During the month of July, I have the honor of serving as chaplain to the community of the Lutheran Summer Music Academy and Festival, held this year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. The Academy brings together high school students from all over the US, young adults (mostly college students or recent graduates) who serve as counselors and interns, and outstanding faculty musicians who teach in colleges and universities all over the country. The community is based on the values of musical excellence, building community, and worship and faith formation in the Lutheran tradition. This is my sermon from yesterday, based on the parable of The Good Samaritan from Luke 10 to this diverse community that formed on June 26 and will disperse on July 24.
Remember that book you just loved as a kid? That one you made your mother read over and over and over so that you had it memorized. The parable of the Good Samaritan is kind of like that. It’s the one we love, the one we read over and over. It’s the one that just might be the most familiar of any of the stories of the bible.
Because the story is so well-known, we’re pretty sure we know what it means, right? When you see someone in need we have both the Christian and the human obligation to provide assistance. Just like the Samaritan did for the man in the ditch, right?
Except maybe not exactly. Recall that the story comes in response to a couple of questions from one of the elite members of the society in which Jesus lived. Our translation says, “lawyer.” Elsewhere they’re called scribes. He was an expert in interpreting the law of Moses. So, when he asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life, this was not a seeking question, it was a trapping question. He knew good and well the answer to the question. He was hoping he could trap Jesus into an answer that would put Jesus in hot water. Typical of Jesus, he answers the question with another question. “What does the law say?” Now, that’s a no brainer for a lawyer, the guy who knows the law better than he knows his own kids. He answers ‘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.’ “Well played,” Jesus says. “Do this and you will live.”
But the pesky scribe isn’t finished. He asks another question, not from a place of curiosity, but wanting to justify himself, to have Jesus say what a fine, upstanding man he is. And here’s where we get to the point that I hinted at earlier. The question he asks is not, “What should I do if I see someone in need?” The question is, “Who is my neighbor?” That is a much more difficult and condemning question. See, I don’t think this story is a morality play. It is a condemnation of every one of us who divide our world into those who are like us and those who are not; people we like and people we don’t; people we are comfortable around and people we are afraid of. People who are our friends and people who are our enemies. It’s a story for people like us who want to justify ourselves because we think we’re pretty good people. The moment we fall into that ancient trap of justifying we somehow forget about caring about those around us.
So, back to the central question: who is my neighbor? In the story, the man who is least like the man in the ditch is the neighbor — the hated Samaritan becomes a neighbor to someone in need. Who is your neighbor?
So, let me tell you how it is in your high school. I know because it was that way in my high school, and my kids’ high school and and when I talk to the high school kids in my church they tell my it’s like that in their high school, too. The choir kids and the band kids. The jocks, the computer geeks, the airheads, the popular kids. We divide ourselves into tribes. We can take that high school micro-culture and expand it to nearly every corner of our society. Hillary supporters and Trump supporters and those who feel the Berne. Pro-immigrant, anti-immigrant. Christians and Muslims. City dwellers and country dwellers. Blue collar and white collar. And the the list goes on and on and on. Especially in times of instability and uncertainty, sociologists tell us, we divide ourselves into like-minded tribes and circle the wagons. We are loyal to the ones like us, and if they are not like us, we pass by on the other side of the road and leave them in the ditch. We have seen this week the violent and tragic consequences of what happens when we divide ourselves into us and them.
By contrast, Jesus’ answer to the scribe suggests that even the ones least like us, those we would most easily categorize as outsiders and even as enemies — those are our neighbors. Think of that kid that is least like you in your high school. He is your neighbor. She is your neighbor. If you are a Republican, the Democrat Facebook friend that annoys you, she is your neighbor and vice versa. The families fleeing war in Syria, families who happen to be Muslim — they are our neighbors. The children and men and women fleeing brutality in El Salvador, those fleeing economic hardship in Mexico, trying to find a life in the US — they are our neighbors. Alton Sterling, the black man shot outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge is your neighbor. Philando Castile, the black man shot near St. Paul, Minnesota after he was pulled over for having a broken tail light — Phil is your neighbor. The five Dallas police officers that were shot and killed by a sniper — they are your neighbors.
Btu what can be done? Doesn’t it seem like the problems are so big that there is not a single thing that you and I could do about it? The despair comes from the false belief that the problem is out there. That’s not true. While the world is a messed up and broken place, the brokenness doesn’t start out there; it starts in here. Jesus reminds us that the problem is in each of our hearts. We are the lawyer in the story who constantly wants to justify ourselves; I’m a pretty good person. I’m not prejudiced; I’m not racist. But the problem is in here. The problem starts with our own diabolical impulse to see some as friends and others as strangers. The great spiritual writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton wrote, “Instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate these things in yourself, not in another.” And with respect to the tragedies of this week, I might add, hate the racism in yourself not in another.
Our embrace of the stranger and our call to regard the stranger as our neighbor is rooted in the very heart God. We have been God’s stranger. We are the ones who have wandered away from the Father’s estate, the sheep who have wandered, the children who have rebelled. Yet in Christ, God has come close to us and loved us. With no guarantee that anyone would receive accept the invitation to come home, to be reconciled to God, God left God’s home and made a home with us in Jesus. We are that wounded man lying in the ditch; God is the one who has come close to rescue us and to bring us healing.
That’s what changes everything. That’s what makes this not so much a morality tale as much as a new-life-in-Christ tale, a life-that-flows-from-the-font-and-the-table kind of tale. Regarding the stranger as a neighbor is not natural; but we are no longer naturally born. We are divinely born and are called and empowered to go in to the world and see the ones the world doesn’t see, no longer walking by on the other side of the road, but getting down in the ditch, binding wounds, filling empty bellies, clothing naked bodies, sitting with the lonely, crying with the grieving. And for those us us with white skin, I think the life that flows from the font and the table means recognizing that we have a different experience in this country than what our brown-skinned brothers and sisters experience. Being a neighbor means sitting with them, standing with them, and walking with them and refusing to rest until justice flows down like waters.
Jesus finished the story by telling that the Samaritan went to the wounded man and poured oil and wine on the wounds and then bandaged them. He put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. He paid for his hotel room and then gave him his credit card number in case he needed anything else. And here’s the last thing Jesus said, the punchline of this whole story.
Go and do likewise.