Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Homily, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10C, 2022
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-9
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

“So let’s make the most of this beautiful day. And since we’re together we might as well say, would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”

How many of you know that song?

“Won’t you please? Won’t you please? Please, won’t you be my neighbor?”

Mr. Rogers. What an amazing soul. 

For thirty-one seasons his show captured the heart of our nation, and in such a surprising way. The show wasn’t fast-paced or dramatic, it wasn’t drowned in loud colors or sounds, it didn’t try to sell us an image or product, it was completely unique in television media. And yet it was such a great success because of its ability to make its viewers feel seen and valued. Mr. Rogers was able to look through a television screen and somehow invite the viewer into relationship. “Please, won’t you be my neighbor?” 

What a powerful question and invitation! Won’t you be my neighbor? He built his whole show on this premise of neighborliness. What would it look like to build a community of neighbors through television? What would it look like to have a children’s tv show give children a sense of belonging? And so week after week, year after year, Fred Rogers asked the question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?

It’s a question very similar to the one posed in our gospel today, “And who is my neighbor?” As Jesus continues to make his way towards Jerusalem he has a conversation with an expert in Jewish law about the two greatest commandments, “to love God, and to love neighbor.” But in typical lawyer fashion, (any lawyers here?) the expert wants details. He wants a definition of terms and parameters. He wants to know the extent of the law. And so he asks, “but who is my neighbor?” 

Of course there are a number of ways to define the word neighbor. We can define it by geographical proximity. A neighbor is someone who lives near you.  But then again how near is near? Is a neighbor someone who lives within 2 blocks of you? 3 blocks of you? A mile?

Sometimes we define neighbor in terms of the proximity of our belief systems. A neighbor may be someone who has similar political or religious perspectives. 

And so when the legal expert asks Jesus to define neighbor, he’s trying to understand to whom this law applies. He knows he’s supposed to love his neighbor, but there were certainly people in his community that he didn’t see as neighbors. And so as Jewish New Testament scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine writes, “To ask “Who is my neighbor?” is a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” or “Who does not deserve my love?” or “Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?” or “Whom I can hate?”

Jesus’ response, then, is quite a surprise. He tells a story with four characters, three of them Jewish, and one Samaritan. Now keep in mind the Samaritans were enemies of the Jews. They lived in their own section of Israel, they had their own belief systems, and they did not associate with Jewish communities. In other words, they were clearly not neighbors. 

And yet in Jesus story, out of these four characters, the Samaritan is lifted up as a good neighbor, not by his proximity of geography or belief, but by his love for another. The samaritan became a neighbor because he reached out in loving relationship. 

This parable of Jesus, then, opens wide the possibility of who a neighbor might be. A neighbor can be anyone to whom we reach out in lovingly relationship. A neighbor could be a teacher at your child’s school. A neighbor could be a child crossing the Mexican border with his mother. A neighbor could be a senator of a different political party. A neighbor could be a transgender woman in the grocery store. A neighbor could be a Ukrainian refugee. A neighbor could be man living outside. A neighbor could be the CEO of a successful local business. A neighbor could be a cashier at the local Wal-mart. A neighbor could be anyone. 

What a beautiful and exciting possibility!

And this is why I love Mr. Rogers. Because Mr. Rogers didn’t ask “who is my neighbor?” He asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” He already saw in each and every person he encountered a potential neighbor. And so he invited each of them into relationship. 

Imagine what it would be like if in every person, we saw an opportunity for loving relationship. How might the world look different if those we passed on the street, or saw on the television, or stood beside in the elevator each became our neighbor? 

Seeing the world in this way is sign of spiritual maturity. When we stop asking questions which limit our love and start asking questions which expand our love, we know we are following the way of Jesus. 

As we sing in the hymn,

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. 

There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty.

For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind

And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.”

Loving neighbor is more than loving those close to us; loving neighbor is loving every person—every person—we meet along the path of life. So today, the next time you meet someone along your path, what question will be in your mind? Will it be a question seeking to draw boundaries or one seeking to make neighbors? Let’s make the most of the beautiful day, and make neighbors. Amen.