A couple of weeks ago, at the kickoff for the Greenwich CROP Walk, I was on my way out of Fletcher Hall when a visitor stopped me.
“Are you the pastor?” he asked.
He introduced himself and handed me a flyer from his organization, which is in a neighboring community.
“We’re having a very hard time getting support from anyone in Greenwich,” he said.
Now he’s not the first person to tell me that. There are organizations based in Greenwich that say that, too. I’ve been told that by some of our own members.
But when someone from outside the community says it, you feel a lot of different things.
So I promised to look at his flyer, and that was that.
Let me just say that his organization seems like a worthy one. Among other things, it offers parenting classes for non-native speakers of English, especially targeting young parents.
That’s important work.
But the flyer itself did not say much about that.
And it’s the flyer, rather than the program, that I want to describe for a moment.
Because it seemed written for what someone thinks is on the minds of people here in Greenwich, or in Rye, or in other places with a reputation for people in comfortable circumstances.
And what was especially notable was that, instead of describing the benefits to the participants in the program, the flyer imagined the cost of inaction on their behalf.
It read, in part, “Studies show that people without hope are more likely to join gangs. Gang activity throughout our region is a cause for great concern, not only in our community, but in Greenwich, Rye, Stamford, and beyond.”
I will leave it to others to identify the scope of this threat. This is not a sermon about gangs.
It’s a sermon about neighbors.
Because it says something — doesn’t it? — when someone decides to appeal to our fears instead of our conscience.
It says something — doesn’t it? — when someone decides that it’s more effective, more likely to reach us, if they appeal to our perceived self-interest, rather than seeking to engage us in work that offers life and hope to vulnerable people?
It says something — doesn’t it? — when someone decides to dispense with the usual bromides about our common humanity, our desire to be generous, or about how even a small amount can help make a big difference.
It says something when someone tries to appeal directly and unapologetically to the old notion that “good fences make good neighbors,” figuring that this is probably what we think over here in the land of the immaculate landscaping.
And I found this all pretty off-putting.
Off-putting, and yet not nearly as wrong as I wanted it to be.
You know you’ve hit a nerve when you say something and someone responds by giving you some version of their resume–and so what was it about that man and that flyer that made me suddenly want to do that?
Unpacking that is a sermon for another day.
And yet I can’t help but wonder if Jesus had a similar effect on the Pharisees and the other people associated with the Temple.
The Gospels offer us so many stories about how they try to trap or expose him, get him to reveal his revolutionary agenda so they don’t have to feel quite so needled, quite so trapped or exposed themselves.
Our reading this morning is a prime example of that at work.
It’s almost like a modern media frenzy, with everyone shoving cameras in Jesus’ face, firing off questions at him in the hope he’ll say something crazy that they can run endlessly on t.v. until he’s lost all credibility.
But he doesn’t fall for it.
“What’s the essence of the law?” they ask. He doesn’t freestyle. He quotes Scripture.
That’s part of what must have been so powerful about him, if you were one of the people who saw him in the flesh.
Because always what he offered by way of teaching was not something radically new, but something that would have been so old, so familiar, so deep in your bones–and yet to hear him say it was to hear those words with a new urgency.
It’s like remembering going to church with your grandmother and singing “Amazing Grace,” and then a million years later, finding yourself back in a church in a totally different place, and because of who knows why, but there you are…and the opening hymn is “Amazing Grace.”
And you realize that the one who once was lost and now is found is you.
That’s what it was to listen to Jesus.
And so, when Jesus says that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves….this isn’t breaking new ground.
And yet…there’s something about it that has a new urgency. Something about it is suddenly life-changing.
This is especially true, I think, when Jesus talks about love of neighbor.
Because as he saw it, to be a neighbor went far beyond the whole “good fences make good neighbors” school of thought.
That was too hyper-local for Jesus.
When he talked about neighbors, he meant the whole world — not only the people next door, or in the next town, but far beyond that. The people who lived over the horizon, even on the other side of the world.
When Jesus talked about neighbors, he meant everybody.
But he calls them neighbors because he’s calling us to see everybody in a particular kind of way.
He wants us to see that, in God’s eyes, all those people have claims on us…just like neighbors do.
All of them have stories worth knowing. Dreams and hurts and longings that deserve our time and attention.
All of them have a humanity that we would recognize all too well, if we made it our business to recognize it.
And that’s his point. We have to make that our business.
The idea that “good fences make good neighbors” is the exact opposite, of course.
If that’s how you and I decide to operate, it’s about business, too. You mind yours, and I’ll mind mine…and never the twain shall meet.
But Jesus wants more for us than that.
At one point last summer, there was what looked at first like a very bad accident right outside here, where Putnam and Milbank meet.
It was the kind of thing where people sort of hover uncertainly in their own doorways, watching the ambulances and the activity, not in a gawking kind of way, but more like a kind of informal vigil.
Everything turned out to be o.k., except for the cars themselves.
But what was so powerful about that hour was how people just naturally found ways to be helpful. To sit with one of the shaken up drivers. Get a cell phone so she could call her husband. Karen Izzi ran back to the kitchen and got people some water. One of the waiters at Asiana helped sweep the glass from the road.
It was a horrible, but in its own way, also a beautiful moment.
The word “community” is maybe an even richer word than “neighborhood” because it reminds us of how we created places by what we hold in common — by the work we do together to build those bonds.
And for me, that was a moment of community, when the people on this corner came together without prompting or fanfare, and held those vulnerable drivers and their passengers close until the danger had passed.
In that moment, maybe we saw ourselves in them, and imagined how it was we might hope to be cared for in some similar situation. And we acted from that vision.
Have you ever had that happen? Have you ever had that experience of community…the kind of thing that, at the end of it, everyone looks at each other and says, “You know, why did it take this situation to bring us together like this?”
Why is it that, so often, it takes something awful to remind us of this truth that we know, deep in our bones? This truth that we are called to know and to love one another, and that actually, it isn’t all that hard to get there?
That’s what Jesus is trying to say. He’s trying to say, “What would it be to try to get there?”
The answer is simple. He’s saying that it might just be the Kingdom of God.
So…I still have that flyer from the man who stopped me at the CROP Walk.
The Spirit hasn’t led me in any particular direction with that, yet.
I don’t know if we’ll end up supporting it.
But I do know that the day we do so purely out of fear and self-interest will be the day we’ve lost the Gospel.
Because the Gospel calls us to go much further.
Our life together is not a duty to be met, but an invitation to be claimed. And claimed again and again.
May we claim it always with joy and thanksgiving, and true love for our neighbors.