Neighbor Talk

Luke 10:25-37
Joyce MacKichan Walker
February 19, 2017

It’s a test. The lawyer is testing Jesus. Does Jesus know the law? “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I love that Jesus is a teacher! Books have been written about the questions Jesus asks. Questions are crucially important to teachers! And Jesus doesn’t disappoint:

“What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer is ready with his right answer (do I correctly overhear his self-righteous tone?) “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” (Nailed it!)

“Yes,” says Jesus. That’s the right answer. “Do this, and you will live.” “Do this, and you will live.” Do this. Wait. Is it more than knowing the right answer? Jesus has just made the lawyer’s right answer about the lawyer and his action. So the lawyer tries a diversion – “Who IS my neighbor?”

Did I mention I love that Jesus is a teacher? Books have been written about the stories Jesus tells in response to testy little questions. Stories are crucially important to teachers! And Jesus doesn’t disappoint. Jesus launches into a story.

Don’t for a minute imagine Jesus didn’t notice the dodge. Away from the lawyer and his own responsibility under the law to love God and neighbor. Away from what it says, and what it means, and what it means for him. Away from him and toward an intellectual exercise, an exploration of the term “neighbor.” Hmmm… Just a minute Jesus… Who IS my neighbor?

The lawyer wants a list. Instead, he gets a story. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

I have the great honor and privilege, and fun, of working with Nassau’s Mission and Outreach Committee. Many of you know I just returned from three weeks in Burma, now called Myanmar. Susan Jennings and I were visiting one of Nassau’s neighbors.

The Cetana Foundation was begun back in the late 1980s by Lois and Jack Young and friends. Lois and her siblings were missionary kids in Burma and when things took a disastrous turn – in politics and prosperity and development and education – Burmese friends asked Lois and her siblings to help. Cetana was born – spelled with a T, said with a D, and meaning, “To serve without expecting anything in return.” In essence, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So I have a story – about our “neighbor.” Neighbors, really, in the hills of western Burma, in Chin state, is the little village of Kanpelet.

Actually, Kanpelet IS a hill. Houses rest on either side of a narrow road that winds around the edge of the mountain on its descent, threading its way down the hill through the small village. The road carries mostly walkers and mopeds, with an occasional vehicle. The rule for vehicles is blow your horn repeatedly before you go around a curve, so that what you can’t see speeding toward you knows you’re coming. The houses on the drop-off side of the road sit front edge on the shoulder, and back edge on stilts, the bottom of which you can’t see when you’re driving. But they connect someplace down there to what you fervently hope is the proverbial rock foundation! Young children play beside the road, or on it, and the older ones run down the hill to the government school. There, often without books, they sit in rows and recite in unison what the teacher has copied from a book onto the chalkboard. English is now taught in this school but because a military coup in the 1960s resulted in no English teaching for about 40 years, English speaking teachers are hard to come by.

Cetana, loving without expecting anything in return, sees a neighbor – children and teachers who need to learn English to thrive in a country that depends on English for economic recovery and redevelopment, for jobs, for the return of a credible public education that positions the Myanmar people back in conversation with their Asian world and the world at large.

In 2014, Nassau became a significant financial partner of Cetana in order to expand Cetana’s then nearly 20 year commitment to empowering education in Burma/Myanmar. Specifically, the gift was earmarked “to open a new learning center.” Kanpelet is that center.

In the early morning we subjected our knees to that steep downhill descent, awakening muscles we never knew existed. We weren’t entirely sure of the way but we knew we’d encounter children who did. “Don’t lose sight of the children – they know the short-cuts!” advised Janet Powers. Janet is a retired English as a Second Language Professor who has taught all over the world and will volunteer for Cetana as it prepares to launch this new center. Janet is Cetana’s ace-in-the-hole for Kanpelet.

We were on our way to meet the principal and observe some English teaching classes. The night before, we shared what felt like a sacred meal with the school teachers around outdoor tables by a campfire. Sue and I packed, and were very grateful for, long underwear, scarves, down jackets and mittens. The teachers met us in colorful hand-knitted hats – truly remarkable, and traditional longis – beautifully patterned long skirts that cross over and wrap around for women, or knot and tuck in the front for men. Questions and answers flew as Janet wondered how in the world she would prepare to teach English, especially the speaking of it, to this eager, but very diversely knowledgeable and conversant group!

When we finally reached the school, our first conversation was with the competent and passionate principal who desperately wants his teachers and children to learn both grammatical and conversational English. Then we visited classes and watched the teachers valiantly attempt to teach a language they’ve hardly heard spoken. We talked with students whose nervous laughter about their attempts to answer a question in English, their third language, barely covered our embarrassment that we knew no Burmese and no Chin!

Janet spent all day Saturday of that week with those same teachers – listening carefully and getting a sense of the novice to more experienced language diversity she will engage. Janet will return to Kanpelet in April to spend a whole month of their summer break with these neighbors. Cetana knows from experience that the Director/Teacher of a learning center has to be from the area where the school is located, and it has already identified that all-important local person. Mama Hleih is from Chin state, and has a Master of Divinity degree from the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon. Mana will join these teachers in April, go for additional training in teaching English as a Second Language in Thailand, then spend a term observing and teaching at Cetana’s school in Yangon. Be the time he returns to his home state, Chin, and to Kanpelet, he will be ready to lay the groundwork for Cetana’s new learning center there. Nassau’s gift empowers this love of neighbor partnership, with no expectation of return.

Chenault Spence, the chair of Cetana’s board and a New York City resident, was with us in Kanpelet and also at the Center in Yangon. He has the long view on Cetana’s future with this new neighbor:

“With all programs of this sort, sustainability enters the discussion from the conception. Cetana feels fortunate that it has been able to do this work in one of the poorest areas of the country. That means it will continue to require that almost the entire expense be subsidized. This is not considered a burden but an opportunity to serve those who are most in need. I think of the children from the town, and the near orphanage [that will benefit from the English classes] leading treks up Nat Ma Taung (Mount Victoria, the tallest local mountain ), coming home to look up on the internet the name of the new bird that was spotted, and knowing how to pronounce it by seeing how it is spelled.”

Jesus tells the lawyer about a man who fell into the hands of robbers, was stripped and beaten and left for dead. This man, surely he is a neighbor to be loved. Surely the lawyer is listening intently, getting ready with the right answer again – the neighbor in need is the one who is wounded and abandoned to die. The lawyer has the first one – the beginning of the list. If our minds have been racing ahead, we might already be adding our own examples of neighbors – refugees, immigrants, starving children, the jobless, the homeless, the poor, the incarcerated, the ones with cancer, the grieving and lonely and forsaken and forgotten. We have some right answers of our own.

But Jesus doesn’t give the lawyer an opportunity to get there. Nor us. Instead of asking the logical question, “So Mr. Lawyer, who’s the neighbor to love in this story? Jesus instead asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Not who was loved, but who loved. And before he has time to notice the turn, the lawyer answers the new question. “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer says.

And he’s right back where he started. As are we. Not getting a list of neighbors who are worthy of love, a list we could probably argue about until the kingdom comes. And are! Not, so love these neighbors… 1, 2, 3. But the command to be the one who loves. You love your neighbor as yourself. You do that. And you will live.

The story is done. The discussion is over. Jesus has the last word, “Go and do likewise. You be the neighbor. You be the one who loves unconditionally. You be the one who shows mercy and compassion and empathy in all situations – no descriptors necessary. You go and do likewise.

I got back from Burma/Myanmar on Monday January 30 and walked into the church around 1:15 p.m. After about 35 hours of travelling I was jet-lagged, I needed a shower, and I kept thinking about what three weeks of emails was going to look like when I hit “open.” But the first things I saw as I headed toward my office were your cards on the Great Wall. And the banner, “I feel like I am doing God’s work when I … .” And I stopped to read. Neighbor after neighbor after neighbor named. But named by ones who are going and doing; who have gone and done; who will go and do because Jesus sends us to love our neighbor:

I feel like I am doing God’s work when I …

  • Teach high school moms the art of sewing
  • Help someone who is trying to recover from addictions to substances
  • Work at our Appalachian service project
  • Serve meals at the soup kitchen
  • Speak out for justice and walk in love’s path
  • Recognize God in others …especially when the person is ignored or shunned
  • Meet a refugee family at the airport
  • Help a person with projects at school since she only speaks Chinese
  • Treat others the way I want to be treated and say good things
  • Smile even with tears, listen to one who doesn’t agree with me, pray both in stress and in happiness
  • Help friends find the path God calls them to
  • Stand for justice with Westminster Church in Trenton
  • Perceive or convey the image of God to others
  • Visit someone who is bereaved
  • Sew with the Interfaith Stitchers

All neighbors. All neighbors in this congregation who go and do likewise. Thanks be to God!

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