Who Is My Neighbor?

Scripture: Jeremiah 7:1-7 & Luke 10:25-37

Given on August 20, 2017


He loathed being on this road as he traversed the Judean countryside from one major city to the next. Each moment felt as if he living on borrowed time, unsure around which corner he would find danger. He knew the talk of other travelers like himself. He heard them say, don’t go down that road, you won’t come back unscathed. He had heard about bandits and robbers lining the road on either side. Each twist and turn leading to certain demise. And so as he went he held his meager resources just a little closer to himself. He stared as far as he could into the gathering dusk trying to perceive some sign of what he knew must have been coming next. It was only luck that had been his companion thus far, a kind twist of fate that was certain to unravel at any moment. He knew it. And so it was as he went along on this path, this path that he had trod so many times before, each time felt increasingly uncertain. His routine before leaving for this route became increasingly measured, incremental in its movement from one moment to the next. The kisses he shared with his wife and children, his final indicator that his trip was about to comment become an elongated ritual in which he would mentally count each of the hairs on his children’s heads. Each deep and intimate kiss with his beloved lasting just a bit longer than one might think was appropriate. And the final embrace with his wife, as he held in her in his arms, knowing in his very soul that this could be the last time, and thus, trying 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 wept as he departed and 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.

When the ruffians emerged from behind the large boulder to his right and trapped the traveler against the chasm that seemed to descend into Sheol that was on his left, he replayed in his mind a thousand times what was about to occur. Seemingly out of habit, he cloaked his money purse behind his tunic in a valiant though pointless attempt to hide it from the robbers as if they weren’t going to leave him naked and broken until he gave it up. The blows came swift and hard. The reality of the situation slowly coming into view. He bravely sought to fend them off but they were many and he was one. And with each one that he fought off, seemingly 10 more joined in and they just seemed to keep coming and coming until he finally gave up and collapsed. And as he fell, as luck would have it, his head fell to the ground and twisted in the direction of the setting sun, descending over the hill in the direction of his house. His house. His children, his son, his daughter. His wife. The awareness of what was happening to him, what was about to happen to him, blew his world up into a million pieces. Now the purse that he had clung to so tightly seemed so unimportant. He would have traded all the money in the world, 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 son and daughter that he loved them. For just one more chance to set his eyes upon them. But that seemed impossible now.

As he awoke, it was clear that it was now dark. But he was neither in Gehenna or Heaven, though he felt like he was teetering on the edge between alive and dead and he was alone. The bandits that had savaged him for his meager money were now gone. No doubt they were heading for the nearest place that they could, perhaps a tavernto celebrate their latest conquest. And as the moon slowly moved across the night 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 awoke sometime later—still too sore, to depleted too move. Every muscle in his body was crying to God and man for relief from the noon heat and the gaping wounds that now covered much of his body. As he adjusted to his surroundings he noted that the chill from the previous evening had gone away and what had replaced it was the heat of a potter’s kiln beating down on his from the sun. And the sweat from his body flowed bathing his cuts—bringing with it a new level of agony against which he was powerless. He was alive, but barely. As his sight blazed in the light of the midday sun, they involuntarily shut and rolled into the back of his head, his ears took on a new degree of sensitivity and in the distance, he heard…footsteps. Terror washed over his entire being. Were they really coming back? Were they worried that he might remember their faces? Did they think he had been holding out on them? Had more money hidden in the soles of his sandals? 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 at him, stare deeply into the whites of his eyes. But it wasn’t the bandits. He squinted as hard as he could and saw a person walking on the road was wearing the robes of a cleric. A clean robe, hardly even dusty from the trip.

And for the first time in the last couple of days, the traveler had a spark of hope appear in his darkened world. This was a rabbi. 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. He looked over the beaten man’s broken body—a body that had been 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 decimated. 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 tears blurred his vision until he could not bear to open his eyes. Until again he heard the sound of footsteps coming down the road. 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. As the last sliver of sun rested on top of the hill, the man thought he heard the sound of hooves dragging against the dirt. Quietly at first but growing louder bit by bit. By this point in the day he had long given up hope that anyone was going to help him and so he didn’t even bother trying to muster whatever energy he had left to cry out, all he had in him was a long, barely audible sigh—as if he was ready to commend his spirit into the hands of God. But as he got to the end, he noticed the sound of the hooves had gone away. “See,” he thought to himself, “no one is coming to help me.” And he closed his eyes again. In the darkness and pain he began to feel the slight tingle of relief as if someone was rubbing a balm on his leg. And then the other. And then an arm. And the other. As he opened his eyes he was shocked to see a Samaritan attending to his wounds. Maybe I no longer look like a man of Israel, he thought to himself. Maybe the blood and dirt that covered most of his body had hidden the fact that he was a Jewish man as his people didn’t think much of their neighbors to the south. But the Samaritan didn’t seem to notice. Or care. With a lunge the man found himself draped over the donkey that the Samaritan had been riding on. It was a bit of an embarrassing position for the traveler to find himself, placed atop a donkey like a sack of dirty laundry but he didn’t care. Hope was streaming through his veins. For the first time in almost two days he believed that he may see his wife and children again and as darkness again began to swallow the light of day the man allowed himself to drift to sleep thinking about the smell of his wife’s hair, the feel of his daughter’s skin, the glint in his son’s eye. The next thing he knew he was being lowered onto a bed of soft hay, with a cotton sheet laid over the top of it. He wanted to thank the man, to shake his hand, to tell him his name and about his wife and children but the man who laid him down wasn’t the Samaritan. As he lifted himself up out of bed the new person in his room told him where he was, in an inn in a town a couple days walk from his own. As he tried to sit up he grimaced and the man told him to take it easy. “I am to take care of you for as long as you need to be taken care of,” he said. Your friend has already paid your bill and then some. At this, the room began to spin for the traveler. The events of the past two days had come crashing down on him and he could no longer make sense of everything. Confused and overwhelmed the traveler looked at the innkeeper and said the only thing that he could manage. “But who was he?”

Throughout the course of human history, we have struggled with this commandment given by why of the young expert in the law, that we are to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We have struggled with just exactly who is our neighbor and more importantly, whose plight are we able to ignore and continue on the way to our next destination. And we can’t know for sure where this young lawyer experienced the most difficulty in calling another his neighbor, though we are told that he asks just who is his neighbor that he might justify himself and the manner in which he has been living in community with others. But it is telling that Jesus challenges the prevailing notions of culture and, to a certain extent, race, in the parable he offers in response to the lawyer’s question. In that time, people from Samaria were hated by the people of Israel. They were thought to be lazy, shiftless, dirty, worthless people who were a drag on Israelite society. Numerous times in the scriptures, Jesus encounters people from Samaria and so great is the separation between Jews and Samaritans that they are genuinely shocked that he wants to have anything to do with them. And in the Parable, Jesus makes the point even finer by his use of both the priest and the Levite as the ones who see the man beaten and left for dead and simply cross over to the other side of the road in an effort to get where they are going on time and not get their hands bloodied and dirty trying to attend to this poor man. In that day, priests and temple workers were thought to occupy the highest echelon of Jewish society. They were well-educated, they were religious in the best way possible, they had given their lives to the service of God, of all persons who should have stopped to help this man, they should have and yet, they both left him there to die. Further, to use the example of the Samaritan is to take the worst prejudices of Hebrew society and shine a blazing hot spotlight on them in a way that no one in the crowd could have possibly missed. The idea of a Jewish merchant being helped by a Samaritan would have seemed completely absurd to his listener and yet, that is what makes this parable of Jesus so powerful, so real, so life altering. “Who was the neighbor to this poor man who fell in with robbers?,” Jesus asked the lawyer. “The one who showed compassion.” “Go and do likewise.”

We live in difficult times as a nation. Times in which the specters of the past seemingly continue to arise from graves long thought buried. Times in which the scars of wounds that have never fully healed have been torn asunder again and the pain from those lesions has brought about a great deal of dis-ease and strife to whole groups of peoples. Times in which equality amongst the various communities that make up our nation and dignity for all persons seems to be increasingly precarious. For too often we seek to build up walls of separation between ourselves and others. Too often we limit the number of folks with whom we find common cause and common lineage. Too often we squeeze our eyes shut and continue to walk past the ones lying on the road and calling out in misery. And while we do not do so in any sort of intentional manner—I believe that most of us would stop to help another in acute strife without concern for the color of skin or the cultural community of which she is a member—we all can turn a blind eye to the sufferings of groups who have never enjoyed an equal place at the table of our society. We can, as a nation, rightfully, mourn the loss of a single life while not really considering the impact of that which she was killed protesting against. We can, as a faith, believe with all our beings that we are to love all people fiercely and equally but if we never actually declare out loud what that means for our relationships to other groups of people, do we run the risk of our silence speaking far louder than any other words we offer? But, the good news is we already have both a platform and a methodology for how to speak those words and its found in the story of our church. In the midst of the white-hot heat of the Civil Rights Movement, at a time when to do so meant to a willingness to sacrifice ones life on the altar of equality, my courageous predecessor, Phil Noble, and this congregation stood up and proclaimed that equality was a Christian ideal, that race should never divide the people of God one from another, and that racism was sinful and evil. I wasn’t here at the time, nor was I even alive, but I have to imagine that in a town in which a bus filled with Freedom Riders was burned, these words of challenge coming from this pulpit were not met with universal acceptance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about Dr. Noble and his courage as I’ve walked from my office to my house and wondered if he was nervous as he made his way up the hill everyday. And yet, like Jesus, Dr. Noble declared that we are to love our neighbors and the color of ones skin does not make a person any less of a child of God.

It is a different time now. The challenges we face as a nation are different than they were in the 1960s. The struggle towards embracing a fierce and unshakable love now includes many hues of color, a multitude of religious commitments, the belief that truly all people regardless of who they are or what they have done, bear the image of the Holy One, each have been saved by Jesus, each contain the spark of the spirit deeply held in their souls. And yet the need for the people of God to outwardly declare the love of God has never been more needed, more urgent, more necessary. So together we must let the word go out at this time and from this place and into the community that here at this church we reject racism, sexism, credalism and any other forms of bigotry that separate brother from brother and sister from sister. We name each of these philosophies and practices as sin and boldly say that we are called to go and sin no more. We heed the words of Jesus that we are to love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength but that we are also called to love our neighbors as ourselves and that our neighbor is whomever we encounter on the journey from life to new life. We place our trust in the words of Jesus who told the lawyer that if he did these things he would live and we believe that we, too, must do them that we might know life and know it in abundance. And let us depart from this place being bold in our words, courageous in our actions, and faithful in our trust that while we may see brokenness and sin on this day, that the moral arc of the universe always bends towards justice. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia. Amen.

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