Monday, October 27, 2008

Black and White and Red all over

What is black and white and red all over?
-A newspaper.-
Ha, ha.

So that joke isn't really funny. But neither is what I'm actually talking about.

Our sermon yesterday was on loving your neighbor. Most of you know that we have moved into our neighborhood to do just that in the most literal sense imaginable. We chose this "downwardly mobile" path into the economically, spiritually, and educationally depressed part of Muncie along with 10 other families in order to get to know and love the people who would be our neighbors here. So far, we know the man next door fairly well. He's an avid gardener who has been down on his luck for many years and is now in his 50's. We had him over for cake on his birthday last year and for meals sporadically. We prayed diligently for him when we found out we were friends with his son (and daughter-in-law and grandson), from whom he had been estranged for years and did all we could to facilitate their renewed relationship. We receive all kinds of gifts from him in the form of vegetables and do what we can to give back to him. Loving our neighbor? Check!

But that's not the end of it. Because he is not our only neighbor. We also have a couple with two little girls across the street with whom we have had the opportunity to become friends over the past year and a half or two. This year we went to the guy's birthday party and to the baby shower for their newest daughter. Pat even helped him land a job with his cleaning company when he got laid off. But we haven't had them come to our side of the street yet. This is because there is a lot to cross in that street. And that is because this family is black. And we're white.

When Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, the moral of the story was more than, "Be the nice person who is always willing to help someone in need." There were two races involved here: the Jews and the Samaritans (who were half-Jew and half-not-Jew and were hated because of it). Jesus told the story because a Jewish man, seeking to justify his "love of his neighbor," asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" The answer to this is of the highest importance, because Jesus tells us that loving God and our neighbor is what all "religion" should boil down to and that if we do not love our neighbor, we cannot say we love God. So it's pretty important that those of us who claim to love God get this right. In answer to, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan. It's the story of a man who gets beaten and robbed and left for dead. Two religious Jewish men pass by, while a Samaritan tends to the man's wounds and pays to have him stay somewhere safe for awhile. Jesus asks the Jewish man a question in return: "Who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The Jewish man answered, "The one who had mercy on him." He did not say, "the Samaritan," but that's who it was. The Samaritan -- the one least like him and who his culture treated with no dignity -- was the neighbor.

It is not always easy for me to love people like me. I could spend my whole life just trying to love the people who are my friends and still fail miserably. But trying to love the person most unlike me? I find it hard to even strike up a superficial conversation. I don't think I hate the people who are most unlike me. I do a nice middle-class thing and just don't love or hate them; I avoid them. That's pretty neutral ground, right? How can you un-love someone you never spend time with? But what I was reminded of is that not spending time with those unlike me is me not loving them. I'm pretending they don't exist. And isn't that the worst? Isn't that what the two religious men in the story did? neighbors. They are good people. We actually like them. But they're not like us. And that can be intimidating. We finally invited them to come over and play dominioes this week, but it's taken us this long to extend the invitation. I've been afraid of making a complete fool of myself. I've racked my brain trying to think of anything we have in common to do, but thought there was nothing. Our skin is different and so are our cultures, even though we live in the same neighborhood and have grown up in the same country. I don't listen to the same kind of music they do. I don't use the same lingo. There are tons of hidden rules from our cultures that we're not aware of and we will step all over them without knowing it. (I've been reading a book by Ruby Payne that helps teach me what they are, though....things like everyone talking at once is not rude and the T.V. being loud is just the expected thing in a house. But man, do I value my sort of orderliness and peace and quiet!) There are plenty of little things I'll have to compromise on or be flexible with and forgiving and apologetic about if I'm going to have any sort of meaningful love for my black, across-the-street neighbors. And they'll have to accept me and my cultural weirdness, too. I mean, what if they come over and think my nerdy sense of humor is lame and that I'm just really boring? What if I'm overly-sensitive about the race issue? What if we never talk about it at all? How would we really be friends, since race plays SUCH a role in Muncie, without talking about it? But what is there to say? ...Maybe we'll all just be really into dominoes. What then? Dinner? They don't like vegetables! What'll I ever make for them?

These sound like stupid little things: what we like to eat, how we carry on conversation, what kind of music (if any) we keep going in our house all day, what style of clothes we wear, what we think is funny, what kind of atmosphere is familiar and comfortable for us. But these are the sorts of things that are hard to give up for friendship. We want our neighborliness to be comfortable. I mean, who wants to go do things and have conversations that feel awkward and easily offensive? Isn't it just easier to avoid those sorts of things?

And that's the problem. Jesus came to make a body on this earth that would represent Him. And he was pretty plain that it was to cross lines of race and money and gender and age -- things that keep us apart so easily. But if His body doesn't look like that, then it doesn't represent Him well. If the gospel we preach isn't strong enough to bond people with light skin to people with dark skin, then it surely isn't strong enough to bond crooked human beings to a Holy God. What kind of gospel are we preaching, after all?

We're here to create, in the most blunt of terms, a church that is black and white and red all over. We want our representation of Jesus to look like he meant for it to look: people who have not historically liked each other coming together under the blood of Christ. But, though some lines of financial means are slowly being crossed (and it is very hard to be friends with someone who has significantly more or less money than you do...), the race issue is proving tricky here. There is not a single church around here (and probably not in your town, either,) where blacks and whites worship together. Our church is hoping to change that, but it takes a long time to tear down walls that have been up for so long, both in our personal lives and in our racially-charged community. (Did you know Federal mediators had to come to Muncie last year just to re-name a prominent street near a black part of town Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.?) It took someone giving his life blood to make it possible and it will take us and many others laying down our lives for others to really see what He did.

Please pray for our church as we look for ways to truly partner with some African-American leaders to help heal the wounds in our community. We have a diverse generation of kids who we are discipling to be the leaders of this community in 10-15 years, but we would love it if the leadership of our church was more diverse before then. We know this will take sacrifice on our part to give up things we have had control of and it will take sacrifice on the part of whoever joins us to put up with us as we learn how to give up that control.
Pray that we (Pat and I and the other families in our church) will be good neighbors to the people around us who are not like us. It so often seems like we can't even keep tabs on each other very well, and we could easily become a church where all we do is take care of the people who started it, but if we are to really do what we all know God brought us here to do, we have to begin the slow, hard work of really getting to know and love the people into whose neighborhood we moved.
Pray for some black leadership so that we can show that the difference between our families and the families of the kids we know is not primarily a difference of white and black, or middle- and lower- class upbringing, but of having Jesus and not having Jesus. (It's just that the people who lead the church right now all happen to be white people from the middle class...and we will not have done our job until that changes.)

After all, if we can't show a gospel that bonds us together with our neighbors, we can't show a gospel worth having at all.

No comments: