Sunday, July 10, 2016

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

Loving neighbor is a how question, not a who question

         Three years ago, the last time the parable of the “Good” Samaritan came up, was the week of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
         And I remember how quickly people picked the kid to pieces.
They blamed him for his death because he’d smoked marijuana, he’d been tardy, and he’d scratched WTF into a door at school. Who he was shaped whether he was worthy for life or death!

         And that reminds me of what they’ve been saying about the shooting in Dallas.
“Why did it happen there?” they ask.
It was the model of best practices in policing.
It shouldn’t have happened there, after all before the shooting the police and the protestors were mingling, snapping selfies with one another like teenagers in love.
         Who they were as a police department should have protected them against injury and death. Their character and their person, who they were, should have shielded them from the sniper.
         Then there is the case of Alton Sterling, killed in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile killed outside Minneapolis. People are saying strange things like:
“It’s a shame Philando died, but so what about Alton.”
Philando Castile was the beloved cafeteria guy,
Alton couldn’t keep a regular job and instead sold CD’s in the open air, he’d been to jail and had to hustle to make ends meet.
         Imagine that,
do any of you have relatives or friends that work odd jobs?
or have seen the inside of a cell? Imagine if society decided that meant it was okay to kill them! Who they are allows for execution.

         Likewise, both the Black Lives Matter folk, and the police, are similarly feeling targeted for who they are.

         With all that weighing on our shoulders and our speech, we come up against Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor.
In the face of today’s readings and our current reality, I would suggest we must ask how questions, not who questions. When confronted with this command to love our neighbor, we must ask how questions,
not who questions.
Let us pray:

         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?”
         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:
         “Hear 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, of all places, “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 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? 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.

         Confronted with the ways in which our country devalues the lives of black men:
         -Who? Alton Sterling, the father of five selling CD’s, surprised and shot.
         -Who? Philando Castile, the man pulled over for a torn tail light, caught in his car and confessing to the cop that he had a concealed carry permit and a gun, before he was killed in front of his girlfriend and her 4 year old daughter.
--They are your neighbor.

         Confronted, as well, by the ambush in Dallas:
         -Who? The 5 officers slain there in the street and all the injured that night.—They are your neighbor.

         In the face of these tragedies…
         -Who? The families of all the fallen.—They are 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 crisis
—by sticking him here and now.

         The way some people are framing our life together in this country…
Jesus would tell the police the story of “The Good Black Lives Matter Activist.”
and tell the Black Lives Matter Folk the story of “The Good Policeman.”

         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 “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?
Is he someone of my religion?
From my nation?
My race?
My social standing?
         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.”
That is, the one who is moved in the gut, so that they are forced to move with hands and feet, moved to minister and give aid!
         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!

         As we light these seven candles for the five officers killed in Dallas and the two men killed in Minnesota and Louisiana, let us honor their lives,
who they were,
but let us also consider in our hearts the how.
How we can love as Jesus calls us to love.
I, for one, will reach out to our local police today, just to let them know our prayers as with them in their time of mourning,
and check-in with my colleagues of color,
and I guess, just try to listen, right?
To ask God for the courage to connect with people whose experience of life is not like my own,
so that I can continue to ask that how question.
How will you love your neighbor as yourself?