About Me

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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

It's a Beautiful Day in MY Neighborhood

Luke 10:25-37

Sam Venable once wrote a column about the differences between neighborhoods in Knoxville. 
It went something like this:
In west Knoxville, you'll hear a mother in Target telling her unruly child, 
"Now William. If you don't behave, we'll have some Time Out in the car."
In South Knoxville, you'll hear the mother at Wal-Mart saying, "Now Billy Joe, you straighten up or I'll bust your butt clean to the parking lot."
They're different. 
People in different neighborhoods talk different. 
People in different neighborhoods dress different. 
Some neighborhoods have neighborhood associations. 
Some neighborhood associations have lawsuits against their neighbors who don't associate. 
There are neighborhood watches, and neighborhood watchers. 
There are neighborhood parties and neighborhood partners. 
There are good neighbors, bad neighbors and Jim Nabors.
It's a beautiful day in our neighborhood. 
Won't you be our neighbor?
Well, maybe.
There are requirements, mostly unwritten, but always well-known.
You can never tell about the people who would be your neighbors.
Except when you can.
You can tell the day the moving truck unloads and their seven kids pop out of boxes and start racing through your flower beds. 
You can tell.
Does the wife wear comfortable Keds or five-inch heels and stretch polyester polka-dot pantsuits?
Does the husband look like Zac Ephron in Neighbors? 
Or Clark Griswold on Vacation?
Even if your view is limited by mini-blinds you can tell pretty quick whether this is a good day or a bad day in your neighborhood.


What's your neighborhood of origin?
I was born and raised in West Virginia, where the neighbor who didn't have a refrigerator on the front porch was considered "suspicious."
That, by the way, is patently untrue, but sadly the stereotype endures.
Just like how saying you're from Kentucky makes people think you're a bourbon-swilling horse gambler. 
Or from Texas means the gun-rack came standard on your El Camino. 
Or from Tennessee means you're a Nobel laureate who speaks eight languages and has a children's research hospital named for you.
That's what I tell people about MY congregation.
Who WOULDN'T want to be my neighbor?
But would I want you as a neighbor?
That's a very biblical question.
It's always a beautiful day in your neighborhood, until someone from a different neighborhood moves in.


The Bible says "a lawyer stood up to test Jesus." 
He stood up to test Jesus (cheeky devil), but he didn't start out talking about his neighbors. 
That came later. 
He started out talking about eternal life. 
Neighbors and eternal life. 
Would you like to live next door to your neighbors… for eternity?
Would that be heaven?
Or a living hell?

Neighbors and eternal life.
At first glance, they wouldn't seem to go together, unless you're selling cemetery plots. 
The lawyer begins by saying, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
He already knew the answer. 
He's a good lawyer. 
First rule of law and Children's Sermons: Never ask a question unless you already know the answer. 
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
Good answer. 
RIGHT answer, said Jesus.
The lawyer knew the rules, he just didn't know how far they went. 
Who, exactly was his neighbor who opened the door, or blocked the door to eternal life?

We can assume the man had God in his life. 
The problem, it seems, is that he had neighbors, too. 
And while he knew the facts of scripture, he had OPINIONS about his neighbors.
Everyone does. 
Don't you?
Of course you have opinions about your neighbors.
I have opinions about mine.
They're all fantastic. 
Just wonderful people.
I'm sure they feel the same about me.
But unlike you and me, this lawyer had people who weren't so fantastic in his contact list. 
He didn't want to unfriend them, just hide them.

Which neighbors, which contacts, which do-not-contacts, he wondered - which one neighbor - was the key to eternal life? 
How many did he have to be nice to, how many of their bratty kids did he have to put up with, how many of their stories did he have to hear, over and over and over… to get into heaven?
That was the question he didn't know the answer to. 
Nor do we.


In our day and age, so much of our religious talk revolves around the same things.
Who are they?
Are the Baptists across the highway our neighbors? 
There's sure a lot of them.
What about the Lutherans? 
I'm not totally sure WHAT they believe.
Or the Amish. 
Good stoves, but they never return emails.
What about the Muslims?
What about the atheists?
Won't they be our neighbors? 
I don't know.
I really don't know that many.
Maybe they shouldn't be.
Maybe it's wrong when a church lets in too many sinners, or is led by too many sinners, or cries out for justice for too many sinners. 
Maybe if a church gets too political or politically correct it loses the right to point the proper way to eternal life.


Who IS my neighbor?
Who's your neighbor?
People – groups of people – CHURCHES of people – 
can get so caught up in the legalities of creating and keeping our neighborhoods good, and clean, and pure –
we can get so wound up about it that we forget how to be good neighbors.
We get so caught up in not doing what's wrong that we ignore what's right, passing by the people beat up and left for dead on the side of the road. 
I'm speaking figuratively here. 
I doubt any of us passed by any wounded person on the roadside this morning. 
I doubt any of us would. 
But people get beat up and left for dead in different ways. 
People left for dead are people out of our minds.
They're not necessarily out of THEIR minds, just out of our minds.
If they're out of our minds they can't be our neighbors, can they?
And if you don't have neighbors when you need them, are they really your neighbor?
Are we just in love with the idea of eternal life in a fantastic, gated neighborhood in the sky?


Jesus told the lawyer a story about a Samaritan. 
What being a Samaritan meant is lost on us.
Suffice to say, Samaritans did NOT go to heaven.
They just didn't.
Jesus told a story about a person, a Samaritan, who was NOT going to inherit eternal life – because, obviously, Samaritans didn't believe the things, didn't do the things that earn you eternal life. 
And yet he was "good."
Jesus just messed up everything.
Because people who aren't going to heaven can't be doing the things people going to heaven do. 
Because what's the point of heaven if it's not a reward for the good people who are going there? 
You can't let just anybody in, for goodness' sake. 
It wouldn't be heaven, then. 
So we have to ask, what kind of neighborhood is Jesus turning heaven into?
What's heavenly about a place where even wrong people go? 


Eternal life, heaven, is not about your neighborhood. 
It's not about how blue your blood is.
It's not about the pigment in your skin.
It's not about how much evil you keep from getting on you.
It's not about how much evil you keep other people from getting away with.
"Who is (or who should I allow to be) my neighbor" is the wrong question. 
The keys to the kingdom aren't handed you because you picked good neighbors. 
The keys to the kingdom come from being a good neighbor. 
The keys to the kingdom come from knowing that God has the keys in the first place. 
The keys to the kingdom come from learning that sometimes God hides the keys in the last places we would expect to find them. 
That being, right in front of our noses.
On the side of our roads.
In the ditches and gullies where we pile the garbage, the half-dead.
The keys to the kingdom are found in loving this messed up God with our heart and soul and mind and strength,
from loving this odd God who shows mercy to the living and the dead, 
this miraculous God who loves the half-alive, and especially, especially loves those whom bad neighbors have left for dead. 
The keys to eternal life are already in your hands.
Did you know that?
I'll bet you do.
That's the problem.
It's SO easy to know about eternal life.
It's so hard to live it.


"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." "…do this, and you will live."
"Do this and you will live."
Does Jesus mean that after we die we'll live in heaven eternally? 
Most of the time we read it that way. 
But it also means that if we do what the Bible says, we don't have to wait.
We can start living eternally today. 

The lawyer knew the words to the answer.
So, give him credit, he was half-right. 
He spoke the words even if he didn't live the answer. 
He was half-alive in the neighborhood of God. 
Unfortunately, being half-alive is also being half-dead. 
Jesus doesn't want us or anyone to live half-dead.
Instead of living half-dead, Jesus calls us to turn around, to see our neighbors, and to live fully. 
He's told us how. 
We have the answer.
Are you willing to start living the answer, today?
You can.
You can start inheriting eternal life right now.
You can move beyond the petty borders of earthly neighborhoods, and move into God's neighborhood – if you choose mercy for those who are in need.

Jesus gave the lawyer the answer.
Just gave it to him.
Jesus told him: "Go, and do likewise."
There it is.
Did he?
We don't know.
The Bible doesn't say.
What would you have done?
What do you do?
Could you honestly say, "It's a beautiful day in MY neighborhood"?
What would your neighbors say?
What DO your neighbors say?
How would you know?