Enough is enough. It’s time to talk about our neighbors – our specific neighbors – whom Jesus calls us to love.
Hear an audio recording of Pastor Evan’s sermon here:
8th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C) – July 10, 2016 – Luke 10:25-37
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Seeing Our Neighbors – Pastor Evan Davis
It’s been a hard week for our beloved nation. I’m sure we all wish I could preach a sermon today about simply doing good deeds for our neighbors that we could all feel good about. I sure do. The families of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith sure wish we could have that sermon today. But you know I can’t do that. We have to face what’s going on. We need to see. So I ask you to be with me today in these hard realities and hard questions.
I want to say a couple things up front. Our society, already so torn in half by our political and philosophical differences, is again tearing itself apart and allowing the lie to persist that there are two sides to this struggle we’re in together. Of all people, a comedian said this week, “the hardest part about having a conversation surrounding police shootings in America, it always feel like if you take a stand for something, you automatically are against something else. But with police shootings it shouldn’t have to work that way. For instance, if you’re pro-Black Lives Matter, you’re assumed to be anti-police. And if you’re pro-police, then you surely hate black people. It seems it’s either pro-cop and anti-black or pro-black and anti-cop, when in reality, you can be pro-cop and pro-black, which is what we should all be.”1 Pretty obvious, right? Well, tell that to the people on the cable news shows.
It is so easy to fall into this trap. A few minutes on facebook is all it takes. We want to believe that our problems are simple and we just have to get on the so-called “right side” and be against those we think are entirely wrong. But friends, we must resist. We are in this together. What we need is the empathy to see the face of Jesus in Alton, in Philando, in all five of these slain officers. In protestors, in people who are angry and sad and stressed and even those full of hate.
The shooters in Dallas this week clearly fell into this trap. They fell into the lie that there are friends and enemies in this mess, that violence can solve our problems and not simply beget more violence and alienation. What they did is an act of terror and it’s as simple as that. As Dr. King reminds us, “returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”2
This is not to say that the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, were acts of hate. More so, they seem to be acts of fear. From what I can tell from watching the horrific videos and hearing many voices this week, it does not seem these men did anything to warrant being killed by the police. It seems the officers could have handled these situations without deadly force. We don’t know what was going through the officers’ minds. But what seems clear to me is that we have to bridge this divide between citizens and the police so that there is mutual understanding and respect, so that officers learn to not feel so threatened by black men, unarmed or armed, that they deliver a death sentence when these men are not even charged with a crime.
All this is preface to what I think I’m hearing from Jesus this week. Let us remember that the story Jesus tells about the man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, who was stripped, beaten, and left for dead, is actually his response to the lawyer’s question, “and who is my neighbor?” The lawyer wants to know precisely who is his neighbor and who is not, so he can expend exactly the minimum amount of effort, empathy, and love in order to fulfill the technical requirements of the greatest commandment, which, of course, he can quote perfectly from Deuteronomy.
Jesus could have simply replied, “well, everyone is your neighbor.” So there. Not sneaking your way out of this one, lawyer! But naturally, Jesus replies by telling a story. And all the usual suspects – the ones who would have been easy for the lawyer to love – respected, upstanding members of his community, a priest and a Levite – are the ones who are not so neighborly to the dying man. No, Jesus takes care to show that it is a Samaritan, one of the McCoys to the Jewish Hatfields, one of the long-estranged relatives of the Jewish people, who was a neighbor to the dying man. Jesus didn’t say, “everyone is your neighbor.” How much effect would that really have? “Well of course everyone is my neighbor, yes, I get that,” the lawyer would have replied. But would he really have grasped, in his bones, that these ones who were systematically degraded in the eyes of Jewish people, these Samaritans who everyone thought of, automatically and subconsciously, as less, were, in fact, his neighbors? Would his prejudice really have been exposed and challenged? People he needed to love in order to be right with God, and even with himself? I’m not so sure. I think he needed more than a generic “all.” He needed a specific human being he considered his enemy to be placed before him.
And so, of course, “all lives matter.” Of course, black lives and blue lives and white lives and all shades of brown lives matter. Infinitely to God. But in a situation in which a particular kind of life, a particular racial group in our nation, has been systematically degraded in the eyes of white people, (not that all white people actively hate black people, but rather that more often than not white people have seen black people as a different kind of person than themselves) systematically, from the first days of our nation, seen as less, enshrined as three-fifths human in our Constitution, always qualified as different, as an “other”….in that situation, we need to say that yes, black lives matter. Because we need to remind ourselves. We need to remind each other. If there was no problem, “all lives matter” would be enough. But there is a problem. We can’t see. That’s the problem. We can’t see all our neighbors as our neighbors.
This isn’t about us. The lawyer was concerned about himself. Luke even points out that in asking the question he was seeking to justify himself. And that’s what we want. We want to make sure that no one thinks less of us. We don’t want to be considered racists. We don’t want to be called or classified anything, and so we get defensive and fearful and angry. And then it’s very hard to listen to the stories of our black brothers and sisters. It’s very hard to believe them, to believe their stories of being treated differently by the police and by the society in general. It’s very hard to see.
It’s not about us. God loves you…infinitely. None of us is perfect. All of us have prejudices, including me. God loves you anyways because God made you. And all your sin has been forgiven already this morning. This is about our neighbors. That’s what Jesus’ story is about, isn’t it? This is about doing whatever we need to do, and looking truthfully and honestly within ourselves, so that we can correct what is wrong and truly be neighbors to each other.
I believe in the God who made all of us, who reconciled each of us to one another through the cross of his Son Jesus, who in rising from the dead shows us our own future, a future in which people of every tribe and nation and language will worship God together in a unity constructed from all their wondrous diversity.
God is already moving us in that direction. We can take part in God’s work. And we don’t have to do everything the Samaritan did.
The Samaritan put himself at great personal risk. He bandaged his wounds, using expensive oil and wine. He put the dying man on his own animal, took him to an inn. He could have left him there and felt pretty good about himself, but no, he paid a deposit and promised to settle up for the rest for this man, his neighbor, when he returned. He put his wellbeing, his credit rating, his reputation, and even his life on the line as he tended to this man on the side of the road.
Most of us aren’t being asked to risk all that. Our courageous police officers risk their lives to be Good Samaritans to us every single day. To protect innocent people from the line of fire as they did in Dallas this week. And most of us don’t know the risk faced by many of our black sisters and brothers when they simply walk down the street or are stopped by the police.
Perhaps we can start by finding the courage to risk examining ourselves honestly. Do we classify people of color a little differently in our minds? Do we feel the need when describing someone who is black to always mention the color of their skin, as if that was their defining characteristic? Do we feel more threatened by black men than we do white men? Do we believe the stories of people of color? Why or why not? These questions require courage…
And then we can move on to have honest conversations with our loved ones, with our families, and with our friends. We can move on to building meaningful relationships with people of color, listening to them, believing them, and through those relationships God will give us eyes to see, eyes to see our neighbors of color truly as neighbors. As people for whom Christ died. As people worthy of the same respect, the same benefit of the doubt, as our own dear children.
I take heart in you…I thank you for being with me in this reality today, to have the courage to face this and these questions, and to work together to see our neighbors, and love them, whomever they are. Amen.
1 Trevor Noah, The Daily Show, July 7, 2016, http://www.cc.com/video-clips/f3qur6/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-the-fatal-shootings-of-alton-sterling-and-philando-castile (accessed July 9, 2016).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, as quoted at https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/50833-strength-to-love (accessed July 9, 2016).