Who is My Neighbor?

Passage: Luke 10: 25-37; The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Date: July 11, 2004
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Vischer
Guest Preacher:

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Today we celebrate Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, and we especially honor those who have been members here at Westminster for 50 years or more. In preparation for this sermon I had the great fun of combing through our church archives from worship services and Chimes newsletters from 1954. For those of us who weren't here in 1954, and for those of you who were, but are interested in refreshing your memory from that year, here are some things I learned, looking back:

A "quotable quote" from the Westminster Chimes offered this snippet:
"Americans spent almost twice as much on television in 1953 as they did supporting their church. Also, four times as much on tobacco, seven times as much on new automobiles, and eight times as much on alcoholic beverages. . . [ from the Dept. Of Commerce Report.]

In 1954, the World Council of Churches was just having its second world assembly. The United States was having a "baby boom" which registered in our membership with baptism Sundays including 20 children at a time! Westminster was flourishing in membership with two services, totaling about 1000 in attendance on Sundays. We were just furnishing the brand new Parish Hall (the church education wing) which had been built to provide room for the hundreds of children enrolled in church school. (The church history reads that parents had written in concern to the church leaders a few years earlier about Sunday School classes meeting in the kitchen, the choir loft, the sanctuary and other such unlikely places, because of overcrowding of rooms. The chancel choir even rehearsed in the furnace room!)

Dr. Leonard Odiorne was the Head of Staff. Dr. John Ransom and Dr. Archibald Kearns were the Associate pastors. . .One sermon title from 1954 that caught my eye was: "Communism and the Protestant Clergy." Another Chimes article quoted President Dwight Eisenhower's address to the World Council Churches:
"We hope that you will touch our imagination, remind us again and again of the vision without which the people perish. Give us criticism in the light of religious ideals. Kindle anew in us a desire to strive for moral greatness and to show us where we fall short."

Though many things were different from today-some things remain the same. One was an appeal from Dr. Ransom for volunteer teachers for the children's Sunday school: "There never seem to be enough volunteers to fill all the jobs to be done!"

There were aspects to life in 1954 that needed changing-and some things did change. The Civil Rights movement began to change the gulf of inequality between races. And today, many women my age, are the beneficiaries of women then who challenged sexism and paved the way for more diverse roles and identity for women. As we look backward at 1954, and consider all the ways the world has changed, it seems as though there is a great gulf of time.
South African writer Alan Paton wrote the book, Cry the Beloved Country. In it, the Black Anglican clergyman says to his wife:

"There is a great gulf between people, Grace; between husband and wife, between parent and child, between neighbor and neighbor. Even when you live in the same house it is deep and wide except for the love between us. But when there is love, then the distance doesn't matter at all-distance or silence or years."

"But where there is love, then the distance doesn't matter at all-distance or silence or years. . ."

Our passage from Luke, well-known as the parable of the Good Samaritan, illustrates the love that bridged the great gulf separating the clean from the unclean, Jew from Gentile. For the pious Jews who first heard this parable, they would have understood that the holy people, the priest and the Levite, did not want to make themselves ritually unclean by touching the blood (or maybe even the dead body) of the man beaten by robbers. But the Samaritan, who was a member of a group despised by Jews, rescued the man. He was the good neighbor.

This parable has been taught and preached many times to inspire and challenge us to greater compassion for neighbors near and far, but today, I'd like us to broaden our concept of neighbor through time. . .We are neighbors-looking back-to our ancestors-and looking ahead-toward our descendants. As we peer into the future, we may wonder, what sort of "Presbyterian Heritage" might our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren be celebrating 50 years from now?

If you're interested in the possible future of Christianity, I recommend The Next Christendom, by Phillip Jenkins. He writes that Western observers are missing the explosive expansion of Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America. At the same time that Protestant churches who in the 50's called themselves "mainline" have been on the decline in North America and Europe, places like Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa and Manila are becoming the new focal points for Christianity. Our own Harold Kurtz has recognized this growing Third Church as the "gospel out-of-control" in the world and has been a strong advocate in encouraging these new churches to live out their discipleship in their own cultural languages and expressions. Jenkins asserts that by the year 2050 only one Christian in five will be a non-Latino white person and that the center of gravity of the Christian world will have shifted firmly to the Southern Hemisphere.

Maybe, you're like me-maybe the thought of so much change is scary! Particularly--I don't want the church to slide into more social conservatism. . .What will this change mean for North American Christianity? What will it mean for Presbyterians?-- Now listen to these wise words of Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda: "Do not be afraid. I see God's hand in this."

Just as the first followers of Jesus had their sensibilities jarred by the Samaritan as the role-model for loving neighbor, so we may have our own values and preconceptions changed as we become closer to our Southern global neighbors. We may be uncomfortable, but we can also trust that God is working God's purpose out. . .we can trust in new life!

As we consider the impact on this explosive new church on North American Christianity, it is helpful to know what is particular to Presbyterianism. And what's special about Westminster that will carry into the future, and what may become part of our "heritage" in another 50 years, even as we will be shaped and changed by others and future events.

We Presbyterians are not united by monolithic doctrine, but by our common need for the forgiveness of sins, and our representative government and our shared ministry of helping and healing.

Former minister James Angell summed it up well in a little book called How do You Spell Presbyterian? He outlines 6 key ways Presbyterians understand our faith:

   1. God acts through history; and God is to be enjoyed and served by us
   2. Jesus is the one who uniquely reveals God as the love who will not let us go!
   3. We are saved by Grace! We can't earn salvation, we can just be grateful!
   4. Jesus frees us from the tyranny of ourselves, the tyranny of tyrants, and systems
   5. We need one another. We can't be Christian (or human) alone.
   6. Jesus has commissioned us to continue his work: We pray "Make me bread, O God; break me up and pass me around."

We don't have time right now to explore all those themes. So I just want to touch on the last two: We need one another and we are to continue the work of Jesus. I believe that both of these themes are central to who we are at Westminster.

We need one another! Can I see a show of hands-how many of you are part of a Mariner's group, either here or at another church? Mariners groups are small groups of the church who meet month to share in activities and encourage fellowship, and faith and to find ways to serve the church and community. These groups have been formed in Presbyterian churches all around the country. They began here at WPC in 1939. In most Presbyterian churches, these groups have waned over the years. Westminster has had an unusually large number of groups compared to other churches. Interestingly, as I looked over the list of those of you who've been members for 50 years or more, I noticed that a number of you were also in Mariner's groups. I suspect there may be a strong correlation between long-term membership in the church, and being part of the Mariners, or other small groups. We can't be Christian alone. We need one another for support, for accountability, for spiritual nurture.

I'd like to invite you today, if you want to be part of a Mariner's group or part of another small group-let me know on your way out of the sanctuary, or let the deacons write your name down, as you exit today. We are striving to help people connect in meaningful ways to each other and to the church. You can help us by letting us know when you need help connecting, and what sort of group you'd like to be part of.

One more thing about the connection to each other. I suspect that if we talk with some of these long-time members, we may discover that there have been points at which they felt they didn't particularly want to be at church. But being part of the community means being there for others, even at times when your own interests aren't served. A friend of mine likes to say, "Half the part of life is just showing up!" So, thank you, especially those who've been showing up for 50 years-you've been there for us!

Another part of Westminster that is very deeply rooted is our mission, locally and globally. While in some churches, commitment to mission ebbs and flows with pastoral leadership, in this congregation, mission is integral, from the mission trips, to our denominational mission giving, to local work with Habitat for Humanity and Fish-this church continues to struggle with the challenge of "being bread" broken up and passed around. This commitment to mission, and to live in the world as good neighbors is becoming even more essential.

Phillip Jenkins (the author of The New Christendom) points out that the underlying reality for the Christian masses of the 2/3rds world is grinding, devastating, unrelieved poverty. Jesus statement of "blessed are the poor" is heard very differently by the great majority of these global Southern Christians who really are poor. India has a perfect translation for Jesus word, the "poor". The Dalit are literally, "crushed" or "oppressed."

For the Christians among those poor, the Bible speaks to these situations with a relevance that has been lacking for those of us with the wealth. In our future together, we have much to learn from our global neighbors in the South. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said to his people, "Be nice to whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity." Maybe through our connection in mission, the poor are teaching us what to rediscover in ourselves. In a similar way, maybe the world's rich need to rediscover their humanity through the poor."

When the lawyer asked Jesus, What must I do for eternal life? Jesus said, "Love your God with all the heart of you, with all the soul of you, with all the mind of you and with all the strength of you. And love your neighbor as yourself."

When we love each other, we love God. And when we seek to love God with our whole being, we love others. It's a wondrous cycle! It's mysterious-and it's the heart of our faith.

What would our lives be like; What would the world be like if we dedicated ourselves to this intention and loving our neighbors with all our heart, soul, mind and strength?