The simplest answer to the question ‘Who is my neighbor” is that your neighbor is who you see when you look out the window.
Or maybe, your neighbor is who can see you when they look in. When I first moved to Philo, a parishioner took me aside and said, “Pastor Cindy, let me give you some advice, now that you will be living in the manse.” All right, I said. “Get some curtains.”
Probably good advice. It certainly got me thinking about windows and looking in and looking out.
I thought of that little exchange as I pondered our theme for Rally Day – and for the Christian Education Year – Windows on the World/Who is my Neighbor?
There aren’t a lot of window references in the Bible. Noah had a window in the ark. The spy Rehab let the spies of Jericho escape through her window. But when you get to the New Testament – the most famous window is the place where a young man sat, listening to Paul preach on and on and on. And the young man- Eutycus – fell asleep and fell out the window! This may be the reason that none of the windows in this sanctuary open!
In fact, church windows, not just our church windows, but the vast majority of church windows, are different than normal windows. Because you can’t look out of most church windows. The professor who taught my preaching seminar this summer, Scott Hoezee, finds this more than a little strange. In his book, Remember Creation, he notes that “within most church’s sanctuaries worshippers proceed through the weekly liturgy without seeing or thinking much about the outside world. We gather in buildings crafted of man made bricks, illuminated by artificial lights, and walled in by stained-glass windows – window which though lovely and rich in holy symbolism, point to heavenly things, not earthly ones. Also, the mere fact that these windows are made of stained glass – as opposed to the clear glass of most windows – prevents us from seeing God’s creation. Although the presence or absence of sunlight is noticeable through the stained-glass windows of my congregation, not much else is. There are many occasions when, upon exiting the building after worship, we are surprised to see that it had rained or snowed at some point during the service and we had been wholly unaware of it.” (p. 6-7)
Most of us know how stained glass came to be used so widely in churches: In medieval times, before the printing press, when most people in Christendom were not literate, and, even if they had been able to read, Bibles were few and far between – people could “read” stained glass windows. At a time when church services were conducted primarily in Latin, a language very few people spoke, the stories of salvation were conveyed in the illuminated windows in which people worshipped. The glories of heaven, the magnificence of the creator, the dignity of the Biblical characters, the tenderness of Jesus, the struggle of the faith, the crucial moment of judgment at the end of time. These and other truths of the faith came alive for people through stained glass art. The sun, streaming in through the pictures, made them glow with heavenly light. It wasn’t that the churches were trying to block out the view. On the contrary, they were trying to give a vision of God and his love that otherwise people might never see.
Some windows depicted scenes from the Bible. Zion Lutheran has two windows like this: One is of Jesus as the shepherd in the parable he told about the shepherd who left the 99 to search for his one lost lamb. Of course, that’s my favorite. The other one, the one on Harrison Street – is of Jesus praying, probably in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Those simple windows are seen in many churches.
Other windows told stories – panel (or lite) by panel. Here’s Noah building the ark. Here are the animals boarding. Here’s the ark on the sea. Here’s the raven and the dove. Here’s the ark on the mountain. Here’s Noah under the rainbow. Six lights – and a whole story to stick in the imagination. These narrative windows are kind of like comic books. You don’t see many in the East or the Midwest, but out in the Southwest, where Catholic missionaries built churches to proselytize the indigenous peoples, where language was still a huge barrier to understanding, you see narrative windows sometimes.
Stained glass windows were originally supposed to help people see and understand the mysteries of faith. But during the Protestant reformation, the branch of Christianity out of which Presbyterians have grown, stained glass was condemned as idolatrous, needlessly ornate, drawing attention to its own beauty rather than God. As was any church decoration that took people’s minds off the hearing of the Word. Protestants removed (often with bricks and stones) ornate stained glass windows and replaced them with plainer, less showy substitutes.
Philo Presbyterian’s windows are pretty Reformed. Mary and Chris Stasheff, the couple who came at the beginning of the summer to help our Sunday school design the art project we dedicated, helped those of us in SS understand what we have in our sanctuary.
They told us that the windows were fairly typical of rural Protestant churches in this part of the country. They are plain. The colors are the browns and greens and golds of the earth and growing things. They are windows for agricultural people. They told us that the patterns are stylized vines and lilies. They are so stylized, I didn’t even know what they were supposed to suggest – but not only are these growing things, which would have been important to people of the land – they also mean something to Christians – who remember Christ saying “I am the vine, and you are the branches”. Lilies are symbols of resurrection victory and of the trumpet that will sound, as Paul writes in Corinthians, and the dead shall be raised.
The few pictures we have on our windows are also very Presbyterian – the Bible. The Dove representing the Holy Spirit, and the Easter Lilies. The anchor cross puzzled Mary at first. She said that is most common in churches on or near a body of water. Well, I remembered one from my home church in Kingman Kansas, and I associated it with the Mariners – a group of young married people. That may not be right. I wonder – do any of you know? - If the Mariners were in existence when that window was dedicated?
Even our stained glass windows, which we can not see through, can help us see more clearly where we have come from, the saints who have gone before us, and where we are, what we have to work with, now.
Seeing ourselves more clearly is one good thing a window can do. But it’s not enough. Let’s switch to talking in a more metaphorical, spiritual vein: Windows ought to help us see our neighbors more clearly, too.
The intent of the Sunday school program this year is to find out more about neighbors – near and far – of other faiths and cultures. Supt. Mary Simon and her second in command, Teri Patton, recognize that our Sunday school students live in an increasingly global village. We will be followers of Christ if we learn how to be good neighbors to those who live and believe differently than we do. I hope our students will share with us what they learn about Islam and Judaism and Eastern religions. I hope that they will help us see that people who seem strange to us are also our neighbors.
That was, of course, what Jesus tells us when he answers the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” By telling the story of the Good Samaritan. Surprise! Jesus says, “Your neighborhood is bigger than you thought.”
Jesus is always pushing back boundaries and removing walls. He’s always remodeling our spiritual house – whether we think of that as the church, or as each one of our souls.
The medieval theologian, Augustine, wrote a beautiful short prayer:
"O Christ, My soul is like a house, small for you to enter,
but I pray you to enlarge it."
This year in Sunday school, Jesus will be installing new windows. We want our children to have houses with lots of windows, with light streaming into their lives and brightening their routines from dawn till dusk.
We want our children to have lives that are open to the world, that are neither fortresses nor prisons. The priest and the Levite were “saved” (safe) but also pitifully limited by the spiritual homes they had made for themselves.
We want our children to be able to look out and see God’s world. Sometimes what they see will be beautiful and harmonious – like the rural scene they depicted on their art project. Sometimes the creation will be suffused with heavenly glory. And they’ll be moved to praise and thanksgiving.
But Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is very realistic. It doesn’t paint an overly rosy picture of what lies outside in the world. And so when our children look out and find that what they see is sad, wrong, unjust, (like the man lying in the road. Ugly. Scary. Wrong.) Then, like the Good Samaritan, like the Good Neighbor Jesus wants us all to be, they’ll be moved to acts of compassion and pity.
The world outside our stained glass window - whether it is beautiful or terrible – we want them to see - we want to see and believe - that the whole world belongs to God.