Sermon: Who Is My Neighbor?
Texts: Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Leviticus 19:18; Luke 10:25-37
Date: October 27, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Christians, we have heard this story of the Good Samaritan with its prelude and postlude repartee with the testy lawyer 10,000 times. So we should be able to pass a little pop quiz. Who is the neighbor? Hint: Think about the whole text, not just the story.
I could read it another 10,000 times and probably not have noticed what my favorite biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan, pointed out: “There is a logical inconsistency between the meaning of the term ‘neighbor’ in 10:27, 29 and in 10:36 so that the parable of 10:30-35 which is located between these two frames is pulled in opposite directions.” Did you catch that while you were listening? How about you lawyers among us, did you catch that? Here’s the inconsistency: “In 10:27, 29 the neighbor is [the one] to whom love must be offered; in 10:36 the neighbor is the one who offers love and mercy to another’s need.”
Well, whaddya know? Crossan goes on to do some fancy scholarly footwork speculating about how the parable got stuck into this context in Luke’s gospel; but what interests me is the idea of “neighbor” being pulled in opposite directions by the framing of the parable. I presume we would all like to be good neighbors, in our literal neighborhoods as well as our spiritual lives. So here’s an arbitrary forced-choice question. If you had to choose the way to be a good neighbor, would you rather be the neighbor as A) “the one to whom love is offered,” or B) the neighbor “who offers love and mercy to another’s need?”
I am guessing that the large majority of us, if forced to make a choice and inclined to be honest, would choose option B. I’d rather be the one who offers love and mercy to another’s need than be the one needing the love and mercy. I know that we can do both, and that kindness is a two-way street, and sometimes we give and sometimes we receive, etc. etc. But several commentaries on Luke’s gospel as well as some conversations at the Pacific Northwest Conference Fall Gathering John and I attended last week encouraged me to muse on uneasiness with option A.
The gathering last week in Richland was titled: “Weaving Together to Win: Progressing from Value Statements to Concrete Action.” Sounded good to about 80 of us action-y UCCers so we went. A call went out a few days before the meeting asking for volunteers to help, so I offered, because I like to be a helper. (See option B above.) I got to the small group facilitator’s training a little before the meeting started without much of an idea about the overall plan for the meeting except the headline. Our teacher Rev. John Edgerton, brought in from Chicago by Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear, the PNW Minister for Church Vitality, plunged right in to asking us to tell and elicit stories of personal heartache that connected with the big problems we face as a society and species. He pointed out that we are not often given opportunities to disclose our personal pain in social settings, though we often talk about social problems in abstract ways. He wanted us to have some time to connect the dots between those big problems of society and our own lived experience. So he told his story about living in a neighborhood in the Chicago area where there is a great deal of gun violence, about the shooting death of a teen nearby, and about his constant worry for the lives of the youth who attend his church. And several other people told their stories in our practice session, and all of us listened hard, wiped away our tears, and agreed to lead a similar conversation beginning with our own stories, which would set the tone.
I was surprised that this was our task early in the day, and needed some assurance that we were going to move from the heavy sadness of heart-wrenching anecdotes to more hopeful territory by the end of the day and half. But I was game to try it and curious about what would happen; and of course, I had signed up to be a helper (see option B). I had a small group of seven people from various churches. We focused on the question, “What keeps you up at night?” Most of us were able and willing to be open and honest about our very personal sorrow about a range of big problems: climate change, substance use and abuse, housing insecurity, greed and corruption tearing at social fabric, safety for LGTBQ people, homeless folk in our neighborhoods, youth suicide, racism. It’s quite remarkable to see a group of strangers mostly able to trust each other with what’s “killing us” on the inside. The most tender moment for me was watching tears spill down the face of a teen as they spoke about the way older people keep saying to them, “Your generation is just going to have to fix all these problems.” They know several classmates who have committed suicide or who cut themselves to express the pain they feel–the pressure they experience wondering if humans have any kind of liveable future on this rapidly-warming planet is intense. Palpable. It was an excellent reminder not to be glib when speaking to young people about the multiple messes they are inheriting from older generations.
A couple of our group spoke about racism. One was not very forthcoming or articulate, but said they were grappling with how to overcome the prejudicial and racist ideas they had inherited from their ancestors—how could the tapes be erased inside our heads, the tapes of racist ideas that play over and over without our conscious consent? Another spoke in a similar vein, anguished over a kind of Jekyl-and-Hydeness in their self. They really wanted to recover from the racist ideas they had been taught, but didn’t know how it could be done. This person talked about working hard at being compassionate, about trying to be the face of God’s love to the folks they meet along the way, especially the homeless. Yet when they get inside their car, the aggressive, privileged, superior, angry person (who by birthright is supposed to be getting the goods in this country, by God!) roars out; and they find themselves cursing and giving the finger to other drivers who cut them off. They wondered aloud what it was about getting into their big American SUV and locking the door that just caused them to regress and become this other creature.
That person’s story was remarkably candid. Unexpected. In one sense the pain was about the struggle to be a better person when part of them reveled in dominance. Biblical scholar Robert Farrar Capon sees in Jesus’ teaching a counter-intuitive theme of “winning by losing.” People, he believes, play out over and over what he calls an “old, disgraceful human story: all of us, even the rankest outsiders, feel better about ourselves if we can keep someone further outside than we are. The last ethnic group admitted to the volunteer fire department is the very squad that turns, rumps together, horns out, to reject the next group struggling up the social ladder. Jesus came to save a lost and losing world by his own lostness and defeat, but in this wide world of losers, everyone except Jesus remains firmly, if hopelessly, committed to salvation by winning. It hardly matters to us that the victories we fake for ourselves are two-bit victories, or that the losses (and losers) we avoid like the plague are the only vessels in which saving grace comes; we will do anything rather than face either the bankruptcy of our wealth or the richness of our poverty.” The original hearers would have found Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan offensive in part because they, though often scorned as Jews, looked down on Samaritans because of their ethnicity and religion. They could hardly put the word “good” together in a sentence with “Samaritan;” the prejudice was deep. They certainly believed they were winning God’s approval more than the blasted Samaritans.
Inviting his listeners to identify the Samaritan as the hero of this story would have been a bridge too far. Neither would they have wanted to identify with the priest or the Levite, who were putting the needs of the religious establishment ahead of the needs of the people. Who’s left? Just the man in the ditch. The hearer is challenged to identify with the man in the ditch, if they truly want to know how to enter the Kingdom of God. One of my sources says, “The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy.”
Capon concurs about inviting the listener to get down into the ditch if one wants to enter the kingdom with Jesus. He thinks the detail of going down from Jerusalem to Jericho is an important detail. Jerusalem stands 2,500 feet above the level of the Mediterranean and Jericho lies 825 feet below it. That’s a drop of a better part of three-fifths of a mile and it takes the traveler into increasingly depressing territory. Capon thinks the descent is “a parable in itself” about Jesus’ downhill journey to his passion and death and thus into the lastness and lostness he now sees as the heart of his saving work.
As I think about the person in my small group who noticed a change in their self when getting into that sturdy, high-horse SUV and locking the door–which invited reversion to all the old patterns and attitudes of dominance—I wonder if that is “a parable in itself.” A parable about a preference for being safe and elevated and powerful; about being a good person in a world of jerks who don’t know how to drive properly, and probably aren’t listening to NPR on the radio, and probably aren’t rolling down their windows on the car to hand a couple of bucks to the bum at the stop light like I am. We might want to read ourselves as the heroes in the story, wanting to identify with the Good Samaritan, because we like to be the neighbors who give love and mercy (see option B above), with slight interruptions in the mercy program to be outraged at the jerks who cut us off and the masses of jerks who don’t think right.
Being the neighbor who is in need of love and mercy—the one bleeding in the ditch—is a much harder alternative, right? Who wants option A? It’s so weak, so vulnerable. Yet I got a strong sense that as our small group shared their stories about what keeps us up at night that it was the moments of vulnerability that were the openings for the Spirit to move, shining a light on our need for healing that we cannot accomplish on our own. Theologian Dorothy Soelle wrote about windows of vulnerability, pointing out that “Every window makes us vulnerable and is a sign of relationship, receptivity, communication.” The window of vulnerability, she said, “is a window toward heaven.”
There’s a window that thrusts itself into memory from recent news, one that was not a “window toward heaven” but a window toward violence. Atatiana Jefferson was killed recently by a Forth Worth police officer, shot through the window of her home after the police officer ordered her to show him her hands (without identifying himself as a police officer) and then fired his gun through her window without waiting for her to respond. Our black neighbors justifiably wept and wailed anew about black people not even being safe within their own homes, minding their own business. Being at home playing video games was added to a long list of things that can get a black person killed, including driving while black, walking while black, breathing while black. The window of vulnerability for black and brown people in this country is no mere metaphor.
That makes the window of vulnerability for those who do not have to concentrate so much of their energy just trying to stay alive all the more critical. If my reminding you of this recent news story about Atatiana’s death makes your gut clench, makes you feel sad and, more importantly, makes you feel powerless or helpless, pay attention. Our confession that racism is the air that we breathe, the water we swim in (or drown in) is one way to climb down into the ditch and admit we are all wounded by this horrible heritage. As my small group members expressed their vexation with their own racist impulses, that admission of powerlessness opened a window of vulnerability that might be an opening for change, for reformation. We need the grace of God, (and the forbearance of our black and brown neighbors during the long, slow work of dismantling racism) if our societal brokenness is to be healed. The commentary that suggested that the parabolic way into the kingdom was to get down into the ditch goes on to say, “Grace comes to those who cannot resist, who have no other alternative than to accept it. To enter the parable’s World, to get into the ditch, is to be so low that grace is the only alternative. The point may be so simple as this: only the one who needs grace can receive grace.”
Beloved, if we want to be good neighbors, at least some of the time we have to see ourselves truly as the ones who are in need of love, mercy, and grace. We need to climb down out of our powerful, locked SUV’s of superiority and privilege, let go of thinking that being intermittently nice is the way into the kin-dom of God, and cry out from the ditch for Christ and Christ’s agents to bind our wounds. In a moment we’ll sing these words: “From the crush of wealth and power something broken in us all waits the Spirit’s silent hour, pleading with a poignant call, bind all my wounds again.” Wealth, power, and privilege are crushing us; systemic racism is devastating us. Grace alone will heal us. May Spirited Love bind all our wounds, those within us and those between us and our neighbors.
 Crossan, John Dominic In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 59
 Capon, Robert Farrar Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, p. 203
 Scott (Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom), quoted in http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke10x25
 Ibid. Capon p. 215
 Soelle, Dorothy Quoted in Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith and Citizenship by Diana Butler Bass
 Cutts, Peter “From the Crush of Wealth and Power” New Century Hymnal