“And who is my neighbor?”
I am not sure where to begin. As most of you know I am no stranger to gun violence. Almost every day this week we have been confronted with death. For me it has been bracketed by the deaths of two friends: Elie Wiesel (87) and Jess Manalang (25). Elie and Jess were both beacons of light in what sometimes feels like an increasingly darkening world. Also this week two young African American men were shot by police: Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, 32, in Minneapolis. Then the sniper attack on police in Dallas, TX, killing 5 officers and wounding another 7 officers and civilians. Those killed include: Brent Thompson,43; Patrick Zamarripa, 32; Michael Krol, 40; Michael Smith, 55; Lorne Ahrens. It is important for us to know their names and pray for them, their families, our nation and ourselves so as to not generalize this in the abstract but to know just who and how many people’s lives have been disrupted by the pain and tragedy of this week.
We find ourselves swirling in questions about race relations, community policing, white privilege, gun violence, gun rights, gun control, and off the radar for most of us is a nationwide and worldwide rise in anti-Semitism along with a rise in White Supremacist groups.
Into the realities of this world comes what we call The Parable of the Good Samaritan - Luke 10: 25-37. We are so familiar with this story that perhaps we miss its point. It might better be called “Who am I?” Or, “Who are we?” “Or, to what degree are we good neighbors?” It’s not about “the other” – it is about us.
Our text says a lawyer asks Jesus a question. Most likely he is a Pharisee, a scholar of the law of Moses and the ancestors of modern day rabbis. The answer is Love God and Love your neighbor as you love yourself. The scholar asks, “Who is my neighbor?” This reminds me of students in my classroom who would ask questions about an assignment like, “How long does it have to be?” This really translates as, “How little can I get away with?” The Pharisee expects and wants there to be a limit on the concept of neighbor: how little neighboring can he get away with! Instead of answering Jesus tells a story about a man beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road.
Two other experts on the law of Moses pass him by: a priest and a Levite. They were adversaries of the Pharisees and came from the Jerusalem aristocracy and religious cult leaders. The nice interpretation of their non-action would be that they did not want to become ritually unclean since they had such important religious responsibilities in nearby Jerusalem. They should not make contact with a dead or near dead body. We are not told why they pass by, however. Perhaps they fear the robbers are still lurking about.
Then comes along a third person. Surprise! He was a Samaritan. He is already in hostile territory for Samaritans were treated as an inferior ethnic minority. He would also be constrained by the same ritual regulations regarding touching a corpse, but also lives under the same command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He is moved with pity, or compassion may be a better translation. He not only binds up the man’s wounds, but arranges a place for him to stay and pays for his continuing care. There is a health-care parable somewhere in here that is relevant to another of our national conversations.
Our Pharisee/lawyer/scholar would be utterly shocked, as would anyone listening and those who first read this story. How could it be that this alien, this ethnic minority person, one also under the cultic purity laws, would step out of his comfort zone to show mercy, compassion and ongoing care for someone he does not possibly know? Jesus asks his interlocutor, “Which of these was a neighbor to the man beaten by the thieves?” “Why, the one who showed mercy.” He seems unable to come out and say, “The Samaritan,” so strong is the ethnic bias. “Go, and do likewise,” Jesus responds.
Can I re-garble this all? The question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” This implies that there is an out; that there are those we are allowed to exclude; that there are certain criteria to be considered “my neighbor.” The question is, “What kind of neighbor am I? Who am I in this relationship of neighboring?” To have a neighbor one must first be a neighbor. “How am I, how are we, at neighboring?”
I recall my friend and neighbor, N. Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in D.C, saying there are two Americas. In reality we are learning there are many Americas. We need to stop pretending and begin to face into this fact: we are not so good at neighboring.
Philando Castile was the 123rd black man shot and killed by police in 2016, an ethnic group that comprises 13% of our population. Compared to 238 white men shot by police, a group that makes up 62% of our population, a group almost 5 times as large as the Black population.
As we let that sink in, while still in shock at one black man’s response, Micah Xavier Johnson, to specifically snipe white law officers, I think of the irony that someone named after the Hebrew Prophet Micah could do such a thing. Micah who wrote, “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
I ask myself how can I, how can we, be better at neighboring? We might begin with going beyond what Archbishop William Temple said of humility: The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God. We need to say the source of humility, justice and love of neighbor begins with realizing the presence of God in all people. I am only a neighbor as I begin with this premise: all men, women and children are my neighbor – not the people next door, or those in my church, or those who look like me and act like me, but all people.
We are called by our baptism to strive for justice and peace for all people and respect the dignity of every human being We need to have conversations about neighboring, about race, about guns, about privilege, about bias and bigotry, as often and in as many venues as we can.
Back in the ‘90s The Episcopal Church asked every parish to open its doors once a year on the MLK Jr Holiday to the whole community to have conversations on race, and to do so until such conversations are no longer needed. I will bet not one parish is still doing this, and suspect very few ever did! Now we need to do this at least monthly if not weekly. The sin of racism, and its twin white privilege/entitlement, is alive and well. We can no longer afford to be like the lawyer with Jesus asking, “Who is my neighbor?” As the song says, “All are neighbors to us, and you.” Until we come to such a realization, all our weeks will start to look like this past week. Amen.