Saturday, July 10, 2010

Who is my neighbor?

Luke 10:25-37
This story from Luke is so familiar, we all could probably tell it without looking at the text. We know the set-up. A lawyer, someone who thinks he knows everything, approaches Jesus and tries to put him in his place.
This actually is standard practice in those days. It’s a battle of wits. The idea was to make oneself more important by asking a question that made it appear that the first knew more than the second. The second was to return the favor, and attempt to claim the top spot.
So, the lawyer, who knows the answer, tries to engage Jesus in this dialog pattern. He is very confident in his ability to put Jesus in his place and approaches Jesus filled with self-righteousness.
But Jesus changes the rules. He asks the lawyer what the Torah teaches. The lawyer answers with the standard answer, “You shall love the Lord with your whole being, and love your neighbor the same way.”
Jesus’ answer surprises the lawyer, “Go and do likewise and you will live – you will have eternal life.” But of course the lawyer was not satisfied with this answer. So he asks another question, “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer knows this answer, too. It is anyone who belongs to his group, so his neighbor is a Jew, a righteous person, anyone but the unclean people. He wants to know how far Jesus will push the limits of neighborliness.
Jesus responds with the familiar story we call the Good Samaritan. A man was walking on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Along the road are numerous caves, and thieves hid in these caves and attacked travelers. This traveler was attacked, robbed, beaten, and left for dead. They took everything he had, including his clothing. We know nothing more about him; we don’t know where he was from, or how wealthy or poor he may have been, or his social status.
The story continues. Two men – religious leaders, who should have noticed the man and had compassion on him – walked by without helping him. A third man, a Samaritan, an enemy of the Jewish people, did stop and went out of his way to assist him. He took him to an inn and paid for a couple of days respite for the man, plus anything else the man might need.
This Samaritan put his own life at risk. It could have been a trap, this helpless looking man lying by the side of the road, but the Samaritan took the chance and helped anyway. The Samaritan was on his way to somewhere else, but he took the time to help anyway. The Samaritan was generous, paying up front for the man’s care, and offering to pay more as needed on his return trip.
Finished now with the story, Jesus asks the lawyer who acted as a neighbor in the story. The lawyer can’t even say the word Samaritan. I imagine him sputtering and stammering as he looks for a way to respond to Jesus, who has just trapped him and put him in his place. “The neighbor was the one who showed mercy.” And Jesus sent him on his way with the encouragement, “Go and do likewise.”
We like to feel superior to the lawyer, smug in our own knowledge that the neighbor was the enemy. But, we also have our own moments of self-righteousness. There are always some people undeserving of our attention, of our care and concern. There are some people who are not really our neighbors.
Each week the church gets an email from the Mission in Citrus County. The Mission houses and cares for many of those we’d like to ignore, and even send somewhere else. The Mission takes in and houses homeless people, drug addicts, abusers, mentally unstable folks. They give them a place to live, food to eat, and try to get them back on the right track with job training, anger management, 12-step programs, and the like. Sometimes they are successful in sending the person back into society with a job, a home, a new outlook on life; often they are not. But they consider each person who comes to them a neighbor, worthy of mercy.
I lived for many years in southwest Michigan. Two cities, separated only by a river, were miles apart in character. It hadn’t always been this way, but when I lived there, Benton Harbor was a poor black community, and St. Joseph was white and wealthy, or at least wealthier in comparison. Benton Harbor had a reputation, a bad reputation. White people said to one another, “I stay out of Benton Harbor. I don’t even drive through there to get to the Interstate.”
Ruth didn’t say that. Ruth was for many years in charge of the community soup kitchen, in downtown Benton Harbor. Every day, volunteers serve a warm meal to anyone who comes in hungry. Over thirty churches take turns once a month providing food and hospitality to the homeless and poor people of Benton Harbor. Churches serve stew, lasagna, chicken casseroles, or whatever they wish so that hungry people get a warm meal and a friendly place in which to eat it. The Benton Harbor Soup Kitchen is a place where 200 people a day are shown mercy.
As a congregation, we work together to show mercy. We give food to the SEAS Food Pantry; we pack shoeboxes for children; we make quilts for Lutheran World Relief and for our high school graduates; we provide gas and grocery gift cards to those in need; we make low-priced foods available to our neighbors through the Angel Food program; we host three Scout groups.  
As individuals, we reach into our pockets and serve God through the ministries of this congregation. We visit those who are sick or homebound, bringing mercy to lonely members of the congregation. We show mercy to those we encounter in our daily lives. At least I hope we do. 
As I prayed and thought about preaching this text today, I came up with a number of contemporary scenarios to bring Jesus’ simple message home to us. I wondered who might pass by the man, and who might help him. The basic premise is that person who helped has to be a sort of enemy of the other two. I’d like to share a few of those scenarios with you. They are not perfect, but you’ll get the idea.
1) A man lay on the beach in Louisiana. A fisherman saw him, but walked on by, ready to go out for the day’s work. A marine mechanic walked by on his way to the shop; he had some work to do. A BP oil rig worker saw the man, gave him water, and pulled out his cell phone to call the paramedics.
2) A man lay on the curb in Washington, DC. A Republican Senator walked past, on his way to the House, where an important vote was about to occur. A Democratic Congresswoman also walked past; she was on her way to meet with a group concerned about homeless people. An independent voter walked right up to the person, and offered to take him to the hospital.
3) A man lay on the streets of Jerusalem. A Rabbi saw the man, but it was the sabbath, and he couldn’t be late for worship. A Pastor saw the man, but her tour group was late for a visit to a museum. An Imam saw the man, spoke tenderly to him, wrapped him in his cloak, and called some folks in his congregation to come and help him with the injured man.
4) A man lay in the desert in Arizona. Stripped of his belongings, it was impossible to tell if he was legal or not. Three passers-by talked saw the man and talked together about him. One said, “Wey ought to help him.” Another said, “He is probably there illegally, and they ought to ship him back to where he came from.” The third said, “If we help him and he’s illegal, we could get in trouble.” The first two turned and walked away. The third person was arrested for offering mercy to the man.
Jesus’ call to us is to show mercy to all: even if it’s inconvenient; even if it will take us out of our way; even if it could put us in danger. Your challenge this week is to show everyone you encounter mercy, even if it is difficult or uncomfortable for you to do so.
Please pray with me: Dear Jesus, we’re so glad you love us and forgive us. Help us when we get it wrong, when we fail to see the need, when we refuse to offer mercy. Yet challenge us with stories like this one, which remind us to go and show mercy and love as you do for us. Amen