Neighbor

Trinitarian Congregational Church                                                     Stewardship Sunday

Anthony S. Kill                                                                                        October 22, 2017

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Luke 10:25-37

 

In today’s readings, we hear again the two great commandments about love of God and love of neighbor.

Commentators are quick to point out that this formulation of the two great commandments was not new with Jesus.

Both come from the Torah, the first books of the Old Testament and today we heard from the Law of Moses

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” Often other ancient Rabbis had taught the two great commandments together.

But clearly the melding of the two into one command for living became a core value for the early Christian Community.

I decided to read Jesus’ citing of the two greatest commandments from Luke’s gospel rather than Matthew’s, because in Luke it is followed by one of the best parables in the scriptures, the story of the Good Samaritan.

This Samaritan only appears in Luke, and because of the arrangement of the Lectionary of Sunday readings,  that text usually only comes around in the summer.

We need to hear it more often!

The problem a preacher has with a great parable like this  is that it’s a complete sermon unto itself.

It makes its point so graphically and so well, that any attempt to preach a sermon around it is almost redundant.

Still, there is much to be explored in this story.

I don’t know if this is really a Stewardship sermon or not, but I’d like to reflect on what I hear as the message of the Good Samaritan parable.

Perhaps the first thing to be said is that we need to shake off the very title of “the Good Samaritan”

Jesus never uses the term “Good Samaritan” and the Bible never mentions the phrase – it’s just the tag that generations of Christians have put on this parable.

For this lawyer, and for everyone in Jesus’ audience, a “good Samaritan” would be an oxymoron.

It was about as huge a contradiction as one could get.

I won’t go into all the ethnic animosity, prejudice and disdain there was between Samaritans and Jews in the ancient world, but suffice it to say that the phrase “a good Samaritan” would have made about as much sense as saying ‘an honest thief’, or ‘a gentle Taliban’, or ‘a kind-hearted terrorist’.

So the lawyer asks his legalistic trick question:

“Yes, I know God commands me to love my neighbor as myself, but tell me, just who is and who is not my neighbor.

Who do I have to care about, and who can I ignore?

Who must I love, and who can I hate?

Where is the boundary?

Who is in and who is out of my neighborhood?”

And Jesus gives an answer that says “Boundary?

Who said anything about a boundary?

There are no borders to God’s neighborhood!  There is no ‘us’ or ‘them’.”

And then he tells the story of a Samaritan having compassion on a Jew, and literally saving his life.

The First Letter of John reminds us of Jesus’ teaching this way:

“Anyone who says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother or sister, is a liar.

For anyone who does not love her brother or sister, whom she has seen, cannot love God, whom she has not seen.

Christ has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love their brothers and sisters.” (I John 4:20-21)

William Sloane Coffin, who was my former pastor at Riverside Church in New York City, said it this way:

“It seems to me that in joining a church you leave home and home town to join a larger world.

The whole world is your new neighborhood and all who dwell therein —black, brown, white, yellow, red, stuffed and starving, smart and stupid, mighty and lowly, criminal and self-respecting, American or Russian – all become your sisters and brothers in the new family formed in Jesus.

By joining a church you declare your individuality in the most radical way in order to affirm community on the widest possible scale.”

Mother Teresa of Calcutta said it this way: “Because we cannot see Christ, we cannot express our love to him; but our neighbors we can always see, and we can do to them what, if we saw him, we would like to do to Christ. Here in the slums, in the broken body, in the children, we see Christ and we touch him.”

The Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether said it this way: “Religious convictions that don’t express themselves in working for justice are not religious convictions.”

 This is love in the doing, not love as a feeling, not love as a fervor of ecstasy or a statement of conviction.

Is there a person in need?  There is your neighbor.

Is there someone who has been abused, taken advantage of, beaten down?

There is your neighbor.

Is there someone who has been left abandoned, uncared for, neglected or avoided?

There is your neighbor.

Is there someone who has been maligned, despised, caricatured, rejected?

There is your neighbor.

In the Kingdom of God, all the people of the earth are one family, around one table.

There is no distinction of race or gender or class or creed that divides us from one another.

There are no borders that cut some off from access to food, or access to clean water, or access to justice, or access to mercy or respect or education or opportunity.

Our creation of those borders is a creation of sin, or pride, or greed or fear.

And of course, those neighbors aren’t always the pretty people, or the polite people, or the friendly, helpful neighbors.

Sometimes, they’re the friendless, helpless neighbors.

Sometimes, it’s the very character and condition of that neighbor that makes this commandment so hard.

Do you remember that famous Charles Schultz  quote from the ‘Peanuts’ cartoon? “I love mankind.  It’s people I can’t stand.”

But this is love for the particular, individual neighbor: The co-worker, the employee (and the employer), the janitor, the teenager, the homeless, the stranger, the immigrant, the alien, even the enemy.

And it never gets easy.

And it is always the ultimate test of holiness, and always will be.

There is a Stewardship spin on this parable:

Commentators have pointed out that this story offers three attitudes,  or life philosophies, which any of us might choose:

What do we think life owes us, or we owe life?

The first attitude is represented by the bandits who seem to represent those who live by a philosophy that says: What’s yours is mine. I’ll take it.

Bandits, of course, aren’t just hiding in the hills and dark alleys.

These days some of them tend to wear suits and work for corporations or political or financial institutions that prey on the poor with little regard for or objection from the rest of us.

The second, and perhaps more pervasive, attitude is represented by the priest and the Levite who saw the wounded man but passed by on the other side.

They’re protecting themselves by not getting involved.

Oh, if it had been a family member or friend in the ditch they would have stopped, but for the stranger their philosophy says, What’s mine is mine. I’ll keep it.

The third compelling attitude is, of course, the rarest.

The Samaritan, reviled and despised, saw a neighbor and did not consider what it might cost him to stop to help.

The Samaritan didn’t calculate what would most benefit his career or social life.

No, his governing philosophy is simply, What’s mine is yours. I’ll give it.

A few years ago, I came across a poet’s meditation on this text, and I offer it to you now.

It is by Boston author Linda Dini Jenkins, and appears in her book “Journey of a Returning Christian.”  and it’s titled “Go and Do the Same”

I think if there were mountains or a desert or a narrow dirt road … If there were people in muslin cloaks and leather thongs … A shepherd with his sheep … Then the man with his hand out, hair a mess, trousers torn, smelling like landfill, would be easier to help.  More in context.

Closer to a miracle,perhaps, than this man at a city crossroads coming at you with angry words, jabbing his dirty finger in your back, following you down the street, shouting, telling you to have a good day, anyway, God bless you, anyway, in a way that makes you feel like crap.

In the shadow of a church on the corner, you might close your eyes or look down or walk a little faster or maybe even cross the street to get away, like the priest did, and the Levite did, long ago on the road to Jericho. You might even ask yourself  ‘Is he my neighbor?’

Some nights in the shadow of the church on the corner there is a woman sitting on a sidewalk with a handmade sign that says “Hungry senior,” but she looks hard, like no one’s grandmother, and you don’t know what to believe so you pretend not to see.  You don’t know what to believe but if you were brought up to believe anything at all, you just wish this would go away.

Wish she didn’t have to sit there, wish she didn’t look the way she did, wish you didn’t hear that muffled bit of confrontation, hope you can move fast enough, avoid their eyes.  You regret not having stayed at the office longer or not coming out of the subway on the other side of the street.

What shall we do to inherit eternal life?

Like the lawyer, we know the words to the answer.

We know what the Samaritan did.  We know about mercy.  But who is our neighbor today?  The drunk, the lame, the crazy, the mothers, the addicts, the children, the homeless, the hungry: the veterans, the ill, the lazy: the conners, the criminals, the weak, the poor, the honest ones down on their luck?

There is a story about a man who picked up a hitchhiker somewhere in the middle of winter and, when he saw how cold he was, the man pulled into a parking lot, went into a store, and bought the hitchhiker a coat.

He would have given him the coat off his back if he’d owned one at the time.  The driver was my husband.  I was angry.

A kindness could kill you today.

I think if there were mountains or a desert or a narrow dirt road …. A rural path somehow feels safer than these city streets.

For now, I will try to stay on the side of the street where the need is.

I will try to consider it holy.

I will try to find the courage to care.

Lord. I want to learn what you mean by love: heart, soul, strength, mind.

I want to learn to be a neighbor to my neighbor.

To be a little more like that Samaritan.

To go, and do the same.