(singing) It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?
It’s hard not to admire Mr. Rogers—a champion for children’s learning, a cardigan wearer, a Presbyterian minister (well, nobody’s perfect). But perhaps his most lasting contribution to the world will forever be his theme song.
Not because it ever hit the top of the charts or because of the brilliance of his voice, but kind of the opposite of that. You see, in 1968, when his show began what would be a 33 year run, the country was at war, young people were disenchanted with authority, and recent victories in civil rights had been answered by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the flight of middle class whites to the suburbs.
In other words, at a time in which people were literally struggling with who should be allowed in their neighborhoods, Fred Rogers found a way to invite people into his with a simple, radical, Christian request: Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?
It was a reminder of that gospel truth that no matter crazy this world gets, we don’t have to face it alone.
And although the times have changed, friends, the struggle has not.
For as much as we talk about technology and media bringing us closer together, we still live in a world that works very hard to keep us apart: young and old, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor, broken and whole.
We live in a world that covets community, but insists on isolation. And our young people have noticed.
If we’re honest, we know that many contemporary young people, the same young people who grew up accepting Mr. Roger’s near daily invitation are just as disenchanted today as they were then. They’re just as frustrated by the hypocrisies of the world today as they were forty years ago.
And frankly, the church has not helped. Over and over again, today’s young people have heard the church fail to answer that quintessential Christian question “Who is my neighbor?” Nowhere has this failure been felt more keenly than in our treatment of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Today’s young people have heard us exclude instead of include, speak instead of listen, choose law over love.
We complain that young people have no faith, but the truth is, we haven’t given them much to have faith in.
But the good news is that we believe in a God of grace, which means that despite our imperfections, despite our failures, our fractures, our faults, there’s always hope.
And so today, as we consider together what the gospel possibly has to say to today’s emerging adults, we begin by acknowledging our failures and recommitting to the basics.
Our story today is one of the most famous in all of Scripture: the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s only told in Luke and involves a lawyer approaching Jesus with a question.
Now we don’t know much about the lawyer in our story. Actually, basically nothing beyond the fact that Luke tells us he was a lawyer and a “he.” But let’s imagine for a moment that he was young, maybe just out of law school. Perhaps he was like so many young people today who finish their formal schooling, enter the job market, and pray that when the six month grace period on their student loans ends…they won’t have to move back in with their parents.
Maybe like so many young people today he’s found a job but is still getting used to not getting summer breaks or winter breaks, or breaks at all.
Maybe he’s been working for a year or two and starting to wonder “Is this it?”
In our story, the young lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It’s a pretty honest question. How do I find life? It’s a question we all ask from time to time.
And frankly, perhaps the only difference between this young lawyer and many of the young adults today is that he thought his religious leaders might actually have an answer.
Fortunately for him, he was right.
Jesus responds, “What is written in the law?”
And the young lawyer gives the answer he had no doubt learned in school, the one that his parents, his teachers, his synagogue taught him. He says, “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 Jesus responds simply, “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.”
“You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.”
The word used for “right” in the Greek is orthos, from which we get the term “orthodox.” In other words, Jesus is saying, you have given the right answer, the orthodox answer, the approved answer, and if you do this, you will live. Right now, in the present tense. You will live. But he undoubtedly knew the real question the lawyer was asking: How?
On our answer hangs every decision of life. Most of us know that we are called to love God and to love our neighbor, but if we’re honest, we don’t always know what that means. Despite what we are sometimes led to believe, it’s not as if in every situation there is a clear choice between loving God and not, between loving our neighbor and not, a simple right or wrong, No! It doesn’t work that way. Whether we like it or not, things are not always black and white. There is a lot of gray in our faith…at least fifty shades of it.
Sure, sometimes our choice is clear, loving our neighbor rarely means killing them, but often times being a person of faith means struggling with confusing and often contradictory choices, both of which can be justified from the Scripture or the tradition of our faith.
In other words, friends, sometimes being a person of faith means moving beyond Scripture or tradition in order to use that that other God given gift – our brains. A gift that young people have too often witnessed people of faith checking at the door.
Perhaps Luke was offering his readers, and in turn us, a way forward; freedom from the law which threatens to imprison us. Not necessarily an easier way, but certainly one that is more honest. Instead of leaving it here like the other gospels, the lawyer in Luke’s gospel asks a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?”
“Who is my neighbor?” Was there ever a more honest question asked in the entire gospel? Who is my neighbor? Who are the people we’re called to love?
And Luke could have had Jesus respond in any number of ways. After all, there were no other gospel accounts to refute him, but instead of quoting more Scripture, or giving a map with neighborhoods highlighted, or pointing to specific people— instead of offering a black and white answer, Luke has Jesus tell a story that to this very day is open to interpretation. A story that requires our brains.
Jesus says that a man was beaten and stripped by robbers and left half dead on the side of the road. An act that would have removed any means of identification, whether social or religious. When we are naked and half-dead on the side of the road, one can’t tell if we are rich or poor, free or slave, Jew or Greek, gay or straight. In other words, this man was just a person in need.
And by chance a priest came walking by. Now, had this been our first time hearing the story, we might think, “Ah! A priest! Surely he will help.” But when he sees the man, he crosses over and passes by on the other side of the road. Then we see a Levite, and again, he sees the man and passes by on the other side of the road.
And while we’re scratching our heads trying to wrap our minds around why these two religious leaders didn’t stop, a Samaritan spotted the man and was moved with pity. So, he bandaged his wounds, poured oil and wine on them, placed him on his animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii – equal to a day’s wage each– gave them to the innkeeper and told him to take care of him and that whatever else is spent he would repay upon his return. In other words, he didn’t just stop. He STOPPED! He stepped away from the routine, from the busyness, from the expectations of life long enough to show this man love.
Now, we knew that was going to happen, we’ve heard the story before, but we should remember the shock value for both the young lawyer in the story and the original audience for Luke’s gospel.
You see, a Samaritan, was a person hated by the Jewish people of first century Palestine. The Samaritans were people who had interbred with their Assyrian captors 800 years earlier and they had never been allowed to forget it.
It would be as if a member of Al Queda was the one to stop and lend a hand where no one else had dared. So for the lawyer in the story and the audience of Luke, this story would have been unbelievable and more than slightly disturbing. Jesus was telling a story in which their enemy was the one to offer more care than their religious leaders.
And to be fair to the religious leaders who passed by, they had justification. After all, they had Scripture on their side. They had interpreted the canonical law correctly, their bible, and part of ours too, says that it is sinful to come into contact with a half dead man. It was sinful for them to come in contact with the man in need and so they went with orthodoxy over common sense; they went with orthodoxy over mercy, they went with orthodoxy over love.
And we get it. After all, we do the same thing today. We allow a couple of obscure verses of scripture to trump our common sense.
And in case there was any room for confusion, Luke has Jesus say to the young lawyer, “which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” To which the lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Go and do likewise. Friends, this young man came to Jesus wanting to know the meaning of life. He wanted to know the way to fullness of life. And though he had been trained enough to know that love is the answer, he didn’t know what it looked like.
Jesus told a story that reminded him that the way to life abundant isn’t about chaining ourselves to the law, to the rules that we follow through life like a map, it’s about taking time to care for those around us, to show mercy. It’s about investing in community, not in general, but in particular. As Howard Thurman said, we don’t love in the abstract, we love in the concrete. We love in community, and when we have a question, we ought to err on the side of love.
Friends, when we allow our understanding of what is “right” or “orthodox,” or “Scriptural” to get in the way of our common sense of mercy for our brothers and sisters in this world, we miss the point of the gospel.
When I was in thirteen, my home church in Kansas hosted an AIDS conference. It was a big deal at that time and our newly elected United Methodist Bishop, came to participate in the conference and to talk with some of the youth about the challenges surrounding AIDS.
While he was chatting to us, a person came in and whispered a message in his ear. When the person left, the Bishop turned to us teenagers and said, “There is a man who is on his way here from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.” –a church that some here might know from their protests in recent years at military funerals– He told us that this church will be on the other side of the street when we left that day and that they would most likely holding up signs condemning our church.
Then the Bishop paused and said, “I had two gay sons who died of AIDS, and as we were burying them, that man was shouting at their graveside, your sons are burning in hell.”
And then he said, “I want you to know, there is another way to be a Christian.”
Friends, what today’s young people don’t often hear is that there’s another way to be a Christian.
There are people in our world, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters among them who are in need of mercy, of love, of care, and the church keeps moving to the other side of the road.
And whether we realize it or not, we have an audience. People, young and old, are watching us and wondering how we can proclaim the gospel of love and continue to ignore people right in front of us.
In this story, we see Jesus pointing, as he does throughout his ministry, to the one who wasn’t concerned with the law, but with grace. Friends, even if we have questions, we are called to err on the side of love.
Perhaps the lesson of the good Samaritan for us as Christians, and for the church as a whole, is that we should never be shown up in our love.
And when we are, it is time to re-evaluate our faith.
And so, we are left with the basic question of this sermon series. What does the gospel have to offer to today’s emerging adults? The same thing it has to offer each of us: Life. Real Life. Full life. A life which promises that no matter how hard things get, no matter how crazy, how isolating, how demanding this world becomes, we are not alone.
In other words, a life of love.
And while it can be confusing to know how to find it, we might do well to follow the example of Mr. Rogers and begin every relationship by asking, “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?” Amen.
~The Rev. Dr. Stephen Cady, II
Pastor, Asbury First UMC, Rochester, NY