Who Is My Neighbor?

Mark 12:28-34
One of the legal experts heard the sadducees disputing with Jesus,
and saw how well he answered them.
He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Jesus replied, [quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus] “The most important one is ‘Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 

The second is this, 
‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’ 
No other commandment is greater than these.”

The legal expert said to him,
“Well said, Teacher.
You have truthfully said that God is one
and there is no other besides him.
And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength,
and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important
than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom,
he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.”
After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.

One of my favorite musicians is a singer/songwriter based out of Louisville, KY. He is an indie artist who plays the cello and sings, His name is Ben Sollee.  Ben has taken to doing tours in a way that is way completely different from other artists I’ve heard of. Most musicians normally travel from concert to concert by cargo van or by bus. But because of his love of the environment, Ben Sollee does his tours by bicycle. He book tours in towns that are a bike-able distance from one another, then he and his percussionist bandmate load up their cargo bicycles with their instruments and luggage, and hit the road. He’s done 2 or 3 bike tours now in his career, and at his concerts sometimes, in between the transitional time between songs, he shares some of his experience from this different way of touring. 

He says:  “There’s something about car travel that forces us to speed up. When we’re in cars we go so fast, and the way cars are made and roads and highways built, you are closed off from the world… flying past neighborhoods totally unaware of that there is a community there at all… totally unaware of the people who live there, of the life that exists there.  

He’s realized that there’s something different about bike speed… you slow down. You are exposed to your environment in a different way. you aren’t isolated from it, you are forced to interact with it. and more importantly for Ben Sollee, at bike speed… you interact with the people around you, you aren’t isolated from them.

He shares a story about this one time where he was riding through a part of town once that looked pretty sketchy, he put his guard up little bit and was starting to feel nervous. And then… he rode up to a group of kids playing, and it instantly diffused his nerves. The kids started running alongside his bike asking him all kinds of questions: They weren’t used to seeing white dudes on bikes in this part of town… let alone cargo bikes… let alone cargo bikes with a cello case taking up most of the cargo space.  One of the kids asked if he could hop on, and he let him… he rode along for two blocks with a wide smile on his face before hopping off because he had to head back home.

He says: One thing that every community he rides through has in common, is that whenever he talks to the local people there, and tells them where he is heading, they always warn him about the next town over… you be safe they say… I’ve heard that’s a rough and dangerous area… or you be safe… in that suburb, there’s too many cars not paying attention to the road. 

And then he says… without fail he goes into that next town over, he rides through it slowly, at bike speed, he interacts with the people and they welcome him warmly. Again and again this happens, it doesn’t matter the neighborhood, rich or poor, suburb or housing project… the same incorrect assumptions about the next town over… the same fear about a place people have never really been to, the same judgement about a people they’ve never even met. Which begs the questions… how well do we really know our neighbors? And how can we love them, if we don’t know them?

I’d like to invite you to do something we don’t normally do during a sermon… participate. You will have no doubt already found the insert in your bulletin. I want to invite you to take a second to open it up… find the gridded diagram and look it over. 

From  “The Art of Neighboring”  by Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak

From “The Art of Neighboring” by Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak

This grid is an exercise that comes from the book “The Art of Neighboring,”
a book that was written to a Christian audience that explores a radical idea…
what if, when Jesus says the commandment  “you will love your neighbor as you love yourself”, 

What if he meant what he said… what if he meant that we should start with loving our actual neighbors?

The book suggests this grid as a starting place…
It invites us to begin a practice loving our neighbors by first figuring out how well we know them… 

You can start to fill it out, if you like, but it will most likely take more time than I’m going to give you today to fill out, so I hope you take it home and continue to think about it a little more intentionally later.

The house at the center of this grid represents your home looking out your front door. And the grid of eight squares around your house represents the houses of the people that live closest to you… your neighbors.

You begin the exercise with your neighbors names…
Going square by square and writing their names down…
Then you write down some basic information about them that you might have figured out from observation… how many kids they have, whether or not they have pets… how obsessive they are about their lawn care routine…
and then you jump down to the final step for each neighbor.
You write down something deeper about them that you could have only learned through conversation. You write down a piece of their story… what makes them who they are… what makes them unique and complex.

We have lived in our house for 5 years now… and in filling out our grid I was only able to put information in 5 of the 8 squares… and in the five I could fill in, I still left some of the information blank… 

A legal scholar asks Jesus what the most important commandment is of all the commandments in the Hebrew bible… Jesus answers with two things… two things that are more important than anything else…
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, being, mind and strength and Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  One of the two most important commandments and I struggle to remember the names of 4 of my 8 neighbors… 

It turns out, this is becoming more and more the norm… According to 2015 Social Data Survey, “Only about 20 percent of Americans say they spend time with their neighbors, and nearly a third of the population reports no interaction whatsoever with the people who live nearby. Which is a total reversal of the way things only four decades ago in 70s, when nearly 30 percent of Americans reported hanging out with their neighbors at least twice a week.” 

If these statistics are accurate, then I bet I’m not the only one in this room with blanks on my grid. 

Loving our neighbors is an easy thing to sign up for when it is a theoretical exercise…
It is easy to love someone when nothing is asked of you…
its easy to love neighbors in the abstract …when they are faceless unnamed strangers. 

But when you move from the theoretical, and consider the possibility that Jesus is asking us to actually love the 8 neighbors in these grids… it becomes a lot more real, and a lot more complicated… it forces us to ask questions of ourselves… How could I have lived next to these people for so long and know so little about them? How could I be so closed off and unaware of them? And, if this commandment is one of the most important things Jesus says we should do as his followers… how might my relationship with my neighbors become more loving?

I think Jesus would say… 
…Why don’t we start by getting to know them? 
Why don’t we set aside our assumptions and set aside our fears?
Why don’t we get out of our closed off worlds and interact with the environment we live in?
Why don’t we we open up, set ourselves aside for a while… and seek to be in relationship with the people God has placed in our lives?

Because, as Jesus says…
Beyond our love for God… Nothing is more important…

May it be so…