July 23, 2013

Prayer Book Parallels: Neighbor is a Verb


Text: Luke 10:5: “Whatever house you enter, first say. ‘Peace to this house!’”

Here's a question: What’s the name of your neighbor? Do you know your neighbor? I’m embarrassed to say that I live in a place with no actual near neighbors, and the person in the house nearest to us just moved in this past January.

I know the names of two of the neighbors of Saint John’s here, those immediately next to us on either side of the building. But beside that I can’t say that I know any of our neighbors here.

This morning’s little Prayer Book Parallel has to do with neighbors. It’s caught up in the contrast between the idea of the collect and the action of the story in the gospel of Luke.

The collect is a little reminder of another story from the gospels, one we’ll hear next week. It appears a little differently in other gospels, but the gist of it is the same: it’s to condense to the smallest possible statement what it takes to be on the right track with God.

We used to have a little reminder of this every time we celebrated the Eucharist, or as the old prayer book used to call it the service of Holy Communion. Right at the beginning of the service, before we sang “Lord have mercy upon us” or “Glory to God in the highest,” there always used to be these words:

“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

This was known as the “summary of the law,” and those of us of a certain age who grew up with the previous prayer book have it written on a small set of neurons somewhere in our brains. It served at least one extremely useful function: It reminded us that all of the rules and regulations of the Ten Commandments were equalled in importance by the basic idea of the golden rule.

Said in different terms, if you want to get to heaven you can’t do it all by yourself. You can’t do it on your own. You’ll have to engage with other people, and what’s more you’ll have to love them. These people will be your neighbors.

•  •  •

We’re taught a little bit about this idea about neighbors in the Gospel lesson today. The story is Jesus sending out disciples to do the work of disciples. We usually think this is something that only happened after Pentecost, something that only happened after the followers of Jesus tagged along with him during the three years of his traveling ministry.

But that turns out not to be what the text says. Instead we’re given a moment in the history of the Jesus movement when the little crowd following Jesus around gets sent out on kind of a mission trip. They don’t all together; they go out in ones and twos.

It must be the case that they are going with a little bit of a reputation about them, or more to the point about this movement they’re part of. And we get this idea that they’re not just passively waiting for an opportunity to come along in which they can be helpful to someone. They are about the business of finding themselves a home somewhere, a family maybe a few families, where they can set up a base of operations.

Now, just imagine how that might look if we did it here. It would meant that we would all leave this place and go knock on stranger’s doors. That by itself is something virtually no one does anymore. We don’t even see door-to-door salesmen these days, and if we do we’re more likely to call the police than open the door.

But if someone did open the door to us, The first thing we’re supposed to say is, “Peace be to this house!” Which, you know, is a nice thing to say, but it might get you a door in your face.

And if we hadn’t already been thrown out, this is something like what we’d be saying:

“I’m part of a group of people who have been following around a fellow who says that instead of being so concerned about the stuff we’ve all been worried about—you know, our money, or our health, or our reputation, or our prominence, things like that—that we should be worried about or relationship with God. And he thinks that the best way to fix that relationship is if we start getting serious about everyone treating each other better, instead of seeing other people as either obstacles or problems.

“So, I was wondering if I could maybe have a room in your house as a place to get started telling people around here about this idea. I might be here about, oh, a month or two. I’ll be going in and out a lot, but I’ll be here around mealtimes. And it would really help if you had wireless internet. So, can I come in?”

I can’t imagine any of us being willing to go make that request of folks in Newtonville. I can imagine at least some of us who would say yes to the idea, even if just out of a sense of curiosity.

But the point of the story is that disciples don’t identify their neighbors passively. They don’t have neighbors, they make neighbors. The disciples in the story—and the disciples that we are—are always on the lookout for a way to make a connection with other people on the ground of the gospel’s message.

•  •  •

That very idea fills a lot of us with dread. We think of our faith as our private affair. We have a pretty strong argument that says the way our whole society works is by tolerating all claims of conscience, by respecting each other’s beliefs and expecting they will respect ours. The way that works is by keeping our ideas about God to ourselves.

So we have a kind of reflexive aversion to evangelizing. We don’t like it when others do it. And so we have no intention to do it ourselves. And we have a very good reason, even a righteous reason, for the view we take on it.

The problem is, when we set it up like that it’s easy to give ourselves an excuse for keeping our beliefs to ourselves not just in word, but in deed. Okay, we’re not going to knock on doors to hand out Bibles. That’s fine. But it turns out there is still a way for us to witness to the faith that we learn here in ways that aren’t offensive to our social norm of tolerance.

And that way is the difference between evangelizing and a different idea—neighboring, as an active verb. The idea is to preach without the words.

We’re going to hear more about this next week, when the Gospel lesson brings around the story of the Good Samaritan. For now, the point I want to leave us with is simply this: That our all-too-ready defense of keeping our faith to ourselves isn’t enough for us to carry out this idea of loving our neighbors as ourselves. There are ways other than evangelizing available to us, ways other than thumping bibles and harassing the consciences of others. 5

That way is to think of neighbors not passively, not as nouns waiting to cross our paths, but actively, as verbs. Neighbors are not something we are; neighboring is something we do. And when we do it, we are doing two things at once: We are living out our call as disciples, and helping others to do the same, too.