Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In small towns across America, the Fourth of July is a special celebration. It is the day when the town’s sons and daughters return to their place of birth to be reminded of their core beliefs and values. It is where one can still experience true home spun Americana, flag waving and the excitement of children wrestling for tossed candy. We often return to my former parish in Marine on St. Croix on the Fourth of July for the 12:00 noon children’s parade. It is not a long parade; sometimes no more than 10 minutes long. At 12:00 the town whistle blows and the children are off for the two block ride from one end of the main street to the other. The children decorate their bicycles and tricycles. Some parents walk along with baby buggies and strollers: Yes, all decorated in red, white and blue. The tiny parade is a promise that there is a future ahead for that small town. When the children’s parade is complete, the Boy Scouts carrying a flag, a marching band, the volunteer fire department, a few antique cars, and an occasional politician follow. It is short and sweet. And there is a sense of America at its best – neighbors being good to one another.
I know that many people fear that the essential and authentic America is disappearing- even in small towns and villages. Let me assure you, that the American spirit is not fading, but like so many important values and beliefs it must be nurtured, coddled and protected. In 1775, the young American statesman Thomas Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world all over again. A situation similar to the present, hath not appeared since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.” And that work must continue now in our day and age. It continues here in the community where you live, where you work and where you worship. It begins by being a good neighbor.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus highlighted three characteristics of a good neighbor. It is how we learn to care for one another. It is where I believe we discover the best and greatest of our American heritage.
First of all, Jesus taught that to be a good neighbor you must help a man even when he has brought his trouble on himself, as the traveler did along the barren way. The American poet Robert Frost wrote a lovely poem called “Mending Wall.” The poem is about two neighbors, meeting one day in the springtime and walking together on either side of the wall, made of fieldstones that separate their two farms. Walking together they repair the wall as they go, replacing the stones that had fallen out during the winter. One neighbor loves the wall; he appreciates the wall and says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” It is the most familiar line that everyone remembers. Oddly, it’s not the point of the poem. The other neighbor has another vision. He sees that the wall may be useful for defining who we are, and even help us establish who we are and who we aspire to be. He agrees that fences may offer protection and security, but they can also block any meaningful relationship with neighbors. He asks, “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.” Frost’s poem is often misused, “Good fences may make good neighbors” may be true, but fences he would add make for miserable communities. Good neighbors know that walls cannot separate them from a neighbor’s need.
When I was serving in a parish in Hopkins at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, the receptionist left me a message to visit a woman who had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was not a member of our congregation and had only recently moved to the community. Her days, however, were numbered and she was angry. She had two affairs; she had abandoned her children. Her life and legacy was a mess. The only person who had remained loyal to her was her third husband. At the end of her visit, I promised that I would continue to visit her, and that I would ask the callers of our Telephone Ministry to contact her husband. And they did. After a very sensitive and meaningful conversation the husband said to the caller, “Why is your Church doing this for us? We’re complete strangers.” The telephone ministry caller simply responded, “There are no strangers at our church- only friends we haven’t met yet.” Fences and walls are convenient obstacles. But my friends, the story of the Good Samaritan reminds us: good neighbors reach out and show pity –even on the man who has brought pain upon himself. The same is true for our nation. America is at its best and greatest when it is a good neighbor helping and aiding those in need.
Second, Jesus taught that instead of walls, that good neighbors should build bridges. You and I we experience the best of America when we build bridges in our community. James Bender, in his book “How to Talk Well” relates the story of a farmer who grew award-winning corn. Each year the farmer entered his corn in the state fair where it won a blue ribbon. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned something interesting about how he grew it. The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors. Surprised, the reporter asked, “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” The farmer answered, “Why sir, didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.” The farmer understood the connectedness of life. His prize-winning corn could not have improved unless his neighbor’s corn also improved. Those who choose to be happy must help others to find happiness, for the welfare of each is bound up with the welfare of all. If we are to grow good corn, we must help our neighbors grow good corn. We must build bridges. As Americans, building bridges for the betterment of our neighbors is just as important. The story of the good Samaritan reminds us that our help and aid must be as wide as the love of God.
When we were serving in Latvia, immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union, our church was a unique gathering place. People came for the worship to be sure. Others came for the common English language. But if I am truly honest, many came for the gospel, and stayed for the coffee. Coffee was important to the life of the congregation. And we prided ourselves on the best coffee in town. It wasn’t Starbucks, Dunn Brothers or even good Lutheran Church basement egg coffee. We had the only percolator in all of Latvia. Unchurched neighbors came to church. But it wasn’t just the coffee. When I asked one of the elderly Latvian parishioners why she worshiped in the English speaking church, she answered in her broken English. “Because it’s democratic.” I inquisitively asked, “What do you mean?” She answered proudly, “The American Ambassador’s wife served me coffee this morning. This would never happen in the Soviet Union.” Yes, she was a diplomatic, good Samaritan with a coffee pot in hand. She was a good neighbor building bridges on behalf of the church. But she was demonstrating that America is at its best and greatest when it is a good neighbor building bridges around the world.
Finally, Jesus taught that to be a good neighbor that what you offer must be practical and not consist merely in feeling sorry. Immediately after World War II, the Allied armies gathered up many hungry, homeless children and placed them in large camps. There they abundantly fed and took care of the children. However, at night the children did not sleep well. They seemed restless and afraid. Finally, a psychologist hit upon a solution. When they put the children to bed, they each received a slice of bread to hold. If they wanted more to eat, more was provided. This special slice was not to be eaten — it was just to hold. The slice of bread produced marvelous results. The children went to sleep, subconsciously feeling that they would have something to eat tomorrow. That assurance gave the children a calm and peaceful rest. They offered more than what was needed, they offered the assurance that they would be there tomorrow. America was a good neighbor to those in need.
The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us that in order for Christian compassion to be real, it must go forth in practical deeds. The Good Samaritan cleansed the wounds of the beaten man; he carried him on his own beast to the inn, and then offered to pay his other expenses as well. It is a lesson that begins in our own community. It is what Jesus has done for you, and continues to do for you everyday. When you head out alone on life’s treacherous path disregarding common sense, he follows you. When you head alone unaware of the dangers, he does not leave you. When you head out alone and are struck down by your own folly, he picks you up like a Good Samaritan from the roadside, and carries you to a place where you may be made whole again. He knows your need, and comes you as a Good Neighbor. “Come to me, all who are tired and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Of course, even some of life’s most important lessons may be misunderstood along the way. Whether it is the meaning of America or a story from the Bible. There was the Sunday School teacher who was describing how Lot’s wife looked back to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and turned into a pillar of salt, when little Johnny interrupted, “My Mommy looked back once, while she was driving,” he announced triumphantly, “and she turned into a telephone pole!”
But my friends, it is this lesson of America- that our nation above all is at its best and greatest when it is a good neighbor- that I have grown to love and honor, and have chosen to share with my sons and to embody as a missionary in Europe. And it is lesson that begins in our own backyard. For it is here own community that our children learn to build bridges instead of fences and show compassion for those in need. This is the America that I have tried to teach my children –to be a good neighbor. That’s America to me. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understating keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.