In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story about being a good neighbor, in response to the questions of a religiously observant young Jew. Can you imagine being in the crowd of observant Jews that day when Jesus first shared this parable. How do you feel as the edgy young rabbi tells a story that calls into question the neighborliness of two Jewish leaders – a Priest and a Levite who look the other way and pass by on the other side as a man lies injured in a ditch? How do you feel when you hear that a Samaritan – a member of a rival religious group – is the only one to stop, take pity and attend to the injured man?
This is daring storytelling aimed at pushing listeners to question the limitations of their concept of neighborliness. Jesus is egging on his listeners to push past keeping just the letter of the law of loving God and neighbor, so that they can instead be possessed by the spirit of the law of loving God and neighbor. He is doing this, I believe, so that they can catch the vision of what it means to be God’s instruments of radical welcome and love for all people. Well, we here in our own day, and culture can be challenged by this parable too.
Perhaps the national events of this past week have worked on you the way they have worked on me. Maybe this morning you come here feeling weighed down, a bit overwhelmed, confused about what is going on, apprehensive and a bit frightened about what might happen next. When we relate to this parable of the good neighbor, we may be used to identifying with the Samaritan. Our faith regularly finds expression in acts of service, in which we reach out to others who are in need of one type or another, offering support, comfort and resources of healing.
But this morning, what does this parable have for us? In days like these we may not so easily identify with the Samaritan. Today we may not feel like we are riding easily along the road of life, well stocked with good provisions to face anything that might occur along the road. This morning, with Americans of all races, backgrounds, occupations, and political persuasions – black, brown, white, yellow, red; 1%ers or 99%ers; those living more than comfortably, those with enough, those barely getting by and those struggling just to survive; Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and people of other faiths or no faith; Republicans, Democrats, Independents; civilians and law enforcement officers; Those who have had loved ones taken from them in brutal and unimaginable ways, and those of us looking on with breaking hearts, not knowing what to do in response; all of us Americans together this morning are in one way or another feeling jarred, and shaken to the core. This morning America is in the ditch – bloodied and seriously injured.
And here this morning, and in churches all over our country, Jesus extends to us this parable again, and suddenly the parable has a depth we may not have noticed before. It has the power to remind us that this beat-up-half-dead feeling may have as much to do with being a good neighbor as the confident, the more familiar well provisioned stance of the Samaritan.
This morning, as I read this parable it seems to me that at its heart it’s about the quality of connection between people, between all sorts and conditions of children of God, who need each other. So as we heart it we need not worry about whether we are the man in the ditch or the Samaritan. We need to hear it as we are at the moment.
When we are strong and our well has water in it, this parable reminds us of the paradox that in being a wellspring for others our waters will increase to overflowing and the waters of eternal life will well up within us. But when we are feeling weak or overwhelmed and our well seems all but empty, this parable shows us that being a good neighbor can mean letting others reach out and be there for us. And so the paradox continues for in those moments it is through receiving that we are able to give the most. Because in receiving we are allowing bonds of trust and love to develop between us and the neighbors that God sends our way. And if we are really able to let ourselves receive, our wells will be filled to overflowing and we will become more compassionate and merciful to others as our strength returns. Perhaps that is why the Samaritan on the road that day did what he did. Perhaps he had once been the man in the ditch.
This thought seemed confirmed to me this week as I heard a number of inspiring messages from people interviewed by the media in the aftermath of the violence that has gripped our country.
First I heard Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who died 2 years ago in NYC when police put him in a choke hold. As she was being interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered on Friday Gwen Carr said, when Eric died,
“I wanted to lay down and die. I wanted to get in my bed and wait for someone to wake me from this crazy nightmare. But I got up with the help of some positive people and I was able to turn my mourning into a movement and my sorrow into a strategy… I have had to raise up my son’s name. I can never let what happened to him and so many since become yesterday’s news. I am now my son’s voice.”
Then I heard an interview by Lester Holt of an African American father, Kellon Nixon who with his 5 year old son was at the Black Lives Matter march in Dallas on Thursday. When Holt asked this young father if he was afraid of what might be coming next in the spiral of violence among us, Kellon Nixon responded:
“I am not afraid. I am cautious and prepared, but I am not afraid. Being afraid only causes people to act irrationally and I think this is one of the biggest problems between African Americans and police – that we are afraid of one another and so we act irrationally… I don’t want police to be afraid of African American men as they do their job within the law and I don’t want my 5 year old son to be afraid on police or anyone.”
My own wounded heart receives these words from Gwen Carr and Kellon Nixon as healing balm. And for me they mirror the activity of this Gospel parable of the good neighbor. In the parable the man finding neighborly connection with the one in the ditch was a Samaritan, a minority in that society and a distrusted distant cousin of the Jews. He was one who likely had felt the stings and wounds of prejudice, misunderstanding and fear. He was able to bring healing balm to the suffering neighbor in the ditch because he could identify. And his ministrations brought healing and life. Maybe we in America who white and, economically advantaged can make it a faithful discipline to listen especially carefully to our African American neighbors, whose experience with recovering from the confusion and fear that accompanies great trauma, perhaps uniquely equips them to offer healing wisdom to us as a whole nation.
One last quote before I end this sermon. It is from a book titled The Parables of Grace, by Robert Farrar Capon. He writes:
“To me the central figure in the parable is not the Samaritan. He is simply one of three characters in the story who have the opportunity to display neighborliness as Jesus defines it. The defining character- the one whom the other three respond to by being non-neighbor or neighbor – is the man who fell among thieves. The actual Christ figure in the story therefore is yet another loser, yet another down-and-outer who, by just lying there in his lostness and proximity to death is in fact the closest thing to Jesus in the parable.”
I share this quote with you this morning, not as a suggestion that all suffering can be easily and neatly sanctified, but as a suggestion that when we find ourselves in the ditches of life, we are never far from our Lord. He too has been here. His life giving power resides even here. When in the ditch our call is to claim our place and with great hope accept the ministrations of those our Good and Gracious Lord sends to minister to us. Jesus is not some sort of cosmic super hero sent to take away our sufferings. He is a suffering savior, sent to show us the way through.
In just a few moments we will experience this again sacramentally as we welcome little Cleo and little Ethan into the mystical body of Christ through the waters of baptism, and then when in the Eucharist we receive again Christ’s very body and blood. Listen closely to the prayers of these two sacraments – they tell us what this parable tells us – Christ is leading us not as a super hero, but as a suffering savior – not around our sufferings, but by the grace of God – through them to abundant new life.
And when we look at this parable and these sacraments this way we see that none of this is a one or the other kind of thing, but a spiral that leads to eternal life. For all of us are ever cycling through times of need and times of plenty. So perhaps the Gospel lesson here is that we need to do mercy wherever and whenever we can, and we need to receive mercy, wherever and whenever we are in need, and then trust that God will use all of our doing and receiving to bring peace which is the hallmark of God’s kingdom.
In the name of the one who told the parable. Amen+