Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Neighbors," Luke 10:25-37 (Proper 10, Ordinary 15)

Sermon 7/10/16
Luke 10:25-37

Neighbors


            I don’t always preach using lectionary texts. Sometimes, especially once I get to know you better, I like preaching sermon series on particular themes we’re thinking about as a congregation or particular issues that are facing our congregation or community, or some other special focus we might want to stay with for a while. But I’m amazed at how often the lectionary texts, the suggested scripture readings for a particular Sunday, speak so well to our current reality. This week, two African-American men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were shot and killed by white police officers. This week, during a Black Lives Matters protest, a man named Micah Johnson killed 5 police officers. These events have unfolded shortly after the horrific shooting in Orlando killed 49 people. The shooter was a Muslim-American man. The victims were predominately LGBT people and friends. We are in the midst of contentious national, perhaps global concerns about guns and violence and racism and politics and who will lead our nation and how we will relate to others in the global community. And into the midst of the fear and pain and anger, the lectionary gives us this story from the gospel of Luke that we know as The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Our passage is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible, which I think always puts us in danger of not being able to learn anything from it, because we come convinced we already know what it is all about. In fact, we start off by calling it “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” But the titles we give parables don’t come from the scriptures. They’re what stories in the Bible came to be called over time, traditionally. And the title, “The Good Samaritan,” implies that a good Samaritan was something unusual. Not what you’d usually call a Samaritan – good. Yet, the phrase “Good Samaritan” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the scripture. Even just by the way we title the story, we’re telling ourselves we know what it’s about: Shockingly, a Samaritan was a good neighbor. So we’ll try hard today to listen with open hearts and open ears! This parable is a story that Jesus tells in response to a question he gets. In the gospels, Jesus usually tells parables to tell us about what the kingdom of God is like – what things are like when God’s reign gets to take full hold. In this case, it’s a parable Jesus tells in response to a question from a lawyer. Lawyers were experts in the law of Moses – religious scholars who knew the facts of the law inside and out. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As he often does, Jesus turns the question back to the man: “You tell me! What does the law say?” The lawyer quotes the laws that are the center of the Hebrew scriptures: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Every faithful Israelite would know this response. And Jesus says, “Yep, you’ve got it. Go do just that, and you’ll really live.” But the lawyer wants to “justify himself,” we read. He wants an answer from Jesus he can debate, or he wants to get affirmation on his behavior, perhaps permission of sorts from Jesus to interpret the law in whatever way he’s been applying it in his life. “And who is my neighbor?”  asks the man.
Jesus responds by telling the story of a man who was robbed and left for dead on the roadside on the way to Jericho. A priest and Levite pass by, but they don’t stop. But a third man comes by – a Samaritan. Now, Jesus’s hearers would have been expecting him to say that the third person was an Israelite. Because “priests, Levites, and Israelites” were the three groups in society. (1) It would be like saying “Larry, Curly, and” – and you all know the next thing is Moe! But instead, Jesus says the third man is a Samaritan. Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews. They had a common heritage, but over the centuries, came to disagree on matters of culture and religion in deep ways. Jesus says the third person to come along is someone that the crowds would have identified not just as an outsider, but as someone they actively disliked. A Samaritan. And Jesus tells us that when the Samaritan saw the man, he was “moved with pity.” That phrase, “moved with pity”, is from my very favorite Greek word in the Bible. It’s splagnizomai. It means something to the effect of: your guts are tied up in knots with the level of concern you have for someone. You are physically moved with emotion for the person you’re considering. It’s typically translated as compassion. In the gospels, this word is used frequently to describe how Jesus feels about the crowds. In fact, this word is used more times about Jesus than in others instances combined. When Jesus sees people, his guts twist with the deepness of his concern. Compassion. His intestines twisted in knots in deep concern for what he saw. And here, Jesus uses this same word to describe a Samaritan, an enemy, and how he looks at a Jewish man who is injured: with gut-twisting compassion. He treats and bandages the man’s wounds, brings him to an inn, cares for him, pays all his expenses, and plans to come back and check on him again later. “Which of these,” Jesus asks the lawyer, “do you think was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” And the lawyer answers, (not even saying “the Samaritan man,” unwilling, perhaps, to admit that it is this particular kind of man who proves to be in the right in Jesus’ story) “the one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says simply, “Go, and do likewise.”
It’s fascinating to look at the questions Jesus asks others in the scriptures, and equally fascinating to look at the questions people put to Jesus. Our questions for Jesus are so revealing, so telling, if you read between the lines a bit. The lawyer says, “And who is my neighbor?” But I think he’s really wondering this: “Who is not my neighbor?” In other words, who can I get away with scratching off my “neighbor” list? So often, boiled down, the questions we offer up to Jesus are questions where we’re looking for the least we can do, the smallest part of our hearts we can give to God and still be considered on the “straight and narrow.” I wonder, who was the lawyer hoping he could get away with not counting as a neighbor? How about us? What person, what type of person, what group of people comes to mind when we ask Jesus "Who is – and who isn’t my neighbor?"
In response, Jesus does two important things: First, the parable he tells gives an answer that is not broad, but specific. You might expect that Jesus would just say something like, “Well, everyone is your neighbor of course!” That’s how we might summarize this parable. Everyone is our neighbor! (In fact, it’s pretty much how I talked about it to the children this morning, because that’s a simple answer.) But Jesus doesn’t say that. Instead, his answer gets very specific, rather than very broad. He zeroes in on perhaps the very group of people or the very type or the very person the questioner had in mind when he asked “who is – and who is not – my neighbor?” This Samaritan man, Jesus says to the lawyer, is your neighbor. If you asked Jesus this question, who would Jesus name in his version of the parable for you? Who do you have in mind when you ask Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Who are you hoping, secretly, that Jesus say is not your neighbor? I believe, friends, that we need to do some serious soul-searching, some very honest self-reflection to answer these questions. And we have to confess, to pour out to God the truth we find in our hearts. What person, or kind or person, or group of people are you hoping is not your neighbor? When we can honestly answer that question, God can get to work with us on making room in our hearts for new neighbors.   
The second important thing Jesus does in his answer to the lawyer is turn the question back around to the lawyer. The lawyer acknowledges that the one who shows mercy, the one who is moved with pity, the one who is compassionate, twisted-up-in-knots over the plight of the man who was beaten and robbed – that man, that good man, that good Samaritan man – that one is the true neighbor. And Jesus simply says, “Go, and do likewise.” The lawyer asks who is neighbor is, and Jesus is much more interested in whether or not the lawyer is a good neighbor. Are we good neighbors?
            It seems like we’ve witnessed a considerable dearth of mercy and compassion in these days, friends. It’s heart-breaking. It’s scary. It makes us want to respond in-kind sometimes. And maybe we’ve got all sorts of good reasons why someone shouldn’t have to be on our list of neighbors. I bet that Samaritan man had a whole slew of reasons, as the priest might have, as the Levite might have, why he wouldn’t want to stop for a Jewish man, someone with whom his people were forever at odds. And yet, he was moved with pity to act. Being a neighbor isn’t a state of mind. Having compassion isn’t just a way of thinking. To be a neighbor, Jesus says, we must demonstrate mercy, even as we stand in need of the mercy God showers on us.

The lawyer asked “who is my neighbor?” And Jesus prompted him to answer his own question: “The one who showed mercy.” Friends, let us go and do likewise. Amen. 

(1) Amy-Jill Levine talked about this at Festival of Homiletics one year, and transformed my understanding of this text.
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