Who is my neighbor?

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

The last year of my life has been like a modern re-enactment of God’s command to Abram in Genesis 12:1. God tells Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I got married on December 5, 2015 and moved out of my parents’ house into the apartment my husband, Ryan, and I rented in Evanston, IL. Three months later, my job came unexpectedly to an end, and a few months after that I accepted an invitation to join the chaplaincy staff at Monmouth College several hours away. My husband and I bought a house in Monmouth, and he patiently lives half-way in ‘the old country’ for his job in Chicago. It has been such a whirlwind, I’ve only now really started to look around me at this new country God has chosen for me. Monmouth is a town of less than 10,000 people and the smallest place I have ever lived. It’s been overwhelming at times, but mostly it has been oddly eye-opening.

In the few short months that I’ve been here, I’ve had to take my Bible more seriously. Someone thought it would be a great idea to let me preach in chapel for the first service after our recent presidential election, and again for the first service following the presidential inauguration. If you’ve kept an eye on national news, you have a sense of what kind of time it’s been. Over the past week especially, I’ve had to look in the mirror and ask the question of the Good Samaritan parable: “Who is my neighbor?”

Here are just a few examples from this week. We have an older boiler system in our house, and the circulator pump has been on its way out since day one. In the first place, I now know what a circulator pump does and what it looks like. Not bad for a city girl, right? More importantly, I now know the skilled technicians who replaced our failing part who have been at work here for generations practicing their trade. When I mention to others who we had do the work, more than one person has affectionately referred to them as ‘good, salt of the earth folks.’ Ryan and I have met many of our neighbors on the block…which is impressive, because we haven’t exchanged more than a few words with any of the six other families from our urban Evanston apartment building. They have offered advice, an open door to garages full of tools, and even the manual labor of their teenage sons. Today, I met a wonderful woman whose 17-yr-old son is really excited to pursue a vocational training program for welding after graduation this spring. She’s really excited for him because it means he will likely have a steady wage, a career that values apprenticeship, a trade that allows him to see the tangible fruit of his labors, and he has job prospects that give him the option of staying close to his family.

I share all this because I often forget to value the deep worth of all my neighbors. I’m passionately on the side of the oppressed and underprivileged and my facebook feed is full of college and grad-school educated friends who are just as passionate about peacemaking, seeking justice, and doing good in the world. We call on each other to write letters, we read and post newspaper articles, we make phone calls to our governmental representatives. But today I’ve noticed, with greater clarity, that I can also reach a wider group from where I’m sitting, and the work of conversation is harder. The welder, the farmer, the tradesperson, the immigrant, the stranger, are my all neighbors here in Monmouth, and it’s not as easy as a facebook post.

If I’m honest, I have to remember and value the diversity of where I’ve come from. My family is a family of immigrants, so I value the newly arrived immigrant and the refugee. When my dad graduated from high school in a tiny Minnesota farming town, he went on to learn the vocational trade of an electrician and is way more useful than I’ll ever be around a dark house. He married my mom, a woman in ministry who has since completed doctoral work. Bringing up ‘politics’ at family gatherings can be uncomfortable. I come from complicated roots. I have seen changes happen, walls come down, and compassion increase, but it has taken a lot of time and a lot of hard work.

The small town where God has called me needs every single one of our gifts to survive and thrive. In our small school district, over 30% of students from preschool to third grade now have a language other than English as their primary language. 77% of students are considered low-income and are eligible for free or reduced meals at school. According to the 2010 census, the population was 88% white. Six years later, public school data from 2016 reveals that our area is much more diverse: only 64% of students from K-12 are white. Diversity has emerged rapidly over a relatively short period of time, and the work of interdependence and community building is an urgent challenge. People are all over the map where the recent election was concerned. We read our Bibles and interpret our faith traditions in dramatically different ways. To practice a liberating theology in this place is to embrace many truths, to be surprised by the broadness of mercy, and to seek to be faithful as real discomfort and complexity are encountered by the roadside.

Monmouth College Chapel Meditation 1.30.17

Prayer for Illumination

God of all creation and all peoples, help us recognize your presence with us. Settle the restlessness of our hearts and minds and help us to hear and listen to your word for us. Amen.

Scripture
Isaiah 58:1-12, selected verses

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness; they ask of me righteous judgments. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Meditation

After I graduated from college, I spent my first two years after college working at the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. It was a great experience, and I had these big dreams of one day taking over as the Secretary General of the United Nations. It’s pretty clear I’m not there. Yet. But for most of the two years I was there, I had a scraggly copy of this passage from Isaiah 58, printed on plain white copy paper, thumb-tacked to my office bulletin board. Though the passage was pre-assigned for this week, if I had to choose a single passage from Christian scriptures to define what on earth I’m doing here, this would be it, because it resonates with my understanding of what a faithful life looks like. A faithful life isn’t only about showing up to church on Sunday (and chapel every Monday at noon). That’s part of it, for sure. But it’s also about working for compassion, peace, and justice in a world that desperately needs some good news.

The prophet Isaiah confronted God’s people in a time of great political and social turmoil, not unlike our own time. God’s people faced inhospitable borders, conflict, war, famine, homelessness, divisions across economic and racial lines, even just mixed feelings about the whole situation. And they still tried to be faithful in the midst of all that. They followed the religious laws and practices, like fasting and mourning rites, and setting aside a day of worship for religious observance. They did the equivalent of building a church and showing up to chapel each week, knowing their Bible word for word, praying before meals, proclaiming their faith.

But something isn’t quite right at the point when this passage emerges. Rather than a warm pat on the back, God invites them to the divine equivalent of a ‘Let’s get real’ moment. There’s this epic side comment from God. I can almost hear the chuckle from above: Day after day they seek me, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness. Look, God says, you fast and show up to worship, and I appreciate it, and definitely keep it up, but right now you just show up and throw punches at each other between hymns and oppress your workers on your way out the door.

In a challenging interruption, God reveals what acceptable religious practice looks like: “Is not this the fast that I, God, choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them?”

God’s people are worshiping their darndest in hopes that their society will be rebuilt, but God says: “Only if you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, only if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. Then your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; Then you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” God says, essentially, you don’t get to be called the repairer of the breach until you repair the breach. You don’t get to be called the restorer of streets until you fix the potholes. You don’t get to take credit for your worship until you practice what you preach.

Shortly before classes began this semester, I braved the ice-covered streets and made my way to my office at the Weeks House. It had rained overnight, one of those wintry-mix days that just freezes over, making everything pretty treacherous. I had my sturdy ice cleats for my sturdy winter boots, and I took off across campus to check my mailbox in Wallace Hall. As I crossed the street from my office, I came across one of the college buildings and grounds staff chipping away at the ice covered sidewalks with a metal scraper, the metal kind that’s only like a foot wide, but it’s the only way you can get the job done, even with all the salt in the world. I stopped to talk to him, to commiserate with him about how rotten a job it was and how cold it was, and how I didn’t envy the work he had ahead of him. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of sidewalks around here.

He sort of smiled at me and said: “Sure, it’s cold. But the job isn’t so bad. Students are starting to come back, and I want to be sure the sidewalks are safe to walk on.” He might as well have said: “Sure, it’s more work, but I’m a restorer of streets to live in.” When I think about what worship and religious practice looks like, I don’t just think about who shows up to chapel. I also think about the many ways and the many people that can rightly be called the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in, regardless of what they believe.

Here’s another example of what I think this passage means for us today. A few weeks after I got here in November, Monmouth College students, faculty, and staff marched on the sidewalks in front of Wallace Hall to support the naming of our campus as a sanctuary for immigrant communities. The use of the word ‘sanctuary’ is especially important to me, because sanctuaries are places of worship. The sanctuary movements in the 1980s that supported Central American refugees began with churches that used their worship spaces as safe havens. Pastors were arrested and put on trial because they interpreted their faith and worship as inseparable from their participation in God’s work to break every yoke, to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free. Presbyterians were at the heart of those efforts, so it is fitting that similar calls to action have emerged on our Presbyterian campus. And people of faith from all traditions, this week, have gone to worship, read their scripture, and responded to the recent orders on immigration and refugees, to preach words of justice and compassion, and to practice what they preach. I can’t speak for other faith traditions or other people, but in my own Christian life and practice, I see worship as inseparable from acts of justice and compassion.

Mr. Rogers, a children’s TV favorite, and ordained Presbyterian minister once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s good advice. When I find myself asking where God is, or what will become of us, or how we will ever get along with one another, I look for those who are helping, who choose to have difficult conversations, who serve the oppressed, the hungry, the stranger. I look for chains being broken, for light shining in darkness, for communities who find the strength to love one another in the presence of great differences. This week, I look especially for God in those walking alongside the refugee, the immigrant, those detained and deported, and those facing uncertainty. This is the fast, the worship I choose…to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to be called repairer of the breach and restorer of streets to live in, right here, now, and in the days ahead.

Blessing

Friends, my prayer and challenge for us this week is that we would live into hope. My prayer and challenge is that you would live into the hope, not of worldly optimism, but of the hope God has for us. My prayer and challenge is that our worship would not end here in Dahl Chapel. As people of hope, our worship begins as we leave this place and go into the world. Go in peace, live with compassion, and seek justice. Amen.

Worship Resources for Sunday, October 19

Worship Theme: The Race of a Lifetime: Training for Humility

Scripture Lessons: John 18:15-27; John 21:15-19

Call to Worship

Leader: Gather your thoughts, your hearts, your voices.
People: Let us come to this place from too busy schedules and worldly demands.
Leader: Whether we are wrong or right, or somewhere in between, we are loved.

People: Wherever we are from, wherever we are going, we can call this place home.
Leader: Together, let us praise our creator and sustainer, our beginning and end.

People: Let us worship God!

Call to Confession

Our worship each week presents us with both the challenge and good news of confession. We are challenged because we have to admit we aren’t perfect. We encounter good news when we realize that God still loves us anyway.

Prayer of Confession

God of all things perfect and imperfect, you have given us life, purpose, and an invitation to discipleship. As we follow the path you have set for us, though, we forget that your invitation is not to a ministry of perfection. We are hard on others when they don’t meet our expectations, and we are even harder on ourselves when we fall short of our ideals. Remind us that all who have been called your disciples were imperfect. Remind us that the whole point of the life, death and resurrection of Christ was to meet us in our imperfection and to transform it for good.

Assurance of God’s Pardon

Leader: Friends, hear the good news. In Christ, we are a forgiven, blessed, and risen people.
People: Thanks be to God!