Near and far: moving from empathy to neighborly action.

Stone Church of the Brethren welcomed 2015 PA IPL cyclist Eric Sauder as a guest preacher on Sunday.  He loved meeting the wonderful Stone Church congregation and has shared his sermon and benediction with us.

Every morning after waking up, I make my way to the kitchen, put on water for coffee, get the newspaper, turn on the radio, and scroll through the latest news updates on my phone. The multiple news sources may seem excessive, but, any good engineer knows how important it is to have redundant systems. The next 15 minutes are a deluge of crises reaching from our community to every corner of the world. It’s really overwhelming. With new disasters every morning, it seems that the list of hurting people is always growing.

This struggle is nothing new. Certainly there’s been a robust news industry in all of our lifetimes, but it does seem that with every new “advance” in media platforms this messaging invades a bit further into our personal space. At least the town crier stayed in the street and the newspaper on our doorstep—the phones are in our pockets. Now, thanks to Facebook’s video autoplay feature, I don’t even choose whether or not my morning breakfast routine contains footage of a white police officer gunning down an unarmed black man.

I believe it’s important that we can see and hold the challenges of the world, because for the first time in human history we’re witnessing how our actions have very real global impact. Carbon emissions from industrialized nations are unquestionably and fundamentally altering the composition of our earth’s atmosphere in significant and catastrophic ways. We are learning how everything about our planet is finite —the space where we live, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Gone are the days of the frontier, the wilderness, and (besides the depths of the ocean) the unexplored. We have embraced the philosophy of manifest destiny, and we are reaping the consequences.

The same tools that cause me to be overwhelmed at breakfast have brought the world together in small but important ways. Jeremy Rifkin, an American social and economic theorist, explains that what we’re witnessing is an empathic revolution. He has noted the correlation between significant advances in communication and major industrial revolutions over the centuries. The advent of writing in ancient Sumeria enabled agriculture and the advent of cities. Guttenberg’s printing press heralded the industrial revolution, and the impact of the internet and computing technologies is still unfolding for our society.  In his 2009 address to the Rotterdam Global Urban Summit, Rifkin posits that we have, and I quote, “reached a new state of consciousness as a global society when kindergartners come home and turn off the lights because they recognize the connection this has to farmers in Africa.”

I still believe this awareness of interconnectedness is fundamentally important, but I must admit it makes me yearn for a simpler time. It can be paralyzing to try to hold the burdens of all these events from the news, attempting to modify parts of my life in hopes to make a positive impact. It sometimes makes me wish my world was smaller. Sometimes I feel like I might have enough space on my donkey for one one beat up guy on the edge of the road, but I’m pretty sure I can’t deal with all the problems of the world.

That brings us to our passage for the week, the story of the good Samaritan. It’s been rather uncomfortable for me, while preparing for today, to realize how much I identify with the characters in the good Samaritan story that aren’t, well, the good ones. For those of us that grew up in the church, the story is so familiar that the characters are second nature. Of course if we were in the same situation, we’d all hope to respond like the Samaritan, a true hero, not like those priest and the rabbi scumbags. I also realized I had an innate disdain for the man of the law who asked Jesus the question that launched the whole parable in the first place. Trouble is, I find myself asking the same question: With all these hurting people in the world, “who is my neighbor, Jesus?”

Who better than a lawyer to prod Jesus with the question we all have? What are the bounds, where are the limits? who do I have to love like myself, and who can I ignore; well, not ignore per se, but who can I leave perhaps to somebody else? Who can blame him for asking these questions? Perhaps he too was overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of his metropolitan life: the civic affairs of Jerusalem, his charity functions, the beggars at the gate, and the nightly update in the square from Wolf Blitzer’s ancestor.

As we read, Jesus responds, as he so often does, with a parable. The result is pretty astonishing. Jesus reframes the lawyer’s question: “who is my neighbor” to instead ask “who acted more like a neighbor?” I believe Jesus’ message has as much relevance for my modern re-articulation of the “who is my neighbor in an interconnected world” question as it did 2000 years ago. For the rest of our time today, I’d like to focus then on how we can respond like neighbors to suffering people in our world, whether they are nearby or distant.

Let’s begin by exploring ways to be a neighbor to faraway people. I’ve classified my ideas in three categories or reasons for why I believe this is important:

  • Sometimes our actions have global impact

One of the reasons Interfaith Power & Light exists is to help people reduce their environmental impact. Through groups like this, networks of resources exist across a wide array of issues to equip people to create positive change that radiates outward. Perhaps adding a storm window is a statistically insignificant action in the face of global climate change. But I’m convinced that even small actions, incorporated into our daily rhythms, make us aware of how our lives are woven to those around us.

Quite quickly, this can easily become overwhelming and lead to paralysis. For example, there’s a fascinating website called sourcemap, an MIT initiative to visualize supply chains for all kinds of common products we use on a daily basis. Few things are more basic than a BIC ballpoint pen, but I learned from this website that even something so simple still requires synchronized collaboration between factories and suppliers in Mexico, China, Russia, Brazil, France, and the United States. Do we give up writing until we find the fair trade pen? (For the curious, they do exist…) So that’s with things we haven’t thought much about. But its still hard when we know the realities. April 24th marks the 2-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,129. I’m still unaware of the origins of the clothes I wear.

  • Sometimes global challenges require our action.

I am in awe at the creative ways that some people have worked to enter the lives of people suffering through the news stories that I watched on TV. When the bombs began falling on Baghdad and most American citizens were fleeing, groups of people from Christian Peacemaker Teams were heading into the city to stand in solidarity with Iraqi men and women.

As we search for knowledge to inspire meaningful action, I believe its important to look for and amplify the voices of the people on the margins. Who are the people whose voices aren’t being heard and whose stories aren’t being told? How do their stories support or contradict the narrative we hear from our nation’s leaders and from the global voices of power?

  • Sometimes our stories intersect — I feel its important to acknowledge that despite feeling closer to international challenges thanks to social media and a 24-hour news correspondents, simple awareness isn’t a substitute for relationship. A beautiful thing about a more interconnected world, however, is more than ever there are opportunities to form real relationships with the people who have experienced news from the other side of the camera.

My wife is an English as a Second Language teacher at Penn State, and has been afforded many unique opportunities as a result. I’d guess that many of you involved with Juniata can share similar stories. This semester, Ruth has a student from Yemen. Now, when we hear stories from this conflict, we think of Salim and his family; not faceless strangers.

Responding faithfully to global challenges has the obviously difficult hurdle of geography to overcome. While local challenges don’t have this same obstacle, perhaps a bigger hurdle is bridging the social, cultural, and economic barriers (or just literal barrier barriers) that separate us from our geographically proximate potential neighbors. These are people who we can relate to in person, face to face. It’s truly possible to share the burdens and challenges in tangible and meaningful ways; but are we even ever coming to know such neighbors?

  • Who does Jesus spend time with?

The Matthew verse reminds us that Jesus most frequently could be found in the company of these social outcasts, and prioritized their voices and pain:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

We’d be wise to do the same.

  • Are we neighborly to just our friends?

All too often, I believe most of our best energy goes to our friends, people like us that already like us.

We have friends of friends, who have turned out to be some of my favorite Biblical literalists, that used their wedding as an opportunity to take the words of Matthew 22:9 to heart. That’s the parable where the King sent his servants to find guests, eventually sending them into the streets to find anyone they could to celebrate his son’s wedding.

How often do we reserve our best for our friends, and miss opportunities to love those around us?

  • Who is the neighbor we’ve never met?

I was confronted by the weight of this question this week driving from State College to Bellefonte for a children’s clothing sale. At night, the lights from Benner and Rockview Prisons and the Centre County jail light up the sky. How often I forget that there are more than 4,800 people behind those walls. I’ve never visited or written a letter. I don’t know the name or face of a single incarcerated person.

Who are the neighbors we’ve never met? How can we meet them?

I’d guess we share something in common – we’re all busy, already overcommitted, and doing really good things. Like the priest and the rabbi, we’re in a hurry, and don’t have time to stop because the thing we’re going to is legitimately and unarguably important. I even hesitate to mention the prisons today, because this is the area where personally I know I have to do something. I think about our incarcerated neighbors a lot, but we have a 7 month old, its a busy time of life, and I really don’t know how I’d fit it in. Its as easy to get overwhelmed by actions as it is to get overwhelmed by the deluge of problems where we started.

Ruth and I attended a lecture by one of the brothers from the Taize community in France. Taize is a small town, but also the location of an ecumenical monastery that has worked faithfully to build reconciliation. This brother said that he believes there are important disciplines (fasting for example) that are particularly relevant for every age, and he believes the challenge for our age is the ability to say no.  Not just saying no to bad things that take our time, but saying no even to some good things. We will, of course, miss out; but we will be more present and committed to the things we say yes to.

This week I asked questions of a few friends that have worked for many years as activists or community organizers. My question for them was this: “How do you keep going in the face of such overwhelming obstacles?” I’d like to share a few of their responses:

My friend Mary, a retired drug and alcohol counselor, now community organizer and self-described “news hound” stretched out her arms and said “50 miles in either direction is the where I may be able to have some influence, other than perhaps through my pocketbook.” Mary epitomizes the idea from so many bumper stickers: “think globally, act locally” and few people I know have better demonstrated love for their neighbor than Mary.

Vincent, an activist who focused early in his career on nuclear proliferation is currently working to battle against mountaintop removal. He stressed the importance of humor, saying its easy to get worn down by the gravity of global challenges, but laughter is an antidote.

Sarah is one of the best bridge builders I know. She is the convenor of the Interfaith Initiative in Centre County. She said: “The effort of keeping an open mind and heart in the presence of so much need —rather than completely closing down and shutting off— is a worthy goal in itself.  Doing what one can, and not closing down— respecting oneself and respecting the needs of others as well—and being content to live in that struggle and tension—these are all part of where I’m at with these questions right now.”

As we go from here, may God help us to wrestle with these tensions: a world with hurting people and the finiteness of our time. In the words of Bruce Martin, one of my life-long friends and mentors: “The world really doesn’t need more heroes, more saviors; it needs more neighbors.  And neighbors are people who are real, who are in your world (not on FB, Twitter, etc.), who need your presence in the present, not only a selfie, or a pic of the evening casserole, or even a comment on a world crisis.  Neighbors are local, people whom we can empower, who empower us if we let them, to whom we make a difference by what we do, not only by what we say, moment by moment in the real world of space and time.”

May God help us make good decisions of how we use our limited time and energy, and may we love like Christ.


The service closed with this benediction, also written by Eric:

May the Lord Bless You and Keep You;
May the Lord Make His Face to Shine Upon You
And Be Gracious Unto You.
May God Give You the Grace
Not to Sell Yourself Short,
Grace to Risk Something Big
For Something Good,
Grace to Remember that
The World is Now
Too Dangerous for Anything but Truth, and
Too Small for Anything but Love.
So May God Take Your Minds and
Think Through Them;
May God Take Your Lips and
Speak Through Them; and
May God Take Your Hearts and
Set Them On Fire,
the Father and
the Son and
the Holy Spirit,

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