Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Who Is My Neighbor?

Sheepscott Community Church July 11, 2010

Colossians 1: 1-14

Luke 10: 25-37

Who Is My Neighbor

I think today’s gospel about the Good Samaritan, combined with the parable in Matthew 25 of the separation of the sheep and the goats at the time of the last judgment, constitute the core of the Christian religion. Both of them have to do with action, not creed.

In Matthew 25, the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of my brethren, you did for me.’”

This story, today’s gospel of the Good Samaritan, and the Golden Rule––Do unto others as you would have them do unto you––which is found in some form in all religions, including Christianity, all of this I consider the core of the Christian faith. All answer the question, Who is my neighbor? We turn away from the full answer to that question at our own peril. Additionally, Jesus is the teacher, the way-shower, the one whom we listen to and imitate to bring about what constitutes the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, the kingdom of God on earth.

Let’s focus on this morning’s gospel now, and try to keep an open mind, an open spirit to what Jesus is teaching here. It’s possible to have a radical conversion to Christianity today, or, for some of us, a recharge of our batteries and a deeper conviction of the rightness of our choice to continue to follow the teachings of Jesus, which you will hear in this church. But just as surely, you will not hear the command or even a suggestion to judge others for what they do or do not do.

In today’s gospel, judgment is the name of the game. Let us consider the players, but first, the setting. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a dangerous place. In something less than 20 miles, the road dropped from 2300 feet above sea level in Jerusalem, to 1300 feet below sea level in Jericho. A narrow, rocky road, its sudden turnings made ideal hiding places for robbers and brigands to surprise and seize upon their victims. The man who was set upon by robbers in the gospel story was reckless, as he was traveling the road alone. People generally traveled that road in convoys or caravans, especially if they were carrying goods or valuables. There was more likely safety in numbers. It is not ill-conceived to say that the man was foolish and brought this disaster on himself.

The other characters of this drama? Biblical commentator William Barclay suggests that according to the Law, the priest who hurried past was remembering that anyone who touched a dead man would be unable to fulfill his priestly duties for seven days because he had made himself unclean. He couldn’t be sure the man was dead, but he did look dead from the distance and he wasn’t about to take any chances on not being able to discharge his duties. He set ceremony over charity, and made the liturgy more important than the pain of another human being.

Then came the Levite who also passed by. Barclay suggests that he was not going to risk his safety, aware as he would have been that groups of robbers would often put a wounded-man decoy out to trap the would-be compassionate passerby. The Levite didn’t want to be caught in such a trap. And who can blame him?

When Jesus in his story introduced the Samaritan, it’s probable that the listeners expected that ah, here comes the real villain. As we have talked about before, the Samaritans were the despised others, who worshipped on Mount Gerazim, and not on the Jerusalem Mount where, according to the Jews, all true believers worshipped. Actually, the man did not have to be a Samaritan racially, the term could have been employed to indicate any despised other. Jesus himself is called a Samaritan in John 8: 48, named a heretic and breaker of ceremonial law. Do you ever think sometimes how difficult it was for Jesus to be Jesus? Don’t forget, he was thoroughly human, no less than you and I, and we know how difficult it is to bear the slings and arrows of slander. Now multiply that to the 10th or infinite power to imagine what it was like for Jesus, as far as frequency and virility of attacks. If Lindsay Lohan thinks she has trouble with the paparazzi, she should try being Jesus the teacher who had his own paparazz, the scribes and pharisees, always after him, always waiting and hoping for him to trip himself up.

Back to the story. We have this despised Samaritan, and isn’t he the one who gets off his animal, bathes the man’s wounds, puts him on his own animal and takes him to an inn, where he slips the owner a few pieces of silver and asks him to watch out for this man. If there is any additional charge, he’ll take care of that on his way back through the next time. He must be an honest man, and probably a frequent visitor, as the owner apparently knows and trusts him.

Whether or not he was a heretic as defined by Jewish law, the love of God was in the Samaritan’s heart. It is not really a surprise in the story to find the orthodox Jews are more interested in dogma and ceremony than in helping the man, and no doubt would have been quick to justify and back up their lack of action. It’s also no big surprise as stories go to find that the man the orthodox despise is the person who indeed helps the man in need. Jesus knew his audience and he knew how to tell a story, how to get the point across. The moral of the story was transparent enough so that anyone within hearing couldn’t miss it: In the end we will be judged, not by the creed we hold but by the life we live.

Because of the jots and tittles of qualification in the Law as Jews read it, we can assume that the scribe’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” is a genuine one. Jesus’s answer to him was another question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? And the scribe answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus’s admonition? “Go and do likewise.”

And what constitutes mercy in this story?

1) We must help a person, even when he or she has brought trouble on their own head, as the man who fell among robbers had done.

2) Any person of any country who is in need is our neighbor; our love must be as wide as the love of God, which is wider than the span of any country and does not honor national boundaries.

3) The help must be practical and not consist in merely feeling sorry for the person. To be genuine, to be real, compassion must manifest in deeds or action.

One of the things––let’s call that “sin,” not thing––one of the sins I am most sorry for in my own history was not stopping on the side of the road once to help someone who needed it. I was in a hurry, subject then even more than now to the tyranny of the wrist watch, the tyranny of time. I know now in a way I did not know then that never is it more important to arrive anywhere on time than it is to help someone who needs it, someone on the side of the road.

But here’s the rub. Okay, many of us, if not all of us, have sinned in this area of not doing good where we might have. Breast-beating and self-flagellation do not further the cause of good either. What does re-enable us, if you will, to do good is to repent, be forgiven, and go forward. It’s nicely captured in this morning’s psalm 25, which we read together as the Call to Worship. To wit, “remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways;/ according to your love, remember me, for you are good, O Lord.”

And further on in the psalm, “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way./ All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant,” which brings us full circle back to the gospel. The man of the Law, the scribe had asked Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life, and Jesus had answered with a question: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”

He answered, “Love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind; ‘And love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus approved of his answer, which constitutes the demands of his covenant mentioned in the psalm. Are we meeting the demands of his covenant? Are we loving the Lord with all our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength? And our neighbor as our self? Well, if our sin against God or our neighbor is leading us in the way of the aforementioned breast-beating, self-flagellation and woe-is-meness, get over it. Repent, receive God’s forgiveness and move on. Get back into life.

The answer to the question Who is our neighbor? covers a lot of ground. Remember what I said among those three points that characterize mercy? That our love must be as wide as the love of God. To include turtles crossing the road and fledgling swallows fallen from the wire, the nest, the sky? All creatures? A mercy so wide that it translates to stewardship of the earth? Are all these fellow creatures our neighbors? Doesn’t yes make more sense than no when thinking in terms of the wide net of love God casts?

Another example of Who is my neighbor? was someone for whom no good Samaritan came in time––Matthew Shepherd. Fifteen years ago, he died after being tied to a fence post in a field in Wyoming, and savagely beaten. Like the man of this morning’s gospel, beaten by robbers and left to die, Matthew Shepherd was beaten and left to die because he was homosexual. No other reason. We don’t have to go as far as Wyoming. Right here in our state of Maine, 1984, Charlie Howard was thrown off a bridge in Bangor into the Kenduskeag Stream because he was a homosexual. It was too late for Matthew Shepherd and Charlie Howard, but it isn’t too late for us to learn a lesson from their deaths, and that lesson, as Jesus taught by choosing the despised Samaritan to be the hero of his tale, that lesson is that nobody is other. Acts of kindness and goodness, as well as acts of meanness of spirit and depths of depravity are possible for every human being, whether as giver or receiver. We are all connected in the family of God, the body of Christ.

We move more in the direction of goodness and kindness when we make good choices, when we build a habit of virtue and not of vice. That can be done in small, homely ways such as making coffee for your spouse in the morning and serving it with a smile instead of retreating behind, “Don’t talk to me. You know I’m not a morning person.” Get over yourself and make some coffee. We can build habits of virtue by service in the community, on the planning board, in the Legislature, volunteering at the library or hospital. We can build habits of virtue by listening to the literal words of Jesus in his parable of the sheep and goats: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to the stranger, visit the sick and those imprisoned. Performing these acts of mercy, creating these habits of virtue and distancing ourselves from vice becomes easier when we associate with others who are trying to do the same, when we seek the source of all mercy together in our Sunday service.

An example of a father and son a few weeks back who chose an act of kindness that literally saved a life even though their own lives were thereby endangered. This story was reported in the Kennebec Journal. A woman had crashed her car into a moose at night. The moose was dead on the road, the woman’s car was in the way of traffic, and the woman herself walking around dazed and disoriented, when the father and son team stopped. The son quickly assessed the situation, picked up the woman and threw her over the guardrail just as a truck bore down on them. He saved her life. When the police arrived the father and son left, and no one knew who they were. But we know: they were Good Samaritans. If Matthew Shepherd didn’t have someone that night who cared as these two did for the woman, whether she lived or died, if he didn’t have anyone to care for him the same way, maybe we can care in his name, and in the name of Charlie Howard and of all those who have died beaten and alone with no one to be their Good Samaritan. Let us thus strive to love our neighbor as ourselves, indeed as we ourselves would hope someone would so love us if the shoe were on the other foot. It’s pretty simple, really, isn’t it? Amen.

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