Apr - May 2020

I Feel So Alone. I Choose To Love My Neighbor.

Tim Ayers

May 3, 2020

If you've read Dave Rod's book, A Why To Live For, you may recall that Dave tells the story about a day back in the Summer of 2012 when Dave and I sat on his back deck (a deck I am proud to say I helped build, by the way) and we came up with the concept of the 6 Broken Places...a concept that is now the bedrock of all that we do here at Grace. And during that time of thinking through all the brokenness that we were seeing all around us, one area of brokenness that we knew was everywhere was Isolation. We knew then that many people were lonely and hopelessly so...we knew then that many people were longing for relationships of meaning...we knew then that many people needed community and the sense of dignity and belonging that comes from being known and knowing others. And in October 2012 when we first introduced the concept of the 6 broken places to Grace Church, Dave preached what I still believe was one of the landmark sermons in the history of Grace... a sermon in our 6 Broken Places series that we simply titled Isolation. In that sermon Dave identified the problem of isolation, he articulated the depth of this broken place in our world and he also listed out some very practical ways for all of us to engage in being the healers of other's isolation and loneliness. And as I recently revisited those practical suggestions from back in 2012 I realized that in today's world, with all of the new rules about how we are to interact with one another, with all of the necessary social distancing and our uncertainty over the safety of the world around us, many of Dave's suggestions, things like inviting people to your home for dinner and making certain that you move close enough to others to give them a caring touch and that you make the time to visit people in their homes as a way of showing you care, well, they don't work right now. We are now living through a time where everyone understands, at least to some degree what it means to be isolated. But today's isolation is different than 2012's isolation; today's isolation comes with the underlying given that everyone outside of our very closest family members and everyplace outside of our own homes are existential threats; we don't know who we can trust, we fear for ourselves and we fear for those we love because anyone and anyplace can make us sick...and possibly even kill us. I've talked to a good number of people with family members who have compromised immune systems due to chemotherapy or diabetes or heart conditions who are constantly worried that they will catch the virus somewhere and then pass it on to their weakened loved one. I've talked with older people who are sequestered alone in their assisted living spaces; single people who are terribly isolated in their homes; students who are separated from their friends and the activities that filled their days just a few weeks ago. I've also talked to people who are living with their families, but under difficult, even dangerous, circumstances. I talked to a woman recently whose circumstances in her home are beyond intolerable...you talk about isolated! Now, 3 months ago I would have known exactly what to do for her. I would have connected her to one of any number of women in the church that I know are wise gifted listeners who would have put their arms around this lonely, isolated woman. And yet, we are now living in a time when putting your arms around someone isn't an option...it's literally considered dangerous. I'll say it again, we are living in a time when everyone understands to some degree the brokenness of isolation. And this reality begs the question: Now what...now that everything has changed, and I feel so isolated?

I've done a lot of looking into how the modern-day, social scientists tell us to deal with the loneliness and hopelessness of isolation. And what I've found is that almost to an expert they all say the same thing: they say that when a person feels isolated and lonely, the best possible solution for loneliness and isolation is to reach out to someone, someplace, someone who seems to be in greater need than you are and show them some love. Now, I know this almost seems like a cliché. It sounds too simplistic, almost naïve to suggest that reaching out to help others in the depths of MY isolation is the cure for MY isolation, but as I've thought about life, my life specifically, there is real truth to this. It is true that when I am feeling alone and isolated there is great comfort for me in stepping out of focusing on my own circumstances and focusing on the needs of others. And this truth doesn't just come from modern-day, social science experts... and I don't want to spiritualize this too much, but Jesus actually said the same thing one time. There was a time when Jesus was asked by an expert in religious law, (and you can find this in Luke 10:25 if you'd like to follow along...do follow along), "Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” And rather than answering this legal scholar's question directly, Jesus turned the question back on him. He said, "What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?” The man answered by quoting from Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19; he said, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And, "Love your neighbor as yourself.' "Right!” Jesus told him. "Do this and you will live!” Now, this conversation could have ended right there, but this scholar wasn't done. He wanted to poke at Jesus a bit more, so we read this in verse 29, The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?” Now, the word that is translated as "neighbor' here is the Greek word play-see-an and it isn't a word that simply meant someone who lives nearby like we would think of it...it was a word that meant someone close to you, anyone near to you in relationship. And at the time most Jews only used this word to talk about their very closest of relationships with other Jews. What this man really wanted was for Jesus to weigh in on was just how many other people he had to love like he loved himself...we know this because when it says that he wanted to "justify his actions,' it clearly meant that he was trying to see if Jesus would approve of how small his circle of loved "neighbors,' his play-see-an, had become. But Jesus didn't reply with a theological answer. He didn't parse out the Hebrew of Leviticus 19 or quote some Jewish legalese for determining neighborliness. No, he told a story...a story that has become famous: The story of the Good Samaritan. And this story is not only famous...it has also become so much a part of our culture that even people with no idea what a Samaritan is let alone a good one, have some idea about this story's meaning. And I believe that what Jesus said in this story is directly related to the circumstances we find ourselves in today now that everything has changed, and so many of us are feeling isolated.

Jesus starts his story this way in verse 30, "A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.” Now, it's important to stop right here. This trip from the old city of Jerusalem to Jericho was about 18 miles and the reason it says "down to Jericho' is because Jerusalem is about 3800 feet above sea level and Jericho is about 850 feet below sea level. So, in just 18 miles you drop down 4650 feet! And there wasn't a real road between these 2 Jewish cities, big emphasis on Jewish here; it was more of a rough pathway; a treacherous, winding, difficult pathway that included many back-and-forths and sudden drops in and around large boulders. Plus, this pathway was so narrow and rocky in places that it made everyone on this trail a target for banditry. So much so, that in Jesus' day this pathway had 2 names: The Way of Blood and the Ascent of the Red as in blood red. This road was so dangerous that about 30 years after Jesus told this story the Roman army built permanent outposts every couple of miles along this pathway so soldiers could guard travelers. So, when Jesus said this Jewish man was robbed, stripped naked, beaten and left half dead the listening crowd probably thought, "Well, that figures!' Everyone listening to Jesus that day knew that traveling this road alone was pure foolishness. Jesus then said, "By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.” I'm not going to say much about these two. My thought is that the main reason they didn't stop was they were afraid that what had happened to this man might happen to them if they didn't hurry along...bandits were nearby...it was better to be safe than sorry. Then Jesus says this in verse 33. "Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coin telling him, "Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I'll pay you the next time I'm here.' A couple of things. This man was from Samaria and Samaritans were considered by the Jews to be less than human. They were half-breed, religious heretics. I don't know that it is possible to overstate the depth of Jewish distain, no disgust, for Samaritans. Also, Samaria itself, sat right between the two Jewish provinces of Judea and Galilee and Jews who were traveling from Galilee to Judea went way out of their way to avoid even stepping onto Samaritan soil...and Samaritans did the same when it came to being around Jews. Jesus saying that a Samaritan was man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho would have been almost unimaginable to his listening crowd...you talk about out of your element...a Samaritan man traveling alone on this road between two Jewish cities! And Jesus also added some other important details: He said that this man had a donkey. Donkeys were very valuable and expensive; it wasn't uncommon for 4 families to pool their resources and share a donkey...but Jesus clearly says that this was this man's donkey! And on this donkey, this Samaritan also had the makings of a 1st Century first aid kit: he had oil and wine and bandages. So, who knows what else this donkey was carrying on his back? We do know that this Samaritan man had money with him; when he gave the innkeeper, a Jewish innkeeper no doubt, 2 silver coins it equaled 2 days of a workman's salary...and if we calculate it's value in 2020 Hamilton county terms that's about $600. Let's put this all together. You want to talk about someone who was isolated from everyone and everything...it was this man! He was racially an outsider, alone in a terribly dangerous place for everyone, but especially someone of his nationality. And he was traveling in a way that made him a natural target: he had a donkey, a donkey carrying valuable things and he had money in his pouch. The picture that Jesus painted was of a man who was about as alone and isolated and vulnerable as a person could possibly have been in Jesus' world. If anyone had a reason not to stop and help a half-dead Jewish man, but to hurry on to a safer place it was this man...and the crowd listening to Jesus would have understood immediately why it was so amazing that this man stopped and this man cared for and this man stayed the night in a Jewish inn with a Jewish man that he did not know. Everyone listening to Jesus would have understood exactly what Jesus was saying...the religious scholar certainly did. When Jesus asked the scholar, "Who was the neighbor, the play-see-on, to this man attacked by bandits?' the scholar knew the answer immediately. He knew that it was a despised Samaritan...it was the man who had cared less about his own safety and showed love to his neighbor. And Jesus' final words on this subject probably cut right to the core of everyone listening that day. "Now, go and do the same."
Now, I know that this is a story that Jesus told to make an important point...but what a story! Let's think this through one more time: The Story of the Good Samaritan is the story of a man who was isolated and vulnerable on a difficult, dangerous, and frightening journey who set aside focusing on his own circumstances for just long enough to change another needy person's life...and I think this story is pretty relevant to where we find ourselves today. We are all isolated to some degree... we are all vulnerable to some degree...we are all on a difficult and in many ways frightening journey. We are all living through circumstances that could overwhelm us. But, with this said I still believe that the lesson of this story, as well as the over-riding arc of the entire Bible, is that in all times and in all circumstances God's people are to live other-centered lives...we are, as the religious scholar rightly said to Jesus, to first love God with all that we are and then secondly, we are to love our neighbor...the one near to us...the one whose need we can see...as ourselves...we are to go and do the same!

Now, I am not unaware of reality. I know that a story like this can lead to feeling that if you don't do something massively heroic like saving a dying person...which many people are doing right now, by the way...then what you are doing can seem inconsequential. And I don't want to give this impression at all. Plus, I know that many people are already doing amazing things for one another. There has truly been an outpouring of caring and love in our community. What I will do is tell you how we...that is my wife, Jennifer and I, are working to step outside our own sense of isolation and showing love to our neighbors. I know that I should be doing this anyway, but I am purposefully calling my dad...making certain that he and his wife Nancy are okay. He's 87. He's as healthy as a horse and he doesn't like anyone telling him what to do. Still, we've just been making certain that he and his wife are on our weekly family zoom call. It shows him how important he is to us and lets him know that we care even if we can't go see him right now. I'm also doing my best to look for outdoor chores for the16-year old, bored-out-of-his-mind teenager who lives 3 doors down from us. We live in 2 acres of woods and he spent hours last week just picking up sticks for kindling...and he came back on his own a couple of days later wondering if there was anything else he could do. I didn't have anything right at that moment, but he plopped down an appropriate distance from me and stayed a good while just talking about life. I'll take that. Plus, I'm working alongside other staff in the care center every Wednesday. It's about 6 hours once a week where I don't have time to think about myself. Jennifer is being quiet before God, letting the Holy Spirit call names to her, then she's praying for those people and mailing short letters to them. She's taking meals to the family of my 16-year-old friend. They have 3 teenagers...mom can use the help. None of these little things are heroic in the manner of what the Good Samaritan did; it's simply being proactive where we know we can...but it is loving those near us...and in loving them we are easing their isolation and easing our own sense of isolation.

Now, is stepping out and loving our neighbors in the depths of our own sense of isolation easy? No, it isn't easy. Does living this way come naturally? Well, it doesn't for me, especially when I know it can come with a cost. But I have to keep reminding myself that the answer to the today's question, "What now, now that everything has changed and I feel so isolated?' for followers of Jesus the answer is, "I am going to choose to love my neighbor.' How that looks for you is determined by your own world...your own "Play-see-an,' those you know are your neighbors. And just to be clear, I also know that many of you are already doing just this...Grace people are reaching out of their own isolation and showing love to those that are near to them in so many ways...calling our care center friends, our older congregants and our students just to pray for them and check up on them...making masks, delivering groceries, the list goes on and on. And if you are looking for ways to help others just go to our website; there is a button right on the front page where you can find ways to reach out to others. Here is something I know is true: every time someone reaches out and shows love to someone who is isolated, two people's sense of isolation lowers...and healing comes to a broken place. I want close by reading you a quote, a quote from Dave's 2012 Isolation sermon. Listen to what he said then...listen to the strong, visionary, commanding way he ended that sermon. He said, "We, the people of Grace Church, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, will love those who are isolated and lonely...we will love them as we love ourselves.' And my 2020 prayer, now that nothing is the same, is that we will do just this: that we, that you and I, will, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of our own sense of isolation, we will love our neighbors as ourselves...that we will remember the compassion of the Good Samaritan and we will go and do the same.