The Sunday Sermon: And who is our neighbor?

Luke 10:25-37

Come Holy Spirit: Touch our minds and think with them, touch our lips and speak with them and touch our hearts and set them on fire with love for you. AMEN.

Different times in human history have gone by different names: the reformation, the renaissance, the age of reason, the Enlightenment. In our own country, we have had the era of good feeling, the progressive era, the roaring ‘20s, the post-war years.

Today, we are in a fog of events that seem to be similarly defining our times. Punctuated by 9/11’s violence at the beginning of this century, we now are in year fifteen of two unending wars. Thousands of our sons and daughters have returned from those desert battlefields with wounds both visible and invisible. But battles rage closer to home. A relentless series of deaths of black men by white police officers has shaken us deeply. There is also an unending list of mass shootings that I will not even try to name. In this place just last night, we remembered those who perished in Orlando. And in our own city, four defenseless sleeping homeless persons were attacked, two of whom perished. And if that is not enough, Thursday evening in Dallas, a peaceful demonstration is interrupted by gunfire. Five police officers are dead; seven others wounded. From ISIS to a church in Charleston to Orlando to Ocean Beach and back to Dallas—and points in between, the common denominator is to hate, to dehumanize, and to seek to destroy the one who offends, who is different, who is other. I wonder, is this indeed becoming the age of hate?

If so, how do we respond? How do we live our lives? What do we do? It is tempting to armor up. And so the drones fly forth. Gun sales skyrocket. Political parties move farther apart. Shame and blame dominate the election landscape.

But in this place, on this day, we take steps in the path of that Galilean rabbi. Blessed are the meek…take up your cross and follow… it is more blessed to give than to receive. Those who want to find their life must lose their life. Jesus’ way is not the way of hate; to follow Jesus is to be in the flow and flood of God’s love.

How do we make this pilgrimage of love and following in such a precarious time? How do we do it, Jesus? That is really the question the lawyer in today’s gospel was asking, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus gives him the basic, Deuteronomic answer pointing to the law’s summary: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” The seeker asks a follow-up question, “And who is my neighbor?” That’s it! That is the singular spiritual question for us in this age, “And who is my neighbor?” It goes to the heart of who and whose we are.

And so, Jesus tells a story. “A man was going down to Jericho…” The Jericho Road is the seventeen mile road that connects Jerusalem to Jericho. That road drops 3,600 feet in those seventeen miles. It is a steep, winding, descending, remote road that for centuries has been a place of robberies. And as happens on dangerous roads this man falls upon robbers who beat him, steal from him and leave him for dead.

Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about this man and this story in his last speech from Mason Temple in Memphis the night before his own Calvary as he called those gathered, and really us, to “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” King reflected on the priest and the Levite in the story, he wondered if what was really seizing them was fear—that same raw emotion that constricts our answer to that critical question of neighbor. In his imagination, King saw it this way,
… it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”

King could see that fear and hate are inextricably connected. In this age, we are fearful of so many neighbors. And fear vanquishes any love. Fear takes us down that road to hate. Fear leads us to ignore, or despise or even hate and harm our neighbor. “And who is my neighbor?” Not the Muslim, not the gay man, not the black man, not the cop! “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” This is not the dangerous unselfishness that Martin Luther King, Jr. was calling the community of Jesus to reclaim. It is indeed dangerous selfishness—dangerous because all selfishness leads to division and violence. And so in this age, we practice the discipline of dangerous selfishness too often as we move to the other side of the road. We practice this selfishness when we say that what happens on the other side of the border is not our concern and build fences to try and keep their troubles their troubles. We practice this selfishness when we form our international policies around our needs. We practice this selfishness when we distress the environment and leave as our inheritance a hotter and less habitable planet.

But Jesus places another man on that Jericho road. That is good news, because he did not pass on the other side. This Samaritan does not ask the fear laced question, “what will happen to me?” As Martin Luther King suggested in his twilight night, “… he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Now that is the right answer. That is Jesus’ question. Now, we know Jesus’ questions because we are a people of the baptismal covenant. We are asked, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” When we answer, “I will with God’s help” we say we will stop on the road. “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” When we say, “I will with God’s help,” we cast away our fear and embrace that dangerous unselfishness that will take us with Christ to the cross and to all that lies beyond, an empty tomb, a promised land, that place where there is no death but life ever lasting.

And so this Samaritan, who is only named as good, takes this man and his dignity off the road, binds his wounds, places him on his own animal, takes him to an inn where he can heal.

And who is our neighbor? In this community, you exercise your neighborliness in so many ways. However, we cannot be satisfied with this. We must go further. We must be dangerous. We must work for, advocate for, and stop on the road for those who need our help. And who is our neighbor? Surely all who live in this city whether or not they have a home, regardless from whence they come or the nature of their citizenship or documentation, are our neighbor. And who is my neighbor: the person living in the bushes, the homeless student at the high school, the addict in the park, the schizophrenic on the beach.

The mark of our following Jesus is simply this to be kind to the one in need, the one who can do nothing for us. Perhaps, oddly enough, Kurt Vonnegut, self-described atheist and “Christian worshipping agnostic” captured the essence of moral vision of Jesus and our call, when he was asked by a young man in Pittsburgh, “Please tell me it will all be okay,” the modern equivalent to the question asked of Jesus, to which Vonnegut responded: “‘Welcome to Earth, young man. . . It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, Joe, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of: goddamn it, Joe, you’ve got to be kind!’” Sounds like the way of Jesus, down a dangerous and unpredictable road. Let us join Jesus; let’s go together. Those we meet are called neighbor. Let us be kind and stop. This doesn’t have to be the age of hate. It can be the dawning of a new era of love.

The Rt Rev James R Mathes 
July 10, 2106
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego

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