Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Hello neighbor!

It didn’t matter who you were or where you lived, but everyone was a neighbor to Mr. Rogers.  When he would welcome you into his home and share his life with you, it came from a place of genuine love.  And he started every show with a question and an appeal – “Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor.”  He didn’t demand.  He didn’t assume.  He asked each and every day to children and adults nationwide, please won’t you be my neighbor.  Say what you want about Mister Rogers (and some people have said some pretty nasty things about him), but he was beloved by millions all over the country.  Republican and Democrat, Black and White, old and young, he had a near universal appeal that reached across cultural and generational divides.  He bridged these gaps because he tore down the walls that separated people and instead appealed to the things that bring us together.  He exhibited love and compassion and concern for people of all different types and stripes.  That’s what is needed most in the world today – that kind of love and compassion for one another where we view everyone as our neighbor.

Robert Frost got it right.

In his poem “Mending Wall” he starts out by noticing, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  And it’s true.  Despite our best efforts otherwise, there is something (i.e. God) that doesn’t love a wall.  There’s something that wants to keep breaking down those barriers that we keep building between us as if we weren’t meant to be separated one from another, but instead learn to live in this messiness we call life.  A part of the wall in the poem isn’t really necessary (“He is all pine and I am apple orchard”) but when the speaker shares that with his neighbor, he only responds, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The speaker ponders, “‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it / Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. / Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense. / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That wants it down.’”[1] We build these artificial constructs around us, these walls, that separate us without really considering why.  But the “why” is important.  Before we build a wall, whether it’s a literal fence across our Southern border or a racial divide that causes systemic racism, we need to stop and consider all the ramifications of creating these barriers between us when they aren’t meant to be there.  Who are we really protecting and why?  Or is it just an excuse to maintain the status quo? 

Over the years, we have become increasingly hostile to immigrants.

We blame them for stealing jobs and for being a drain on our society – both claims which are completely false.  Did you know that companies like Google, Uber, Nordstrom, Colgate, Sara Lee, DuPont, Pfizer and US Steel were founded by immigrants?  In fact, over half of all American startups worth $1 billion or more were founded by immigrants and provide jobs to everyday Americans across the country.[2]   But we use these allegations to justify how we treat the alien among us.  And I use that term because God makes it abundantly clear that we are supposed to care for the alien in our midst.  Numerous passages in both the Old and New Testament reinforce that very idea.  “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:16-19)”  How quickly we forget that little tidbit of information.  “For you yourselves were foreigners…”  That certainly applies to nearly everyone in America at one time or another.  And yet this same trope accusing immigrants of stealing “American” jobs keeps getting trotted out there over and over again.  It was said about the Jewish people, the Italians, the Irish, the Chinese, the Japanese, and now those fleeing persecution and poverty from our Southern border.  Again, this is another issue that those who claim to be Christian seem to embrace while conveniently forgetting about their own immigration status.  And before we reach into that bag of tricks and claim to be “legal” immigrants, I would argue that Native Americans probably don’t view it the same way. 

Christ challenges us to love our neighbor.

And he meant ALL of our neighbors.  Not just the ones living next door (which we should probably do a better job of loving also).  But those neighbors who are being persecuted both home and abroad.  Neighbors who need help whether they are in the next city or a city across the ocean, Christ challenges us to love each and every one of them.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app this morning, would you please go to Luke 10:25-37.  Luke 10:25-37.  Perhaps the most famous “love your neighbor” passage in the entire Bible – The Parable of the Good Samaritan.  We’ve heard of Good Samaritan laws.  We’ve heard of people who are selfless being referred to as Good Samaritans and this passage is where the phrase comes from.  Luke recounted this story told by Jesus to make a point – the key to eternal life is in loving your neighbor.  The key to eternal life is in loving your neighbor and Jesus was very specific about how to do that. 

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 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.’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 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. 35 The next day he took out two denarii 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.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

The one who had mercy on him.

That perhaps is the most telling line in the whole story.  Then Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.”  THIS was the key to everlasting life.  To love our neighbor like the Good Samaritan loved this man.  A total stranger who could very well have been a robber himself was helped by this Samaritan who had no obligation at all to help.  That is the level of engagement Jesus expects from those who follow him; to love your neighbor even if he doesn’t look like you, even if he doesn’t behave like you, even if in other circumstances he would look down on you.  Love your neighbor.  Had the Samaritan walked by like the priest and the Levite, no one would have thought twice.  Probably not even the victim lying there helplessly.  Samaritans were shunned by the Jews at the time.  They were thought of as heathens.  They were looked down upon.  And yet, this Samaritan not only bandaged his wounds and treated him, but then took him to a safe place and paid for his well-being.  He asked for no thanks in return.  He simply did what he knew to be right.  He loved his neighbor. 

How can we do differently?

Over the years, the Trump Administration has drastically reduced the number of refugees it has allowed into the country.  Prior to his taking office, we admitted nearly 85,000 refugees and in the midst of one of the worst refugee crises in the world, we have only reduced that number more and more each year.  The President just made his announcement that they would once again reduce the maximum number of refugees from 18,000 to 15,000 for 2021 the lowest since the refugee resettlement program began 40 years ago.[3]  Meanwhile, millions of refugees have been pouring out of Syria over the past nine years since the civil war began with hundreds of thousands having been displaced from their homes since December of last year.[4] That doesn’t include the number of refugees from countries like Sudan, Burma, and the Congo.  Last year we admitted less than 12,000 of the 18,000 cap with only 481 from Syria thanks to the travel ban.[5]  It seems ironic that a country founded on people fleeing from persecution would turn its back on the world.  How do we reconcile this with our Christian value of loving our neighbor? 

Are we the country that adheres to the principles found on the Statue of Liberty? 

The one we have taken such great pride in?  The country that proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  Or are we the country defined by Former acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli who revised that quote to read, “Give me your tired, your poor, who can stand on their own two feet and not become a public charge.”[6]  We have a moral obligation to our fellow Children of God, whether they are Christian or not, to help.  Like the Samaritan, we need to show mercy and love in times of need and this is a great time of need.  The argument that these immigrants and refugees are a drain on society is just plain false, so we have to wrestle with the fact that those who want to stem the tide of new people coming to our shores are doing so out of fear instead of any rational argument. But what have we to fear?  If we truly believe God is with us (and I don’t mean as a country, but as Christians), then to quote Paul, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (Romans 8:35)”  We cannot stand by and allow fear to conquer our spirit.  As we consider who should lead us into the next quadrennium, we need to consider this: Who is our neighbor and will we invite them in?  What would Mr. Rogers do?  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

[1] I would love to encourage you to read the poem in its entirety and ponder its meaning especially in relation to the refugee crisis of today.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2017/05/24/immigration-and-isolationism-weve-been-here-before/#374953e37f3f

[3] https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-donald-trump-politics-united-states-immigration-f76797b97e8a0b66150d0269fe4f432b

[4] https://www.unrefugees.org/news/syria-refugee-crisis-explained/#Where%20are%20Syrians%20fleeing%20to?

[5] Due to the coronavirus, admissions ground to a halt despite the need. https://www.wrapsnet.org/admissions-and-arrivals/

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49323324

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