By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 18, 2005


Audio Sermon

Deuteronomy 28:1-6 Blessings for obedience

If you fully obey the Lord your God, and carefully follow all his commands that I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:

You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.

The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land, and the young of your livestock--the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.

Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed.

You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.

Luke 10:25-37 The good Samaritan

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?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

The Heavenly City #91 Levels of the neighbor

It is not just individual people who are our neighbor, but also groups of people, such as small and large communities, our country, religion, the Lord's realm, and most of all, the Lord himself. All of these are our neighbor, so we should do good things for them out of love.

These groups of people are our at higher and higher levels. A community with many people in it is our neighbor at a higher level than an individual person; our country is our neighbor at an even higher level; religion at an even higher level; the Lord's realm at a still higher level; and the Lord is our neighbor at the highest level of all. These higher and higher levels are like a staircase with the Lord at the top.

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:36-37)

It is good to get back to basics. And for our Sunday School classes and worship services this fall, we are going to get back to one of the most basic basics commanded by the Lord: loving our neighbor. In traditional language, this is called "charity." But charity means so much more than donating money to the poor and volunteering our time to help those in need. It is not just something we do with our spare money and in our spare time. Charity is a way of life. Charity is expressed (or not) in everything we think, feel, say, and do.

Today, as an introduction to our fall series, we will take a brief tour of two of the answers given in our church's teachings to the question that the lawyer asked Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?"

One answer to this question--which a thoughtful reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan will reveal, is that the good in others in our neighbor. Swedenborg writes:

Goodness is our neighbor in the broadest sense, since people are our neighbor according to the kind of good qualities they have from the Lord. And since goodness is our neighbor, love is our neighbor, because all goodness comes from love. So people are our neighbor according to the kind of love they have from the Lord. (The Heavenly City #88)

The practical meaning of this is that in loving our neighbors and doing good for them, we are to help and strengthen what is good in them, and, on the other hand, work against and weaken what is not good in them. The refrain from classic song made popular by Bing Crosby expresses it well:

You've got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
Don't mess with Mister In-Between,

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum,
Bring gloom down to the minimum,
Have faith, or pandemonium's
Liable to walk upon the scene.

If our words and actions toward others help to accentuate the best in them and eliminate the worst in them, then we are truly loving our neighbor.

But this does not fully answer the question asked by the lawyer, "Who is my neighbor?" Another answer--one that will provide the guideline for our fall series--is provided in our reading from The Heavenly City, #91, on "levels of the neighbor." Here is the gist of it:

It is not just individual people who are our neighbor, but also groups of people, such as small and large communities, our country, religion, the Lord's realm, and most of all, the Lord himself. All of these are our neighbor, so we should do good things for them out of love.

Living as we do in a rather individualistic society, when we hear the word "neighbor," we tend to think of individual people.

But as Swedenborg points out, the word "neighbor" has broader and broader meanings as we move from individual human beings to the community, to the country, and even, these days, to the entire world. And it has both broader and deeper meanings as we move on from civil society to spiritual society: to people's religious faith, and to the Lord's kingdom throughout the earth--which we as Swedenborgians believe extends to people of all faiths who love God and live by the good teachings of their religion. And of course, God is our highest neighbor, and God's presence in all people and in all things is the neighbor in the broadest sense of all.

What does this teaching mean? And what does it do for us?

It means that if we are loving and serving the people right around us, that is good--but it is only the beginning of living a truly charitable life. This teaching calls us to move beyond the people closest to us, and extend our love and charity to those more distant from us--to people we may not know or appreciate at all.

If we think about it, this idea is contained right in the parable itself. As has been pointed out many times, the Samaritans were considered anything but neighbors by the largely Jewish audience who heard Jesus speak the parable. The Samaritans were hated and despised foreigners--people to be scorned, not people to be loved. And Jesus taught this highly resistant crowd that even those outcast foreigners can both love and be loved. The parable pushes the boundaries of our love and charity beyond our family, our friends, our co-workers, our customers, to those in other communities and other nations.

In today's geopolitical environment, this would mean that as Americans, Jesus is commanding us to see the good in the Iraqis, the Iranians, and the North Koreans. Jesus is commanding us to think of them as our neighbor, and seek ways to do good for them, just as the Samaritan in the parable did good for the man who fell into the hands of robbers. (And his hearers would naturally have thought of that poor man as a Jew like themselves.)

Both the Bible and the teachings of our church call us to broaden our concept of the neighbor, to broaden the boundaries of our hearts, to these higher levels of the neighbor.

If we have learned to love and serve our individual neighbor, perhaps it is time to start thinking about our community and its good. Perhaps it is time to put some of our knowledge and skills to work making our community a better place to live.

If we have done this--have gotten involved in our community and its concerns, and served on that level, then perhaps it is time to broaden our charitable action still further, and think of what we can do to serve our nation and its good. There are many opportunities.

And if our thinking and our loyalty and service already extends to our nation, then perhaps it is time to stretch our hearts still further to the church and to the Lord's kingdom on earth--to people of all faiths throughout the world--even those whose religion we don't particularly understand or appreciate. What can we do to serve those whose beliefs and lives are very different from our own?

And of course, the highest meaning of loving our neighbor is to love the Lord above all, and to seek out and cherish the Lord's presence everywhere we can find it. This means looking for the good and the truth in everyone around us, at all levels. It means bringing out the best in our own children and grandchildren, and it also means seeing and bringing out the best in those we may think of as our enemies around the world.

"Who is my neighbor?" the lawyer asked. Our neighbor is everyone and everything throughout the world. Because if we are willing to open our eyes to greater spiritual heights, we will find that there is good in every person, in every nation, and in every religion. Amen.



Audio Sermon

Music: Heart to Heart
1999 Bruce DeBoer

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