Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sermon "Neighborly Love"

This is the second sermon that I preached last Sunday at Princeton United Methodist Church as part of my summer internship. (You can read the first one "Have We Crossed the Line?" here and my last one will be on August 5th on the Gospel of Luke.) Since the first one went so well, I asked to preach one additional time. I have wondered a lot about the contradiction between God giving land to the Israelites and Jesus' command to love our neighbors, so I decided to preach on it. 

Also I had an elder in attendance for this sermon, following Friends tradition.

This sermon is based on Joshua 1:3-6 and Matthew 22:34-40

"Neighborly Love"

Won't you be my neighbor?

I have been thinking a lot about that question in the last few weeks since Scott sent out the link to the video of Mister Rogers remixed in the church e-newsletter. I do not remember watching Mister Rogers a lot growing up. What I know about the show is very little. I think I learned his famous question from one of the few times that I did watch the show.

Anyway I absolutely love this question. Won't you be my neighbor? It was a leading question when Mister Rogers asked it. How could anyone say no to a kind man, like Mister Rogers? How could anyone respond with No I don't want to be your neighbor. Leave me alone! That question is like the command that Jesus gives His followers about loving their neighbors. It is an invitation to something greater.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers to the people two commands: Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself. Again this sounds so simple, doesn't it? It is almost a checklist for us to do: Buy Milk check, mow lawn check, love God check, love your neighbor check. Such simple words but it is such a hard task, especially loving that nosy neighbor next door. But at the same time what does loving your neighbor mean in the larger context outside of just meaning the people living next to you? How can we love people who live in a different context than us?

Something I have struggled with is to put Jesus' simple, yet challenging command to love our neighbor in Matthew with the proclamation that God made to the Israelites in Joshua 1. There God promised the land to the Israelites and led them there. But the land was already inhabited by other people, the Canaanites. We are told conflicting stories about the Canaanites, but in the end we never hear about what finally happened to them. Biblical scholars have several different theories about what happened to the Canaanites. The theories range from the Israelites destroying them all to the Canaanites co-existing with the Israelites peacefully. What is the Canaanites' side of the story of the Israelites coming into the land? What would that story sound like?

This week we will celebrate the 236th anniversary of our nation's independence. A nation that was founded with the claim that God meant for the Europeans to have this beautiful land that they had “discovered" by accident a couple centuries before even though there were already millions of people living here. Even at the time of the founding of this country, most of the land, that we now know as the United States, was still inhabited by Native Americans.

Our country's story is told from the European's side, from the side of the conquerors. What is the Native American story of the United States' Independence? What would that story sound look? Unlike the Canaanites, we actually know the history of the Native Americans. I will give you a hint: It is not pretty. That story involves lies, broken treaties, slavery, and massacres. It is still not pretty. Some of the worst poverty in the nation exists on the Native American reservations. Also there are high suicide rates among Native American teens, just to give you a small glimpse into the current situation on the reservations.

Don't get me wrong! This is not a "Shame on the United States of America" sermon on the Sunday before Independence Day. I love this country. I have traveled this country countless times by car, bus, train, and airplane. Some of the most beautiful places in the world are within our borders. I love the diversity of our land and the people who live within the borders. We have a lot to be proud of about our country and our freedoms. But at the same time, I am not going to sugarcoat our country's history and ignore the problems we have had and still have as a nation.

As Christians we should not shy away from this history. Because if we do, we are bound to keep repeating the same history over and over. As a people yoked together in Christ we commit to be honest about our sins, both personal and corporate. Let me be honest. We are not a perfect people. I am definitely not perfect, so let not pretend to be perfect. In not pretending to be perfect, I mean admitting our sins that we do to each other and our neighbors out of contempt, jealousy, and even carelessness. The good news is that we can strive to be better, strive to something greater especially as a corporate body gathered together in Christ's name.

That is the radical message of Jesus. He called on His followers to break out of the religious complacency existing in the First Century. Jesus showed His followers a new path! He advocated for His followers to hang out with the least of the society, their own neighbors, while at the same time challenging them to live to a much higher level. And that challenge is still before us today.

What does that mean for us right now? What does loving our neighbor in the 21st century look like? In what ways can we live out Jesus' command today?

As a church, we have started by inviting our neighbors in for meals on Wednesdays; we help each other during times of need. Right now 51 members of our congregation family are traveling to work with our neighbors in West Virginia, while another member is in the Democratic Republic of Congo working with our neighbors there. What more can we do? Do we know our neighbors of different faiths, our neighbors around us who believe differently than we do? How do we as a congregation reach out to them?

I think this all starts with an invitation to join us at the table, an open invitation to sit with us on an equal level to get to know each other. A little like what will happen when Susan invites us to the communion table later in the service. Mister Rogers' simple yet powerful question, "Won't you be my neighbor?" provides a great way to invite others in for fellowship and learning about each other. 

Isn't that a great way to start relationships with our neighbors and live out our faithfulness to Jesus' second command in the book of Matthew?


  1. If we claim to have a relationship with Jesus, and neglect the poor, we may be misleading ourselves. The downfall of this country will not be by providing Health Care, or bullying those different from us, it will be by neglecting the poor. Ezekiel 16:49

    1. Amen! Also the mistake of confusing nationalism for Christianity could be the downfall of both the US and modern Christianity.

  2. who knew your res visits would someday be woven into a sermon delivered out East? I think you made a good choice to include them, and to challenge nationalism as unChristian. I think for many, Native Americans are frozen in this image of either heathen animal of cowboy days or drunken vagrant of modern times. to unfreeze them & think of them as neighbors, ones we have failed to neighbor with, takes us to a different framework. you did just that! Friend Penn & others would be proud.

  3. Yeah if anyone told me in high school that I would be attending seminary and enjoying preaching I would not believe it. Yeah our misconceptions of our neighbor are dangerous!