Who is My Neighbor?

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 10th, 2016
Preached by Pastor Gregory Sakal
Scriptures: Amos 7:7-17; Luke 10:25-37

High Summer at The HilJust then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

God be in my head, in my heart, and upon my lips.

The lawyer here in this morning’s Gospel is one smart fella. He’s studied the scriptures backwards and forwards, knows all the rules and regulations, and can probably quote chapter and verse as to their origin.

We might imagine Sam Waterston as Assistant AG Jack McCoy in Law and Order, arguing at a motion hearing in front of a judge, being able to effortlessly spit out citations of the applicable case law to support his position.

His only desire is to get the decision he wants—not necessarily thinking about its righteousness.

This lawyer guy in our reading is wanting to test Jesus, to see how much Jesus really knows about the law.

Beyond that, however, he probably never really thought about the practical demands that the law requires, so taken up was he in winning his case.

This guy in the story knows all the words of the law; however, his question to Jesus indicates that he really doesn’t understand the personal demands that the law makes upon him individually.

The starting point for Jesus in his response is what he knows this lawyer is really good at: “What does the law say?”, Jesus asks.

The lawyer immediately replies: “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.”

Jesus complements him on his answer, telling him that he has answered rightly.

But now, this lawyer wants to split hairs.

He’s sharp as a tack.

We might imagine him in the old lawyer joke, when a guy comes up to a lawyer and says, “If I give you $100, will you answer two questions for me?”, to which the lawyer responds, “Sure thing—what’s your second question?’

Being a lawyer, this guy wants a particular, precise definition as to who his neighbor might be. He needs a exact rule that he can carefully apply in all circumstances.

Is it anyone within x cubits of where I live? Anyone within a three mile radius of the town center?

At this point, Jesus responds with one of the most famous parables in all the gospels, found only in Luke: the story of the Good Samaritan.

A man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

That’s all we are told about this unfortunate fellow, who gets beaten to a pulp by a group of highwaymen.

If we were to translate the Greek describing this guy into a contemporary idiom, it might be rendered as “Some dude…” was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

His ethnicity and or class are immaterial.

This guy is beset by robbers, who leave him beaten and bloody by the side of the road.

After being ignored by two members of the elite, a Samaritan takes pity on this beaten man, and ministers to him.

To deepen our understanding, we need to take a look at who the Samaritans were—actually, still are.

They were a group that closely followed Judaism. However, they claimed to follow an “authentic” form of Judaism laid down prior to the Babylonian exile.

They had their own laws, and their own version of the Torah.

Hence, they were looked down upon by the Israelites, and were definitely considered “less-than” and low-class.

Using a Christian term, they were definitely not “In communion” with mainstream Jews—in fact, words cannot adequately convey how ill-regarded the Samaritans were by mainstream Jews of the day.

Simply by saying the word, “Samaritan”, our lawyer guy is likely already clenching his teeth.

This understanding of how Samaritans were regarded makes the parable even more striking.

The priest and the Levite, two members of prominent social classes in ancient Israel, people who should have known better, crossed the street when they saw this man lying battered and bleeding on the ground.

For them to have touched an injured and possibly dead man would have required them to undergo rituals of purification. Best not to get involved, they thought.

The Samaritan, however, who in the eyes of the priest and the Levite would have been decidedly of an inferior and lower class, immediately stopped to help this man.

Not only did he cleanse the man’s wounds and bind them up, but bought him food and shelter without any thought as to whether or not he would be repaid, assuring the innkeeper that whatever additional expense he might incur in caring for the injured man, would be repaid to him in full.

So, we can guess what the lawyer was thinking when he asks Jesus, “…and who is my neighbor?”

Consider this man, a wealthy lawyer, a scholar of Jewish law, upper class, well-connected, is suddenly confronted with observing the law not only in his head, as in “Love God and neighbor”, but in the street with his hands, heart, and resources.

Sure, he tells Jesus that he observes the law. But has he ever considered what it means in practice?

For that matter, have we?

This past week has certainly given us a lot to think about in terms of who our neighbors are.

With respect to the killing of Philando Castile in MN, who was shot to death by a police officer while being stopped for a broken taillight—with his girlfriend and her child looking on—we might find ourselves thinking, “Well, there are some points in the case that we don’t know, or don’t understand.”

We want so very much to find a reason to detach from the brutality of this event…but we mustn’t allow ourselves to do that.

I doubt there is anyone here in this church who is of the Caucasian persuasion who has ever feared for his or her life during a routine traffic stop.

We would do almost anything in our minds to justify or exceptionalize—if that’s even a word—this horrific event.

The cop must have had a good reason; there must be something…something…we don’t know.

Unfortunately, the two deaths—Baton Rouge LA, and Falcon Heights, MN—are yet additional links in a ponderous chain of similar events that continue to happen across our great country.

This is certainly not a condemnation of all police, any more than the egregious behavior on the part of some clergy should become an indictment on all ministers.

Yet, every police officer in the nation has been deeply affected by this violence, just as every minister has been deeply affected by the misdeeds of the few.

But clearly, there is something amiss in our culture if these events are permitted to continue happening in cities across the land.

Asking for higher standards on the part of those who put their lives on the line for us each and every day is not the same as saying “All police are bad.”

Asking law enforcement to do a better job of training the rank and file to deal with such situations isn’t a condemnation, any more than a teacher telling a pupil, “Jane, I think you can do a better job than that.” If Jane were to apply that kind of reductionist logic to her teacher’s critique of her work, she’d probably go home and tell her mom, “My teacher hates me.”, which of course isn’t the case. Teacher knows that her student is capable of far more than she is currently producing.

The most bitter irony of this past week is the horrific slaughter of five police officers in Dallas—a city that, by all reports, has made immense strides in the reduction of police shootings, and in managing community relations in general.

As it turns out, the carnage was once again the work of a lone gunman.

As I noted a few weeks ago when I spoke about Orlando, angry, disaffected men are everywhere, and they come in all colors. However, it is only here in the U.S.—most especially in Texas—that such men can procure a deadly weapon as easily as they might purchase a fishing rod.

This culture of guns and violence has created a war mentality, and in fact, this is how many folks see things. The problem with a war mentality is that it presumes an enemy, and that the desired outcome is the total obliteration of the loser by the winner.

Well, there is a war going on in this country. However, the enemy isn’t the other—the enemy is within ourselves; and if we continue on the present path, it will be ourselves that we will obliterate.

Each time an act of senseless gun violence takes place, a piece of our national soul is lost. It corrodes us from the inside.

Our indifference—our failure to speak out, to bear witness, is just as deadly. Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

The enemy is not people whose skin is a different color than our own, or who pursue a different religious tradition—or none, for that matter—than our own.

The enemy is within our unwillingness to purge the prejudice and racism within our own hearts.

Who is my neighbor?

Everyone is our neighbor. The folks you like, the folks you don’t like, the folks who don’t like you.

The Samaritan in today’s gospel story didn’t stop to figure out the ethnicity or religious affiliation of the beaten man. He didn’t research his criminal record—if indeed there was one. He simply became fully present to the stricken man as a good neighbor.

You see, it is we ourselves that must be the good neighbors. It is we ourselves that must be proactively compassionate and kind.

The opposite of love, my friends, is not hate; it is indifference.

We express indifference when we attempt to distance ourselves from the terrible events around us, as if by virtue of the fact that because we are not the direct perpetrators, we are somehow absolved of all responsibility.

Yet, by our unwillingness to speak out, we are complicit in the epidemic of violence sweeping our country.

One thing that young black men and police officers have in common: both leave home each day uncertain as to whether or not they will return to their loved ones.

After this week, there are five families in Dallas who have lost spouses and fathers; in Louisiana and Minnesota, two civilian families who have lost loved ones as well, and all to violence.

The culture of guns and violence in our midst must end; the demon within us must be exorcised, and the fear of the “Other” purged.

The refusal of our elected leaders to remove themselves from the payroll of those who benefit from the rapid proliferation of firearms must be called to account—and if not by us as Christians, then by whom?

The prophet Amos had a few things to say to the leadership of his day who refused to change their ways.

Recall that Amos was an unwilling prophet. Amaziah, the chief priest of Bethel, dismisses Amos, and tells him to peddle his prophesies someplace else.

Amaziah says to him, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

…to which Amos replies, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

Amos is no career prophet—nor a temple/government insider. The task laid on him by The Lord is to speak the truth.

He takes great exception to Amaziah declaring that Bethel is the king’s sanctuary, and not the Lord’s.

In response, Amos prophesies the exile of Israel, and the destruction of the king.

The Lord is measuring Israel against a plumb line—an absolute measure of justice and right behavior—and Israel doesn’t measure up.

Elsewhere in Amos’ prophesy, the Lord exclaims how he despises the rituals of worship—the New Moon festivals, and the sacrifices.

The Lord rails against those who await the end of the Sabbath so that they might go back to cheating the poor.

The sin of indifference to the needy is what the Lord despises.

The unwillingness to redress the inequality of justice is what the Lord despises.

The triumph of the rich and powerful over the poor and weak is what the Lord hates.

The willingness of the people to get away with as much as they can for as long as they can is what has engendered the Lord’s wrath.

Our ongoing dance with the second amendment in this country, which has become nothing less than a perverse tool of the gun lobby to sell more guns—and our refusal to act—are as bad or worse than anything in biblical times that earned the Lord’s displeasure.

Most of us have the privilege of changing the channel, or skipping the news in our desire to escape from the violence around us.

But neither the families of those police officers who were shot, nor the families of the two individuals this past week who were killed, have that option. This violence will be a stain on their lives—and on ours—forever.

Who is our neighbor? Everyone.

We cannot, and must not allow the politics of division and race to prevent us from living out this gospel imperative.

Some of you might be wondering about the sign out front that I put up Thursday night: Black Lives Matter. You might be asking, “Don’t all lives matter?

Indeed yes—not one of us is more or less important in the eyes of The Lord. But until our national life actually reflects this truth, we cannot attempt to erase the statistics that are so inescapable.

As long as one mother’s child is at risk for being shot simply because of the color of his skin, we are all derelict in our response to the gospel’s commandment to love our neighbor, and must be reminded that black lives matter.

We as Christians are called upon to witness to the violence, and more importantly, lead the way out of it.

There are signs of hope. Even in this darkness, God himself is near. In Dallas, a bond has formed between the police and the Black Lives Matter coalition. People are actually talking—and listening—to one another about their lives, their hopes, their fears.

That’s a good beginning. In fact, it’s the only place to begin—with willing hearts to listen to one another, and learn from one another.

God has given us so much—everything, in fact. He came to us as one of us, lived among us, and offered himself on the cross as a perfect sacrifice for our sinfulness.

In our refusal to courageously face the violence in our culture, we are simply turning our backs on the cross, and putting our faith in the sword–and, as Jesus said in Matthew 26:52, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

For our Christian faith to have any meaning at all, we must live it as well as state our belief in it.

The road to justice is a long, hard road—but Jesus is with us, and with God, nothing is impossible; no good thing unattainable; no grace too difficult to be won.

It begins right here, in our church, with us, in our very hearts.

Let us pray:

O Lord our judge,
you framed the earth with love and mercy
and declared it good;
yet we, desiring to justify ourselves,
judge others harshly,
without knowledge or understanding.
Keep us faithful in prayer
that we may be filled with the knowledge of your will and your truth,
and not ignore or pass by another’s need,
but plumb the depths of love in showing mercy. Amen.

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