Who Is Our Neighbor, Really?
In a few days, several hundred Cumberland Presbyterian elders and ministers, along with many of their family members, will gather for 187th General Assembly. This year’s Assembly will be gaveled to order in Palm Harbor, FL, and as usual, we will worship, and then conduct the business of the church.
We will learn of the myriad ministries we embrace with ever-widening reach around the world, we will grapple with issues facing the Christian church in the 21st century, we will seek God’s will for our denomination as it navigates those issues, and we will worship. Of course, we will also enjoy almost a week of rejuvenating old acquaintances and cultivating new ones, indulging our penchant for connections, and we’ll worship.
Connections. More than anything else—ideally, even more than doctrine and polity—they’re what seem to tie us together. As a youngster, I attended a number of meetings of General Assembly with my parents, and my lifelong inability to keep names and faces together at the same time notwithstanding, I knew even then that the heartbeat of Cumberland Presbyterian church is found in personal relationships. While I’ve never been a part of any other denomination, I suspect there aren’t many that depend as heavily as we do on such connections for our vitality and longevity. Blessed be the connections that tie us together… (sounds a bit like a song I know!)
And this year, we’re even celebrating connection in our theme, “Connecting with Our Neighbor.” It’s a warm and fuzzy kind of theme—especially for folks like us. I wonder, though, if it might not seem quite as warm and fuzzy when we start seriously considering who “our neighbor” really is… It’s especially easy to think of our neighbor as the guy who sits at the other end of our pew every Sunday morning, a bit disheveled in his well-worn suit, or the girl in the choir who sings slightly off-key—they’re “one of us,” after all. It’s even easy enough to think in terms of our neighbor being the postman who delivers our mail each day, or the nice lady who cashes our check at the bank, or even the kid who polishes our windows at the local car wash.
But did you ever notice? If we’re really attentive to Jesus’ story of the Samaritan, one thing we can’t ignore is the fact that there is apparently no contextual information available to him concerning the man lying bloody at the side of the road. For all we know, the man could have been a Judean—a group comprising some arch-enemies of his own people. Or he could have been a despised Roman soldier, off-duty and on his way to Jericho for a little R&R. He could have been a Zealot, association with whom might have put the Samaritan in considerable danger. He just didn’t know. But in Jesus’ telling, it didn’t matter.
Had the story been told today, the man in need of compassionate connection with a passerby might be a member of Black Lives Matter. He might be a gay man—a leader in the LGBTQ community. Perhaps he is a Muslim, who was on his way to prayers at the local mosque, or an atheist on his way to, well, wherever atheists go. He could even be a criminal himself—a burglar, a car thief, or a drug dealer on the wrong side of an associate. He might be a Democrat, or a Republican, a man suffering from addiction, an undocumented immigrant, a refugee, or a con-man. He might be experiencing homelessness, or he could be a corporate CEO who’d been out for a walk in the evening air. How would we know? More importantly, why would it matter?
There is only one answer, and it is the answer I believe Jesus would give us. It doesn’t matter who that stranger is. We are instructed to be a neighbor to him—to love him—without regard for his circumstances, his ethnicity, his gender identity, his party affiliation, the mistakes he’s made, his religion, his skin color, his immigration status, or for any other qualifier we might, in our own brokenness, use to differentiate ourselves from him. And he in turn is our neighbor, not a “project” we undertake in order to ensure our own salvation.
Accepting others for who they are, meeting them where they are—especially those outside the context of family, or friends, or denomination—is a lot harder than we’re sometimes willing to admit. It’s easy to say it’s something we need to do, and we talk about it all the time. We’re even active in community efforts committed to reaching out to persons who need us to treat them as neighbors. There is certainly nothing wrong or un-scriptural about any of that. But as I see it, real connection happens at the personal level. One-on-one.
God things happen when we make an effort to get to know strangers as fellow human beings with the same capacity for hurt and hunger, sadness and joy, regret and resolve that we ourselves have. God things happen when we realize that the stranger—rather than being a person who through our judgment of their weaknesses and failures is able to make us feel better about ourselves—is ultimately a reflection of our own self. And God things happen when we accept the fact that in that stranger, we come face to face with God.
As I see it, one of the greatest gifts of connection with other persons—the strangers whom Jesus identifies as our neighbors—is that through those connections, our own hearts and lives are changed. We learn first-hand that every stranger—whether they be an addict or a con-artist, a Democrat or a Republican, a member of the Black Lives Matter movement or of the LGBTQ community, an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim refugee, a petty criminal or a CEO—is also our neighbor. In each of them, we come face-to-face not only with God, but with our own need for grace and acceptance. That’s the kind of connection that can and will tie us all together.