I’ve been here with you at Fellowship for almost four months now. It has been long enough that I’ve got a sense now of all the thing that need to be done around here. There is so much to do. And I mean that in the best possible way—there is so much potential and so much opportunity ready to burst open here. And the problem is, when we look at all this work and opportunity, it can quickly feel overwhelming. I mean, where do we even start? How do we prioritize? How do we funnel all this potential into a vision that helps us know what steps should be taken, and in what order?
Those questions are tied pretty closely with our own faith and walk of discipleship. Sometimes it feels like following God and living out the path of discipleship to follow Jesus can be a bit overwhelming as well. Maybe it seems like there are so many vast components to being a Christian that maybe sometimes it seems like we lose track of where we are going and don’t know how to get there. I want to be a part of the church and I want to be a Christian, but sometimes all this Christian life and all this church stuff feels just a little bit overwhelming. I ask myself, what am I even doing to grow in the mission that God has given for his people? How do I even begin? Where do I start? What do I have to do? What must I do?
I don’t think we’re the first ones to ask that question. In fact, somebody asked a very similar question to Jesus once, and it’s in the Bible. People who lived in Israel back in the day of Jesus had so many laws and rules and codes to keep, I’m sure for many of them it felt a bit overwhelming at times to keep up with it all. So, on one occasion Jesus is asked about it. It’s sort of one of those “where do I start?” kind of questions.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus responds to the question by telling the parable of the good Samaritan. But I want to stop right here and just consider the question this morning. What must I do? There are so many laws, so many rules, so many codes and guidelines. What must I do? Here in this church there are Sunday School classes, Bible study groups, small groups, youth group, volunteer to be a teacher, volunteer to be a greeter, volunteer to serve on council, volunteer to help with Love Inc. I show up for church, I read my Bible, I show up for prayer group. There is so much. What must I do? Where do I even start?
The answer to that begins in this conversation of Luke 10. Love God and love others. Love God above all, and love your neighbor as yourself. Maybe that still doesn’t give us a starting point. So, the conversation continues to the next question. And who is my Neighbor?
Actually, the question is much deeper than that. Luke shares a very important piece of background information about this expert in the law with whom Jesus is talking. Look at verse 29.
Luke 10:29 NIV
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
He wanted to justify himself.
He wanted to justify himself.
He wanted to justify himself. He wanted a loophole. He wanted a way to still come out on top. And he asks, how shall we define who my neighbor is? Can I define my neighbors in such a way that this command to love my neighbor is easily checked off my list?
That this expert in the law even feels the need to justify himself tells us something. It tells us that he lives in a world in which there are walls of division. There are some people he associates with and will quickly acknowledge as his neighbors. And there are other people whom he will never call his neighbors.
Back when I lived in Kalamazoo I owned a house on a street with several neighbors. Looking back on it now, there were a few neighbors I got to know pretty well. They had kids who went to the same school as my kids. I knew where they went to church, so I knew they were Christians. They were good neighbors. No, they were great neighbors. I had another neighbor who was an elderly widower. When he passed away, his grown son moved in to the house along with his family. They weren’t mean or anything. But they were different. He didn’t mow the lawn very much. Which I guess didn’t matter because he didn’t water the lawn at all—so eventually it stopped growing. Which I guess didn’t matter because the entire front yard eventually became a parking lot of cars—half of which didn’t run and were only there for spare parts.
He was my neighbor. But I admit, I didn’t see him the same as the others. And I didn’t treat him the same as the others.
Then there were two other houses across the street. Both of these houses were rental properties. Both of these houses needed serious painting and repair. Which I guess didn’t matter because they had shrubs so overgrown that the bushes pretty much swallowed up the houses anyway. These were the houses where the police would show up in the middle of the night because of domestic violence.
I have to admit. I never knew the people who lived in those houses. I never even knew their names. I admit, I didn’t even care.
Then in 2010 I moved out to Denver. I moved during the time when the housing bubble collapsed. And my house I owned in Kalamazoo dropped so much of its value that I lost all my equity and then some. So, when I moved to Denver, my family had to find a house to rent—we weren’t able to buy. Now I had become the renter. Now I was the guy on the block that I never wanted on the block.
That was an eye-opening experience for me. I suppose there were neighbors in Denver who looked at me the same way I looked at the renters down the street when I lived in Kalamazoo. Now I was the trash on the block that nobody wanted. For those who believe in karma, I suppose maybe I had that coming. For those who believe in grace, I was confronted with a moment of confession and an opportunity for redemption.
He wanted to justify himself. We all look for ways to justify the divisions that we build up between us and other certain sorts of people.
Maybe you’ve got a neighbor like that on your street—someone whom you would rather never associate; I want nothing to do with them. Maybe it’s another student at school. Maybe it’s a coworker. Maybe there’s someone who isn’t going to know that God loves them until they realize there is a neighbor who loves them too.
It was a few weeks ago that our seasoned saints group did that exercise where we all had to fill out a little slip of paper using a few words or phrases that we think describes this church. Not surprisingly, there were several people describe this church as friendly and welcoming. I was also intrigued by the occasional comment that pointed out: “Not as welcoming and friendly as they think they are.” That’s insightful. That’s someone who notices that we all have this human tendency to gravitate towards that same people—people who are familiar, people like us. I stand in the same circle with the same others in the same spot in the lobby and talk about the same things. We all do it. Intentionally inviting new people in who are different from us is hard. Embracing diversity is hard work.
Who is my neighbor?
Who is my neighbor?
So, what motivates my choices of neighbors? Do I dedicate all of my relationship time to people who are just like me? Who look like me, act like me, hold the same opinions and political views as me, live in the same socioeconomic group as me? There is a word that describes that kind of social bubble. It’s called an echo chamber. I live in an echo chamber when I only associate myself with people who are just like me, when I only get my news from sources that reinforce the opinions and perspectives that I already hold. Echo chambers take the divisions that exist between people and push so that wedges of division become chasms of separation.
Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan to make a point. He knows very well that the person with whom he is talking—the expert in the law—would never identify people from Samaria as neighbors. You don’t show love to people like that.
I know that I need to do something to change the way I see my neighbors. I know I need to do something that helps me see others the way Jesus sees them. Give me step one. What’s the very first thing? I want you to walk out of here today with something in your hands. So, we’re going to do something about that right here today.
Here’s the action step for today. Start with a name.
Jesus came to earth and lived in a way that demonstrates God’s relentless desire to reach those who are far from him—those who are marginalized and pushed away. Our call to love our neighbors should follow what Jesus did. I need to begin by asking myself who those people are. The probability for most of us in the church—in fact, the probability for ALL of us in the church—is that these are people who are outside of our current social circles. So, the reality for many of us, most of us, maybe ALL of us is that we do not already have a long list of close relationships with people who are far from God.
So here we go. The passage today confronts us with the truth of God’s Word; that we follow him in discipleship by loving God and loving other people. And we all try to justify ourselves and say, “I do love other people – I have a long list of other people whom I love.” When, in fact, my list of other people whom I love is pretty narrowly defined as family and friends who are just like me. Let’s start right here at this moment to do something to change that. It starts with a name.
You see, none of us can say that we truly share a love for unchurched people if we cannot also immediately begin to name them. If you ask any one of our grandmothers here to name their grandchildren for you, I bet they could do it. In fact, there are some here who would give you a list of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And they can name every single one of them. Of course you can. You love them. They matter to you. How many relationships can you name with people outside of your family who do not know Jesus?
If we are serious about loving others the way Jesus loves others, then it absolutely has to begin with a name. Because I cannot approach that neighbor a few doors down and say, “I just really want you to know your family is important and means a lot…you person.” Where does it all start. Today for us it starts with names.
The sermon notes of every bulletin today grid that kind of looks like a bingo card or a tic-tac-toe square. Take that out. Your house (or apartment unit) is right in the middle. Here’s what you need to do next. Fill in the names of everyone who lives in the next eight closest residences to you. You are not allowed to skip over houses. You cannot say, “well, I know Shirley who lives ten houses down around the corner.” This is based entirely upon proximity. Picture the eight closest houses or apartments to yours, and write in the names of all the people who live there. This is not a hypothetical exercise. Stop right now and fill in as many as you can. If there are any houses or apartments in those eight closest in which you do not know the names of the people there, put a small question mark in the box.
How did you do? I’ll be honest. I can’t do it. I can’t fill in the names of all the people in all eight boxes. I don’t even know the names of all the people who literally live within a 200-yard circle of my own house. I can only name six people in two of the houses that are next to mine. To be fair, I only moved in back in January. And it’s been winter up until just like last week. But, you see what I’m doing here? I’m trying to justify myself. I’m making excuses. If you want a place to start with how to love our neighbors, here’s where it starts. It starts with knowing names. You might be thinking something like, “but I’m just not good with names.” Here’s the thing: I’m not naturally good with names either. Nobody is naturally good with names. That’s not an excuse. People who are good at names are good at it because they made an intentional choice to learn and remember names, not because they are just naturally good at it. It takes an intentional choice. You have to decide that you are going to make a priority out of meeting new people, learning, and remembering their names. You must be intentional about it, or it will not never happen.
Why are we doing this? Why am I making such a big deal out of naming the people who live closest to you? Because I cannot actually love people who I don’t actually know. And I cannot actually know someone who I cannot name. When I have neighbors who live within 200 yards of my house, and I cannot name them, then we are divided. The good news of the gospel declares that the division that existed between God and humans is taken away through Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul declares that now through Jesus there is no longer any difference between Jew and Gentile. Scripture affirms that all people are created in the image of God and all people have value and matter to God.
And so, as people who believe the gospel and follow Jesus, we are called to do away with the divisions that keep us from loving other people. And the gospel of Jesus creates the path for us to do this. Jesus clears the way for us. We work to break down walls of division between us because Jesus has broken down division between us. We work to love others because God loves others. We dedicate ourselves to learning names and knowing other people by name because God dedicates himself to knowing people by name.
Here’s what David had to say about it in Psalm 139.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Our God dedicates himself to knowing you completely. He doesn’t sit on the sideline and just wait for you to come to him. Jesus came to us. God does not wait for you to approach and start a relationship with him. Jesus came and started that relationship with us. He did that for you. He knows you that well. He loves you that much. And he has that exact same love for those about you—for all your neighbors. We are directed by God to love others because God loves them, just as much as he loves you.
It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done. Maybe you feel like God has forgotten you, or you feel like God is letting you down. Look at what God says through the prophet Isaiah:
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.
Your name is so important to God that he says it is written on his hand. That’s how important you are to God. That’s how much you are loved by him. That’s how much you mean to him.
So, if your name means that much to God. If the names of others mean that much to God. Will you follow Jesus today and decide to make the name of someone else important enough for you to remember? Because it is important to God, and he will always remember.
There is so much potential and so much opportunity right here, ready and waiting to go. What’s the vision for that? How do we go about this? Where do we begin? What must we do?
Take a cue from Jesus today, and take it back to the basics. Love God and love others. Step one: learn a name.