What About this Good Neighbor Stuff?

By The Rev. Earl Anderson

[Micah 6:6-8, Luke 10: 25-38; at the United Church of Hinesburg, VT; September 16, 2012.]

HE HAS SHOWED YOU, O MAN, WHAT IS GOOD;
AND WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE OF YOU
BUT TO DO JUSTICE, AND TO LOVE KINDNESS
AND TO WALK HUMBLY WITH YOUR GOD?

WHICH OF THESE THREE, DO YOU THINK, PROVED NEIGHBOR TO
THE MAN WHO FELL AMONG THE ROBBERS?
“THE ONE WHO SHOWED MERCY ON HIM.”
AND JESUS SAID TO HIM, “GO AND DO LIKEWISE.”

This morning I’ll talk about three topics:  Being a good neighbor, doing justice, and walking humbly with our God.

Thirty five years ago my wife, Barrie, and I moved to Hinesburg from Montpelier. After we were “settled in”, I began looking for community services activities with which I might become involved.

I noticed a sign near the office building next door that read: Hinesburg Community Resource Center. A phone number was included, so I called it. I don’t remember if Judy Parker answered or if it was the pastor of the Community Alliance Church—Keith Reidell.

I was invited to their next meeting and life was never the same after that. A small group of people had formed this organization whose purpose was to help community members who needed assistance. Judy was a member of the founding group along with Emma Meade.

Eventually we were approached by a person who wanted to establish a “Friends of Families” project. This required our obtaining official status of a non-profit group, etc. I ended up as Chairman of the Board of Directors Judy I don’t remember your role, but Emma was the
treasurer.

As an aside, I told Emma last week that I was going to tell a story about her this morning. Although she was treasurer our by-laws required that the Board President co-sign all checks. At that time John and Emma made several trips abroad as well as within the US and we used to joke that my co-signature was needed to make sure that the Resource Center was not funding their travels. Everything went well and we enjoyed working together.

The point of this story is that from the beginning of my living in Hinesburg, this Church has lived and practiced being a good neighbor.

For years space was provided rent-free for the Resource Center; it has housed the food shelf and has hosted boy scouts, AA meetings and who knows how many other “good neighbor” services. You have become an open, affirming and reconciling church; you serve meals at the Salvation Army and you host community meals that are open to all. For all my years in Hinesburg the church has been “used” by groups who had a need.

Some of you have personal ministries–working for hospice, or at the food shelf or by donating blood. For these many neighborly acts, I compliment you most highly.

When we think of being a good neighbor we often think of one to one relationships, such as we read about in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Yes, being a good neighbor does start with individuals–in our families, on the job or in the community. But being good neighbors also involves groups, such as we have in this church.

Reflecting on this morning’s parable it’s important to note that the officially “good” people passed by the person in need. A priest and a Levite passed by on the other side of the road–maybe they were too busy or were afraid of being robbed. But a Samaritan–an undesirable, perhaps a “bad” untrustworthy person provided help.

In today’s world the equivalent of a “bad” or “suspect” person might be a Muslim–we seem to be in conflict with them in many areas.

Some of you have heard me refer to my Muslim friend in Naples–Abdul Sharif. In our conversations about Islam Abdul has said that it’s written in the Koran that if you save one person’s life, you save humanity. Another perspective on being a good neighbor.

God is at work both inside and outside of the Church, and for that fact I say “Thank you, God.”

So according to Micah, one of God’s expectations for us is to love kindness; to be good neighbors.

* * *

Let’s move to another expectation: “to do justice.” Remembering what we have said about being a good neighbor, what do we mean when we talk about justice?

Some people will state emphatically that they believe in Biblical justice–the Old Testament concept of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Fortunately, as we have learned about God’s love, our concept of justice is now tempered with compassion and mercy.

Some phrases used in defining justice—

The quality of being fair
Conformity to moral rightness in action and attitude.

In our New Testament lesson, in a sense, Jesus asks the lawyer about justice: “What is written in the Law? How do you read?”

And the lawyer 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.”

Justice is based on our love of God and love for our neighbors and ourselves.

A few examples—

Even though it has become the law of the land, we still have a major debate about National Health Insurance. Some people argue that we cannot afford such a nationwide program that would benefit more of the population. Others argue that it’s unjust and immoral–how can we as Christians live with the fact that while we may have good medical insurance there are millions in the country, perhaps some of you in this congregation who have no or little medical insurance?

These differences of opinion illustrate the difficulty we sometimes face in figuring out what is “just.”

In situations like this it’s extremely important to seek out the facts and take a position based on the facts and on what God expects of us.

Some people who oppose national health insurance will play upon your fears–your taxes will go up; the government will be interfering in your lives; you will lose the right to choose your own doctor, etc.

As Christians, it’s mandatory that we ask questions so that we can sort out facts from opinions. And once we get the facts, we then make a decision based on God’s requirement for practicing kindness and being good neighbors. What is a “just” position in this matter?

Some people will argue that the Church should stay out of these matters–religion and politics don’t mix!! I don’t want the minister telling me what to do.

I have witnessed two extremes of this argument—

In the early 1960’s I was a student assistant minister in the Methodist Church in Ridgefield, CN. You may remember that at that time John Kennedy (a Roman Catholic) was running against Richard Nixon for President. Having a catholic in the white house was a huge concern. The minister in this Methodist church was a reasonable and mild-mannered man, but he felt it was his DUTY to tell the congregation that a Roman Catholic should never be elected President. If that happened, the Vatican would control our country. In this situation, politics and religion were mixed … very strongly.
Contrast that situation with what I experienced at the United Church of Christ on Marco Island, FL. I was concerned that during the opening months of the war in Iraq, absolutely nothing was mentioned in church about the war. The silence was deafening!! I spoke with the
minister about her silence and she was adamant–she would never speak about politics from the pulpit–it would split the church and nothing would be accomplished.

In my opinion, we had an excellent opportunity for a teaching ministry. One or more sermons could present information about the conflict, the Church’s position on war, etc. Eventually the minister agreed to our having a study group about Islam. It went quite well and we used the same materials in a study group here in this church a few years ago.

I have digressed here to illustrate the point that in many instances it’s difficult to figure out what constitutes a just solution to a problem.

I don’t agree that the minister should tell parishioners what to think and do, but the minister or the Church should provide information, facts on which just opinions can be formed. For example, I wish there would be a staff person for the United Church of Christ who could
tell us the facts and address false claims and fears about National Health Insurance. It’s a shame that the Church has not seized the opportunity to present the just case for and against this topic.

One minister has written that churches should not only operate food shelves and soup kitchens. The Church should be working within the larger society to eliminate the conditions that leave people in hunger.

So in doing justice our thinking should always be filtered through the requirement to love kindness and to be a good neighbor.

* * *

OK, now briefly, let’s think about how we walk humbly with God. I had a hard time thinking about how a person “walks humbly.” The phrase reminds me of a married couple who lived next-door to us in Naples. Whenever they went for a walk, the wife walked a few feet behind the husband, even if there was plenty of room on the sidewalk. I don’t think that’s what Micah means when he writes about walking humbly.

After a little research I learned that “walking humbly with God” means our being obedient to God and remembering our need for his love and forgiveness.

Two illustrations:

One summer in the early 1960’s I was a student summer pastor in a small town in VT. One gentleman who attended church often looked scruffy and out-of-place–to look at him you wouldn’t think he would be in church. He didn’t fit my stereotype.

One Sunday he missed church–actually I didn’t notice his absence.
After church on the following Sunday he wanted to talk. He said he was not in church the previous week because his neighbor had water problems and needed help in fixing his water pump so that he could feed his cows. This man sincerely wondered if he had done the right thing, and if God would understand why he was not in church.

In my mind, here was a man who walked humbly with God.

Another example— (perhaps a bit more controversial) –several years ago I participated in a retreat that was led by a Roman Catholic Priest–Daniel Berrigan. Some of you may remember him because he was quite notorious for his opposition to the Vietnam war. He even went to Hanoi during the war.

When I first met him I was amazed–he was an older gentleman, short and very mild-mannered. He wasn’t flashy; he didn’t wave his bible and shout JESUS! But he had a very deep, calm presence that was striking. His position was that he practiced his faith as he understood it from his reading of the Bible. In his opinion the war in Vietnam was unjust and even though he was reviled, disciplined by his Bishop, called unpatriotic and even jailed, he walked humbly with his God.

I hope that each of you either has had or will have the opportunity to meet people who “walk humbly with God.” Such people often have a deep sense of peace and humility, even though they may have had hard times. They are often the people you know you can call on when there’s a problem. Such people are truly inspirational.