Neighbor

Passage: Luke 10:25-37
Date: July 14, 2019
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

One day God was watching Earth and saw all of the bad stuff that was going on. God decided to send an angel to Earth to check it out. When the angel returned he told God, yes – things are not going well. On earth, 95% is bad and 5% is good. Well, God said, maybe I had better get a second opinion. So God sent another angel to earth. When the angel returned she told God, sure enough, the earth was in bad shape.95% was bad and 5% was good.

And God said, this is not good. So God decided to text the 5% that were good, to encourage them, give them a little something to help them keep going. Do you know what that text said? You didn't get one either, huh?

I thought of that joke after I learned about a new book by Arthur Brooks: Love Your Enemies:How Decent People Can Save America from a Culture of Contempt. He writes that there’s very clear, recent, data that shows that 93 percent of Americans hate how divided we have become. That’s not to say there are not disagreements, because we have a competition of ideas. But while there are 93% of Americans wanting to be less polarized, there is the 7% getting richer, more powerful, and more famous by saying it’s okay to hate each other.

Arthur Brooks was interviewed on the News Hour by Judy Woodruff. She asked: “Some of the disagreements people have and have had are fundamental. They’re over values, over issues of life and death … I guess the question is, don’t people have a right to say, I don’t want to have anything to do with that?”

Brooks responded: “Sure, we can absolutely do that. And we form communities where we don’t – we don’t associate with other people. But, in point of fact the greatness of the United States is persuading each other and making progress in terms of our values. And the only way that I can do that, if I’m firmly convinced that my ideas are right, is by showing love to other people, and especially love when I’m treated with hatred. Now, I understand that’s hard. But if you want to persuade it’s the only way. And Martin Luther King used to say that you can only redeem a man when you love a man.”

Back in 2013 Pope Francis said: “I think we too are the people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think — and I say it with humility — that this is the Lord's most powerful message: mercy.”

In our scripture, who was the good neighbor? The one who showed mercy.

The lawyer’s question is vitally important: “What could I do to be really alive?” Jesus asked him, “What is written in the law?” The man answered by associating two Bible passages. The first part, on loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, comes from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5). The second part comes from Leviticus 19:18: 

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

On this day, when ICE is raiding the homes of immigrants in a dozen cities in our nation, many of us are trying to figure this out: How did we allow our nation to become a place where the stranger has become so unwelcome? How did we get to the point where children are sleeping on concrete floors, in squalid conditions to which we wouldn’t subject our pets?

The scripture today calls us to a higher level.

I think the root of our problem has been decades of thinking similar to that lawyer’s. He asked: Who’s my neighbor (and who’s not)?

We’ve separated us from them. When we’ve been content with rhetoric against those who have slipped over the border illegally; when we’ve assumed we’re being Christian when we just love the ones like us, people on the same economic scale, who speak the same language, who are familiar-looking; when we’ve narrowed the Gospel and our love to something easy; we have neglected the mercy. Mercy that God lavishes on us and calls us to share. Paul Tillich defined mercy as this kind of compassionate justice: recognizing “the intrinsic claim of every person to be considered a person.”

When the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus upended the question by telling a story. We are pretty familiar with the tale: A lone traveler was beaten and left for dead. Two people passed by and left him to his fate. In contrast, the Samaritan, filled with compassion, went out of his way and expense to help. All we know about the Samaritan is that he was an inhabitant of a another hostile country. In first century Palestine, Samaritans and Jews were in conflict, sometimes even at war with one another. This man was not only an outsider. He was something worse than that—an enemy. Although the religious people in Jesus’ world well knew the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the prevailing attitudes meant that most people would never have thought to view a Samaritan as “neighbor.”

That’s what made the parable so shocking for those who first heard Jesus.If Jesus had told a parable about a particularly righteous person who showed mercy toward a Samaritan, that person would have been viewed as exceptionally compassionate. Then the story would have left intact people’s sense of superiority. In other words, it would have been a story that would maintain the assumption that Samaritans aren’t normally included in the list of people they were supposed to love.

But that’s not the story Jesus told. Jesus made a despised Samaritan the hero of the story. The outcast became the ideal for those who viewed themselves above him. That would be like making a terrorist into a spiritual example. It was shocking; it was confusing; it was offensive.

In this story, the religious ones—Levite and the priest—are the ones who should recognize the wounded man as their neighbor. Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” The neighbor is the one who shows mercy.

The Gospel shifts our perspective. To follow Jesus means to no longer divide people into groups (neighbors and non-neighbors). Instead, we should ask ourselves, Am I a good neighbor? Am I showing mercy in my life? Are we showing mercy?

Palestinian Christian Naim Ateek said that “So long as we divide the world and our own communities into friends and enemies, neighbors and strangers, we feel no moral obligation towards those whom we have already designated as outsiders.”

Where do we see a lack of moral obligation? What do you think?

When I think of an undivided community, I think of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Fred Rogers said, “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing. … In appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something truly sacred.”

Over the past eight months, I’ve been learning swing dance and waltz. It’s interesting that I’ve met several other pastors who also enjoy social dancing, too. One clergy woman I met told me that when she lived in Arizona, she was part of the original sanctuary movement, back in the 1980s, when people were fleeing persecution in in their Central American countries. One evening, she was driving a couple of refugees from Nicaragua. A mother and a sick young girl huddled in her car as she drove them to safety. She was a little scared, knowing that if they were caught, it could be uncomfortable for her and dangerous for them. She had provided them food and water, and she could hear the little girl crying softly from the back seat. All of the sudden, she was overwhelmed with a feeling.“I’ll never forget it,” she said.“I just knew that it was Jesus sitting in my car backseat.”

Friends, God is already at work in the world showing mercy where it is most needed in unexpected places. Using unexpected people.

I wonder if you and I, who represent the church, could get better at seeing where God is already working? What if we got better at seeing where God is at work in the world,and we joined in? Especially when the one we are catching up to is Samaritan. Or Muslim. Or Guatemalan. Or Mexican. Or Republican. Or Democrat. Or, well, you fill in the blank.

I wonder if then we might be given new hope as we seek to lead lives of mercy. Mercy.

What would the church be like? What would the world be like? What would you be, what would we be, if mercy became our first concern?