Be a Neighbor

This sermon was preached on July 10, 2016 at St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland (Proper 10, Year C).

Our country has had a traumatic week. Each of us, I’m sure, has tried to leave some of what we have witnessed and felt outside of these walls this morning. And, each of us, I’m sure, has still carried much of it in here with us. I am going to go ahead and say that both of those things are ok. Wanting to find respite from it all; to not hear any more about violence and death; to find one place that feels safe and where love still reigns. This is that place. And at the same time it is ok if you still feel weighed down, by all the feelings you just can’t seem to shake, from the images you can’t un-see. We are all here this morning in search of peace and healing. We long for a word of hope—for good news. So let’s just go ahead and agree that we are going to bring all of it. All that we have and all that we are, are actually, really, truly welcome here before God and before each other. This act of holding space for one another is holy work. The fact that we are here and that God is here with us is transformative, in and of itself. Just showing up here today, to sit with and pray with our brothers and sisters in Christ is an act of radical love. And we are participating in making God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, right now. Because choosing Love in the face of evil and death is always a radical act. I want us all to know that and feel that and believe that as much as we possibly can. Because it is from here, from this place, that we will find our way forward. Our scripture lessons for this morning are all about knowing what we ought to do as people of God. I don’t know about you, but that has definitely been on my heart and mind this week. What are we supposed to do, as people of God called to love and follow Jesus, when confronted with violence, and hatred, and overwhelming death? How do we respond to deeply rooted systemic evils like racism—what some have called our country’s “original sin”? What do we do? How do we discern our way forward together? In a crisis, most people tend to fall back on their habits. Good thing we Episcopalians have a habit of turning to Scripture (at least every Sunday). We also have a habit of asking good questions. And both of those things come together in our gospel this morning. A lawyer asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is kind of a strange question to our ears. It is not something most of us would ask. Was he asking, “What must I do in order to go to heaven when I die?” Perhaps. Was he asking, “What must I do to be right in following God’s law? Probably. Or maybe was he asking, “What must I do to truly live right now?” I don’t know, but I hope so. The way that Jesus responds makes it seem like Jesus is trying to get the lawyer to understand that he already knows the answer, which he does. He answers rightly, “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor has yourself.” He knows this. So what is the problem? He asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” “Who is it exactly that I need to love?” The text says that he asked this in order to justify himself. Was he hoping that Jesus would say, “Your neighbor is someone who lives near you, someone you know, someone you like, someone like you—with the same background, and beliefs, and clothing style, and skin color, someone you are probably pretty inclined to help out already? In asking, “Who is my neighbor?” this man just opened the door for Jesus to challenge his understanding of just who it is he is called to love, and to fundamentally change his understanding of who has the right to be righteous, and just how far God’s love can extend. Now if this story were not so darn familiar it would probably be just as shocking to us as some of our national news stories this week. We need to keep that in mind when thinking about Jesus telling this story. "A man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and along the way he fell into the hands of robbers who stripped him, beat him, and then went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road…” with a Levite not far behind him. A priest and a Levite. Two powerful people in religious roles with some form of responsibility to care for and help a person in need, like someone who had been beaten up and left for dead on the side of the road. And yet, they see him… and they walk by. But the Samaritan—the one who has every reason in the book not to stop and help… stops and helps. To get the full understanding of this scenario I am going to ask that you reimagine it with me. Imagine… a young, queer black woman. Maybe she has dreads. Maybe she is homeless. Maybe she has some stuff with her that she probably shouldn’t have with her. She comes upon a white man on the side of the road. He has been beaten, his clothes have been stolen, his wedding ring has been stolen, his car has been stolen and he has been left for dead on the side of the road. Oh, and by the way, he is a police officer. Imagine just how tense and emotionally charged this situation would have been. Imagine hearing about it on the news or reading about it on Facebook. This is not an encounter between two people in a vacuum. This is an encounter between two people whose people have a contentious history and who presently have a complicated, complex, and fraught relationship. This Samaritan has every reason to look at this situation and think, “Not my problem.” Heck, not even “not my problem,” but “if I stop I could get blamed for this, or worse.” She had every reason not to stop and help. But she stops… and helps. She gets involved. This is her problem now. These two people are connected now. In the midst of this awful situation she is able to see fellow human being and she has pity on him. She feels empathy for this other person and instead of ignoring those feelings or pushing them down, she chooses to feel them and they lead her to act. I believe that empathy is one of the ways God speaks to us, through us. When we can feel what another person is feeling because we have felt it before, that is God’s Spirit moving in us. The situation doesn’t have to be the same, because the root feeling is the same. And from that place we act out of love for the other person and for ourselves. Remember when I said it was from “this place” we would find our way forward? This place is empathy. This place is love. When we act out of love, God acts through us; and that is no small thing. The example that Jesus gives of the good Samaritan is pretty heavy duty. For much of my life whenever I heard this story it basically just made me feel guilty. I don’t know if that had to do with what was preached along with the story or not… But it just made me think of all the times I walked to the other side of the road. All the times I felt that empathic stirring and then thought, “I shouldn’t get involved.” “I don’t have time for this.” “It is just too risky.” “I might get in trouble.” “I might get hurt.” “Yeah, that is really sad, but… “I can’t make a difference anyway.” And then I would just feel bad about myself. There are times when we all have walked to the other side of the road. And, since we will all leave here human, we can bet that there will be times when it happens again in the future. But maybe after today, maybe after this week, we will ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Maybe we will ask it more often. Maybe we will start to ask it every day. And then maybe, we will be less surprised each time God’s love calls us to do shocking things and shows up in amazing places. God keeps showing us that there is no situation, no conflict, no misunderstanding, no history, no embarrassment, no tragedy where we are not called to love. God’s love knows no bounds, and that means God’s love in us knows no bounds. Now that is some radical, revolutionary, rock the world neighbor love. When all we can see is the giant mess in front of us it can be hard to remember that we have access to Love that is this powerful. But we do. When the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus doesn’t tell him who his neighbor his. Instead he shows him what it is to be a neighbor. Be merciful. Show compassion. Be kind. Feel empathy and then show forth the Love that is demanding to be known. So as we continue to hold all that we are facing, and face it together, remember that God is holding it with us. Remember to make space for kindness, and mercy, and compassion. They are here. Give them room. Let them grow. Tune into the voice of empathy. It may not shut off the other voices, but it will certainly help to drown them out. And it will help us to be the neighbors we are called to be. Amen.