St. Paul's/Pastor Sami Pack-Toner
Neighboring Well: Borrow the Sugar
St. Paul’s UMC - Pastor Sami Pack-Toner
Acts 9: 10-19 NRSV
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Do you remember the last time you borrowed something from a neighbor or a neighbor borrowed something from you? When was the last time you borrowed a cup of sugar from a neighbor? I will admit, as I have moved into full-blown adulthood, I pride myself on having enough sugar to bake whatever I want. But borrowing the sugar is not about the sugar.
If we are going to neighbor well and find out what God is up to in our world, we need to strive to cultivate a willingness to go to our neighbors. We need to talk to our neighbors. We need to get to know our neighbors.
Our culture has shifted. Things are more convenient, so we are less reliant on people living near us. But, God is still up to things in our world. We are called to a relationship with our fellow human beings just as often now as we did 50 years ago. People are still in need. People still have things to share with others. Communities still need to be knit together with values and mission. So, that means we need to go out of our way to connect.
And that connection needs to be thoughtful and authentic.
Bowling Alone Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 famous book Bowling Alone, he observes our communities having less participation in the community: overall (not everyone, but maybe the average American), we aren’t involved in civic or religious groups as much.
Our connections in the workplace have changed. Our volunteering/philanthropy habits shifted. And, all of this makes our reciprocity, honesty, and trust shift as well. We don’t borrow the sugar as much as we used to. Life is more convenient now. However, this is not just because it’s easier than ever to run to the 24-hour market. It’s because our social fabric is fraying a little. This isn’t to say that pockets of sugar sharers don’t exist, but most of us avoid asking. When was the last time you scurried over to a neighbor’s for an emergency egg? What are some of these why do you think? Time and Money pressures. We are more mobile. (and even more mobile since he wrote the book in 2000!). Technology and mass media. Our days are busier, our kids are busier. How do we fix this? Borrow the sugar.
Sarah Lazarovic wrote an article about this same topic, stating: “It may be easier to go to the store. It may be cheaper in energy and emotional coin to go to the store. But borrow we must. The habit of borrowing and sharing builds community, fosters connection, counteracts loneliness, and, incidentally saves planetary resources. There are a lot of power tools that collect dust in garages, and there are a lot of people who go without things being fixed. Sarah encourages the reader to not buy the drill, but to reach out to Jane, the neighbor, and ask to borrow her drill--because you’re borrowing the drill not just to up its rate of usage and save your own money--but to get to know Jane!
There was a study done with Chicago commuters to go out of their comfort zone--and make small talk with their neighbors and with the folks commuting around them. This doesn’t happen very often. Even Shane and I do not see our neighbors much up in Marysville. We both work strange hours, and we are rarely home in the evenings. I can’t even imagine some of the disconnects that folks feel when you are commuting 1, 2 hours each morning and evening into a city. Nicholas Epley calls the ability to make loose connections with strangers, like other commuters, crossing guards, postal workers, etc, a “superpower we rarely use.” Hmm... a superpower. Connection with others. Literally with others. With those whom you may not feel a strong need to have a relationship with. With those whom you disagree with on politics. With those whom you simply do not know really well.
Ananias and Saul Our scripture this morning is now in my top five favorite stories from the Bible. I have preached on it before in my tenure here, but oh well: When we enter the story, the executioner of Christ-followers, Saul, has just become blind by the Lord. (see scripture, top) If you remember correctly, Saul then becomes Paul, the author of most of the New Testament, our church’s namesake, like Rusty said. But in this section of scripture, all we know is that Saul will be used as an instrument to bring the name of God to others. How do you think Ananias cultivated enough will to walk on that road to heal Saul? His immediate reaction is completely justifiable. What keeps us from reaching out? From being vulnerable with our own neighbors? With “them”, as Rusty said. I bet your list is pretty long--the reasons for not getting involved in other people’s daily lives. I bet Ananias’ list was long, too. The top of that list: Saul can kill me. Saul was a horrible, powerful person. He had the power and authority to kill Ananias on the spot. So, when Ananias is called to go visit Saul, he exclaims, “Lord, how can I reach out to this person? He is a threat to us. He has been complicit in the murder of our people.” Yet, God calls Ananias to make Saul his neighbor in all sense of the word. And, he goes. He travels to his neighbor’s house. And before Saul can even speak a word--Ananias greets him with the salutation “brother”.
What happened on that journey? What shifted? What was God up to? We can often get wrapped up in trying to guess what the response of our neighbor will be when it truly begins with us. “Oh, I don’t want to bother them. They have been having a hard year, and I doubt they would be interested.” “Their kids are so involved with sports. I bet they are traveling all the time!” “They have never come to church when I invite them.” “They never come to say hello to us either!” We need to trust the Holy Spirit is with us on that vulnerable journey to borrow the sugar. Or check on someone who is hurting. Or asking for help. That’s what happens on that journey. The HS is with us--and we must be courageous and compassionate. We must approach this work with the grace of God and greet our neighbor as “sibling”. This kind of posture makes all the difference. Because it isn’t about the sugar. It isn’t about how convenient the store is. Or how awkward we are. Or even the response of the neighbor when we are awkward and knit the social fabric of community back together a little bit when we reach out. Or, we assume we know what our neighbor needs. (You know what assuming does) Remember, we are checking out what God is already doing out there. We are finding God, not taking God somewhere.
Toxic Charity When we start thinking we know what our neighbors need without really asking our neighbors, that is when we can do harm. There is such a thing as “toxic charity”. Even with all of our motivations completely aligned with good intentions, when we don’t walk down that road, to approach each other as “sibling”, we have not quite cultivated the willingness to neighbor well. If you were in Montana a few years ago, you may remember the horrible forest fires up near Glacier National Park. The Blackfeet Nation is right there, and we have 3 United Methodist Churches in that area: Browning, Babb, and Heart Butte. Heart Butte, in particular, is pretty isolated. There are also no accommodations there. When those fires rolled in, people were trapped with either no cars or no money. The response was quick! The area was marked as being in a National State of Emergency, and the Red Cross sent cleaning kits--they were full of bleach, detergent, and other chemicals. Calvin Hill, the pastor for the churches in those communities reached out to surrounding churches and organizations with a plea to please stop sending cleaning items. “Our people rarely have washers and dryers. Having these items that a middle-class family would use to clean their house are harmful to my people.” And my favorite part: “I don’t know what my people need right now, but it isn’t this. Let me get back to you.” And Calvin went down to the grocery store, and he met with the owner and he found out what people were buying. He asked people what they needed. And he sent a list out to the churches so we knew what we could do to help.
In Maggie Long’s last weeks a few months ago, I witnessed the willingness to neighbor well and the power of community and connection. Sitting in their cozy living room, watching Maggie sleep, Gary began to tell me stories of how people were reaching out to them. You all, Gary and Maggie’s neighbors and friends reached out in such a powerful way: You all asked Gary what he needed. Guess what Gary needed: He needed rest. Thanksgiving dinner. He needed respite. And so his neighbors stayed vigilant with Maggie for Gary to rest. And they cooked him dinner. And shared their own dinners. And they let him know they SAW him.
My friends, that is what this is all about. Borrow the sugar. Because it isn’t about the sugar.