Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sermon: Loving neighbor is a how question, not a who question

Loving neighbor is a how question, not a who question

As some of you may know the final match of the World Cup will be going on this afternoon. Spain will be playing the Netherlands. And some people are very excited to know who will win. Some people are so excited in fact, that they are looking everywhere for predictions about who is going to win. In fact an Octopus in Germany has predicted that the Spanish will beat the Dutch.
In Singapore a Parakeet made different predictions. It predicted that the Dutch soccer team will beat the Spanish.
I have a slightly different prediction to make today.
I predict that this afternoon there will be a Spaniard and a Dutchman traveling by boat hoping to make it to the last match of the World Cup in South Africa. The boat will strike a rock, and slowly began to sink.
The Spaniard will say, “I’ll call the Spanish embassy, they’ll send someone to help us.”
“No,” the Dutchman will reply, “I’ll call the Dutch embassy. They’ll get someone right out here to help us.”
And so it will go, both men refusing to allow the other one to call on their country to save the boat. And it will sink. And they will die.
When the wreckage is explored it will be said, “if only they had cared less about who was going to save them and more about how they were going to be saved.”

You may remember that during Lent I preached a sermon about Jesus’ injunction, “blessed be those who suffer.” And, when discussing suffering I suggested God takes the mournful question mark behind the word how? and straightens it up and makes it into an exclamation point behind the word who!
Today, however, I would suggest, when confronted with a command to love our neighbor we must ask how questions, not who questions. When confronted with a command to love our neighbor, we must ask how questions, not who questions.
Let us pray:
Lord, please anoint the preacher’s lips, that his words might be true and well heard. Lord, please anoint the assembly, that their meditations might be faithful and their responses right.--Amen.

Today, Jesus is asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus, responds with his own question, “What does it say in scripture? How do you read our tradition?” He is, in a sense, asking the lawyer, “Why do you ask that question?”
The Lawyer’s response is not unusual, he thinks back to the second verse of the Jewish morning and evening prayer known as the Shema, “Here o Israel the Lord our God, the Lord, is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
To which he adds from Leviticus, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And that could have ended the discussion right there. Jesus answers, “yup. So go on and love God with your whole self and love your neighbor as yourself.”

But, the Lawyer insists upon asking the who question.
“Who,” he asks, “is my neighbor?”
“Who,” he asks, “must I love as myself?”
“Who,” he asks, “must I love to gain eternal life?”
But Jesus takes this question about eternal life—this who question—and takes it out of the abstract—he solidifies, “love your neighbor as yourself,” in story.
After all, “Once upon a time,” is a more effective instructor than, “thou shalt not,” or even, “thou shalt.”
He takes this lofty concept and lowers it onto a road—the Road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
This road was infamous.
This road was known as “the bloody path” for at least 500 years by the time Jesus placed his parable there.
This road was where the last king of Judah watched his sons be slaughtered by the Babylonians before they blinded him and bore him away to Babylon.
This road, in 17 miles, goes down 3,300 feet.
This road winds and twists, gets narrow, and is an easy place from which to ambush someone.
This road, was a dangerous road and a deadly place to ponder earning eternal life.

For that matter Jesus answers the “who question” very clearly and very concretely. “Who must I love to inherit eternal life?”
Who? The bloody carcass of a man mangled on a dangerous road—he is your neighbor.
Who? A man stripped naked, so you can’t tell if he’s your kin or not—he is your neighbor.
Who? A man without any means to repay you—he is your neighbor.
Acting merciful in the midst of death and danger—that’s how Jesus answers the eternal life question and the who question. When you can’t even tell who it is you’re helping and you help them anyway—that’s when you know you’re loving your neighbor.

But he doesn’t stop there.
He then turns to those who ask the who question,
and shows how the who question leaves men stranded and dying on deadly roads.
The Priest asked the who question, “Who is that there, is he dead? Who is he? Is he Israelite? Who will ambush me if I try to help him?”
He then decides that he’ll go to the other side to be on the “safe side.”
The Levite asks the same questions—the who questions. And he too decides to go to the other side in order to be on the “safe side.”
Then—to add insult to injury—the man who helps the injured man—the man who doesn’t ask the who question—is a Samaritan!

Now, that might not strike us as odd… after all we know this story as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” But at that time, and at that place, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan.
I could tell you all the historical reasons for Samaritans being considered bad news to 1st century Jews—but I think the startling nature of Jesus’ story can be made in another way—by placing him into our present social and historical context—by sticking him here and now.
In Palestine Jesus’ story would be titled “The Good Israeli.”
At ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood, the story’s title would be “The Good Terrorist.”
Amongst Crips the story would be entitled, “The Good Blood.”
To the Cleveland Cavaliers… the story would be entitled, “LeBron James.”

The hero of Jesus’ story—the one that doesn’t ask who—is a Samaritan.
And this Samaritan asks a different question, he asks how. “How am I going to help this man?”
And his actions answer this question loudly. He becomes personally involved. He personally binds up wounds, he gives of his oil and his wine, he puts the wounded man on—as scripture emphasizes, “his own beast” and gives of his own monies.
When confronted by someone broken by the conflicts and snares of this world—by banditry and by pain—he did not ask who is that? Is that person worth helping?
He asked, “How can I help him? What resources do I have, or do I know of, that can help that person!”
And once Jesus finished up his parable, he asked another question of the Lawyer. Because you see the Lawyer was busy asking who is my neighbor. So Jesus asked a different question—“Which of these three was neighborly to the man who fell among the robbers? Which one was neighborly to his neighbor?”
Sheepishly the Lawyer must admit, “the one showing mercy on him.” Jesus isn’t concerned with who the neighbor is—he’s concerned with how we treat the neighbor. He is concerned with showing mercy in the midst of death and danger!

And so, I would like to make another prediction about this afternoon.
This afternoon there will be a Spaniard and a Dutchman traveling by boat hoping to make it to the last match of the World Cup in South Africa. The boat will strike a rock, and slowly began to sink.
And they will make a call to the coast of South Africa, and the only people they can get a hold of will be a Uruguayan and a German.
And they will say, “I don’t know if you want to help us. After all our soccer teams beat your soccer teams.”
And to this the Uruguayan and the German will respond, “We don’t care who you are. All we care about is how we can save your life!”
And with that they will rush to the scene and save the day. Because when confronted with a command to love our neighbor, we must ask how questions, not who questions. A+A

1 comment:

Leila said...

Great stuff! :-)