Taking the Initiative

Taking the Initiative

May 07, 2023 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

Five years ago we did a series called “Neighboring.” It was part of a movement going on at the time in churches across the country. It started in Denver. A ecumenical group of pastors met with the mayor to discuss how their churches might help with the most threatening problems in their city. The mayor said, “Help our neighborhoods…”

That lead to a cooperative experiment. It led to a book The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door. (book cover pic) It describes what they did in Denver. We did some of these things here at St. Luke’s, like the neighborhood card. It looks like a Bingo card. This is a way to map your immediate neighborhood. The middle square is your house. The surrounding ones are those neighbors nearest you. There are three questions to answer:

1—What are the names of your immediate neighbors?

2—What information can you add that you don’t see from the driveway? Something you would learn only from conversation? Like where they are from. What they do for a living? What hobbies do they have?

3-- Can you write down something more personal? What dreams they have? Where do they want to retire one day? What do they think about God? Are they religious?

There are people in St. Luke’s today because we did this exercise six years ago? Members got to know neighbors, one day they invited them to St. Luke’s. And they are here now. But that really isn’t the goal. Its not a gimmick to get people in church. Its just about helping us become better people at caring for others, noticing others, taking time to learn about those who live the closest to us.

That’s what we need church to do for us isn’t it? Not make us right. Not separate us from other people. We need the church to simply help us be better people; to be good neighbors.

When some of us met several months ago to talk about what we might preach during May, the idea was brought up to consider the Neighboring series again. We just did this in 2018, and I was a little skeptical. Repeating a series always has the risk of feeling like a rerun, but we committed to it, and then 2 events happened in the news this week that made me feel this is a much needed series.

First was the shooting of a family in Texas where the dad had respectfully asked his neighbor not to shoot his gun late at night as it was keeping his children awake and causing them to be afraid. It was yet another tragic story of neighbors killing neighbors. There have been a number of these stories recently.

Then, the Surgeon General just this week (pic of headline) named loneliness as the greatest health threat in our country. Isolation and separation, already building before the pandemic, set in like a plague following. Technology hasn’t helped this.

And so, it seems like a good time to consider again what it means to be a neighbor. I feel like we are losing faith in the goodness of humanity. Either we fear our neighbors or assume they just don’t care. Road rage incidents show what happens when we assume the worst about people because of their actions. When we lose faith in the goodness of others, the consequences are dire.

Bertrand Russell was an avowed atheist who saw little positive in religion. Yet, when he considered the state of the world in his time, he confessed, “that it now appears as if the old-fashioned Christian virtue of love may be necessary for survival.” (The Parables, G. Kennedy, p111)

Maybe Jesus saw the same concern in his day. Before Covid19, before digital technology, before guns, Jesus must have witnessed an erosion happening in society that inspired him to tell one of his most memorable parables, The Good Samaritan.

The story comes in response to a question from a theologian who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns it back on the man. He asks, “What does the Law say?” The theologian responds by quoting two parts of the Torah: “Love God and love your neighbor.” Those were not typically combined in that time. Who combined them? Jesus did. This man perhaps heard Jesus say this. So he draws Jesus in by quoting Jesus’ own words. When Jesus approves, the theologian reveals his desire to test Jesus. “And who is my neighbor?”

Rabbinic tradition had already answered that question. It was a fellow Israelite. Not just anybody. In fact, a number of traditions drew different lines. Joachim Jeremias in his commentary, says that Pharisees excluded non-Pharisees; Essenes required one to hate “all the sons of darkness.” Imagine defining who that includes! One rabbinical source said, “heretics, reformers and renegades (that’s really clear isn’t it!) should be pushed into a ditch and not pulled out.” (The Parables of Jesus, p202)

Isn’t it interesting how religion can take a simple statement from the Bible, “love your neighbor” and twist it into definitions of people we don’t have to love! But Jesus will have none of that. Instead he tells a story, a story that ends with a question back to the theologian, “Who proved to be neighbor?” Do you see what Jesus did? The lawyer asks an objective question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks a subjective question, “What does it mean to act like a neighbor?”

Jesus isn’t concerned with having a debate over the definition of a neighbor. He is concerned with action, with actually loving the way God intends.

Its like the story of a new salesman who stunned his company’s sales department after sending his first report. It was clear he wasn’t well educated! The report read, “I seen this outfit which they ain’t never bought a dim’s worth of nothin from us, but I sole them some goods. On my way to Chicawgo.” Before he could be given the heave ho, a second report arrived, “I gots here and sole ‘em half a million.”

Fearful if he did and afraid if he didn’t fire the salesman, the manager left the matter up to the president. The next day the sales department was amazed to see posted on the bulletin board above the two reports from the salesman, this message from the president:

 We been spendin too much time tryin to spel and not tryin to sel! Let’s watch those sails. I want everybody should read these letters from Gooch who is on the rode doin a grate job for us and you should go out and do like he dun.” (J. Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You. P8)

What Jesus says with this story is that we should just “git er dun” when it comes to loving others. Just do it. But what does that mean? Each week we will look at a different aspect of this story to think about what it means to be a neighbor. I want us to pay attention today to this idea of taking initiative. Being a neighbor means taking initiative to help another person, any person, who is need.

Most of us are familiar with the Good Samaritan. A victim has been robbed and left for dead. A Levite and later a priest pass him by. Jesus is clearly taking a dig at preachers, at religious professionals, people most educated about living God’s way.

Next came a Samaritan. Let me pause here because this story has come to be known at the Good Samaritan, and that very title reveals the racial hatred of the time. To call the story of a “Good” Samaritan means this is a surprising idea. Good Samaritan would have been an oxymoron. It would be like us today saying “Good Taliban,” or “Good Jihadist.” They just don’t go together.

Yet he is the one who helps the victim. He cares for his wounds. He takes him to an inn, pays for it, and promises the owner to compensate him for further charges while the person recovers. Now, remember the popular definition of neighbor at the time? A fellow Israelite. The religious professionals didn’t even care for one of their own. But a non-Israelite, someone who wasn’t a neighbor, is the one who acted like a true Israelite.

Do you kn0w any people who are not Christian, either they don’t believe in God or they are a different religion, and they act more Christian than most Christians? That’s the kind of character Jesus has created with this Samaritan. He doesn’t help the victim so the person will start attending his church. He doesn’t help him so that he can explain the four spiritual laws. He does it, because it’s the right thing to do. He shows what it means to be a neighbor: you take initiative to help because you see a need.

Notice two things about taking initiative we see in the Samaritan. It means Focusing on the humanity in others. To see people’s humanity we have to look beyond their race, or appearance, or nationality or any apparent differences that might stand in the way of our treating someone with human kindness.

Jesus’ story is fictitious, but it was based on reality. The racial animosity between Jews and Samaritans was very real. This Samaritan knew that if this victim was Jewish, which would have been likely, and if the situation was reversed, the person would probably not have helped the Samaritan. That had to be in the back of his head. Yet, he chose to look beyond that probability, so that his treatment of others wasn’t predicated on the treatment he receives.

If he had focused on that fact, if he only saw his race, he might not have helped. But Jesus describes someone willing to look beyond race and see a human being in need, and think, “If I were in his situation, what would I hope someone would do for me?” That is taking initiative based on seeing the humanity of another.

Coming August 13, I want to give you a teaser for our second Sunday of Faith in the Real World. The first week, Aug. 13, we will have Al Unser Jr. The second week, we will have Richard McKinney. A short film made about him was nominated for an Oscar this year. Its called Stranger at the Gate. Richard had planned to blow up a mosque in Muncie, IN back in 2009, but he didn’t go through with it, because when he was investigating the community they welcomed him. They treated him like a brother, and it messed with his prejudices. He ended up becoming Muslim! Mark it down now, Aug. 13, I will interview Richard here in the service.

I mention it this morning to say that in the movie as he describes what he experienced and why he chose to join their community he said, “Put Islam aside for a moment. It really wasn’t about religion. It was about being human. I lost my humanity and they helped me find it again.” Being a neighbor means taking action to love the human being within people.

And the second thing the Samaritan shows us about taking initiative is to See Detours as Part of the Journey. Being a neighbor when needed is usually inconvenient. The bigger the hurry we’re in the less time we have to be neighborly. That’s why we shouldn’t be too quick to judge the Levite and priest. They had somewhere to go. They maybe were being cautious. What if this person were a robber in disguise? What if he’s dead? Touching a dead person would defile them from carrying out their temple responsibilities. They had somewhere to be where people were counting on them.

They no doubt felt bad. As they walked on they probably sent out a text blast asking people to pray for the victim. That’s a good religious thing to do in a tragedy. But someone who acts like a neighbor takes a risk, gets involved, accepts the detour.

Maybe for us what looks like is a person at work who is having a hard time catching on. He just cant seem to figure things out and others are getting frustrated. So you take time to work with them and see if you can bring them along. You step aside from your work, to be a neighbor.

Maybe you know someone who is having trouble navigating parenting. Its easy to say, “They’ll figure out. You did. They will too.” But being a neighbor means letting them know they aren’t alone. Befriending them. Listening to them. Seeing if you can help.

Maybe it means seeing someone being wrongly treated and doing what you can to help. The Foundation to Combat Antisemitism has a number of commercials out to emphasize ending hate. Take a look at this one…(video)

Being a neighbor means investing ourselves and recognizing that the detour is part of the journey. What feels like an interruption to our plan if we involve ourselves could be God’s way of saying, “I am making you a part of my plan.”

There is a couple in our church who have had a very successful career and have wanted to use their success to make a difference in the world, specifically around poverty mitigation. This is a passion that for the husband comes out of his upbringing in which there was scarcity of resources and lack of social capital. Now he would be quick to say he grew up in a home of love, faith and hard work. But sometimes all the hard work in the world still isn’t enough to thrive when it comes to material needs.

But this family had two big difference makers. One was a Jr. High PE Teacher who was also the counselor for the Methodist Youth Fellowship in which this boy and his brothers were a part. She poured into them, giving them confidence and encouragement. The other was a man who befriended the family. He saw the determination of the parents and the potential in the children, and he invested in them. When I asked recently what that investment meant, did he give them money? The man said, “No, something much more important. He inspired hope and encouraged dreaming.” He helped the boys believe they could get scholarships and go to college and that is what they each did.

So this man and his wife have invested their time, energy and resources over the years in helping others get out of poverty, and you are going to be hearing more this year about the latest program they are helping put together here in Washington Township called FAST—Families Accelerating, Sustaining, and Thriving. It will look much like this person’s upbringing in which devoted people came alongside his family to be an encouragement.

Volunteers will be sought to be trained and equipped to walk alongside families seeking to get out of poverty. In many ways you could say they will be volunteering to simply be good neighbors. It will not just be about giving but also receiving. It will be a partnership.

Before long this will go public and volunteers will be enlisted, but you might want to get a jump on this today, and say, “I am interested in learning more. When the time comes include me in informational meetings.” If you would like to do so, just email our Outreach Director, Shelly Clasen. Her email address is shown on the screen…