Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘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 neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

Trump and Jesus

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Donald Trump appears to be leading the world into a time of belligerence, building walls, turning on your neighbours, and picking fights with everyone about every little thing.

People of Jesus, do not follow him in this. Our Lord is about compassion, forgiveness, caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, loving enemies and praying for those who hate us, sharing the good news of God’s love, and seeking first the Kingdom of God built by love, not the earthly empire built by force and coercion.

Let’s commit ourselves to following Jesus in loving God, our neighbours, and even our enemies.

A prime example of the hypocrisy of party politics

I work for a registered charity which is authorized to issue receipts for donations so that people can receive a tax deduction for their generosity. The more they give, the more they get back. When the federal and Alberta amounts are combined, the refund on donations over $200 is close to 50%, which is nothing to sneeze at.

However, our charity (which is a church) is, of course, strictly forbidden from engaging in partisan politics. If we were to do that, we would lose our charitable registration and would no longer be able to issue receipts to our members for tax deductions.

Does it bother me that I can’t engage in party politics in my official capacity as pastor of my church? No, not really. On the other hand, if I was working for a charity that was trying to alleviate child poverty in Canada, I might feel a little more constrained by the system. After all, child poverty can’t be solved by donations alone. To use an old illustration, if you start noticing that the river is full of drowning babies, it’s not enough to have an efficient rescue operation; sooner or later, someone needs to go upstream to find out who’s throwing them in. And the answer to that question may well have political implications. But charities aren’t allowed to go near that, or they lose their status and their ability to issue income tax receipts.

And now, behold the hypocrisy of the Canadian political system. Today I gave a donation to a Canadian political party (most of you will be able to figure out which one!). On their website, they promptly informed me that according to Canadian law, when income tax time rolls around, I will receive a tax refund equal to 75% of my donation!

That’s right, folks. Registered charities can’t get involved in party politics or they lose their ability to issue income tax receipts, but if you donate to a Canadian political party (which engages almost exclusively in party politics), you’ll get 75% of it back at income tax time. That’s over half as much again as you’d get for donating to a charity that helps to feed the poor, as long as they don’t get political about it.

You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?

Friday miscellany

First, a few pieces of absurdity for you this morning.

Driving.ca has a piece called ‘Eight Cheap Cars for the Cash Strapped Student‘. Hey, folks, if you can afford a cheap car, you’re not a cash-strapped student! Cash strapped students used to ride the bus or the train. When I was a student, the only one in my class to own a car was the son of the wealthy businessman. The rest of us walked or took the bus (or sponged rides off our friends!).

Over the Europe there’s a huge and complex refugee problem caused mainly by a lengthy civil war in Syria. Reading the Old Testament and the New Testament, it would seem that God might be concerned about this – in fact, that it would be high on his list of priorities. Meanwhile, over at ‘Thinking Anglicans’, a joyful post about the appointment of Christine Hardman as the next Bishop of Newcastle has turned into a long discussion in the comments about whether or not Conservative Evangelicals in Newcastle will be able to accept her ministry. Note: so far, no Conservative Evangelicals are taking part in this discussion.

By the way, if you want to read some stories about the real human beings who are refugees, check out this post on the Christian Peacemaker Teams website.

Over in Kentucky, of course, there’s an ongoing controversy about a devout Christian county clerk who refuses to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples because it violates her conscience; she believes that God’s plan is for marriage to be a union between one man and one woman (note: she has now gone to jail over this issue). I’m sympathetic to her view; I have reservations about same-sex marriage myself, and I’m also mindful of the fact that the government appears to have unilaterally changed the terms of her contract after hiring her. On the other hand, as has been pointed out on the internet, if a Quaker clerk refused to issue a gun licence on the grounds that it violated his or her conscientious objection to guns, I suspect that the conservative Christian community wouldn’t be jumping up and down in support. I also suspect they won’t be donating money for the legal bills of Christians who are prosecuted for war tax resistance.

Interestingly, some of the folks involved in the fight to legalize same sex marriage in the US seem to have a good sense of perspective on this incident:

“I think this is a tempest in a teapot,” said Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, which was active in the push for same-sex marriages to be recognized. “If the big backlash and the mass resistance that our opponents promised is one clerk from a county of under 25,000 people, I think we’re in very good shape.”

Now, a serious issue.

Jesus told his critics that the reason he spent time with ‘sinners’ was that it wasn’t the healthy folks that needed a doctor, but the sick. Christianity believes in grace, which is God’s love poured out generously and without reservation on all who need it, whether they deserve it or not. So Christianity isn’t supposed to be a club for those who are doing well; it’s meant to be a community for imperfect people who help each other and share the love of God with each other.

So I’m saddened by the continual realization that when some people start having struggles, they stop going to church. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons for this, and I’m not in any way wanting to judge these folks. I simply think that we in the church need to do a better job of being obviously, in the sight of the world, a community for the broken, not a club for people who have their lives all together.

Speaking of brokenness and how we deal with it, many of my friends will know how much I enjoy the CBC program ‘Heartland’. A couple of years ago Graham Wardle, who plays Ty Borden on the show, got together with another motorcycling friend to start the annual ‘Cruise with a Cause‘, a motor cycle trip to raise money for good causes. Their 2015 ride is ending in High River today, and their cause this year is the Canadian Mental Health Association. ‘Heartland’ stars Graham Wardle, Amber Marshall, Shaun Johnston and Alisha Newton are all taking part. I think that’s a great cause; mental health issues affect millions of people, and often they’re afraid to talk about it or ask for help. Anything that raises the profile of this subject is a good thing in my books.

And while we’re talking about mental health issues, I should mention the World Suicide Prevention Day ‘Cycle Around the Globe Initiative‘ on September 10th, sponsored by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. Here in Edmonton my good friends Bill and Betty Jo Werthmann and the ‘Hillary’s Ride’ initiative are sponsoring a ride at Hawrelak Park, one of several events happening in Edmonton as part of ‘Lift the Silence’ suicide awareness week.

And finally, getting back to the refugee crisis, there is of course a lot of excellent noise going on out there. However, we also need to do something. I have a rather small house and I doubt if a refugee family would fit into it. So the best I can do is to give my financial support to one of the excellent organizations that are doing something about it. Here are a few:

Canadian Foodgrains Bank

World Vision

Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund

Mennonite Central Committee

Oxfam Canada

Carry on!

Praying for our enemies – when the rubber hits the road

image.phpBishop Angaelos is the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United
Kingdom. This is his outstanding statement regarding the most recent brutal murders of Christians by ISIS in the Middle East. All I can say is, this man is showing us how to follow Jesus. Our prayers and thoughts are with those who have been martyred for their faith, and with their families, their friends, and their churches.

Statement by HG Bishop Angaelos following the murder of Ethiopian Christians in Libya

The confirmation of the murder of Ethiopian Christians by Daesh (IS) in Libya has been received with deep sadness. These executions that unnecessarily and unjustifiably claim the lives of innocent people, wholly undeserving of this brutality, have unfortunately become far too familiar. Once again we see innocent Christians murdered purely for refusing to renounce their Faith.

The Christians of Egypt and Ethiopia have had a shared heritage for centuries. Being predominantly Orthodox Christian communities with a mutual understanding of life and witness, and a common origin in the Coptic Orthodox Church, they now also share an even greater connection through the blood of these contemporary martyrs.

This sad news came on the day that His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury visited His Holiness Pope Tawadros II in Egypt to personally express his condolences following the similar brutal murder of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians in Libya by Daesh in February of this year.

These horrific murders have not only touched the lives of those in the Middle East and Africa, but have led to a greater sense of solidarity among people and communities around the world. I am thankful, in the midst of this pain, that the ghastly nature of these crimes is bringing a greater rejection of them, and of any ideology that sanctions, justifies or glorifies brutality and murder.

As people of faith and none who respect humanity and life, we must continue to speak out against such appalling and senseless violence. As Christians, we remain committed to our initial instinct following the murder of our 21 Coptic brothers in Libya, that it is not only for our own good, but indeed our duty to ourselves, the world, and even those who see themselves as our enemies, to forgive and pray for the perpetrators of this and similar crimes. We pray for these men and women, self-confessed religious people, that they may be reminded of the sacred and precious nature of every life created by God.

Acts such as these do not only cause insurmountable pain to so many around the world, especially the families and communities of the victims, but can also create an even greater desensitisation in those perpetrating them to the suffering and pain which they cause. The will of God, Who created us in His own Image and likeness, can most certainly not be that we feel each other’s pain less or become desensitised to each other’s suffering.

We pray repose for the souls of these innocent men, a change of heart for those who took their lives, but above all we pray comfort and strength for their families and communities, and the many around the world who may not have known them, yet are left to mourn such a tragic and unnecessary loss of precious life.

Having seen the courageous response of the families of the Coptic martyrs in Libya, we pray similar strength, courage and peace for all those suffering as a result of this brutal act, reassured that their loved ones will never be forgotten, having died as true martyrs and paying the ultimate price, hearing the joyful promise “Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your Lord.”