I live in a settled, quiet neighborhood on the northeast side of Indianapolis, in Lawrence. I really love it there. It’s one of those neighborhoods where people tend to dig in and stay. The neighbors on either side of me both built their houses and have been living there for almost 30 years now. I am one of the more recent newcomers, having bought my house only eleven years ago. We are the type of neighborhood where we know one another but not too well—we smile and say hi when we’re walking our dogs and ask about kids and grandkids; we help each other with snowy driveways and icy sidewalks. We trade messages about coyotes in the area or burned out street lights or concerns about strange cars parking where they shouldn’t.
But we stop at that surface level of niceness and don’t go into messier things, the things that might reveal the differences in our thoughts and lifestyles, backgrounds and experiences. I’ve never had a conversation with any of my neighbors about gay marriage, or immigration, or politics. We don’t bring up concerns about drug use and inequality and the school-to-prison pipeline. We don’t talk about the latest heartbreaking news reports of sexual predators or discuss the suffering of hurricane victims together. If we line up on different sides of these issues, perhaps we don’t want to know it. Maybe that’s the price we pay for keeping the peace in our safe suburban neighborhood. We don’t get into the details of life or explore what hurts, what’s scary, what challenges our peace.
Looked at in one light, we might say that’s a false harmony, a way we humans have learned to “go along to get along.” Don’t make your views known, don’t be too vulnerable, don’t show up as being too different from someone else, that thinking goes. It might make you a target.
But there’s also another, I think higher possibility that we Friends aspire to—and that is that we seek out and respect that of God in each other, not wanting to focus on the ideas and beliefs that separate us, but holding fast to the idea that there is that divine spark in each of us that will continue leading us toward peace if we will allow it to. In that sense, choosing not to go into the subjects that might reveal our differences could actually be a choice to focus on what really matters to us in the present moment: We want to have peace. We want to like one another. We are bonded by our geography, our care of our shared home, and our desire for the freedom to live the way we choose with a reasonable sense of safety and security.
Who can tell us whether in our striving to be neighborly we are choosing an inauthentic path—peace at any price—or a path that looks for the best in others and the leads us toward the harmony we seek? I think the only reliable answer is to go into prayerful silence—willing to be honest with ourselves, willing to hear God. Over time, that may lead us to reach out to others when we feel their pain, when spirit stirs something in our hearts that causes us to care, that prompts us to connect in new ways.
Sometimes I think that happens because spirit is looking for a way to shine the light into our circumstances, to inspire or reassure us, conversation by conversation, bridging gaps between us, and coming alongside we feel alone or in pain. I think of a simple conversation I had with a neighbor at the end of summer. Earlier in the day, she had helped pack her daughter’s car as she prepared to head off for college. Now it was evening and she was out pulling weeds in her garden. I stopped and asked her how she was doing, mentioning how tough it had been for me when my son left for college. I was surprised to see her eyes instantly fill with tears. We stood there for a while talking, her wiping tears away with her muddy gardening gloves, and me with a full heart, realizing that God was letting my neighbor know—through me—that she wasn’t alone in her pain.
In our Old Testament scripture today, we heard a passage from Isaiah where God is saying that even though those in power don’t care about people in need, God cares, and God would ultimately act on their behalf. That’s one thing I’m hearing in our study of Isaiah, over and over again: God cares for his vulnerable ones. God says, “I the LORD will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.” God goes on to say that he will make a way where there is no way—making rivers flow on barren heights, reforesting deserts. The people will know and understand that God himself has done this. They will know they are loved and valued—perhaps not by their rulers or their society, but by their God—the One who matters most of all.
The question of what to say and when to say it—especially when being neighborly is important—has probably existed as long as there have been human beings and some sort of coherent language. We are social animals and we need to be in relationship with others. A person who is too isolated, science tell us, is more likely to be ill, depressed, or victimized. There is safety in numbers, and we humans have an intrinsic need—and probably a biological and evolutionary need–to belong to a group. I see God’s hand in that, as the impulse that will ultimately knit us back together, when we can finally live in accord with our eternal spiritual oneness, the light at the center of our souls.
This is something we Friends come by naturally. Since the earliest days of Friends tradition, George Fox showed us a way to worship that didn’t require abandoning ourselves or creating groups of us-against-them. Fox believed he’d found the true way to worship that would be common to all who believed–Christ himself comes to each of us, as individuals, bringing light and leadings, assisting us to see and understand the truth of our lives, and leading us beyond self-serving actions toward a desire to meet and serve others at their point of need. We reach out as God’s hands and hearts to share their burdens, and calm their fears.
Our New Testament reading today was from the sixth chapter of Luke, which is sometimes referred to as Christ’s exposition of the moral law. In the verses we heard today, Jesus is raising issues of universal concern. It is just before the place where he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the one who is the good neighbor is the one who shows mercy to the person in need. In the verses Sherry read for us, we hear that truly living in peace with others takes us beyond the Golden Rule—doing unto others what you would have them do unto you—asking us to live with a generosity of spirit, ongoing forgiveness of trespasses, and a willingness to share a world of light and love and peace.
To be truly neighborly in this way means to extend grace even to those who don’t think they are our neighbors, to those who wouldn’t return our generosity in kind. It asks something more of us, stretching us thin enough that the light shines plainly through.
Two political seasons ago, I remember being concerned by the harsh language I was hearing in the campaign, and I noticed that one of my neighbors had put up a sign in support of the candidate who was saying the things I thought were most dangerous. I realized after a couple of days that I was fussing inwardly about it, and I was avoiding contact with them in the neighborhood. That uneasiness in myself prompted me to go into silence with it. God helped me see the smoldering –and not pretty–“seed of war” in me. Not knowing what else to do, I started to pray for peace and harmony in our neighborhood. Within days, the knot in my stomach went away, I felt back in touch with the idea that God is leading each of us in our own way.
To me, that’s what being neighborly has come to mean. Inviting God’s grace for all, whether I agree with them or not. Whether they wish me well or not. I pray that God’s peace, God’s presence will be with us all, lighting us up, helping us to see the truth about ourselves, enabling us to feel safe enough to reach out to one another. When we can do that, God will make a way where there has been no way, enabling us to rebuild trust and begin to work together toward a common good for all.
And you know, no one was better at being neighborly than Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. As a young man he went to seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, but he never wanted to be in the pulpit—television was his platform, and his ministry was in teaching children to love themselves and others. In his 865 shows, he talked about common childhood fears, presented gentle and simple stories about making good choices and treating others with respect, and he demonstrated what he thought it meant to be neighborly, every day.
In 1997, when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had been on for 32 consecutive years, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmys. Writer Tom Junrod shared this moment from his acceptance speech:
“Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award—and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.”
And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, “I’ll watch the time.” There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked. And so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds—and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier. And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly “May God be with you,” to all his vanquished children.
In that moment of achievement, when Fred Rogers was being given an award meant to recognize him for his considerable contribution to the well-being of generations of children, he turned it into a way to lift up love, and touch the tender hearts and souls of every person present. I think that was possible because our desire to be at peace together is one of the deepest, most sacred yearnings of our souls. We are made for one another, divinely equipped to be the generous and caring neighbors God has designed us to be and continues to invite us to become.
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- OT: Isaiah 41: 17-20
- NT: Luke 6: 27-36