it.  Our neighbors are also our neighbors.   Our neighbors are the people who live next door to us or down the street.   In the context of being a church our neighbors are also the people who when they look out their front door and look up can see our steeple, they are the people who walk by our building on the way to get a polar pop, and they are the people who stop at the stop sign right out our doors on their way to work in the morning.   In short, as a faith community, our neighbors are the community that we find ourselves in.  So as Edinburgh United Methodist church we simply must understand that this town is our neighborhood and everyone who calls it home are part of our neighbors.  

The biblical mandate is clear, we should love our neighbors as ourselves.   As we begin to think about how we do that, I believe the example of Mister Rogers helps us out.   The Mister Rogers theme song ends with “won’t you please by my neighbor?”  That is such a beautiful question, and there are two profound truths inside that question.   First, Mister Rogers did not qualify who gets to be his neighbor.   In fact this was a vital element of the show.   Mister Rogers sought to be in a friendly neighbor relationship with everyone.   He did not qualify who got to be his neighbor.  There was not a prerequisite list of requirements that someone had to meet to be Mr. Rogers neighbor.   People did not need to look a certain way, dress a certain way, believe a certain way, or live a certain way to Mr. Rogers neighbor.  To love our neighbors we have to love our neighbors without condition.   We love our neighbors for who they are and as they are.  We do not love them in hopes they become who we want them to be.  

The second profound truth in the question “won’t you please by my neighbor?” is that it is an invitation.   It is a polite invitation at that.  It expresses that I want you to be my neighbor.  It is a question that has an underlying meaning that states, “I value you and I want to be in a relationship with you.”    As the people of God, a people who have been invited to respond to the grace of Christ Jesus, we need to be people of invitation.    We have a holy command to follow to love our neighbors.  We can only do that if we know our neighbors and we can only know them if we invite them to be our neighbors.   Our church has long and old roots in this community.   In the 1960s a little green book that records the history of the church up to that point was written, and it records that Edinburgh UMC stands as a monument to Methodism.  That is what our church was built to be.  It was built to be a shining  and impeccable example of what a Methodist church should look like.  In the 1950s and 1960s having such a beautiful monument with open doors, might have been all it took for the community to come in.  However, we have to be honest that the culture is vastly different than then.  Simply opening the door is not an invitation.    By its very nature an invitation is not passive.  Opening our doors and saying let the people come, is not an invitation and it is not being a good neighbor.   To state it plainly, people are not going to come here unless they believe we are good neighbors.  They are not going to believe we are good neighbors, unless they know we love them.   We can not expect them to come to us if they do not believe we are for them.   

As a church family, we should celebrate that we have done a decent amount to invite people in, to be a good neighbor, and to let the community know that we are for Edinburgh.  Just in the past couple of months we have had held a community block party and a school supply carnival.   Later this week, we will be serving snow cones and ice cream during the fall festival.   We have invited in teenagers during 5th quarters as well as groups like cub scouts, weight watchers, and narcotics anonymous.   We can celebrate that as a congregation we have taken step to fulfill the command to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we have to also be willing to confess that to fulfill the command of Jesus and the command shared in this morning’s scripture we can do more.  

There are two practical things we can do to better love our neighbors.  The first is simple, we love our neighbors by loving our neighbors.  As individuals we can take actions that express our love, care, and concern.  We show love by expending time and effort on behalf of others to express our caring.  A couple of weeks ago there was a great example of what it means to show love for neighbors.  A small Methodist church outside of Columbus, called Ohio Chapel, was severely vandalized.  On Sunday they could not use the building because it was taped off and still a crime scene under investigation, so they had their worship service outside.  Right as the service was getting ready to start a floral delivery truck drove up and dropped off flowers expressing sympathy.  This token of love was not from the church down the street or even another United Methodist church.  The flowers were sent by the Columbus Islamic Association.  In this instance, it is Muslims who show us the example of what it means to be a good neighbor, because they were the ones who took the time and effort to express their care.  To love our neighbor we simply have to take time to focus on them.   Each and everyone of us can do this.  In small but tangible ways we can take actions that communicate to our co-workers and literal next door neighbors that we care for them and that we love them, because God loves us.  

Once we take actions to show our love and concern, the second practical thing we can do is follow the example of Mr. Rogers and we can invite people.   We invite people not because we want bottoms in the pews and money in the plate, but we invite people because loving our neighbor is supposed to be who we are as the community of God.  We invite people because God loves them, and show them that love by loving them too.   To repeat for emphasis, we can not simply open up our doors and hope for the best.  We must invite.  A survey found that only 21% of church goes invite someone else to come to church with them in a year.  Yet, a different survey found that over 90% of non-church going people would be open to going if a friend invited them.  We must do better. Recently I was talking to a woman from Edinburgh who knew that  I was the pastor of this church.  She was telling me about some of the people she knew who attended here, and in the course of the conversation she stated, no one has ever invited me to come with them.   We  do a lot to invite the community, but we really can do better.  

A final thing of note, is that there is some urgency to this morning’s scripture.  Verse 11 states, “And do this, understanding the present time:  The hour has already come for you to wake from your slumber.”  This is a reminder that all of us are on a countdown clock.  We do not have forever to wait to love our neighbors and invite.  We do not have the luxury of waiting until a better time, because honestly now is always the best time to love our neighbor as ourselves.   May we do just that.   As individuals believers and disciples of Jesus, may we love our neighbors.  May we not just do that in theory, but may our actions show in concrete ways that we care for them and that we are truly for them.