July 10, 2016
The lawyer asks Jesus the same question the whole nation is struggling with, “And who is my neighbor?” Is a Black man selling CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge my neighbor? Is a Black man in a car with a broken tail light in Minnesota my neighbor? Are those marching in Dallas with signs that say “Black Lives Matter” my neighbor? Are cops in Dallas who are protecting those protesters my neighbor?
You and I know the answer to those questions is yes.
In this week of violence in America it would appear that for some Black men’s lives don’t matter and for others white police lives don’t matter. Some think we have a gun problem. Others think we have a police training problem. Others think we have a mental health problem. Others think we have a race problem.
We have all of those problems, and more, but Jesus goes deeper still by telling us a story not about who is my neighbor, but how to be a neighbor, how to act neighborly to someone in need. So he tells a story about a man walking down from Jerusalem to Jericho who was robbed and left in a ditch to die.
This opening translates easily into our world: a man was walking down from Beacon Hill to Dorchester and was robbed and left in a gutter to die. And we understand the next part too, for we’ve all been tempted to ignore someone else’s pain. We know hit and run accidents happen, and we all know the temptation to give ourselves a pass when confronted by someone in need: “I was running really late, and there was this guy behind me who stepped in to help”; and “I was all dressed up for the party and didn’t want to get blood all over me, and I didn’t know what to do and I don’t carry latex gloves.”
But the next part—which is so familiar—we don’t get because it has lost its sting and its ability to shock us into transformation. “A Samaritan came near him and when he saw him he was moved to pity.” We don’t get this because for us “Samaritans are good” people who reach out to those in need. For first century Jews they were heretics and half-breeds. Just think about the hatred between Israelis and Palestinians today and you’ll get a taste of it.
And without the sting the story just becomes a quaint morality tale we tell our grandkids at bedtime so they will be nice to their friends in school.
But what if Jesus is addressing a large group of African-Americans today after the shootings in of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile? And Jesus says: A young Black man was shot and left in a ditch to die. Cars go flying by because people are too busy to care or notice. But then along comes a member of the Ku Klux Klan, who sees the injured Black man and has pity on him. He takes him to the hospital and says he will cover all the expenses, and will be back to check on him soon.
Jesus might get kicked out of the meeting for making a White Supremacist the hero of his story.
Or what if Jesus is addressing a police rally, and he says a police officer was shot and left in a ditch to die, and no one cares, except a violent gangbanger who has pity on the policeman and takes him to the hospital and guarantees his expenses and promises to keep checking on him.
Again, Jesus might get thrown out for making a mortal enemy the hero of his story.
Each of us is born inside a story that we inherit from our parents, culture, and history and this story makes us a part of their world. We think we’re self-made, but in reality we are made by others in the image of the god those others believe in.
Make no mistake–if I had been raised in a White supremacist environment that worshipped a god for whom white lives matter more than Black lives matter, then that story would be deep in my soul and I could not escape that web of lies and hate on my own.
So the deeper question we should be asking Jesus during this violent week is not just “who is my neighbor?”, but “who is my God?”
As Christians we believe Jesus is the image of the invisible God, he is the Word made flesh who comes from the Father to save us from our false stories that are killing us. Jesus refuses to live in the small “either-or” world of us versus them, because his God is not small. The world he lives in is one in which the Father makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust. He lives in a world where loving your friends while hating your enemies puts you at the bottom of the morality scale.
He says in Luke 6, “Love your enemies…and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:35-36
But without his help we have no way of doing that because we aren’t God and we aren’t capable of escaping our destructive stories on our own. All we know how to do is blame others for our problems.
So what does God do for us?
The 8th century BC prophet Amos in the northern kingdom of Israel says “Thus saith the Lord, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people.” Who of us, as individuals, or a church, or a nation could stand such a thing: to have God set up an unassailable straight standard by which our bent behavior would instantly be noticed and called out?
Who could stand that? No one. Why? Because there are people around the world and in our cities dying in ditches and we do nothing about it.
God’s Word is that plumb line and that plumb line became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.
Who among us could stand next to Jesus and fail to see how bent and broken we are? Next to his justice, his compassion for the stranger, his non-violence, and his self-sacrifice for everyone, we all see how unlovely we really are. Jesus was the plumb line, so we killed him, trying to cover his glory by the shame of the cross.
But as Karl Barth reminds us God’s “No” is always in service to God’s “Yes”. God’s judgment is always in service to God’s redemption. The plumb line comes to both reveal our sin and remove out sin.
As Paul puts it, “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.”
This is the new exodus out of those stories that enslave us to an identity that produces of separation, heartlessness, and violence. In Christ our primary identity is not our job, our family, our skin color, our class, our nationality, or even our religion. Our primary identity is as daughter or son of the Father and our primary purpose is to glorify our Creator by participating in the Father’s rectification of the world through Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
As our Presiding Bishop says, we are part of the Jesus Movement who are moved to pity and take action: We take action in every way we can to show that Black lives matter as much as white lives matter. We take action to show law enforcement that we are grateful for their service and protection.
We take action because when it was us dying in the ditch, Christ took pity on us and saved us and now lives in us, so that through us Triune God can continue to love the world back into unity, wholeness and health.