July 14, 2013  — Pentecost 8

Rev. David Boyd


Do you remember the story of the young teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan last year? Her name is Malala Yousafzai and she dared to write and speak out against the Taliban who had firebombed a school bus carrying young women college students; 14 were killed and the survivors were taken to hospital, where another bomb went off. Malala dared to speak out against this tyranny. She had also begun writing in 2009, at the urging of her father, when she wrote a public BBC diary about life under the Taliban. She has recovered well and was named one of TIME magazine's most influential people in 2013.

Malala is speaking out again. Last Friday, Malala spoke to the United Nations proposing a new global goal of putting every child on the planet in school. Experts say that the costs are not great; in fact, they would cost the same as two nuclear power plants.1 She said, "The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born."

According to UNESCO stats there are 61 million children around the world out of school. The majority of these children are girls; women make up 2/3s of the illiterate people of the world. An estimated 10 million young women under the age of 18 are married each year around the world. When girls are educated, community standards with respect to health, poverty, safety and economic well-being are raised immensely. It has been said that if you educate a boy you educate an individual; if you educate a girl you educate a nation.

If Malala's actions aren't what Jesus had in mind when he talked about being a neighbour, I don't know what is!

I mentioned last week all of the wonderful stories coming out of Alberta about neighbourliness. I remember when the great ice storms of Quebec occurred in the late 90's; people were talking again about the neighbourliness of people. There was no separation between French and English. All Quebecers were one people. This, to me, is an expression of an answer to the legal expert questioning Jesus, "Just who is my neighbour?"

On the other side of the coin, I have heard some commentary and reflection that says we are only good neighbours when there is calamity, when there is a crisis. We don't change our behaviour toward each other unless prompted by crisis. We don't change our behavior unless there is a calamitous reason to do so. For example, some feel that we won't change our behaviour with respect to the environment until there is a crisis or calamity.

I'm not one who holds such a view. I do believe that we can change because at our very heart we are community-minded beings. We are spiritual beings who can see deeply into the heart of life and issues, but more than that who can work toward the well being of others. This community-mindedness and deep spiritual yearning are the components, I believe, of what it means to treat everyone as our neighbour. This is how we are when we are born, I believe. Being suspicious of the other is learned behaviour. We learn prejudices and biases. Prejudice and bias are not how we start out as human beings.

When we had to read The Lord of the Flies in school, I argued with the premise of the book that at our heart we are competitive and narcissistic, that we only have our own selfish needs before us. Do you remember The Lord of the Flies? The story was written by William Golding about a group of British boys who are stuck on a deserted island. They try to look after themselves but they descend into savagery and tribalism. It is a dark book and I spoke out against it in my grade 10 English class! I believed then and I believe now that ultimately, when push comes to shove, we will do what we can to save another person's life.

When I lived in Northern Ontario, our house—the manse—was right next to the church. There was a 1st Nations reserve called Wagoshig, out towards Quebec on a secondary and lonely highway. Often times 1st Nations people would knock on our door, often in the wee hours of the morning, to ask for a ride home. This was usually a 1½ hour round trip. Unless I had a compelling reason, I usually took people home, especially in the winter if they had nowhere else to go, especially if it was minus 30 or 40! I got to know one of the men quite well. He was an alcoholic who tried to stay on the wagon and he would have success for a spell. While the Reserve was nominally Catholic, the Anglican priest and I tried to establish a relationship with the Reserve that wasn't just about charity. We only met with partial success in that. Near the end of my time in Matheson this man that I had come to know wanted to give me something. He knocked on my door at a reasonable hour in the day and since I had some time, I drove him out. We had tea in his home and he took me out to a teepee he had in his yard. We walked around the teepee as the tradition goes and went inside. He gave me a sweater. He had some responsibilities at the Reserve for the traditional ways. As tradition dictates again, we walked around the teepee the opposite way and back into his home. I had tried to refuse the gift, but I realized that once a gift is given in this Cree culture, you don't refuse; you accept graciously. When I tried to give something in return, he said that I had done plenty for him over the years, that I was a friend to him. I was quite moved by what he said and felt like we were neighbours.

Part of what my sabbatical is about is to learn more about what it means to be a global neighbour. That's part of my motivation to go to Nepal and Israel and Palestine. How can we be neighbours to folk who live in a different part of the world than we do? What does it mean to be global neighbours as well as neighbours to people who live in our part of the world?

This story that Jesus tells and the reflection we engage through it, calls us to engage one another as neighbours. But we can treat that quite superficially as well. We can engage the other, the stranger, the people we don't know and get to know them, but at a safe distance. We can offer them charity or assistance. We can say hello to them and acknowledge them. But is this what Jesus had in mind? The Scriptural call to love the other, and it is right through the whole Bible, is to engage the other at the level of a peer. We are to love as we love ourselves. We are to love as God loves. We are to see and engage each other from the depths of our beings to the depths of the being of another. God loves with a compassion that is profound. And as I've said before, the Hebrew word for compassion is related to the womb of a woman and the guts of a man. Compassion is about taking someone into the depths of our beings, deep in our bellies, and relating as equals. Being a neighbour is all about compassion.

We need each other. We need human community where we can be who are and be appreciated for that. Because the earth is so small in many ways today, we need to know each other and learn from each other. For we are all enriched when we encounter cultures and experiences that our outside of our realm of knowledge. When we engage one another heart to heart, peace happens, rebirth occurs, friendships spring up, new life is celebrated, and new communities are created.

Indeed, who is my neighbour?!