Sunday, August 04, 2013

Who Is My Neighbor?

This is the text of the sermon I delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, August 4th 2013. 
To hear the sermon as delivered, click here.

 It was November 14, 1999.  A Sunday.  NBC aired a Hallmark made-for-TV movie called, “Mary, Mother of Jesus.”  It starred, in the title role, the actress who would go on to play Shmi Skywalker, Anakin’s mother, in the first two episodes of the Star Wars saga, and as her son Jesus, the man who would one day be Batman in the Chris Nolan trilogy.  I remember all of these details so clearly because . . . okay . . .  because I googled it a couple of days ago.  It was, actually, an incredibly forgettable film.
Except for one thing.  I think it was before the first commercial break, Mary was putting her young son to bed.  Like so many children before and since, the boy asked his mother for a story.  And so she began, “A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by robbers.  They beat him and robbed him, stripped him, and left him for dead by the side of the road.”  This movie proposed the very cool idea that at least some of Jesus’ teachings came not from his heavenly father but from his very earthly mother.  I’ve never forgotten that.  It seems so . . . right.

The New Testament version of this story begins with a person identified as “an expert in the law” coming to “test” Jesus.  He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And Jesus, ever a model for Unitarian Universalist ministers (whether we realize it or not), turned the question back on the questioner – “What does it say in the law?” he asks.  “How do you read it?”  And the person who’d wanted to test Jesus now finds himself on the hot seat and responds, “’Love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  We’re told that Jesus thought that that was a pretty good answer.

And it is.  Jesus himself, in another recorded encounter, says that the greatest of all the commandments is to love God and that there is another, “like unto it,” which is to love our neighbor.  On these, he says, “hang all the law and the teachings of the prophets.”  The great rabbi Hillel the Elder, who was actually still alive when Jesus was a young boy, was once challenged to sum up all of the teachings of the Torah while standing on one leg.  The rabbi raised one foot off the ground and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.  Everything else is commentary.”

So this expert in the law had given a good answer when he’d said that to inherit eternal life all he had to do was love God and love his neighbor.  That answer was perfectly satisfactory for the letter of his question, but not its spirit.  It was an answer directed to the head, and not to the heart.  And so he then asked a new and different question.

And it’s interesting that the story in Luke says that the law expert did so “to justify” himself.  In other words, he knew that his first answer didn’t go deep enough, didn’t get to the heart of the matter – or, to put it another way, he knew that he, himself, didn’t go deep enough to get to the heart of the matter – and, so, he asked, “Well . . . who is my neighbor?”

Good question, right?  I mean, I got it.  I’m supposed to love my neighbor.  But surely that doesn’t mean the folks from the Westboro Baptist Church who protest at funerals with those signs that say, “God hates fags.”  Surely not them, right?  Not the folks who are actually into mountaintop removal, who think that it’s a good idea, right?  Not the darlings of right wing media who spew such hateful and hate-filled lies, right?  Not them.  Oh, you probably have your own group – or person –  you’d like to see stay outside the circle.  Right?

But Jesus was ever Jesus, and rather than give the guy a straight answer – you know, like the bumper sticker “God bless everyone – no exceptions!” – instead of being as clear as that Jesus answers with this story.  Mike read it earlier, so let’s “unpack” it a bit:

A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He was going from the big city – the hub where everything was happening – to the suburbs.  In the last sermon he ever got to preach, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about how he and his wife had once driven on that road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He remarked on what a dangerous, treacherous road it is.  He mentioned how steep it is.  He got his facts wrong but his idea was right – rather than dropping, as he said, from about twelve hundred feet above sea level at Jerusalem to twenty-two feet below sea level at Jericho, it’s actually quite worse than that, going from twenty-one hundred feet above to over eight hundred feet below in the span of about eighteen miles.  Talk about “going down” from Jerusalem to Jericho!

Dr. King also noted that it’s a “winding, meandering road . . . conducive to ambushing.”  It came to be known as “The Bloody Pass,” he said, because of how dangerous it was.  So it’s not surprising that the main character of Jesus’ parable was ambushed, robbed, and left for dead.

The story continues that a priest was traveling down the same path, saw the man, yet did nothing to help him, choosing, instead, to “pass by on the other side [of the road].”  Similarly, a Levite came down the path, saw the wounded man, and also went on without trying to help.

Now, in their defense, there were proscriptions against having anything to do with a dead body and, so, the priest may not have wanted to be defiled and made unclean, which would have prevented him from doing his job.  So, too, the Levite may have had religious qualms – the tribe of Levi had boasted such notables as Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, as well as Samuel, Ezekiel, Ezra and Malachi.  Both of these figures might have assumed that it was a corpse they were looking at, and getting too close, by going over to check it out, could have created real problems for them.

Even more, these guys must also have known the reputation of this road.  How were they to know that the guy lying in the ditch wasn’t faking it?  Waiting for some unsuspecting “good Samaritan” to come by so that he and his thug friends could jump up and rob them?  Or maybe the gang that had attacked this guy was still hanging around.  They might have had real concerns about their own safety that led them to want not to get involved.  I don’t know about down here in the friendly south, but I know that up north a lot of people choose now not to stop when they see a car in trouble on the side of the road.  Who knows what you might be getting yourself into?  And let’s remember, when Jesus was first telling this story there were no cell phones to call AAA.  And so the priest and the Levite just pass by.

But then there comes this Samaritan.  And he sees the guy in the ditch and he jumps off his donkey and runs over to see if he’s okay.  He was, as the story says, “moved with compassion,” and he binds up the guy’s wounds, pours wine and oil on them, and sets him on his own animal for the rest of the trip.  Upon arriving in Jericho he gets them both a room, and in the morning he pays the innkeeper to take care of the guy, promising to come back and pay whatever is owed for his care.

The Rev. Dr. King suggested that the priest and the Levite had seen the man on the side of the road, wounded, lying in a ditch, and had fearfully asked themselves, “If I go over to try to help, what might happen to me?”  The Samaritan, on the other hand, King said, saw the man and compassionately asked, “If I don’t go over to try to help, what might happen to him?”  Big difference.  And we’ll come back to this.

But first let me tell you something about this Samaritan.  For one thing, he was a Samaritan.  And that means that he was a hated outsider.  Jews hated Samaritans, and Samaritans hated Jews.  Their animosity was both mutual and about as bad as it could get.  To give you an example of how bad, shortly after the attacks of September 11th I used this story in a sermon but changed “Samaritan” to “Al Qaeda jihadist.”  The Good Al Qaeda Jihadist.  And today?  Well, maybe I’d use Rev. Phelps from Westboro, or Glen Beck, or ask one of you to fill in the blank.

The point is, the Samaritan people were about as despised by the folks to whom Jesus was talking as any group of people have ever been despised by anyone.  And that actually should cause a problem for people who think that the moral of the story is to “go and do likewise;” that this story is encouraging us to be “good Samaritans.”

Let me take a step back for a minute and share a bit of Storytelling 101.  You want to make the main character of your story somebody that your audience will relate to; you want that man or woman to be somebody in whose place they’ll be able to see themselves.  This way, as your character has an experience or learns a lesson your audience will be able to share in it too.  It will be transferrable because your main character is someone people can identify with.

Now I’ve said that the Samaritans were as despised as despised could be.  In fact, some commentators have suggested that the reason the author of Luke has the expert in the law say that the real neighbor was “the one who showed mercy” was that he probably couldn’t even bring himself to say the name, “Samaritan.”  So the Samaritan really can’t be our main character, because there’d have been nobody in the audience who would have been able to relate to a Samaritan.  Much less consider one, “good.”
Likewise, the main character of the story can’t be the Levite or the priest because they leave the guy lying on the side of the road for goodness sakes!  Oh they may have had understandable reasons for not being helpful, but in the context of the story those reasons sure look like excuses.  So who’s going to want to identify with either of them?

And that leaves only the character I’d earlier described as the main character of Jesus’ parable, the man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and was fallen upon by robbers.  In other words, the point of this parable isn’t that we should offer help, like the good Samaritan did.  Rather, Jesus seems to be saying to that expert in the law, “friend, if you have to ask who your neighbor is then you’re in a heap of trouble.  You’ve been knocked on the head, you’ve been beaten to within an inch of your life, your things have been absconded with, and you’ve been left for dead along the side of life’s highway.  And not only that, but none of your peeps are stopping to help you out.”

Not exactly the message we’ve been conditioned to hear, but I’d contend that it’s the only message it would have been possible for Jesus’ first century Jewish audience to hear.  And here’s the kicker.  This story also tells us that when help finally does arrive for us – and it seems to want to assure us that it will – it may very likely come from a very unlikely and perhaps even unwelcome source.  The thing that helps us and heals us may be the very thing that we most wanted to avoid.

Who is my neighbor, indeed?

I thought about this story in the days after the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.  Of all the things I read the one that resonated with me most powerfully was said by the Rev. Greg Brewer, the Episcopal Bishop of Central Florida.  He said, “I want to live in a world in which George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home that night to get him out of the rain.”  Right?  Isn’t that the kind of world we want to live in?  But you see it seems that Zimmerman didn’t realize that he was the guy bloodied and broken on the side of the road, in need of help, and that Martin was the despised Other who nonetheless – or maybe even because – could be moved by compassion for him, and pour Skittles and Iced Tea on his wounds, and help him to heal.  It seems that all he saw was the danger.

Just as the people who fought the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnayav seem to have been able to see only his role in that abominable bombing at the marathon and, so, couldn’t see that responding to violence with love might actually be a balm to soothe their shattered souls.

I don’t know about you – although I’ll admit that I have my guesses – but I can tell you for sure that I far too often take on the role of Levite or priest.  I fearfully worry about what might happen to me if . . . and that “if” can lead almost anywhere, really.  I see people of color on the side of the road; I see transgender folks on the side of the road; I see the poor (both the working poor and the plain old poor poor), the homeless, the disenfranchised by a myriad of means; I see the environment; I see nations at war; I see all of these things wounded and desperate for help but I’m far too often afraid of what might happen to me if I get too close.  So I hold back, keep my distance, and far, far too often pass on by.


As we enter into this month of considering “the web of life” I am reminded of just how truly, how radically, how deeply we all – each of us and all of us – are interconnected with everyone and everything else there is.  As Dr. King said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (although, admittedly, not exactly in this order), “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  We are all connected to one another.  We are all each other’s neighbors.

And I am reminded not only that when I take on the role of the passerby I leave to fend for themselves whoever is ostensibly wounded by the side of the road, but that my very capacity to walk on by is a sign of just how broken and bloodied I am and, so, I leave myself there as well.  And, paradoxically, when I instead shift my focus from asking what might happen to me if I help to asking what might happen to them if I don’t, then my own healing begins.  What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  We are all each other’s neighbors.

So . . . in this religio-spiritual context . . . who is my neighbor?  Who is yours?  Whoever we would least like it to be, I’m afraid.  And that is exactly who we are called on to love.  Now . . . how to do that is precisely one of the reasons places like this exist – to help us figure it out.

In Gassho,


As an added bonus:  During the service we played two videos from the incredibly wonderful Playing for Change series.  These videos demonstrate an on-going project which brings together the music of musicians who are, themselves, in physically distant places, to create a truly global ensemble.  When I was at UUHQ I contacted the folks at Playing for Change and they were excited at the idea of their videos being used in worship services.  Do check out their site, their project, and their other videos.  It's really an amazing thing.

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Anonymous said...

These words touched me so deeply when I heard them live yesterday during the service and again as I read them just now. Thank you for your powerful insight.

arthurrashap said...

I wasn't able to attend Sunday's service, and . . . this opening up of such questions and the context is - bottom line - why I am a member of TJMCUU and why I love the dialogues that swirl around the place and the people who it touches.
Arthur Rashap

RevWik said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for your kind words. And Arthur . . . that's exactly what I'm hoping for -- the "opening of of such questions" and our common engagement in living with them until, perhaps, we are able to live into the answers.

Sarah said...

I think I could come to church every week for a year and hear this same sermon and get something out of it each time.
It holds the entirety of the spirituality that I am seeking. And to borrow from Hillel, "Everything else is commentary."