Interim Minister Rev. Lyn Cox
I don’t know if the story happened exactly this way, but I believe it’s true. This is a story told by Jesus in exploring the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
There was once a traveler who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attacked them, stripped them, and beat them up, leaving the traveler half dead.
It so happened that a priest was going down that road; but when they saw the injured traveler, they walked on by on the other side.
In the same way a [community leader] also came there, went over and looked at the injured traveler, and then walked on by on the other side.
But a Samaritan who was going that way came upon the injured traveler, and when the Samaritan saw them, their heart was filled with pity. They went over to them, poured oil and wine on their wounds and bandaged them; then they put the injured traveler on their own animal and took them to an inn where the Samaritan took care of the injured traveler.
The next day the Samaritan took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. “Take care of this person,” they told the innkeeper, “and when I come back this way, I will pay you whatever else you spend on them.”
So ends the story. May we go and do likewise.
Who Is Our Neighbor?
When have you received the blessing of neighborliness? When have you been greeted with respect, cared for, and invited to share in the responsibility for the common good? I have experienced neighborliness when I’ve been through big milestones in my life and people brought me food, when I was participating in activism on behalf of people and a community that I loved, and when I’ve received the kindness of strangers who recognized me as a member of the human family.
I like to think of neighborliness as a kind of covenant. It’s not a written covenant. Neighborliness is an unwritten set of sacred promises, a sense of relatedness with other people and the world and with something larger than ourselves. Neighborliness is rooted in a particular experience of time and place, yet ripples outward to the horizons of our awareness of the interdependent web. Covenants bind us together in mutual care and responsibility, whether or not our promises are expressed in words.
Even before I summarized the story earlier, you may have been familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story demonstrates that obligations to our neighbors include those beyond our immediate circle, even to those we may consider “them” instead of “us.”
It’s easy to say in theory, of course we would help someone from another group, of course that person would be our neighbor. What if that person were connected with a political movement with which I heartily disagree? What if that person is from a dangerous place, and may bring danger with them? What if that person is a member of an organization that betrayed me? When the roles were reversed, when I needed help, there have been people who surprised me by stopping. Overcoming my assumptions about “us and them” is a constant discipline.
This congregation puts a lot of work into being neighborly. It’s one of the things I admire about you. You have been practicing food justice through Shepherd’s Table and So Others Might Eat. So Others Might Eat donations are due on the first Sunday of the month, including next week. UUCSS members support neighbors at Beacon House, a center for at-risk youth and their families in DC, by serving as tutors and field trip chaperones. All of these represent the hospitality of a good neighbor. This church shines like a friendly porch light on the way home.
Being neighborly involves considerate curiosity. Somewhere in between apathy and nosy-ness, there is a sweet spot of taking interest in one another. Neighborliness also involves the willingness to expand our comfort zones. Building relationships means risking things like awkwardness and disagreement. Neighborliness means a lot of different things. Today we’ll start with considerate curiosity and expanding our comfort zones.
Cultivating an atmosphere of considerate curiosity is a group discipline. In this congregation, people listen warmly at Inreach groups and during check-in at committee meetings. The Lay Ministry Team sits with people who are going through major turning points, but you don’t have to be a member of that team to be a good listener. Sometimes we notice without prompting when someone isn’t well or is having a tough time or has something great going on.
Sometimes we don’t notice. We can work on that. I don’t think it’s possible for a congregation to notice 100% of the time when a well-placed question is in order. We can increase the odds with attention to leadership, organization, and communication. We will have opportunities this year to practice curiosity. It begins with people being interested in one another’s wellbeing.
In this congregation, we are learning together how to talk about racism, gender diversity, and overcoming the generational divide that separates humans into market segments. These are difficult and rewarding disciplines, and we will get better at them as we practice direct address and covenantal behavior toward our common goals.
There was once an icon of considerate curiosity who showed up on public television, ready to listen to children and to teach their families how to listen. The documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” has reminded many of us about Fred Rogers and his show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” As the film pointed out, Mister Rogers was different than just about anything else on television, then or now, in that there was time and space for listening. The pace was slow and respectful. There were times when no one was speaking. When Mister Rogers had a guest, he listened and asked open-ended questions, focusing more on respect for the guest than on impressing the audience with his humor or hosting skills. Leaving room for silence meant there was always time for the other person to be heard.
Deep listening was also modeled in the Land of Make Believe segments of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” where puppets and costumes helped create pretend stories that carried the same messages of respect and compassion. Puppet characters such as Daniel Striped Tiger and Henrietta Pussycat shared the same questions and worries and joys that children watching at home had in their own lives. The small-in-size characters would ask big questions. “What does assassination mean” was a real-life example from a show soon after the death of Bobby Kennedy. When big questions came up, an adult human character such as Lady Aberlin would pause, ask clarifying questions, and answer the question in a way that was complete but not too much information to absorb all at once. The adult would then follow up with more invitations to the other character’s thoughts, acknowledging and honoring their feelings. We can all can learn valuable skills for building trust and communication from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Even today, Daniel Tiger lives on in an animated show, helping children articulate their choices about what to do with the mad that you feel.
We’ll have some opportunities to practice considerate curiosity between adults and children as we build community this year at UUCSS. Beginning on September 16, children will come to worship for a short multigenerational segment before going to Religious Education classes, except on days when we all stay in worship together for the entire hour. The RE Committee will continue to sponsor fun events where people of all ages can learn from each other, such as Game Night this coming Wednesday. Let’s come together and practice considerate curiosity across divisions of age, background, race, and ability. Neighbors come in all shapes and sizes.
In the parable, the Samaritan shows considerate curiosity when he stops and notices what has happened. It’s a first step. Paying attention seems simple, but simple is different from easy. Considerate curiosity is a learned skill and it takes time. Let’s open ourselves up to neighborliness.
Expanding Comfort Zones
Another aspect of neighborliness is expanding our comfort zones. This is the extra mile between being polite and being a good neighbor. The above-and-beyond actions of the Good Samaritan from the Book of Luke are a good illustration here:
He went up and bandaged his wounds, bathing them with oil and wine. Then he lifted him on to his own beast, brought him to an inn, and looked after him. Next day he produced two silver pieces and gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Look after him; and if you spend more, I will repay you on my way back.’ (Luke 10:34-35, Revised English Bible)
In other words, being a good neighbor involves going out of your way. Being a good neighbor is challenging.
Challenge is good when it helps you grow. You have been through plenty of challenges together as a congregation, and I believe there is hope on the other side. During this turning point year, I would suggest that one of the things every member and friend can do starting today is to talk with people in the congregation you don’t normally talk to. Spend the social hour in a different part of the room. Plan a fellowship event. Sign up for the Membership Committee or a Sunday Support Team so that you can have a role as you introduce yourself to people you don’t normally talk with. In a congregation of this size, it is easy and tempting to stay within a comfort zone of a dozen or two dozen people. Your ability to move forward together as one church will be enhanced the more you talk with each other in compassionately curious ways.
Neighborliness means going out of our way, growing and changing, and prioritizing welcoming the guest over personal comfort. In this year of experimentation and discernment, we’ll have a lot of opportunities to NOT do things the way they have always been done. We can even try some things again that were tried before and didn’t work the first time. I have confidence that we will have fun with our exploration, but like most new experiences, it will not always be easy.
Perhaps it will help energize us for the exhilarating challenges ahead to think about the neighbors for whom doors will be open as a result of this work. Think of the future generations of people who will feel supported and uplifted by this congregation. Think of the people who are desperately seeking a spiritual home like this one right now and need our extra effort so they can find it. Think of the interfaith neighbors and local justice partners who will be able to count on the solidarity of Unitarian Universalists because of the organizing and community building you are renewing this year.
Expanding our comfort zone is an opportunity to grow spiritually. I believe that, if we listen to each other and to the still, small voice within, our experience will lead this congregation to a stronger, more unified sense of purpose. I have faith that this congregation will grow in strength, fueled by the power of love.
Being a good neighbor is held in high esteem at this church. Members here already practice compassionate curiosity. We grow our comfort zones in our outreach, in our multigenerational fellowship, and our honest discussions with one another. May we continue to grow in our practice and in our understanding of the covenant of neighborliness.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.