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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Who Is My Neighbor?

Luke 10: 25-37

Who is my Neighbor?

Sunday September 25, 2016

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

Pilgrim Congregational Church, Harwich Port

Our theme for this month is hospitality. We have looked at what the Bible says about hospitality starting with the stories of Abraham and Sarah and how they fed strangers. We recognized that in that moment when they welcomed strangers God blessed them, and that through those strangers God sent a great prediction for these founders of our faith. The next week we looked at the story of Jesus with a tax collector. In that story Christ welcomed a man who was despised and his generous gesture of acceptance turned the man's life around. Last week we told the story of Jesus at a dinner party where he accepted an awkward intruder who interrupted the meal to anoint Jesus’ feet with costly oil. Though Mary’s gesture was appalling to the guests, Jesus had a sense of humor and saw the gift even when it was hard to be hospitable.

Today’s sermon is the last sermon in the series and in this sermon we will consider one of the most familiar stories in the Bible, the story of the Good Samaritan. In our story a legal expert stands up to ask Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. In other words, what does God ask of us? What are the requirements for a life of faith? Jesus replies, what is written in the law? How do you interpret it? The lawyer replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus answered, you are right, but the man asked one further question, who is my neighbor? In response, Jesus told a story about a Samaritan who helped an Israelite in great need.  Let’s take a closer look.

In the first place, Jesus says, you know who your neighbor is. You just don’t want to see your neighbors as neighbors. You are troubled by the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself.

The Samaritans lived next door to Israel. They were the people to the North. They shared the same faith, read the same Torah passages, worshipped the same way, loved and served the same God. They traced their roots to the same tribes that came from the sons of Joseph. But they were not good neighbors. No one went to a Samaritan to borrow a cup of sugar. But like many people who share a border they had a checkered and troubled history.  There was a deep-seated history of hatred between their people, and it traced back to the Babylonian captivity.  Six hundred years before Jesus lived Israel was overrun by the Babylon. It was an awful time and they needed good neighbors but the Samaritans let them down. In fact, the Jews believed that the Samaritans took advantage of their distress. The Samaritans did not come to their aid. They were not allies. Also, terrified of Babylon they tried to curry favor with the large empire. When the Israelis were forced into exile some Samaritans appropriated their land. Then when a brave Israeli diaspora returned to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem the Samaritans refused to help. These neighbors resented their re-appearance and derided their efforts. This sowed the seeds for a bitter and long-standing enmity.

No one in Christ’s audience knew a nice Samaritan. No one thought the Samaritans were capable of kindness. No one would have believed that a Samaritan would have more compassion than a rabbi or a priest. It was unthinkable. But Jesus says, re-think your prejudice. If you want to serve God The people who fear may surprise you.  The folks who right off are still your neighbors and you need to discover how to be a good neighbor at least with the people on your border. Don’t demonize people who you don’t know. Don’t carry grudges for centuries. Don’t nurse old prejudice. Don’t build walls where there need to be bridges. God cares about your enemies.  Your neighbors are human children of the same God who created you.

You have to wonder what Jesus might say to us if we had such a conversation with Jesus. What is it we need to do- Love your neighbor as yourself. What exactly do you mean by neighbor? How do you define neighbor? We live in a time when many of the rules of culture and community seem to be in flux. The world is changing and so are our communities. Communities at home and abroad are in flux. How do you define neighborhoods in a world changing so rapidly?

A study by Pew Research last March revealed that the United States is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever. By 2055 if current trends continue the US will not have one racial or ethnic majority. By the middle of this new century people expect that Caucasians will no longer be in the majority in the US, and the Economic Policy Institute reported last June that in 16 years the majority of the American workforce will be people of color. Pew Reports that 14% of Americans are foreign born; it was 5% in 1965.  But we continue to be surprised by the statistics. One big surprise was that the level of immigration from Mexico and Latin America has reversed and the largest number of immigrants today are Asians. Also increasing numbers of people are arriving from Africa.


            America is more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past and by 2055, according to Pew Research, current waves of modern immigration are expected to bring 59 million people to our country driving growth and change through 2065. It seems almost incomprehensible that 10 million people have been displaced from Syria, half of them children. Tens of thousands may eventually make their way to our shores. We see these changes in unexpected places. Cities like Portland Maine and Portland Oregon have greeted Africans. Lowell has a huge Cambodian population. Framingham has one of the largest Brazilian population of any city outside of Latin America.

As people of faith most of us have read and studied this story all our lives. I don’t know how else to interpret it except that Jesus is challenging us to widen our definitions of our neighbors and asking us to love these neighbors as ourselves. The question that people were asking Jesus could hardly be more relevant. Who is my neighbor?  Do you have to ask who your neighbor is?

Secondly, Jesus says stranger and aliens often bring unexpected gifts. They have character and kindness that will be a blessing to you. The Portland Herald reported that Portland Me is the second fastest growing area in New England right behind Boston. It is the influx of Africans and now Syrians that may save the Maine city economically. These outsiders have become good neighbors. They have opened businesses, and put down roots and re-invigorated an economy that was growing stagnant because the population was growing older and young folks were not staying in the region. These immigrants have more children and that brings liveliness into Portland; in fact, this influx of refugees, as many as 7,000 new immigrants from Africa alone is now seen as a godsend. http://www.pressherald.com/2015/03/26/population-gains-put-portland-metro-area-in-no-2-spot-in-new-england/

Portland Maine has changed a lot in the last 20 years. It has gone from a quiet backwater city to one of New England’s new melting pots. Portland discovered the whole community has been re-vitalized. This year working with Catholic Charities the city welcomed 32 Syrian refugees. It was work. Catholic Charities had to find apartments for everyone but families with children were grateful for even small apartments after treacherous journey by sea and land. The Bangor Daily News reported this month Nadir Alzoubi the father of four children who settled in Portland. Someone asked him about the fear that some people have that Syrians might be state terrorists. When he understood the question Mr. Alzoubi lost his composure as his eyes filled with tears. We took our children in a boat for days eating raw fish. If we wanted to commit terrorism would we have done this? We came for our family’s safety.


            These studies seem to show that the communities that have discouraged or restricted immigrants will be left with aging populations and fewer workers to provide good and services. Those towns and cities that welcome new immigrants find they have new workers, more children, younger families and a whole different sense of vitality.

            Finally, Jesus calls his followers to build a world where we treat all people as our neighbor.  I believe God needs people of faith who really take the Bible seriously. The Bible is full of stories of displacement – its human toll, its spiritual potential. It is brimming with stories about populations of strangers who brush up against each other, who irritate one another, who push and pull for influence and who fight and sometimes find grace in unexpected people.

There is a wonderful independent movie called The Visitor. Maybe you have seen it. I could have watched it over and over.  A lonely widowed Professor Walter Vale teaches one class at the local college in CT. Walter has an apartment in New York that he avoids because it reminds him of his wife who died. But he has to present a paper at a conference in the city. The apartment has been vacant so long someone has rented it to immigrants.  When Walter arrives, he finds Tarek Khalil, a Syrian musician, and Zainab, a Senegalese street vendor, living there. He sympathizes with their situation and invites the couple to stay with him. Through them he learns to play African drums. When Tarek is arrested by the police and sent to a detention center, Walter cares so much about him that he hires a lawyer and becomes an advocate for these strangers who moved into his apartment. Suddenly Walter finds a life worth living again.

            The story of our country is a lot like this movie. We were not paying attention and people started to move in, and we are not sure how they got here or exactly why they came but they are in our space now. These immigrants, these aliens are our neighbors. They clean our offices and send their children to our schools and sit at the table of our lives. Of course, it is overwhelming and un-settling. But everything I read in the Bible tells me these strangers, will bring us gifts as surely as they brought gifts to Abraham so long ago. Jesus tells his disciples – they are your neighbors. God needs you to step up and love them as you would love your own kith and kin. 

Posted: Sunday September 25, 2016