July 10, 2016
Luke 10:25-37, Colossians 1:1-14
The priest saw the man there, bruised and bloodied, and his heart ached. He saw so many victims like this, on this dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Just this morning, he had seen two already, each more harshly beaten than the last. This time, at least, he hesitated slightly before sighing and crossing to the other side of the road. The reality was that it was likely too late for this man. And if he was already dead, as he seemed to be, the priest couldn’t really risk touching him, for in doing so he would then have to neglect his other priestly duties because he would be unclean. With a heavy heart, he decided that for the greater good, it would be best if he just kept along his way, and prayed that he not be next.
Then the Levite came along. He, too, had seen the two previous men, plus another in the meantime. For each of them, he had, as he walked carefully by, prayed silently for the beaten men and for their families. Prayers were powerful, he knew, though for as much as he told himself this, he also knew that they weren’t really enough. The reality was that this road was a dangerous one, and as long as the road remained the same, people would continue to be beaten and left for dead. But there wasn’t much he could do about it, right? Sure, he had some power, as a Levite, but only some. Prayers, he could offer, and he did. So like for the other men, he offered prayers for this man, as he kept his distance… though if he was being honest, even his prayers were getting slightly less emphatic, less heartfelt. The thing was, he had offered the same prayer so many times before, and nothing seemed to change. He was tired, and growing increasingly hopeless. As he looked sadly at the man on the other side of the road, he sighed heavily, shaking his head. He wiped a tear from his eye for the injustice of it all, and kept on walking toward Jericho.
Often with Jesus’ parables, especially famous ones like this, we find an entry point by seeking to identify with one of the characters, getting into their heads and trying to understand them. This week, in the wake of two instances of police shooting seemingly innocent black men, followed by a sniper gunning down several police officers as they protected folks at a peace march in Dallas, I have identified in a new way with these two men who crossed to the other side of the road when they saw a man who had been beaten. These two usually get a bad wrap, don’t they? These are the guys who are not neighbors to the man in need. They are the guys about whom we think, “Where’s the compassion?” then self-righteously imagine that of course we would have stopped to help, like the Samaritan. They have always been the disappointing ones in Jesus’ famous story.
But as I have read the news this week of yet another act of police violence seemingly indicative of racial bias, and the misguided violent response of a man killing in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement… I totally get where the priest and the Levite are coming from. We know a bit about the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, that it was a dangerous one where beatings like this happened all the time. It is indeed entirely likely that the priest and the Levite had seen several such victims on their journey already. Being godly men, they probably felt the pain of each victim deeply. I have felt things deeply, too. My heart has broken so many times in the past few years, each time I hear of innocent people being killed by people filled with hatred or fear or misunderstanding or darkness, each time I learn of an injustice that I thought this country had moved past, each time I watch the people who are supposed to make laws to protect us instead sit back on their heels and not act. Like I’m sure many of you, I have developed a case of compassion fatigue. Violence is becoming normal; I’m numb to the pain, even as I desperately fear that this could happen in my child’s school, my church, my movie theater, my neighborhood. Recognizing that because my family and I are white and thus likely safe from at least racially driven violence brings only fleeting relief, as the next beat of my heart reminds me that any time a child of God is harmed, no matter their color or background or age or gender or sexuality, we are all harmed, because we are all in this together.
This week I saw and reposted on Facebook a beautiful quote from Mother Theresa: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.” If that is true – and I believe it is – then what needs to happen next? Did the priest and the Levite see that beaten man as someone who belonged to them, indeed as someone to whom they belonged? Do I belong to Alton Sterling? Does Philando Castile belong to me? How about the police officers who shot them? Do we belong to those five slain police officers in Dallas? Does Micah Johnson, the Dallas shooter, belong to us, and we to him?
Or to use Jesus’ words, are all of these our neighbors? If the answer is yes (spoiler alert: the answer is yes), then how are we to respond? With sadness and disappointment, I recognized in myself this week that I would like simply to cross to the other side, to ignore it and hope someone else deals with it, someone who knows better, or has more power, or has more time for it. Like the priest and the Levite, I am tired. I’m tired of the pain, I’m tired of praying about it and feeling like nothing is changing, I’m tired of trying to talk carefully about it so as not to offend anyone whose views and opinions about it differ from mine. I’m tired, and I’m angry, and I’m sad, and I’m increasingly hopeless, but mostly I’m tired – so tired that I would like to follow my clergy friends in Jesus’ story and cross to the other side.
But that of course is not the message of Jesus’ story. Jesus is not telling the story to comfort those of us who feel compassion fatigue. Jesus is calling us out, helping us to see and to name our neighbors, showing us what being a neighbor looks like. He does this in the most shocking way possible – by lifting up as the very example of a neighbor another man… who is the wrong race, the wrong religion, the definition of “despised other,” and showing how even (especially!) this Samaritan is capable of being a neighbor. He shows us that caring for one other crosses the border. He shows us that even if we have every good reason not to be a neighbor to this particular person – because he is black, or because she is a cop, or because he has a criminal record, or because she is a racist, or because he just doesn’t look right – that when it comes down to it, we are all sons and daughters created in the image of God. We are sisters and brothers who belong to one another. We are neighbors.
I am tired, and I know you are, too. But ours is a God who sees this broken world as redeemable, and who would do anything, including sending His own Son, to show us that. Ours is also a God who calls us to be in but not of that broken world: speaking out in the name of the God of life who loves all people of all colors and types, lifted up by the One who showed us that life, not death, would have the final world, and sustained and empowered by the Spirit of truth.
We are neighbors. And we are able to be neighbors because God enables us to be so. And so, my brothers and sisters, my neighbors, do not cease praying. Ask that “you would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” As you seek out ways to be a neighbor even to people to whom you don’t yet know how to be a neighbor, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints of light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:9-14)
With God’s power, then, let us go out in good courage to be neighbors to the world. Let us figure out how to be a neighbor – how to build relationships, how to truly call one another brother and sister, how to see and understand the perspectives and insights of those who differ from us. Let us acknowledge that this work is tiring, but when we work together, it is possible. Let us lift one another up, listen to each other, see each other, know each other. Let us ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and then go and be it. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here is the recording from worship: