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Being Neighborly

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I can’t wait for Halloween this year!  Costumes for the boys, check.  Mom and Dad coordinated costumes, check.  Candy to give out, check.

Here’s one of the most exciting parts for me:  for the first Halloween in six years, we have neighbors.  So often I have preached about neighbors, biblical challenges to be neighborly and love one’s neighbor, and I have not had to “practice what I preached.”  Sort of.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved living in a parsonage and have always had a wide view of neighbor that included not only actual neighbors, but also church members, community members, friends, staff of local businesses and (most recently) residents of a close-by assisted living facility.

So in a broad sense, I did have neighbors.  But in a more traditional sense, this year is the first year my kids and I will ring the doorbells next door and across the street and down the block.  And those doorbells will actually be on a street we live on instead of a friend’s street in a neighborhood we don’t know.

The whole family is excited, frankly.  The boys have neighborhood buddies they’ve met on the bus.  My husband and I are getting to know the families across the street.  We’ve even met a family at the gym who lives two streets over.  (Every time I see the dad there, even though I do know his name, I call out, “Hey, neighbor!”  It just doesn’t get old.)

And what better day to “practice” being neighborly than Halloween?  I saw it on an old high school friend’s FB page one time and her thoughts rang so true:  Halloween is one of the only times of the year when we actually open our doors to strangers, when we get excited to see who’s knocking, and when we welcome those strangers with gifts (treats) and smiles.  We are warm, we are inviting, we are happy to greet those strangers– dressed as all manner of outcasts from zombies to vampires to superheroes to Muppets (that’s us this year!)

On Halloween, Darth Vader and Yoda can walk side by side around the neighborhood.  When Batman and the Joker see one another on opposite sides of the street, squeals of delight usually ensue.  Princesses, kings and queens, fairies, and robots–heck, even angels and devils–find community and camaraderie in the shared goal of filling their bags with treats.  Parents and grandparents and designated grown-ups of all types nod knowingly and smile at one another.  It’s magical.  There’s not another day of the year quite like it.  And here’s the awesome thing– all that diversity, sworn enemies invading the same streets for candy, and I’ve never seen a protester with any kind of a sign saying, “God hates Miss Piggy.”  Nope, not one, ever.

My illustration is getting a little heavy-handed, but you get the idea.  If only… we could be as warm and welcoming and inclusive (and celebratory) of difference on the other 364 days of the year.  Then we might begin to scratch the surface of what it truly means to be a neighbor.

Separated from God? No More!

A belated Easter sermon, excerpted:

Now, let us think for a moment how this scripture from the Gospel of Mark ends—the women run away, terrified.  They were afraid.  Afraid.  That’s it?  It’s finished?  There’s nothing more to the story?  They were scared and ran off?

As I thought about the end of his life, I couldn’t help but think about the beginning of Jesus’ life as well—there’s another passage we read at Christmas, one of the birth stories from Luke this time, that talks of the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds.  After hearing and seeing angelic beings all around them, the shepherds had the most logical of reactions—they were terrified, “sore afraid” says the Charlie Brown version from King James.

In our love of Jesus, in our desire to make Jesus “accessible” to all of those who do not know him, we usually focus on the fact that he was welcoming and loving and kind and gentle—just think for a moment of all the words you might use to describe Jesus to someone who did not have a relationship with him.

Yet when we look at the beginning and the ending of his life, we see that folks were afraid. Afraid.  They were afraid at this birth, and here at his resurrection they are afraid again.

Why, I would ask, why fear?  Is Jesus terrifying?  Should we fear him?  Not just the shepherds and the women at the tomb… but I think if we looked deep into our own hearts we might find some of that same fear when it comes to the realities we are called to proclaim at Christmas and Easter.

See, these are the times of the year when we ask you “get real” with Jesus—when Christ is born, we aren’t just having a baby shower every year at Advent and Christmas, we are proclaiming that God was born flesh to live among us, to know us, experience our humanity, and to save us.  We proclaim at Christmas the wonder of the incarnation—that Christ can live in you, too.  And it’s wonderful, but if we take it seriously, it can be a little scary.

Here at Easter, we proclaim that Christ, who took on humanity and who took on the weight of humanity’s sin, stepped into the gap of separation between us and our Creator and said NO MORE!  This rift, this torn relationship cannot continue any longer.  Easter says that we are NO MORE separated from God, that the Christ who lives within us lives forever more and invites us—me and you and everyone here—to share in that eternal life, to share in that unconditional grace and love.

We say it at Christmas, too—but maybe we all get distracted by the thought of the baby—when we take these truths seriously, when we do more than celebrate Easter, when we do more than celebrate the resurrection, when we actually claim it and live it in our lives, when we let it shape us and mold us and change us, when we understand that we are no longer bound by sin, when we get in our heads that God loved us just that much, that death and sin will not have the final word in our lives and that because Christ lives in us RIGHT NOW our lives can be different, RIGHT NOW our lives can be changed—when we do this, when we take this truth seriously, when we understand it is not just a truth OUT THERE but a truth IN HERE, in my life and in your life, then it IS scary!

It is scary when we hear these words not as a story but as a truth for our lives.  When we understand this is a living text that leaps off the page and speaks to us right now, right where we are, needing love and forgiveness and grace and welcome.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life:  to know Jesus is to know resurrection in your life, it is to know the possibility of change and new life… but it also is to know death.  Resurrection is an invitation to transformation—not when you die, not only when we die, but RIGHT NOW!  This is the power of what happened to Jesus two thousand years ago—this is why our God is so awesome, and this is what most Christians don’t understand.  Or don’t really believe.  Or maybe don’t want.

We don’t want to change.  We don’t want to be different.  Because change and difference in our lives are uncomfortable and scary and sound like way too much work!  We don’t want to ask ourselves the tough question I’m going to ask right now, the one God asks all the time:  what in our lives need to die for us to know God more closely?  What in our lives needs to die for us to walk transformed in Christ?

Easter is scary, and it asks us to be willing to take the risk of change.  Yet we know that it will be life-affirming, we know it will be healing, we know it will be joyous, we know it will bring us to wholeness, we know it will bring us a feeling of completeness and love and mercy we have never known before…

Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and we can be raised too, if we only let go and accept God’s invitation to transformation.  And of course there is fear and trembling along the way—we felt that fear yesterday and the days before… we know we can overcome those things because we stand here today in joy.

We know the invitation, we know the fear, and friends we also must be honest about the need.  We as individuals and we as a church NEED new life, we need to be changed, to be transformed, to be made whole again.  As I said when I started, I need resurrection.  I need Easter.  And let me say it really really clearly—I need to not just talk about it and preach about it and celebrate it and KEEP IT AT ARM’S DISTANCE, I need to make it real in my life, I need to live it and let it change me.

Today, my friends, let this Easter morning be different.  Let us be honest in the face of our fears.  Let us be honest in our hesitation and our habit of keeping change, real change at an arm’s distance away.  It’s time.  It’s time to stop being afraid, it’s time to change our posture, to open our hand and open our heart and, even though it’s scary, live EASTER.  LIVE resurrection.  Let God come into your life and make a difference because he lives!  Amen!