Neighbors in the Kingdom

We had a storm; big winds, hard rain and lots of falling twigs and leaves from the two big trees in my front yard. Yardwork isn’t something I enjoy, especially in the heat. However, the yard was a mess. For several hours I persevered; collecting fallen branches, leaves and twigs that were hidden in the patchy grass. I wanted to stop; I hated this work. I kept bending, gathering and piling the debris.

Even though we’re new to the neighborhood, as I began working, I recognized a stranger knocking on the door of the house across the street. An elderly lady lives there and he was persistent, even opening the storm door and pounding on the wooden door again and again. I considered she was home but she didn’t answer the door.

I found myself attentive to the situation. I wondered. Was she okay? Did she know him? He wasn’t someone who lived in the immediate neighborhood, he looked different than the white middle class folk on this part of the street.

Just a few days prior, the lady next door informed me there had been several break in’s in the area during the past year. She reported that even the mailman commented that there were a lot of strange people walking around. Another reason I thought I needed to be watchful—looking out for my neighbors and myself. The context of suspicion, fear, and assumptions about people that are different than me does matter here— just like the two that passed by in the bible story.

As I continued to work, the man greeted me from across the street as he started to leave the house. “Do you have any work?” He casually asked me as he made his way across the street.

“Sorry, I don’t have any,” I replied, conscious of his movement without making purposeful eye contact as I continued to pick up sticks.

He made his way on down the street in the opposite direction. I felt some guilt that I was obviously doing work that needed to be done. I didn’t know him; his motives, his reputation, his work ethic or skill. I didn’t have any cash to pay him with anyway.

That was Saturday. I had conflicting feelings. I felt right in looking out for my elderly neighbor even though all I did was watch. I felt guilty for saying I had no work, when obviously I was working. I felt suspicious of what I didn’t know: who are strangers and who are neighbors in my new town?

On Sunday, the man’s face became one of the characters in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the lectionary passage for the day. Not because he was in distress and I was passing by or even because he needed work and I didn’t offer to meet that need.

Joe, the rector where I visited on Sunday, said maybe Jesus described the man in need as naked because it took away many identifiers. Was he rich or poor? Educated or illiterate? From close by or far away? He was another human being in his nakedness.

In my suspicion, based on what I feared and didn’t know, I failed to encounter another human being. It really didn’t matter if I had work or not or the cash to pay him. It didn’t matter if I didn’t know his name or intention or background. Meeting him eye-to-eye, standing up and shaking his hand, sharing names would have engaged him as my neighbor.

Joe said something else that was new to me related to the Good Samaritan story. He said we might consider “neighbor” and “neighborhood” as more contemporary metaphors for the kingdom of God.  That kingdom is among us, when we engage people instead of fears and assumptions.

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