The first Christians I really, really met were my co-workers at this beautiful little café in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood called Neighborhoods. It was behind my apartment and I became a regular when I realized they had gluten free crepes because I am obsessed with crepes. They also have amazing coffee that is expensive but it’s organically and ethically sourced so it’s worth it. I needed a job desperately in my senior year of college because I decided to move off campus with my boyfriend into an apartment I had no way to pay for. Neighborhoods was my first stop, I spoke to the cute barista boy at the front who told me they weren’t hiring but I could email this person and let her know my qualifications. Done! I had a job a few days later and my first shift was with the cute barista boy and I almost had a heart attack when I said something that made him laugh. My next shift I learned what seminary was from a boy who was getting ready to go and he was pumped. I had no idea what that was but he patiently explained it to me and then told me that he really just wanted to spread the love of Christ. See previous blog post, this was a red flag but this guy was genuine and patient and he had an awesome beard. My third shift I met the two girls who would be my rocks for the next two years. My boss was the most beautiful soul I have ever worked for and with. I have so much I could say about this little holy place, full of vibrant colors and quiet conversations. I worked there a year and a half and in that time I believe I was the closest I had been, so far, to God. It really is in each other that we find the love of Christ. When we come to understand how much we are loved, truly loved, by the people around us only then are we able to even approach the love Christ has for us. This place became my refuge, a place where I sought shelter, I sought asylum and safety and it became a sanctuary for the holiest moments of my life. I was given more than I ever asked for or thought I needed.
This last week, while I was writing this piece, my bible study went through the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25 – 37) and the more I think on it the more it blooms in front of me and brings me back to the first moments I was aware of the Holy Spirit working in my life. The question the lawyer asks, “and who is my neighbor”. Does he think we can pick and choose? Does he think we can sit in the seat of judgment and decide who is worthy of our love only second to God? To even ask the question implies the naïve hope on the part of the lawyer that perhaps this is a term that can be negotiated. I love the word “neighbor”. The literal definition of the word is “to be situated next to or very near another”. To be a neighbor, at its purest, is to just be near someone. No mention of like-mindedness, similar skin tones or comparable religious practices in that definition. In this parable, the Samaritan man is the neighbor, the people who, just a chapter before (Luke 9:51 – 56), rejected Jesus. So any presupposition we have about a neighbor being someone who is like us, seems to crumble under the symbolic weight of this story. It crumbles under the point Jesus is making. We all receive the burden and the delight of qualifying as a neighbor. So why do we keep asking this question? Who is my neighbor? Do you see where I’m going with this? We seek to justify ourselves, always, just like the lawyer in the parable, in the face of a God who sees through us.
I know there exists a wealth of examples here to point to, throughout human existence, but we really should look no further than the current political climate, not just in the United States but also across the globe. Like the lawyer we are negotiating and legislating who we want our neighbors to be, from the microcosms of every day living all the way to the global stage. Deep down we know we live in the grips of fear, and we turn our neighbors into our enemies to justify the way we give the things Christ has given us. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts our fear […] we love God because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4: 18 – 21). Thank Christ that his Grace covers us because we cannot seem to quit negotiating the terms by which we live with that truth. What a gift, to be commanded to live in a constant posture of love. We should meditate on the way we seek to justify who is our neighbor and who is not, let us seek not to twist the simple commandment to love as you are so loved.
The parable of the Good Samaritan also called me to see the way Jesus treats this man, a man who is seeking to debate and negotiate. Can we appreciate the irony that this dude is an “expert in the law” and yet he is seeking to debate Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12: 2). I really cannot help but see all the Facebook and Twitter debates flash before my eyes. Maybe that's an idea to chew on before you jump in the fray of a 64 comment deep thread, how can you posture yourself like Christ in that moment? There is beauty in the simplicity of this interaction with Jesus. What is written in the law and how do you read it? Tell me what you think, how do you understand what you know of the law. Jesus ignores the bait and casts his own line and he makes him answer his own questions. Sneaky! You have answered correctly, now go and do… I have a suspicion that this should feel like an indictment of the way we approach our neighbors who don’t necessarily see the world we do.
That brings me back to Neighborhoods; a place nestled in the heart of the Fenway neighborhood in metropolitan Boston. This is a place where these most important commandments are lived and breathed and worked out in the every day moments, amongst each other. It was my first church, like the Island of the Lost Toys, we were all ragamuffins stumbling our way through the ups and downs, meeting each other at vastly different junctures in our lives. I never wanted to be a Christian, I never wanted to believe in God and I never realized the way He was working in my life. I believe that the Holy Spirit led us all to this place where we could witness the walk of the people around us who lived the gospel everyday in a way that we could not ignore. It was not until I was at my lowest point, my last day in Boston I literally locked myself out of my apartment and sought actual refuge at Neighborhoods, and that night it hit me where I had been and what I had experienced. The love I received was beyond anything I ever thought I deserved. How appropriate really; the idea that there is perfect love we cannot earn but are freely given should flip the world upside-down. I never would have found God outside of a place like this. My hardened heart never would have opened enough to a pastor or a peer telling me what I ought to believe. It was in a place where we hardly ever spoke about God directly, a place where I felt sheltered enough to be vulnerable. I felt loved enough to let the ugly out in the open and to lay bare the pieces of me that I did not think were worthy. What I received was not a scripture verse and it was not a parable, it was simply love and hope and guidance that went beyond anything we had in common on this earth.
Neighbors, come one come all. Be here, be safe and know how much you are loved. Have a warm drink, a warm meal and tell us about who you are. For whatever you are seeking, we are here. If nothing else, let us be a roof over your head to shield you from the storms of life. Let us strive to open our arms and our doors and in doing so cast out any fear that would cut us off from the perfect love we are freely given. We should cast our neighbor net wide and be better, be the kind of neighbor that sees a neighbor in everyone. In all honesty, we really should strive to be the kind of neighbor Mr. Rogers taught us about, the kind that asks "will you be my neighbor?".