The Fear Factor (The Art of Neighboring)

These thoughts were offered at Franklin United Methodist Church on Sunday, January 27, 2019. This message was based upon a reading from Luke 5:27-32.  This  message is part of a series, based upon the book, The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon,
     I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group. You can download it here.

My partner and I snuck out while the three older kids were at school not that long ago for a lunch date at a local sushi restaurant.  Its not my favorite kind of food, but my wife enjoys it: so we went.  It was about 11:30 when we got there, the restaurant was largely empty.  We were shown our seat and given menus.

It wasn’t long before more diners began to arrive.  A very well-dressed couple was seated next to us.  There were not well-dressed in the suit and tie kind of way.  They were well-dressed in designer clothes: fancy sneakers, a shimmering-bedazzled shirt, and oversized sunglasses.  In hindsight, after we left, we wondered if they had ties to professional athletics or the movie that was being shot over in the business park that day. 

Regardless, as they were seated, Chandra and I paid little attention.  We had our noses in our menus, the couple was busy texting and playing on their phones.  We gave little recognition to each other till Avery, who I was holding, began to grunt and smile (with four small children in the house, going out to lunch with just one is a treat!).  While I had been busy minding my own business, my infant daughter had been “making friends” with the person sitting next to us.  I tried to get her attention with a rattle.  “Stop staring,” Chandra whispered under her breath to Avery.  Nothing worked.  And, it didn’t help that the person had noticed and had begun to laugh and smile back.  She was making a friend.

Far from an isolated incident, I’ve found this to be true with all our children: they are much better at making friends than I am.  They are seemingly fearless in their quest to know the people around them.

But, something happens when they get older.  It happened to you and me: as we got older, it became harder to make friends.  Why, I wonder.

Why do you think it is harder to make friends as an adult than it is for children?  What changes as we get older?

I’m not convinced that the world around is what changes as much as our assumptions about that world.  As we learn more about the world around us, as our view broadens as an adult, we begin make assumptions about why people are the way we are.  We become presumptuous, suspicious even.

Perhaps [write Pathak and Runyon in The Art of Neighboring] there’s a man who lives alone on your block.  And for some reason, you’ve always had an uncomfortable feeling whenever you see him.

Maybe there are kids in your neighborhood who are about the same age as yours.  But you know that their parents don’t have the same values as you do, and you feel a bit uneasy every time your kids ask to go over there and play.

How about the house on your block where nobody ever seems to be home?  It’s not abandoned; it’s just that no one is ever there.  You wonder what in the world is wrong with those people.

Is there a family on your block that always seems to have drama in their lives?  You can tell that they have a ton of baggage, and maybe you’re just not sure if you want to enter into their chaos.  It’s just easier to keep them at a healthy distance.

Or maybe it’s the idea of a long-term commitment.  You know that if you get to know a particular neighbor, you’re going to be in one another’s lives for years to come.  Going down to the soup kitchen one night a year is one thing, but when you get to know your neighbors, they’re always there.  There’s no getting away from them, nowhere to run and hide.[1]

What fuels our presumptions and assumptions about our neighbors?

Are there people in your neighborhood you suspect or assume things about?  Do you have any fears or concerns about the people in your neighborhood?

Jesus saw a tax collector, approached, and said, “Follow me.”  The man, his name was Levi, “got up, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 5:28, New Revised Standard Version).  Levi was so excited for the journey, so excited to follow Jesus that he wanted to tell all his friends, so he invited them all over for a big party.

It seems like such a minor point, but it is really quite huge.  Jesus isn’t the one who throws the party.  This isn’t a “we’re so glad you’re one of us now, we want to introduce you to your new friends;” no, Levi invites all his friends.  The was, the Luke records, “a large crowd of tax collectors and others” (Luke 5:19, New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added) sitting with Jesus at a table; and, this made the religious folk uneasy.  They thought they new this crowd.  They new what those people were like; and, if Jesus wanted to remain a respectable teacher in this town then that’s not the kind of people he needed to be hanging out with.  Those people will corrupt you, they must have thought.  They are sinners.  Stay away.  To which Jesus replies (I’ll paraphrase): these are my people.  These are just the one’s I need to be with.

Jesus beckons the religious folk of his day to get past their assumptions so that they can adequately love others no matter who the other is.  Christ calls us to love the other, to love the neighbor.  It is the greatest commandment and it comes with no qualifiers.

I know its hard for me to get past what I think I know to actually know my neighbors; but, this is just what it means to love them.  We must stop assuming (which, as my father is fond of saying, “just makes an ass of you and me”) and start to get to know our neighbors.

Now, just to be clear, I am

not recommending that you simply dismiss all of your fears and blindly jump into every one of your neighbors’ lives.  After all, at times our fears are valid and can save us from dangerous and unhealthy situations.  On the other hand, our fears are often unwarranted and may be obstacles to obeying the Great Commandment.  So, if we’re going to neighbor well, we must have courage to wrestle with our fears.[2]

…and overcome our assumptions.

If we are to be faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, disciples who take the Great Commandment seriously then we cannot let assumptions and fear dictate who we choose to love.  Christ calls us to love, and be a good neighbor to all (period).

[1] Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2012), p61-62.

[2] Ibid., p62.