“But Jesus, who is my neighbor, specifically?”
Is there any more human question than that?
The particularly human who asks the question is a lawyer, who has been listening to Jesus. He understands that Jesus wants us to love God and our neighbor. He is on board.
But, like any lawyer worth his salt, he wants to be clear on the terms and conditions.
For most of us, the people in our neighborhoods look quite a lot like us. They often have the same skin color, same income bracket, sometimes they even have the exact same Subaru. So, we can imagine loving those neighbors. We can imagine watching the kids when a parent is sick, shoveling the walk for an older neighbor, borrowing or lending a cup of sugar.
But the lawyer has been observing Jesus. The lawyer has seen how Jesus flouts any propriety when it comes to his friends. Jesus surrounds himself with every kind of riff raff. So, perhaps the lawyer is a bit concerned that loving his neighbor is about to get uncomfortable.
Sure enough, as soon as the lawyer asks the question, Jesus tells a story.
And while the story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar stories in all of scripture, it is also one of the most subversive.
You know it well: a man gets robbed and beaten up and thrown into a ditch. A priest, who one would hope would be most qualified to help a person in trouble, walks right by. A Levite, who should know God’s word backwards and forwards, also crosses the road. But, a Samaritan man, a man who would be been considered filth by the Levite and priest, has compassion on the man in the ditch and rescues him.
Jesus is saying that this outsider was more obedient to God than the religious hierarchy of the day.
If you want to follow Jesus, forget about obsessing over the rules, focus on loving God and loving your neighbor.
Now we get to the part of the sermon that I have re-written three times this week.
First, this was a sermon about how the Orlando shooting reminded us that there are communities who feel like they are not welcome in church sanctuaries, so they create their own. Then, this was a sermon grappling about the horrible bombings in Bangladesh, Turkey, Saudia Arabia and Iraq. Then it was a sermon lamenting the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castille and wondering what it means for us to be good neighbors to our African American brothers and sisters. And then, of course, eleven police officers were shot by a sniper in Dallas. Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens all died in the attack.
What a month. What a week.
Our world feels heavy this week. So much senseless death. So much distrust and anger. Our country feels separated into neighborhoods and communities that never intersect.
So, where is Jesus’ good news to us?
Jesus’ good news to us is that we are not the priest. We are not the Levite. We are not even the good Samaritan. We are all the man in the ditch, utterly helpless, but about to be rescued.
God created us in his image, beautiful and creative and full of love. But, we fell into a ditch of our own making, by our selfishness and hatred. We ended up in this ditch of sin and pain, completely unable to help ourselves. So, God became a human being to reach an arm down and pull us out of the ditch. Jesus saved us from being captive to sin and death.
And now that Jesus has rescued us, and we can have a relationship with God, we still need the Holy Spirit to pull us out of our individual ditches. We each are in need of God’s intervention in our lives. None of us are perfect. There is a reason we say the confession every week. We need it! We need a chance to tell ourselves and God about the ways we have come short. We need to ask for help to be better. We need the Spirit’s help to become the creative, loving people God designed us to be.
We can be people of love. We can be peacemakers. We can be good neighbors, but we need the Holy Spirit’s help.
There are signs of hope out there for us to cling to, as we imagine with God what a world might look like if we lived into the true natures God has given us.
After the Pulse shooting, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in Washington DC, announced that as soon as Shabbat was over, he and his congregation were going to a local gay bar. Can you imagine the expressions on his congregant’s faces? They did not go to protest or judge those inside. They went inside as an act of solidarity. They went inside as an act of love. They talked with their gay neighbors. They prayed together. They learned that they had many connections in common. They were not two separate groups of people, they were intertwined, just like all of us. The congregation left their sanctuary, and entered another. I guarantee you that the people in that bar never in a million years expected an Orthodox Jewish congregation to show up that night, but their visit became an act of love and grace. They were good neighbors.
In the midst of the shootings in Dallas, a mother pushing a stroller began to panic and a group of black lives matter protesters, white and black, male and female, surrounded her and her stroller until they got the baby to safety. They were good neighbors.
The police force in Dallas has been working really hard with their officers, doing de-escalating training and minimizing use of force, building up community engagement, trying to stop this cycle of unnecessary deaths. Before the sniper began shooting, you can find many photos of black lives matter activists and police offers, smiling, arm in arm. The police were protecting the activists, and the activists are still grateful. They were good neighbors.
This summer, our church book group read Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. This book is a letter to Coates’ son, written after Michael Brown’s death. About a dozen of us talked about all the ways throughout American history that the people with power, white people, have tried to keep our African American neighbors at bay. Slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, housing segregation, school segregation, corrupt mortgage practices, mass incarceration: the list goes on and on. Being in a book group was such a small step, but for me at least reading the parts of our country’s history that were not in my school textbooks has been heart breaking and transformative. Hearing the stories of the various parishioners in the group was also incredibly powerful. We each have a connection with racism, whether in our family or in our own hearts. Confessing the ways our own families have benefited from slavery or its aftermath was an important step towards moving forward. My maternal grandmother was mentally ill, and it was the African American nanny, Laura, who gave my mother the stability and loving presence in her life she needed to grow up and be the amazing mom she was to me. Laura left her own children to care for my mother. I directly benefited from Laura’s sacrifice.
When Coates wrote this book, he had no idea it would become a best seller. Coates has been totally flummoxed by so many church groups reading the book. He is not a person of faith and he certainly had no expectation that thousands of book groups in churches across the country would be picking up his work. But he underestimates churches’ desire to do the holy work of confession, lament and reconciliation.
The book group left us with a desire to do something more. To read more, to engage more, to be better neighbors. We want to confront our own racism and work toward transformation. We are not sure what that looks like, but if you are interested be in touch with me of with our Director of Spirituality and Missions, Debbie Scott. The caveat is that I am about to be on vacation for a few weeks! If you email me and I don’t respond, I promise I will get back to you by early August.
We are created and redeemed by a God of infinite love. He desires us to love one another and he will give us what we need to make it happen. Thanks be to God.