Late summer is not the best time for official visitations, so this is when Margaret and I can enjoy Sunday mornings together in the pew. Recently we were at the cathedral and heard an excellent sermon by Forward Movement director Scott Gunn on this portion of a passage from Colossians: “Now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language” (3:8). As Scott reminded us, our current political atmosphere is being deeply marred by these very things. He asked us to consider how we could disagree about policy and direction without vilifying one another. Answer: Imagine one good reason why someone you know is going to vote differently from you. This exercise in empathy need not lead to agreement, but it will steer us toward communion and away from anger and malice.
The point here is that we as Christians are always called to reconciliation, no matter how much we may disagree about direction or policy. Life in Christ is about communion even in the midst of disagreement. We have learned over the years how vital this is for our life together in the church. But we are now beginning to realize that this principle – reconciliation wherever possible for the common good – impels us to explore relationship with the neighbors that surround us. Why? Because the ministry of reconciliation knows no bounds. Reconciliation with the church leads us to reconciliation with the world, and the world encounters us first and foremost in the people, businesses, non-profits, government agencies and faith communities that are close by. That’s what “neighbor” means: whoever is “nigh,” that is, close by.
This is obviously true for our life together in the church. When we gather for worship, we should be primarily focused on reconciliation and the practice of forbearance. That is the whole point of church – to be a sort of incubator for a new attitude to the neighbor. But we can only be such an incubator if we are constantly pushing outwards, resisting every temptation to be simply about ourselves. The temptation to turn inward is great, despite all our desires to welcome new people. We all want to minimize challenging differences in race, class and age if this means changing our ways.
This mirrors what happens in so many of our neighborhoods, both urban and rural. We choose to live among people who are like us, and so we segregate ourselves along racial, economic and even political lines.
Even so, most of us don’t know our neighbors, however much they may reflect our demographic profile. We live in a radically privatized society, and have few built-in opportunities to engage with the people who are next door.
But isn’t this also true of most of our congregations? So many of us are completely distanced from the neighborhoods that surround us. Sometimes this is because the neighborhood has changed, and the congregants come from other places. It is not uncommon in the Episcopal Church to find a white congregation in an African-American neighborhood, or an affluent African-American congregation in a poor neighborhood of the same ethnicity.
Obviously, there are racial and classist reasons for these disjunctions between parish and neighborhood. But that’s not the whole problem. Many of us are located in extremely homogenous neighborhoods, and yet are disconnected from what is really going on around us. And no wonder! We are all mired in matters that seem to have to do with our individual institutional survival, and so feel unable to rise to the real, life-giving challenge the Holy Spirit is presenting us with, namely, to follow Jesus into whatever is around us, and to put our survival to one side. What other faith community nearby can we reach out to (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhism, Hindu, etc.)? What local agencies and institutions can we partner with to become more visible, more trusted, and more effective in our neighborhood?
When Jesus says, “love your neighbor as yourself,” it’s about paying attention, showing interest, offering help, partnering where possible, expressing disagreement honestly and with respect. And all this without choosing whom our neighbor is. Whoever is nearby counts. This doesn’t mean that we don’t look after people far away – absolutely not. But unless we practice hands-on partnership with people and institutions that are close by, we will not be able to imagine and pursue authentic partnerships with people and institutions in other lands. We have evidence of this right in our own diocese. Look at the people and parishes in Southern Ohio that have forged deep relationships in Honduras, Russia and Liberia, and you will find an answering commitment to connection with their local community.
I often talk about the embrace of connection as a pillar of our tradition. But connection, while a universal reality, remains an abstract idea until we break through our denial and begin breaking down the walls that separate us. This is what Jesus did constantly – he was always available to the people who were around him, and often actively reached out to them. It’s important to note that Jesus was not trying to fill pews, but to transform lives by bringing them into a new kind of relationship with one another. Isn’t that what the Holy Spirit is dragging and driving us toward right now? Are we not being forced outwards to make friends with the neighbors we find ourselves among?
I call this following Jesus into the neighborhood. Of course this is not only about gaining the trust of individual neighbors. It’s about learning how a whole neighborhood works. Who are the major players? Are people working together on issues of common concern, or are the barriers to communication, let alone cooperation, too great? Where is there light, and where are there pockets of darkness? To what extent are people of faith working together across denominational lines? What assets and resources embedded in the community are lying fallow and unused? What are stories people tell about themselves and their community? What is our place in all of this?
So how can we follow Jesus into the neighborhood? This will look different for every congregation and every individual disciple. I know of one congregation that has been walking its neighborhood, two by two, and then gathering to pray for the people and situations they encountered. Another has offered its kitchen to someone trying to start a catering business. Many of our congregations have been engaging their neighborhoods through community dinners and offering space for community gardens. Some have begun to send representatives to their local neighborhood association, and others have asked how they can help the local schools with tutoring and family support. For some, it simply begins with a friendly call on the Methodist church across the street.
Note that none of these is an example of outreach. Outreach is fine as far as it goes, but, as the word itself implies, it is about forays from an inside to the outside. When we do outreach, we remain centered on our own foundation, choosing what resources we will share and with whom we will share them, all the while retaining our own separate existence. Following Jesus into the neighborhood is an entirely different matter. It requires a quantum leap from locating our center in ourselves to locating it in the neighbors that surround us, come what may.
Merciful God, you have commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves; help us to love our neighborhoods as well, finding Jesus there. In his name we ask it.