In my case, there were the favorite neighbors—the families with kids around my age who felt like real neighbors. There were the nice neighbors without kids—I didn’t have much to do with them, but knew them by name, and had the occasional BBQ or block party. And then there were the slightly scary neighbors, the Garens. Mr. Garen’s house looked like a junkyard, and he owned 5 ancient baby blue Cadillacs that the whole neighborhood complained about because they were parked in front of everyone’s houses.
So geographic proximity made for one definition of neighbor in my childhood (if you lived more than 3 or 4 houses away, you weren’t a neighbor, you just lived on our street), but it was sameness that was really important for feeling neighborly. People with kids felt more like neighbors to me than those without; people who seemed like my family even if they didn’t have kids felt more like neighbors than the Garens and their contravention of the aesthetic standards of the street.
Jesus has a very different idea of what a neighbor is than I grew up with. Proximity is secondary, but not insignificant: you can be called upon to be a neighbor to anyone near you at any moment. And sameness is never a characteristic needed to make a neighbor. Very few things in the Bible are simple; or have “plain meaning” as the fundamentalists call it. But love God and love your neighbor are about as close as I can imagine to something that is simple, fundamental, and complete. Hard to do—but easy to interpret. Because everyone is my neighbor. Or maybe better put: I am everyone’s neighbor. It’s not about seeing others as my neighbor as much as it is about my acting as a neighbor to them. My childhood definition was entirely about how I saw our neighbors—not about how I saw myself acting towards them. Being a neighbor is not about how your neighbor is acting to you. Which is why we can’t say, “You’re being mean to me and you’re not acting like my neighbor so now I don’t have to love you as my neighbor.” We are called to act as neighbors to everyone, even those—especially those—who do not act neighborly to us. The same Jesus who says “love your neighbor” is the Jesus who says “love your enemy,” so there really isn’t an option other than love.
So how do we do that? Well, when Jesus asks the lawyer “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” he is pointing to the law as a basis for receiving eternal life—and the law has the right answer. Love God, love your neighbor. One of the primary ways we love God is by showing love to our neighbors, who are made in the image of God, so the two commandments are linked. But as the following parable points out, the law is insufficient to compel people to be neighbors. Just because you know the law doesn’t mean you won’t walk by the man in distress. The priest and the Levite know the law, and they pass by. There has to be something more than law to be a neighbor---and the necessary additions to the law in the Gospel today are love and mercy.
Loving our neighbors is hard. I found an old Peanuts cartoon this week online that showed Linus saying, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” People are easier to love in concept than they are as individuals. Everyone agrees with “Love your neighbor”—even the lawyer debating Jesus—so long as we get to choose who our neighbors are and who they are not. We don’t want to love someone we don’t have to. We don’t want to love someone we don’t like. We definitely don’t want to love someone who is actively hurting or frightening us.
But again, I think we can get distracted by perceiving love as an emotion rather than an action. Let go of needing to feel love for your neighbor—and instead consider what it would mean to BE a neighbor. To act lovingly—even if you don’t feel it.
There have been some stunning and wide-reaching examples of what it means to be a neighbor—or fail at being a neighbor—in the news this week. I was only going to refer briefly to George Zimmerman’s trial this morning; but in light of last night’s verdict, it seems to cry out for a little more reflection. Mr. Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin are both our neighbors, and we are called to act as neighbors to both of them. Their interaction centered on a neighborhood—Mr. Zimmerman being on the “neighborhood watch.” His volunteer job was to identify people who looked like they were neighbors—and people who did not look like they were neighbors. And this is not to say that neighborhoods and law enforcement should not be watchful and work to keep neighborhoods safe; a “watch” is fundamentally observational, not confrontational. Just as the law to love God and neighbor is insufficient for salvation without love and mercy, so the Florida laws to guard our homes and our neighborhoods and to stand our ground seem in this case, to be insufficient without love and mercy.
So how can we be neighbors now to those affected by the verdict of this trial? How can we be a neighbor to those who feel endangered; to those who are wounded again by racism; how can we be a neighbor to Mr. Zimmerman, who we are also called to love, because he is made in the image of God? How can we bring our country and society closer to a place where my son, Nathan, will not need to experience fear or privilege in a different way than, say, the sons of Theodora Brooks, the rector of our sister parish in the South Bronx who has two boys around his age? I know there are some concrete actions around here: there is a 6pm march at Union Square; a petition to the justice department you can sign online; we can reexamine our own racial biases—perhaps it’s time to do an anti-racism training here at Epiphany; we can pray—which is not doing nothing; we can pray for justice, for mercy, for forgiveness, for healing, and for change.
With such a powerful negative example of people failing to be neighborly in the news this week, there was one inspiring positive example from another teenager of color who was shot unjustly: Malala Yousafzai’s day at the United Nations this week inspired me, and her voice addresses so many of the issues surrounding her neighbor Trayvon. Here she was, this girl advocating simply for the education of women in her country—and really—around the world—who had been, as it were, set upon by robbers and left to die by the side of the road. But the neighborhood of her home and the world stepped forward to be good Samaritans to her, to get the medical care she needed, and to give her the ability and the platform to advocate now on the world stage. Here is an excerpt on themes from today’s gospel:
Dear friends, on 9 October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born. I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. And my dreams are the same. Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me.
Even if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion I have learned from Mohamed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother. This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone.
I am so grateful that Malala is our neighbor. And I am so grateful that her witness can inspire us to be better neighbors. Just as violence only made her ambitions, hopes and dreams stronger, I pray that last night’s verdict might make our ambitions, hopes and dreams for our nation and our people stronger. To grow to a place where skin color does not inspire fear, nor grant undue privilege, and where loving our neighbor and being neighbors are not dependent upon similarity or law, or proximity, but only on our love for one another. Amen.
Watch Malala's entire speech online at http://hollywoodlife.com/2013/07/12/malala-yousafzai-un-speech-united-nations-education-live-stream/