August 2, 2009
The Church: Reaching Out to the Community
Who Is My Neighbor? You say that’s easy. Is it that person who lives next door that I wave to when I come home from work?
Many years ago in the community south of Lancaster where we raised our family, from our house I could see the homes of Paul and Betty, Sam and Gladys and their four kids, Johnny and Mim and their brood of three. We adopted one of Sam’s puppies, and Mim’s kids who were close to the same age played with our three kids. It seemed really easy to connect with our neighbors.
One day some years later we moved to the large city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and my experience was just the opposite. I didn’t really learn to know any of my neighbors nor did they particularly want to get acquainted. No matter how we reached out, no matter what we suggested, nothing seemed to work. To this day, I can’t tell you one single name of any of our neighbors in that community. They didn’t really feel like neighbors even though they lived right next door.
Who is my neighbor? Is it the person in the next cubicle at work? Is it the friend I talk with every Sunday at church? Or is it the person you play softball with or work out with at Planet Fitness?
Does my neighbor have to be someone just like me? Same interests, similar financial status, similar education? One that I relate will to? Is that the ideal neighbor?
What makes a good neighbor? State Farm Insurance believes they can live up to that slogan. “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” Maybe they have figured out the key. Who is my neighbor?
We read the Scripture from Luke 10 and the haunting question from verse 29, “Who is my neighbor?” We may be just as puzzled as the lawyer who posed the question to Jesus in the first place. To be a good Christian neighbor, must I learn a certain formula? Behave in a certain way? Must I know the Bible in case they ask me a question? What is my responsibility as a Christian? How do I reach my neighbor? I believe that is a difficult question that we as a church have also struggled with.
Isn’t it true that something can be hard to define but we know it when we see it? A story powerfully illustrates a truth. And Jesus knew that. The story of the Good Samaritan follows the question.
From this well-known scripture in Luke, I believe we can glean three observations for our consideration this morning.
First, my neighbor is someone God wants me to pay careful attention to, not just a passing glance, someone who has come across my pathway in some way or the other for one reason or the other.
In the story we see this beat up man lying right in the path. The Jewish priest did a good job of distancing himself, staying as far away as possible. The Levite at least looked, but still did nothing. They were either too busy, too professional, or too holy, to stop and notice. They purposely did not want to see. Their eyes were closed to getting involved. Whatever their reasons for not stopping, Jesus is not impressed.
Who has God placed in your pathway? Who is your neighbor? If we as a church here at Grantham ask that question, from at the least a geographic perspective, that’s an easy answer. The Messiah College family is one of our nearest neighbors.
On our 100th anniversary weekend, we heard many stories of the wonderful ways we started out 100 years ago. Could it be that today God is asking us to pay more careful attention by stopping to notice and pay attention to our nearest neighbors in 2009? I checked just this week about the size of the college family. 287 faculty who teach on campus are neighbors. 777 additional employees who work on campus are neighbors. The 2,802 students who spend four precious years of their lives on campus and drive right by our entrance are neighbors. If my math is correct, that represents 3,861 people God has placed next to the Grantham Church. No one else but the Grantham Church has quite the same unique opportunity to be next-door neighbors with the Messiah College family. We can’t pass by on the other side and say we didn’t noticethat we’re too busy to get involved. Won’t God hold us accountable for reaching out to our Messiah College neighbors in one way or another? No mistake here, we haven’t totally ignored the college family, some of you are a part of that family, and there are certainly other wonderful area churches that have connected with college students also, but does that discharge our own responsibility and what we should be doing and only we can do?
I believe that we must more carefully think about what is our God-given responsibility to the college community. On August 27 first year students will be arriving. We plan to have a contingency of people from Grantham Church help them move in. August 30 is the first Sunday for college students. We are busy thinking about how to extend a warm welcome here at the church. A church family picnic on our lawn is already in the works. Stay tuned for more information. On the other hand, it’s not just about certain activities or programs. It will take every one of us noticing students, talking with them, helping them feel as though this might be a family away from home that would love and accept them.
Not only is the Messiah College family a neighbor, residents in the town of Grantham are neighbors. Bowman’s Village is a neighbor. Rose Garden is a neighbor. Meadow View is a neighbor. Canterbury is a neighbor. Last year I was profoundly touched as I observed the deep interest expressed by Jon and Heather Kidwell and Jason and Lindsay Young and the Marks who hosted BackYard Clubs in their neighborhood. Kidwells said they were eager to reach out here in the town of Grantham, to serve their neighbors in all kinds of ways such as striking up a conversation with a mom who walks down the street pushing a baby stroller, or saying hello to a teen riding by on a bike or to a neighbor dragging out trash cans.
If on your way home this morning you suddenly came upon someone lying alongside the road in a ditch or in a crimpled heap along the curb in your neighborhood, I am certain you would stop to give assistance. I wonder how many of our neighbors are lying along the road of life in crumpled heaps from looming uncertainties and problems of all kinds with no hope and no way to get up. Who might God be calling you to pay attention to, to stop, to notice, where you live?
Second observation, our neighbors are people God has called us not only to pay attention to in passing, but to really care about. Jesus highlights the exacting care given by this Samaritan, who was himself a disenfranchised man, obviously acquainted with his own set of troubles. He doesn’t think about the dangers to himself and all the possible risks. His automatic response is to stop and offer assistance.
In contrast, the religious person had his own agenda, his reputation at stake, too much to do to pay attention. He was focused on his own personal interests more than that of another outside himself.
Two weeks ago we celebrated by way of this little booklet many wonderful examples of Grantham Church members reaching out to serve with care and love. Those ministries are very important ways we have chosen where we want to be involved, our area of interest or passion. It is important in the midst of serving to pay attention by showing the depth of our love and care. Go beyond providing a service, expert advice, or tangible goods.
A number of years ago I attended a conference at the well-known Willow Creek Church outside Chicago. Pastor Bill Hybels was challenging people with this very point. He said, “I love to sail-boat race. So I decided to join a racing team with 9 other pretty- rough guys and become friends with them. At first they didn’t even know I was a pastor, let alone from a very large church. In the intervening years, I heard Hybels say, “I am making progress.” More recently I heard him say that nine of the ten have become followers of Jesus Christ and he believes it’s only a matter of time for the tenth. Regardless of what people may say of Bill Hybels and his church, that spoke to me. That’s what I aspire to be and do. As a neighbor I don’t think I did so well in Calgary; I got too easily discouraged. The saying is really true, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
This brings me to my third observation. My neighbor is someone God really wants me to build a relationship with. And that is the most risky of all. The Samaritan could have provided limited assistance to the wounded man, justifiably so, anywhere along the way in this story. He could have soothed the wounds using his best wine and torn his designer Nautica shirt into strip to serve as bandages. That was more than the religious men did. He went one step farther. He gave him a ride back to town and put him up at a decent bed and breakfast. Now that was really going the second mile. He could have thought, “That’s enough, now I performed my good deed for the day. Already spent more time that I planned.” He went even the third mile. He took care of him. He invested his time and money by getting involved at a deeper level. He showed his real feeling, the most risky of all, one step further than just providing a service.
It is opening yourself so the other person may see what is inside of you. And that is a powerful thing for a church to do. When the wider community sees that a church is opening themselves up to include them, even if they are of a different nationality, or a different socio-economic status, when the church becomes vulnerable, when the focus moves from us to them, from inward to outward, that gets at the heart of what Jesus has in mind.
The congregants live as missionary people in their world, with every person believing that “I am one,” not focusing on whether my own needs are being met, but showing people the heart of Jesus. It’s not about an institutional church. Church structures are the servants; they are necessary but not central. So when one of the structures changes to serve people, we do so, sometimes painfully, but to better reach out to others. We will without a doubt, at appropriate times, have to risk our own personal preferences for Christ.
It is in this climate that people of the church joyfully serve others by giving their time and their money because they see the value of being involved in proclaiming the mission of the local church. Everything we do has mission in mindfrom family ministries to small groups. We nurture and encourage one another along the way, so that the congregation is empowered and motivated to go out to where people are, outside our four walls, people in the ditch of life.
People on the outside are then attracted because of the way the congregation is loving and serving each other and them. “Behold how they love one another.” As a result, God honors this step of faith, and refreshes our own faith as we grow deeper on the vertical level. It also renews our belonging and excitement in the body of believers on a horizontal level.
One Sunday morning in January of 2005 I suddenly came face to face with a neighbor stuck in the ditch of life. Following the welcome at the second service as I turned to greet others around us, I saw a beautiful woman I guessed to be about age 40 walk in the sanctuary door. I greeted her as she apologized for being late. As I sat down beside her, she said, “It’s hard to get around in the morning because of my chemotherapy treatments.” All during service I couldn’t get her words out of my mind. What was she facing? Chemo? So young, so lovely, so bright, so professional.
As soon as the service concluded I introduced myself and found out that Nikki was in a fierce battle for her life that she was so afraid she was losing. She couldn’t make sense of it all and because her brother had attended Messiah College, she suspected Grantham Church just might be a place she could find an answer.
Long after everyone left the church building that day, Nikki and I sat in growing darkness as she sobbed out her anguished and painful story of recurring and terminal cancer. Over the next very difficult months, I never once doubted that God urged me to turn around in the center aisle at just the moment Nikki Keyser came into our church building.
There are many, many others in our sphere of influence waiting for us to notice, to reach out and care, to build a relationship one step at a time if we are available and if we are willing to take the risk just as the Samaritan.
Would you be willing to take a risk this morning? Tell God that you are available. Perhaps you’re thinking of someone in your neighborhood, at your job, in your sphere of influence that needs to be paid attention to, to be included, to be loved into the Kingdom. Are you available? Would you be willing to take a risk?