Do this and you will live…

Scripture: Luke 10:25-37

Given on 07/14/13 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY

He absolutely hated taking this route for his travels. Each time he did it he felt as if he was taking his own life into his hand. He had heard the stories. He always heard the stories. Bandits and robbers lining the road on either side. Each bend in the road leading to certain death. As he walked along he clutched his purse a little tighter. He peered into the distance as far as he could trying to prepare himself for what must have been coming next. He had just been lucky thus far. He knew it. He had traveled along on this path that he had taken so many times before and yet each time felt so uncertain. With each new trip he was always prepared for the worst. At the start of each journey he kissed his wife and children goodbye and lingered just a little while longer. Each kiss lasting just a bit longer than one might think was appropriate. The final embrace with his wife, in which the traveler tried to convey every bit of love that he felt for her in a hug, in the pressing of their lips together as they slowly pulled apart. They each wiped a tear from their eyes as she followed him to the end of their road and then remained as long as she could until he vanished on the other side of the hill. Would they ever see each other again?

When the bandits stepped out from behind the large boulder on the right side and pinned the traveler against the steep drop off to the left of the road he had prepared himself for what was coming. He reflexively tucked his money purse behind in tunic in a valiant though pointless attempt to hide it from them as if they weren’t going to tear him and his clothes apart looking for it. The first blows came swift and hard. The taste of his own blood immediately exploding in his mouth until it caused him to cough. He tried in vain to fight them off but there were so many of them. They just seemed to keep coming and coming and the more he fought the harder they attacked him until he finally gave up, fell, and looked up at the setting sun, descending over the hill in the direction of his house. His house. His children, his sons, his daughter. His wife. The reality of the situation began to blow apart his world into a million pieces. Now the money purse that he had so tightly held against his body seemed so unimportant. He would trade all the money, everything he had for just one more chance to brush his wife’s beautiful hair out of her face. For just one more chance to tell his sons and daughter that he loved them. For just one more chance to set his eyes upon them. But that seemed impossible now. As he looked at his surroundings, he noted that he was again alone. The bandits that had so ruthlessly beaten him for the meager resources that he had on his person were now gone. Probably heading into the nearest town to find a bar to celebrate their latest conquest. As the sun slowly made its descent into the bottom of the sky, exhaustion and sadness overwhelmed the man. Physically he had been pushed to his outer limit. Emotionally all he could think about was the woman he would never again touch, the kids who would grow up without their dad. As he felt his eyes close with the gathering darkness of the night and his soul they squeezed out a torrent of tears that had been resting in his flattened eyes. He was without hope.

He woke up sometime later. He was still too sore, to depleted to move. Every muscle in his body was screaming for relief from the oppression of the heat and the carnage. As he adjusted to his surroundings he noted that the chill from the previous evening had gone away and what had replaced it was an oppressive heat. The sweat intermingled with his cuts brought a new level of pain that he could do nothing about. He was alive, but barely. As his eyes got tired of looking into the midday sun and they involuntarily shut rolled into the back of his head his ears acquired a new sensitivity. In the distance, he heard…footsteps. Immediately a new wave of fear exploded in his world. Were the bandits really coming back? Were they worried that he might remember their faces? Extract revenge? Did they think he had been holding out on them? Had more money hidden in his shoes? In his head wrap? He could barely stand to open his eyes but he had to. If they were coming back he wanted them to have to look into his eyes. If they were going to beat him again, he would watch every blow coming. But it wasn’t bandits. He squinted as hard as he could. The person walking on the road was wearing holy robes. A clean robe, hardly even dusty from the trip along the road. For the first time in the last days, the traveler had a spark of hope appear in his darkened world.   This was a priest. A leader of the Jewish faith. Surely if he called out to him he would do whatever he could to help the man. And so, as he grew closer, the man gathered all his energy, pushed as much air out of his lungs as he could and cried out an exhausted cry for help. The rabbi stopped, looked at the man’s broken body, left to expire on the side of the road. And just as the man thought the rabbi was about to move towards him, he crossed to the opposite side of the road and sped away until the traveler couldn’t see him. And his world was crushed.

As he rested his head on the rocky terrain again his thoughts returned to his wife and children and the reality that he would never see them again. And again he cried. In the midst of his tears again he heard footsteps of someone moving up the path. As the blurry figure grew closer the man recognized him as a Levite–a temple worker. It was his job to help other folks and so once again the man gathered all the strength he had in his body and wheezed out a plaintive cry for help. Again the Levite heard him and this time he stopped. But as he stopped he looked up to the sky to check the position of the sun. It was getting near 3:00 in the afternoon and soon it would be dark again. The Levite, not wanting to find himself in the same predicament as this poor traveler, hurried his steps and before the traveler could make another sound he had passed over the hill and was again out of sight.

As time passed, the sun began to grow closer to that hill that he had been looking at and the traveler began again to lose hope. He was stuck here. He still couldn’t walk. He could hardly even keep his eyes open.

Last night at 10:03 I was in bed just about to fall asleep. My sermon comfortably done since Thursday, there was a chance that I would be able to go in to church today with my family with a full night of sleep under my belt. As I got ready to close my eyes I checked my phone one last time and saw a text message from a pastor friend in Pennsylvania, “This is bullshit,” it read. This friend and I share a deep and abiding love for the game of baseball and so for a split second I let myself think that I was missing something happening in a game. But that comfort would only last for a moment because the chill that ran down my spine testified that something much more awful was happening in the world at that moment. It was then that another friend texted me, “Are you watching this?” and then another, “What in the world am I going to say from the pulpit this morning?” There was no doubt by the time I was able to turn on the news that the trial of the killing of Trayvon Martin was concluded and that all that was left was the fruitless grasp at straws of comfort that was not and is not likely to come in the near future. Last night and well into this morning the pain of so many communities was placed on display for the whole world to see. While it is impossible to overcome all the racial issues that plague this nation in a single moment, this decision does reaffirm the place of African Americans within our society. Because each generation within the story of our country is plagued with senseless killings of persons doing little wrong except having the wrong skin color at the wrong time. What was the age of lynchings immediately following the Civil War in which churches in the South would literally stop worship to attend the lynching of (primarily) African American men and then return back to worship, in which whole towns would have picnics and social gatherings around the painful torture and killing of black folks, in which families would take family pictures standing in front of the lifeless bodies of African American men and women while taking pieces of bones as souvenirs by which to remember the day  was transformed into the age of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, boys and men who did nothing wrong save not knowing their place within the racial caste system within their country. Within my own generation and time Trayvon Martin will just take his place next to names like Rekia Boyd, Amadou Diallo, Malice Green, and Oscar Grant. Folks who did little wrong except for not knowing their place within the racial caste system of this country. These tragedies simply must stop.

My area of academic interest is around the myths that construct a national narrative. In Germany, there is the myth of the monster Jew. The person who would steal your child and your money. The person who felt loyalty to none but themselves. The one who was responsible for the German loss of World War I simply captured in the phrase, “The stab in the back.” These feelings still possess cultural currency in Germany today. During the Sino-Japanese conflict it was the myth of the subhuman Chinese. The capture of the former Chinese capital Nanking and the subsequent mass slaughter of the men, women, and children of the city all justified because it was war and those folks weren’t really human. These feelings still possess cultural currency in Japan today.

Our own myth is much more complex but also more deadly. At the base of the discovery of the land that would become the United States and much of Central America sits the mass slaughter of millions of indigenous peoples in the islands that surround the southern tip of the United States and the Caribbean. Columbus, in his efforts to financially justify his trip and to lend support to the ongoing wars over the Holy Lands sought to claim and send back as much gold as he possibly could to Portugal in hopes of securing his place in Portuguese lore and Heaven. In doing so, he and his men and those who would follow killed more folks than were killed in the German Holocaust and Stalin’s Russia. Combined.

Our settling of the land within the contiguous United States is no less problematic. There’s no real way to know how many of Native American peoples lost their lives as primarily European settlers came in and, when necessary took the land and drove its native population deeper and deeper into the heart of the continent, the tears of the people marking the path from here to there.

The introduction of African populations to address the growing need for laborers to help settle the areas in the south and grow its fields, take care of its houses and children created a new layer to the racial caste system of the nation. Those who survived the middle passage between Europe and the North American continent, would be placed in a situation in which they knew not the language nor the customs nor the religion but that didn’t really matter, they weren’t really viewed as human anyways. When eventually the time came to “civilize” the slave populations they were taught a milquetoast version of Christianity that left out any passages that might be considered problematic for slave owners, primarily the story of the Exodus from Egypt. When slaves were eventually converted, they still were not welcomed as brothers and sisters in the faith. In a little church about two towns over from my home church in North Carolina whose building dates to before the Civil War, you can still sit in the balcony and see the iron rings that were forged and bolted to the walls for chains to be run through just in case any slaves got any notions of freedom during church services about being free in Christ. From that point on there were bouts of “Irish need not apply,” and “Italians should live on that side of town,” and “The Japanese should really be kept in these internment camps,” and so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes. All this sits at the base of the story of the United States, less than 150 years ago. A reality for which there has never been full acceptance or adequate apologies made. The parts of history that many of us would much rather that we skip over still form the foundations for the manner in which we interact with the other.

As much as we earnestly desire to move past all this, to claim some kind of post-racial United States the fact remains, with the conclusion of the trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin, we had just reaffirmed what most folks know to be true, that as much as we all might want to sweep it under the rug or pretend that we have all overcome our prejudices, we still live in a world in which a child, walking through the neighborhood in which his father lived, doing nothing more than carrying a bag of skittles and a bottle of sweet tea with his hood turned up because it was raining, can still be gunned down for no other reason than the presumption that comes with having darker skin complexion, the presumption that this child must be up to no good.

The biblical reading for the morning tells the story of a man who does nothing wrong but walk down the road between two towns. And in Jesus’s telling of the story, he is quick to impart what we would call a racial component to it. Samaritans were despised by Jews. They were thought to be of a lesser class of people so much so that the chief point of Jesus’s telling is that this person who none of y’all think can possibly do any good is going to be the hero of the story. Jesus, plays on their fears of the other to call each of us out on our own prejudices but the demand is still clear. We are called to reach across those divides to help those who hurt, those who are injured, those who cry out for justice and love. It is equally telling that Jesus uses the character of a religious leader and a religious worker to demonstrate what not helping looks like. Because it is in the nature of religion to look for the safest path, to huddle up together and take care of our own while not bothering to reach out into the larger community when we know, we know, that there are people hurting in our midst. Today, as with everyday, there are people hurting right now. And its not simply within the African American community. To think so is to buy into the walls of separation that have held different racial communities apart for far too long in this country. We are one people, one nation, on humanity. When one suffers, we all suffer. When one is hurt we are all hurt. When one of our children is killed, we are all killed. And we have to do better. Jesus needs Samaritans today. Jesus needs folks who aren’t afraid to stand in between the anger and those at whom the anger is directed. Jesus needs folks who will put flowers in guns, and stand with the downtrodden, and march with those who protest, and weep with those who weep and be angry. Too often we think we can’t or shouldn’t be angry. Too often we ignore the place of righteous anger in the movements that have brought about greater measures of peace and justice to the world. Too often we believe that be faithful Christians is to wall ourselves off, to sit in silence, and patiently wait for the return of Jesus. We can’t be those people anymore. Jesus needs Samaritans. Amen.

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