Who Is My Neighbor? A sermon for July 14, 2013

This sermon is based on the readings for Proper 10 Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

This sermon was preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on July 14th, 2013, the morning after George Zimmerman was found “not guilty” in the death of Trayvon Martin.

The Good Samaritan.  Those words just roll off our tongues.  We say them so often, we hear them so often, that we probably don’t think very much about them when we hear them.  We hear that phrase used on the news for the person who stops to give aid at a traffic accident, at a fire, for anyone who goes out of their way to help someone that they don’t know.   There’s even, if you look it up on the Internet, a “Good Sams Club.”  And so if you are someone who goes out of you way to help others you can sign up and be a member of the Good Sams Club.

But I think all of that repetition and easy usage has domesticated the story that we heard this morning so that when we think of the story of the good Samaritan we probably hear a version very similar to this “Beginners Bible,” this well thumbed volume that lives on the bookshelves in my son’s room.  The version that is in this Bible goes like this:

A Good Neighbor

“I know that I should love God,”

a man once said to Jesus.

“I should love him with all my heart.

And I should love my neighbor too.

But who is my neighbor?”

Jesus told him a story.

There was a man walking along a road.

He was going on a trip.

Suddenly, robbers jumped out at him.

They hit him.

They took all the things that he had with him.

Andy they left him, hurt, lying by the road.

A short time later, step, step, step,

Someone came down the road.

It was a man who worked in God’s temple.

He could help the hurt man!

But, not, when he saw the hurt man,

He crossed the road.

He passed by on the other side!

Soon another man came.

But he passed by, too.

Then, clop, clop, clip, clop,

Along came a man with a Donkey.

This was a man from a different country.

When he saw the hurt man, he stopped.

He put bandages on his hurt places.

And he took the man to a house w

Where he could rest and get will.

Jesus finished his story.

He looked at the man.

“Who was the neighbor to the hurt man?”

Jesus asked.

“The one who helped him”, said the man.

“Then you can be a neighbor to anyone

Who needs your help,” said Jesus.

                                      The Beginner’s Bible: Timeless Children’s Stories

This is a very different version that the one that we heard from Luke’s Gospel this morning.  There are lots of details that are omitted from this reading.  I think that they are omitted because the original version, the one from Luke’s Gospel, is filled with tension, conflict, and, at its heart, an accusation.

A man, a lawyer well versed in the Mosaic Law, a master of the traditions of his community, stands to trap Jesus and he asks him a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Now Jesus employs an age-old clerical trick, one that I am sure he learned in an Episcopal seminary, he answers the man’s question with a question of his own,  “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  And this lawyer, true to form, rises to the top of the class.  He gives the perfect answer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:26).  And Jesus says give the man a prize, top student of the day.  But then the real tension begins.

“But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor”  Luke 10:29)?  Seeking to justify himself…  we know that somewhere in the back of this person’s mind he knows.  He knows that he is not living up to this commandment to love his neighbor as himself.  He can probably review the tapes and he can see moments where he has failed to love the “other.  So he asks Jesus to limit the scope of this commandment.  “Surely you don’t mean them.  Surely you don’t mean him.  You can’t possible mean her.  Love my neighbor as myself?  You must mean these folks here with me, the people with whom I have surrounded myself,  The people I have chosen as my neighbors.

I think that we need to re hear this original version of Luke’s Gospel because it is in this moment that we are convicted.  This is a story that tells us how to live according to God’s commandment and love.  We call the answer that the lawyer gave “The Summary of the Law” and we can probably all recite those words.  But in that moment where Jesus says, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live,” there are those tapes playing in our heads confronting us with those moments when we have not quite fulfilled our vocation as the children of God by loving our neighbor as ourselves.  And so we, like the lawyer engage in a process of self-justification.

Listen to what Jesus does.  He tells the lawyer a story.  A man is beset by robbers and is left lying, bleeding in the ditch.  He is passed by, his plight ignored, by a Priest and a Levite.  Now everyone in the audience hearing this story, and certainly the lawyer, knew that if the Priest or the Levite had ventured into the ditch and touched this bleeding man they would have been ritually impure, unclean, and could not have gone into the temple to perform their sacred duties.  And so at some level, somewhere, in the back of our mind, these two people are “justified” in not loving this person as they love themselves.  All of the people listening to Jesus tell this story to the Lawyer also knew that it was a ruse that robbers frequently used; putting someone in the ditch who appeared to be injured and wounded to lure you off the road and into the brush where you could be attacked and robbed yourself.  So as the people were listening to this story they would have been checking their way down through their internal list and would have thought, “look there’s another way to let these guys off the hook.”  They would have been endangering themselves personally f they had ventured into the ditch to help.

You can hear the self-talk now…  They were on important business, probably visiting parishioners in the hospital.  They had things to do, places to be, people to meet.  They are important people and they just didn’t have time to get involved.

So they didn’t want to become impure, tainted by association, they didn’t want to risk their personal safety.  They didn’t want to interrupt their busy schedule…  The list of justifications goes on and on.  This is the moment in the story where Jesus pulls all the stops and says something really shocking to get our attention.  The person who does stop to lend aid to the man lying in the ditch is a Samaritan.

The Samaritans were people from the tribes of Israel who had intermarried with the people of the land of Canaan and whose worship practices were a mixture of the Jewish peoples practice and the practices of the people of the land.  The Samaritans and the Jews did not get along.  They despised one another.  So the task of being a neighbor falls to this despised person, who takes the time, who risks going into the brush, who becomes even more impure and unclean by tending to his bloody wounds pouring wine and oil on them.  He takes a day out of his busy schedule to stay with him at the inn.  And then he gives of his own resources to help.  Here is the accusation.

How far will we go to justify our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.  And do we have to see someone in whom we think that behavior so unlikely that it’s almost unimaginable, to convict us of our own hard heartedness?

This Gospel reading today calls us to look within ourselves and find the places where we seek to justify our failure to love those who speak differently than we do, who dress differently, who look different, who love differently, even those who speak of God using different names and different images that we do.  The truth is that all of God’s children are our neighbors.  And we are called to embrace that reality and to live our lives in a way that demonstrates that truth to the entire world.

We have had a little too much of courtroom drama this week.  But that’s exactly what we have here in this story as this lawyer rises to challenge Jesus and to try and entrap him.   And it is we who are being convicted in the court of the Gospel of our hard heartedness and failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We have had a clear demonstration of the consequences of failing to love our neighbor as ourselves and we know that we cannot afford to live in guarded and gated communities; ghettos of like-minded people who look and dress just like us.  We cannot afford to live in a world where we are suspicious of those who do not look like us, dress like us, talk and walk like us.  We cannot afford to live in communities where to be “other” is to be immediately suspect.  We are called to something more.  We are called to help build a world where rather than getting out of the car, armed with a gun, to confronting a young man with a bag of skittles and an iced tea, we roll down our window and offer him a ride home in the rain.


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