Good morning. I’m thankful for the opportunity to speak to you as a part of the Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series focused on a Lukan Horizon, drawing out the themes of compassion and justice within the Gospel of Luke. These messages are always relevant, but seem even more pertinent in our current situation.
Who would have thought that at the beginning of this week, amidst the fireworks and barbecues and time spent with family and friends celebrating ideals like freedom, democracy, and independence, we would end the week with these great tragedies? Here we are again. Mourning loss of life again. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the violence in our world again. Again. Again. Again. I don’t have words to express my outrage and brokenness in light of recent events. In the words of the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before.”
It took me a long time to prepare for this week’s sermon. And by a long time, I mean it took me a long time to actually sit down and write. Repeatedly this week we, as a nation and members of a global society, woke up to news of violence and death from the night before in our own country. By Friday, I became afraid to check social media. The previous two days my news feed was filled with videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and accompanying lament, anger, and sorrow from my friends. It was devastating to realize that this is happening, again. Not that it has every really stopped happening. We’re just highly aware of it now because of our access to social media, phones with cameras, and live streaming. Our nation is steeped in a history of racism which perpetuates the same systemic injustice and hate toward people of color generation after generation. Friday was no different from the previous two days – I woke up to the news of 11 police officers shot, 5 of which were killed, while on patrol at a rally protesting the police shootings taking place in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. Photos from earlier that evening showed police officers and protesters taking photos together – a peaceful gathering that was shattered by gunshots aimed at police officers. After weeks and weeks of horrific news and terror in our own country (Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas) and around the world (Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, and yesterday in Balad), we are in crisis.
In all my grappling with the news this week, I turned to our gospel reading. I wanted a word of hope in this seemingly relentless barrage of death and destruction. What does the gospel have to offer us in this time of need? What is the good news of God given by Jesus that can help us in our lament?
Today’s gospel invites us to see and do. We love the parable of the Good Samaritan. It exemplifies the message of Christ to us – to love God and in so doing, love our neighbors as ourselves. It has permeated our culture so much that the term “Good Samaritan” is something that we find in news stories and even in our laws. In those contexts it means someone who helps someone else who is in a dangerous or life-threatening situation without expectation of recognition or acknowledgement. But that doesn’t really get to the heart of what is happening in this passage from Luke.
To understand the meaning of the parable, we must first truly understand the Lawyer and his position within his context. A lawyer in Jesus’ time was a religious official – the law was religious Law, the laws of the Hebrew Bible. In asking Jesus his initial question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the Lawyer already knew the answer…and Jesus knows that, turning the question back on him: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to him “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.” Jesus says he is correct in his reading and understanding of the law. But the Lawyer is not satisfied with Jesus’ answer. Perhaps in an attempt to trap Jesus into making a mistake, sensing that Jesus’ answer will go against Jewish teaching, the lawyer continues his questioning…”And who is my neighbor?”
The Lawyer’s concept of neighbor is limiting. In Jewish society at this time, there were boundaries constructed by rules about how one was to interact with others depending on one’s place within society. How Jewish people should interact with Gentiles and Samaritans; how women should interact with men; how priests should interact with Israelites. There were clear lines as to who you had to consider as your neighbor, and who you did not. And to act in love to someone who was on the other side of those boundaries was completely out of the question.
In Luke’s writing, Jesus often answers questions like the one posed by the Lawyer with a parable. A parable is a wonderful narrative tool because it requires the listener to actively engage in the story. It begs the question of who you identify with and why. It requires the listener to determine the moral of the story. It answers a question or resolves a situation in indirect ways, putting the onus on the listener to determine what is right and wrong. Utilizing a narrative device like this puts a “face” on the response that isn’t an abstract concept – it’s people in conceivably real life situations. An ethical dilemma.
What we often misunderstand in this story is the Lawyer’s aversion to a Samaritan. Samaritans were viewed as the lowest of the low, unclean people who had perverted Judaism by marrying outside of the culture, taking on new religious practices. That’s why labeling this parable as the “Good Samaritan” is necessary – the “good” is meant to sound like an oxymoron to the initial hearers of this story. The Lawyer would not trust a Samaritan and might not even travel into places where Samaritans were known to live, so for Jesus to set a Samaritan up as the “neighbor” in this story is anathema to the Lawyer. It is completely unexpected.
In contrast to the Samaritan, we have the priest and the Levite, men who are leaders within the Jewish faith. They avoid what they perceive to be a potentially polluting situation because of their adherence to the rules – the ritual impurity of interacting with a potentially dead body. Or maybe they’re afraid – the road described between Jerusalem and Jericho is a steep hill with twists and turns – making it ideal for robbers to hide. What if the priest and the Levite were being set up to fall into the same trap when they helped the man in the ditch? They were not willing to take that chance, for whatever reason, whether out of adherence to the rules or fear of the same thing happening to them.
The Samaritan does not allow himself to be constricted by rules or fear. He does not think of what social convention dictates about he should interact with this person – he only sees someone in need. The Samaritan sees another person, a neighbor, someone close in proximity to him, who needs help. He is the one who has compassion, the one who shows mercy. He acts in love. He is able to put himself in the place of the person who is hurting and recognize that what is most important is his safety. He is the neighbor to the man in the ditch.
The Lawyer recognizes that compassion is the right action – he knows that it is better to care for someone who is hurting than to avoid their pain. He tells Jesus when Jesus asks who the neighbor is “The one who showed him mercy.” The Lawyer must learn from this outsider – the one whom he would have otherwise rejected – what the love of God and neighbor truly looks like. The Samaritan’s compassion reveals something far beyond what it means to be a neighbor to someone, it reveals the humanness of those that we stereotype into the other.
But the Samaritan isn’t just a rescuer. He doesn’t just take the beaten man out of immediate danger – he makes sure that the man’s wounds are cleaned and bandaged, that he has safe lodging, and that he is cared for by the innkeeper. He will come back to check in on the man’s safety and wellbeing later in the week. The Samaritan puts himself in a position of healing, of on-going care, along with the innkeeper. He doesn’t just assume that the man in the ditch will be able to find help from others, he connects him with support and comfort. He develops a relationship with him. It’s the difference between putting a band-aid on a deep cut and expecting it to heal, and carefully cleaning it out, getting medical assistance, and ensuring its continued care.
So where do you see yourself in this story? Are you the man in the ditch? The robbers? The priest or the Levite? The Samaritan? The innkeeper? The Lawyer?
I think we all want to be the Samaritan. We know that what the Samaritan does is what God ultimately wants us to do in the face of tragedy or injustice. We all know that inside ourselves is the capacity to love each other the way God wants us to love. But sometimes our culture, our social systems, our preconceived notions stand in our way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we can’t be the Samaritan, but in many cases we may fall short. In some cases we may be closer to the priest or the Levite. I know I am guilty of this – of occasionally seeing someone who might be in need or hurting and avoiding them because I don’t have time or I’m afraid of being taken advantage of or being made unsafe. I fail to see the people who are in need of help.
In the case of what’s going on in our country today, we have broken and bloodied bodies to account for. These bodies are not the root of the problem, however. In order to properly heal this situation, we need to address the larger systemic issues in our world that contribute to the expansion and intensity of violence between people who perceive the other to be bad, or wrong, or threatening. In a post made today on the Religion Dispatches website, theologian and ethicist Emilie Townes got to the heart of the matter:
“We must stop and look at ourselves—all of us. Take an account of how we sanction or contribute to the madness that has overtaken us—a calculating, hoarding madness that fails to take in the complexity of this nation and our world. The rising death toll and the classism, sexism, racism, heterosexist, trans-sexism, militarism, and more that fuel this disregard for human lives will not stop the violence until we decide to stop them and then act to make it so.”
What is at stake here, today, in our context, is injustice. Racial injustice. Economic injustice. LGBTQ injustice. Religious injustice. We have to acknowledge these systemic causes rather than the isolated incidents that have occurred. Systems of injustice in our country have been never really fully acknowledged or alleviated – we’ve made strides, for sure, but underneath there have continued to be forms of aggression and domination that have increased the distance between people living in the same community. We let fear dictate how we are to respond to situations of injustice – we let it overcome us and keep us from doing that which is compassionate. We skirt by on the other side of the road and shout to the man in the ditch how to get up and help himself, instead of tending to his wounds and making sure that healing is on its way.
Forms of injustice are even evident within the church. My own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, continues to struggle with the challenges of systemic racism. The ELCA is the least racially diverse protestant denomination in the U.S. – a staggering 96% of our denomination claims white European heritage. There is currently a movement within the church, Decolonize Lutheranism, which aims to point out the ways that Lutheranism has in some ways held so tightly to its cultural heritage that it fails to see how exclusive it has become. How, in some cases, the theological standpoints of defining oneself as Lutheran, such as justification by faith alone being extended to all, have been superseded by assuming that everyone in the church will be of the same background. So, even sometimes as Christians we can fall short of acting like the Samaritan in this parable. We can create spaces that make others feel unwelcome, or fail to include them and their stories in our communities.
Right now is when we need God’s help the most. When we need to be reminded that love prevails over death and destruction. When we remember that God’s only son proclaimed to us the necessity of proclaiming good news to the poor, healing the sick, releasing the imprisoned, and freeing the oppressed.
How can we go and do likewise? How can the Samaritan’s compassion translate to our own compassion in seeking justice? How do we translate our fears and mistrust in to love? If we turn to the advice that Paul gives the church in Colossae, we are called “to lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, as (we) bear fruit in every good work as we grow in the knowledge of God.” (Col 1:10) We can start by reaching out to those around us. Just like the Samaritan, we need to see and do. Instead of seeing the injustices that have been unveiled for us and letting them continue to harm, we need to act. By making connections with people we encounter on a daily basis. By checking in with those whom we know might be hurting, just to ask them how they are doing. By listening. By standing by. By giving a hug, or holding a hand. But most importantly advocating for justice that recognizes the full humanity of all people, but most importantly those who are oppressed, whether they are Black, Latino, LGBTQ, Muslim or any of the other communities in our country who face outright discrimination and hate. We must see the people in front of us rather than get caught up in abstracted ideas about groups of people which may not even be true.
Let’s start here. Right here. In this very chapel. Let us see and act in the simplest of ways. Our neighbors are those who are in closest proximity to us – the person sitting next to you, or behind you, the people up here in the front, and those out in the narthex. Some of us know each other. Some of us don’t. Some of us have been coming for years, and some of us are visiting for the first time. But all of us are here, now, in a community of worship and fellowship, brought together by our faith. I invite you to seek out your neighbors in this building, right now, and greet them. Share God’s peace with them. Give them a smile, a handshake, if they agree to it, a hug. Take this recognition of those around you right now, and leave this building today reminded that our neighbors don’t have to look like us or even have to be someone that we know in order for us to show compassion to them. Let us remember that in every time, the peace of God is always with us, especially when we are in community with others.
May the peace of God be always with you. Let us exchange signs of God’s peace with one another. Amen.
–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students
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