St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Proximity Does Not Make You Close”
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
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."
We all know the types. The ones who sit on the first row, their hands almost perpetually raised. Hermione Granger was like that in the Harry Potter series. As a teacher I loved those kids, and they drove me crazy. They wanted so much to please, or to show how smart they are or how hard they had worked, but often did not take into account the learning or the feelings of the others in the class. I see the lawyer this way. Wanting to test the Rabbi maybe, and wanting to justify himself the story tells us, the lawyer asks these questions of Jesus.
And Jesus, like Socrates, answers the student’s question with a question.
“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.”We see the young lawyer asking for a clarification. He knew the rules. And he had some ideas, nothing new, but well laid out plans many teachers had quoted. To be “justified” with God, what must one do? He quotes here two Scripture verses: Deuteronomy 6:5 Love God with everything, and Leviticus 19:18 Love neighbor like self. The vertical relationship of faith, loving God, the horizontal, loving neighbor. Both are requisite and needed. Jesus praises him. He is correct. But it is hard for a lawyer to stop being a lawyer.
What exactly is a neighbor?
I grew up on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. To this day, Rev. Fred Rogers is one of my heroes. His ministry, cutting edge and so needed today in our world, was to children and their families through media. How progressive in the mid-60s in the middle of the cultural and social upheaval of those times. This specialized calling and ordaining was down through the Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. On his show, I saw that Mr. Rogers was a neighbor to everyone, and all he met were nice and “neighborly” to him. Now as I child I did not understand that this was not a real house, and a real neighborhood. It was a script they were using, not real life, but to me it did not make it any less real.
During the horrors of some of the civil rights actions, a hotel owner decided to pour acid into a pool some African-American guests had decided to swim in against “the rules.” Outraged, Fred Rogers decided to handle his furor in a neighborly way. On his next episode, Officer Clemmons (portrayed by François Clemmons), an African-American, and Mr. Rogers soaked their feet together in a kiddie pool to relax from the heat. They even shared a towel. Unbelievable in 1969 when it happened. But Fred Rogers showed mercy, just as Jesus commanded, that we should go and do likewise.
We are now your neighbors. My family slept in Ashland for the first time last night. It is a new day for us, and for my ministry here at the Church. I am no longer “ministering to,” I am “residing” or “dwelling with.” It makes a difference with me, and hopefully with us.
So, like the young lawyer, it begs a question for me as we begin this relationship anew. Who is my neighbor? I did a little digging and learned some fascinating stuff this week.
The word we translate as the noun “neighbor” is not a noun in the Greek. It is an adverb. We use neighbor because it is easier to say. Now to remind you of your grammar, an adjective describes a noun, a person place or thing. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or word groups, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. So the word plesion in the Greek we use for neighbor is really “nearby.”
“Okay, we get it, Rock, get to your point. What is the big deal?”
Even in Jesus’ day, “Who is my neighbor?” is better said, “Who exactly is NEARBY?” And even in Jesus’ day the answer is proved in the doing. Proximity does not make one a neighbor. Being close to someone is not a matter of place, it is a matter of heart.
When I got off my plane last week, I had landed in Richmond, I was technically home, but it was when I saw Stephanie and the girls with my own two eyes that I was finally home. Home is where the heart is. Being close, “a NEARBY One,” is also a matter of the heart.
So what does Jesus say about being a NEARBY One in our story? Those who passed by, the Priest and the Levite were following all the religious rules and missing the entire point. Had they touched the wounded man, they would have been ritually unclean. Now for a priest at this point, especially one on the way to Jerusalem could very well have been on his way to the Temple. It may very well be that this was his one shot to serve in the Temple. His one shot to lead in the Big City Church, and he was “not allowed” to help according to all the rules. And notice what Jesus said, “he passed by on the other side.” Though they were close in faith and lineage, but the priest did not come close. The same for the Levite. He also “passed by on the other side.”
But then we have our Samaritan. Racial mudbloods, traitors going back hundreds of years. They were not taken off into the Babylonian Captivity. They intermarried and were no longer pure. They rejected the Temple practices, preferring more the High Holy Places alluded to Psalm 121, “I look unto to the hills, from where will my help come from?” This song was sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem to the Temple, rejecting the High Hill worship spots along their routes. The Samaritans still worshiped there. They were so FAR from the Israelites. But not this one. Jesus says,
“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.’”
The one so far from the victim was the only one who came CLOSE. He was NEARBY to the victim. He touched him, cleansed him, cared for him. He paid his bill. His heart went out to him. (Literally “moved with compassion”) He chose to be close.
We all do. We choose those with whom we are close, and those with whom we are not. There are friends I have not seen in decades with whom I am still close. The virtual world we live in makes that more and more possible. There are those who have passed who I think of fondly, or feel them close, though they have long since passed. Closeness is a choice.
We live in a jaded and cynical time. We have neighbors whose names we may not know, whose lives we do not touch. When we packed up our house we no longer had neighbors who will miss us. Those we would have missed have all died or moved away. But already just this week, three people as we were unloading have stopped in to give welcome and say hello. It will be a different world for us; it already is.
Sometime this week, you will see someone. A stranger, perhaps, who you will feel a prompting for your heart to go to them. Do it. Just do it. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.
Mr. Rogers chose to be close to Officer Clemmons, taking off his shoes and socks, sharing a common pool, a common towel. He chose to be close in a world pouring acid on difference. Closeness is a choice. Distance is, too.
Jesus asked the lawyer, and us: “Which of these..., do you think, was NEARBY to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, and us, "Go and do likewise.”
So my new neighbors, let us draw closer to God and to one another. And may we, “Go and do likewise.” Amen