Year C, 8 Pentecost
Imagine that you are driving through a dangerous area of town. You make sure your doors are locked. You might even drive a little faster than normal. You have your cell phone right next to you so you can call for help. It’s a dangerous area and you cannot be too careful. Now imagine that you are in that same part of town and you are walking alone. You are walking fast. Your head is down and you are not making eye contact. Your hand is clutching something that can be used as a weapon. As you turn a corner you happen to look up and you see something on the side of the street. At first you cannot even tell if it is a person because it’s just lying there. As you get closer, you see it is a person and that person is possibly hurt, but you are really not sure. You could go check, but you decide it’s probably just someone sleeping. If it is someone injured, what could you do? You are not a doctor. You keep walking, even faster now. As you pass by you justify your decision. What if this person was injured in a crime and that criminal was close by? What if it was a ruse and the person was pretending. Once you got close, he would knock you down and steal your wallet. The more you think about it, the more you realize that you did the smart thing. Besides, once you get out of this dangerous section of town you will call the police and let them know. That thought makes you feel better and you keep walking.
The road to Jericho was a notoriously dangerous road. (It still is.) Most people would have avoided walking it alone. It was windy, which made it difficult to see what was coming ahead. One never knew what was around the next corner. It was a place where criminals frequented and often preyed on the weak or the foolish. Occasionally people would even pretend to be injured so someone would slow down. Meanwhile their friends would hide nearby and attack the person who stopped to help. This was the kind of road where people walked fast and kept their heads down. This was the road that Jesus was talking about in the Gospel reading.
In the story, he mentioned several people who passed by the injured man. It is easy to pass judgment on these men, assume that they were heartless people. The priest, the Levite…these were not necessarily bad men. There are all kinds of theories about why they did not stop. If this was a dead body, the body would be considered unclean and by getting near it, they would have been unclean and would not have been able to perform their priestly duties. Or perhaps they were in a hurry to get to a meeting about how to improve the road to Jericho and make it safer for travelers. We don’t know. But my guess is that it all came down to fear. They were afraid for their own safety. They were afraid that they would stop and the person would not want their help or even reject them. They were afraid of the time it would take out of their day. They were afraid.
When I first moved to Norfolk, I did not know the area at all. I moved to an area that was not a super safe section of town. It was a large apartment complex. It was loud. There were always car alarms going off. People were often yelling at one another. I kept my head down and was not especially friendly. One night Conor and I were in our apartment and we heard a woman yelling. I was prepared to ignore her. I assumed she was crazy or just being dramatic. Then she started yelling for help. Conor immediately put his shoes on and went to the door. I did not want him to go for all the reasons I mentioned. She was probably out of her mind. It might have been a trick. It was not safe. He was out there for about 10 minutes and I was terrified. When he came back he said that this woman was beaten by her boyfriend. She was not seriously injured, but she was scared to walk back to her apartment, so of course Conor accompanied her. I reprimanded him. What happened if the boyfriend came back? Did she know where we lived now? I was terrified. She was quite literally our neighbor. Even as I was going through all my fear scenarios I thought about this story of the Good Samaritan and I knew I was being a hypocrite. I am ashamed of my feelings and my actions on that night. I let fear keep me from helping someone.
This past week has been a bloody week in our country. It has not just been a week, it has been years. Children shot in their schools, men and women (many of whom are African American men) killed on the street or in their cars, police officers gunned down, gay and lesbian people shot in a night club. This violence and hatred is almost incomprehensible. I believe that the source of this violence, hatred, division and mistrust is fear. It is fear of the unknown. It is fear for our own safety. It is fear of things that we cannot understand. It is fear. To some degree fear keeps us safe. It keeps us from taking unnecessary risks and harming ourselves and others. This fear we are now experiencing is having the opposite effect. Our need to keep ourselves safe and comfortable is hurting our neighbors– our brothers and sisters in Christ.
This story that Jesus told, the story of the Good Samaritan is a story about a man who risked his own safety and well-being to care for someone he had never met and would probably never meet again. Jesus told this story to answer a question by an inquisitive lawyer. The question was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer knew the answer and Jesus knew he knew the answer, so he turned the question back to the lawyer. The lawyer correctly answered: “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 responded, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Here is the irony. When the lawyer asked how to identify the neighbor (so as to achieve eternal life) Jesus told a story about a man who cared for his neighbor by risking his life. In order to live, to truly live, we have to be willing to take risks for other people. The Good Samaritan risked everything to care for this man on the side of the street, this man who could have easily been an enemy.
Taking risks to care for our neighbor might not always look like it does in this story. It probably won’t require risking our life. It could be about risking our comfort, our feelings, our pride…. It could be allowing ourselves to experience other people’s disdain and even hatred or simply opening ourselves up to experience their pain and their sorrow.
The story of Jesus Christ is a story of a man who allowed himself to be hated….allowed himself to be scapegoated…allowed himself to experience the depth of people’s anger and fear and pain. And he returned all of that with love, a love that would seem weak to most of us now. That was the only way to break the cycle of violence.
Two thousand years ago God sent his only son to this earth because he realized that punishing human sin with violence was not working. God could no longer merely punish people for their sins. Instead he put a mirror up to all of humanity to show them what their sin was doing. Jesus was that mirror. In that mirror (if they were willing to look), people saw what sin was doing to the Prince of Peace, the God of Love. It tortured and killed him. But not for long. Jesus transformed the violence and the darkness and the hatred. He transformed it to love.
Death could not defeat the Prince of Peace and the God of Love. Human hatred and agony could not defeat him. So why are we acting now as though we have been defeated by hate and anger? Jesus already won this war. He taught us this lesson–that the only way to live, the only way to experience victory over death is to refuse to let fear motivate us and control us.
Perhaps you are thinking, but that was 2000 years ago. It was a different time….different people. NO. That time is now. We are those people. Jesus is still that mirror for us, if only we are willing to look, really look. That is why we come to church every Sunday and why we celebrate Holy Communion. We look into the mirror that is Jesus Christ. We look upon the cross. We talk about how Jesus was broken for us, so that we can be whole. Jesus defeated hate and death. It is up to us now to live in to that victory and to proclaim that victory from the mountain tops.