Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--July 2008

Loving our Neighbors

One day, Jesus was being questioned by some religious folks who wanted to know what the most important commandment of God was. Perhaps they thought they were so religious, so holy, so good at keeping laws that they would surely be found to be keeping whatever this most important commandment was. Jesus’ response was: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) That particular answer didn’t go over so well.

The problem for us when we are confronted by God’s commandments, is that we pretty much never measure up. I love the Lord my God, but do I really do it with ALL my heart, and ALL my soul, and ALL my mind? ALL the time? No way. And is it even possible for me to care as much for my neighbors as I do for myself? Would I really sacrifice my own money, or food, or shelter for the guy living next door to me? Or would I expect him to face life on his own? If these are really the greatest commandments of God, I for one am in big trouble.

We expect this as Lutheran Christians, I think. We know that we are saved by God’s grace through trusting faith—and know that when we fail to live up to God’s expectations, that God will love us anyway. But we also know, as Lutheran Christians, that because we are loved by God and don’t HAVE to do anything, that we become free to fulfill those dreams that God has for us. Imagine, for a moment, if all of us could actually love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves—wouldn’t life on earth be pretty amazing? No more poverty, war, violence, self-centeredness. Even though we know that the world is more complicated than that and that we’ll never make that happen, doesn’t that sound a lot like what God wants for us and for all humanity?

But hold on for a second if you think I’m suggesting we set up some sort of religious-hippy commune where we are all happy and high on God—because I’m not. But what is our life together if not living together in a community shaped by Christ, in which we worship, pray, eat, serve and seek to live more fully into God dream (even if it never quite appears in it’s fullest form)? And, according to Jesus, this dream that God has is never just about us and God, but always includes our neighbors near and far—in fact, the whole of creation.

So, how are we doing on this “love your neighbor” stuff? Our Guiding Principles might help us here. I’ve been impressed, again and again, at how well we live into our principle “Everyone is welcome.” The way in which the people of Bethlehem reach out to and interact with visitors and new folks is inspiring—and I keep hearing talk of how we can make this place more welcoming to visitors and make clear that the hospitality we offer comes from God’s hospitality. This hospitality and welcoming presence is an amazing gift that God has given to us, and we use it to share the love of God and bring people into the community we share with one another in Jesus Christ. It’s a powerful witness of God to all who worship with us.

We’ve got another Guiding Principle, however, that we don’t live out as fully as we might: “We are called to work in God’s world.” We do, however, recognize this call, even when we aren’t fully living out what that call is. And it’s not as if we don’t try—but so often it’s hard to know just what our calling in the world is meant to be. As a community, we’ve recognized this as one of our growing edges—the place in which God is calling us to grow into that dream God has for us. And it’s strongly connected to this whole idea of “love your neighbor as yourself.”

But how, exactly, do we get there? As I’ve been thinking about this particular Guiding Principle, and this command to love our neighbors, I was struck with a question: “How am I supposed to LOVE my neighbor, if I don’t even KNOW my neighbor?” How many of us know the people who live in the houses immediately around ours? How many of us have shared a meal with those folks? And how about our church neighbors? Do you know the names of the folks we can see from our windows on Sunday morning? I don’t. And we certainly haven’t eaten with them.

But God has given us some great opportunities to get to know our neighbors. This summer, there are several events in which there is a good chance that our neighbors will be around and we will get the chance to get to know them: the neighborhood BBQ we are hosting on July 12th and the Outdoor Movie Nights in July and August (see the schedule elsewhere in this newsletter). While these events are fun, what if we were to see them as more than a fun way to spend the evening (or stay away because it’s not what we think is a good time)? What if instead we saw these events (and the people who come) as gifts that God is giving us so that we can get to know our neighbors and neighborhood better? We’ve got lots of practice on Sunday morning during coffee hour getting to know and sharing stories with the new people who come our way. What if we were to do the same with the folks who might wander into our BBQ and movie nights? Surely through our neighbors we will get a fuller picture of what God is up to in our neighborhood, and might just get clued into the ways in which we might be “called to work in God’s world.” I hope you will come this summer to get to know our neighbors.

Pastor Erik