We continue today in our eight-part series on the challenges of being a disciple of Christ. Last week as we remembered the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, a date which changed how we understood ourselves and our place in the world, we looked at Christ’s command to forgive as we are forgiven. This week as we move on to the question of who is our neighbor, we will begin by remembering another tragic event which had its anniversary this past week.
Forty-nine years ago, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. The church had become a focal point of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, seeking to combat the segregationist policies of the state, especially those of Governor George Wallace, who during his inaugural address earlier that year had famously decreed, “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” When the Southern Leadership Conference began using the church as a headquarters to begin the registration of black voters, some people had had enough.
Early on the morning of the 15th, a group of four men, led by Robert Chambliss, and all members of the KKK, placed a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church, and at 10:22 am, as a group of youth were making their way down the steps into the basement to hear a sermon entitled “The Love that Forgives” when the bomb went off, killing Addie May Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14. An additional 22 children were injured in the attack. The church itself sustained significant damage, and the bomb destroyed all but one of the stained-glass windows. The one that survived showed Christ leading a group of children.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, combined with footage of peaceful demonstrators being attacked by police dogs and water from fire hoses, shocked the conscience of the nation. Indeed, many people believe that the bombing was one of the precipitating events that led directly to the advancement of the civil rights movement and in particular of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Even people who might not necessarily have agreed with what the protestors were asking for, felt that the treatment they were receiving was inappropriate, and they had to reframe their thinking as they began to question, as we all must, who is my neighbor?
The story of the Good Samaritan is one I am sure with which most of us are familiar, even if we didn’t know the details. The Good Samaritan has become synonymous with anyone who helps someone in need. But, because it is so popular, it is also probably one of the most clichéd and least understood stories. Whenever I cover this parable in bible studies, people don’t really want to talk about the details of what is going on, but instead quickly begin talking about Good Samaritan laws and the dangers of helping those in need because of potential litigation. But to reduce the Good Samaritan to a touchy-feely, happy-go-lucky guy that we all admire because he helps others misses the truly radical and confrontational nature of this story. For you see, Samaritans and Jews hated each other. It’s not that there was a mutual dislike, although there certainly was, but it went much further than just dislike.
Samaria was an area of land between Judea, which is the southern part of Israel, which includes Jerusalem, and Galilee, where Jesus spent much of his ministry which had both Jewish and gentile inhabitants. So the first issue of conflict was over land. The land that the Samaritans occupied was land formerly held by the northern tribes of Israel. The Jews said that the Samaritans were a group who were brought in by the Assyrians after they had destroyed the tribes of the northern kingdom and the Jews there were taken into exile. They were foreigners who usurped the land and didn’t belong. Samaritans, however, claim that they were the remnant of those tribes and thus the land rightfully belonged to them. But regardless of where they came from, the real differences and animosities came over religion.
The Samaritans, who still exist today, are also monotheists. They have their own version of the Bible, although they differ from Jewish and Christian texts. They worshipped and had their own temple on
Amy Jill Levine is a New Testament scholar, who is also Jewish, says that in order to understand this story, “we should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and then ask ‘is there anyone about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘she offered help’ or ‘he showed compassion’?’ More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan. To recognize the shock and possibility of the parable in practical, political and pastoral terms…” So let’s take a look at this from a modern perspective.
A certain Christian is on a trip, when he is mugged, beaten, stripped and left for dead. Now by chance Mother Theresa was passing by, but when she saw the man, she passed by without doing anything. Likewise, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he came to the place also passed by without doing anything. But, a member of Al Qaeda came near, and when he saw him, had pity on him, and went to him bandaged his wounds, took care of him, took him to a doctor to be seen and promised the doctor to pay whatever it cost to get the man healthy again.
How would you feel then if I was to ask you who was the better neighbor, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. or a member of Al Qaeda? Is that shocking or upsetting? Is it a sort of a kick in the gut or a slap in the face? Does it make you want to walk out the door or throw things at me? It should, but that is what it would have been like for the people who first heard Jesus tell this parable.
Notice that the lawyer cannot even bring himself to say the Samaritan to answer Jesus’ question about who was the neighbor. Instead he can only say, “The one who showed him mercy.” Now what is also true of this story is that if Jesus was to tell it to a group of Al Qaeda members he would have said, the good Samaritan was an American, and if he told it to the KKK, he would have said it was the head of the NAACP, and if was told to the NAACP he would have said it was a member of the KKK. Do you understand what we are supposed to be hearing, seeing and feeling about this story?
What must I do to inherit eternal life? the lawyer asks Jesus. The lawyer is an expert on the law, and so Jesus turns to him and says what do you read there and so the lawyer quotes first from the Book of Deuteronomy: “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” although the fourth statement about the mind is not in the original, and then he quotes from the book of Leviticus “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But then lawyer wants to know, who is our neighbor?
Laws set boundaries. They establish what is acceptable and what is not, they say who is good and who is bad, and so the lawyer wants to know that his boundaries are okay. He wants to be told that the people he is excluding, the people that his society is excluding are okay to be excluded, but that, of course is not what Jesus tells him. Instead, Jesus says through this parable that everyone is neighbor. The Jew is neighbor to the Samaritan and the Samaritan is neighbor to the Jew. To believe that the one person in the story that everyone hates is the one who turns out to be the good one is just unbelievable and totally shatters everyone’s understanding of the kingdom of God, and hopefully it continues to shatter our understanding even today.
Now something similar to this had already been told in Jewish history. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we are told about the efforts to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem following the return from exile, as well as the efforts to reinforce Torah law and to purify religious practices. One of the ways that Nehemiah sought to do this was by making inter-religious marriage illegal, and to try and force all Jewish men who had married foreign wives to leave them and marry Jewish women. In response to this movement to purify the people, the book of Ruth was written.
Ruth was a Moabite woman who went back to Israel with her mother-in-law following the death of her husband, where she ends up marrying Boaz, who is Jewish, and through this relationship Ruth gives birth to Obed, who is the grandfather of King David. The greatest of Jewish king comes from a relationship between a Jewish man and a foreign woman. And then through that lineage she is also an ancestor of Jesus. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the Moabites and the Israelites also did not like each other. This was truly slanderous and radical stuff.
Doing good for those in need is certainly a piece of this story, after all the lawyer is told to go and do likewise, but the story of the Good Samaritan is a story about love of neighbor and how that is defined, and notice that Jesus does not say that we are simply to coexist with our neighbor, that’s what the fences we construct, both literally and figuratively, allow us to do is coexist. We can say, you stay over there, and I will stay over here, and that way everything will be fine. That is not loving your neighbor.
To love one’s neighbor as oneself meant, and still means, rejecting societal standards of who belongs and who doesn’t, of who is okay and who is not, of who is acceptable and who is not, it is to live in the most direct terms into the kingdom of God, it is in fact to see the world as God sees the world – a world without distinction, without borders and without boundaries. As God’s people, as children of God, we are to love without regard and to act through that love to the entire world to all of our neighbors. It may be one of the hardest things we are called to do for it is just as radical and difficult in our day as it was when Jesus first said it; it is one of the challenges of being a disciple.
Let me give you an example of how we can be neighbor or not be neighbor. The Islamic community in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, bought a plot of land and were planning to build a cultural center. The plan was approved by the city council, but when the plan became better known, the community was, shall we say, less than supportive. The sign that they put up announcing the future location was vandalized with “not welcome here” and was eventually destroyed all together. When the construction equipment showed up to begin excavation, someone came and set all the equipment on fire, and a petition was signed by more than 20,000 people asking the city council to reconsider their decision. That is one response.
In Cordova, Tennessee, which is just outside of Memphis, a similar thing was taking place. The Islamic community had purchased land and were planning on building a new community center, only in Cordova the land happened to be located right across the street from Heartsong Church, which is actually a United Methodist Church. But in Cordova, when the sign went up announcing the future site of the community center, Heartsong Church put out a sign that said “welcome to the neighborhood,” and the response of the community was radically different. There was no vandalism, there was no arson taking place late at night, and there was no petition being signed in opposition. Why? Because the church welcomed them as their neighbor.
Now that did not mean that the church did not meet opposition, because they did, but Rev. Steve Stone told his congregation that if anyone asked why they had done that, they should say “We are loving our neighbors, for Christ’s sake!” But what he has also said is, “How are we ever to reach anyone with the good news of Jesus if we only associate with those who already follow him? Our call from the Lord is to go everywhere and be his witnesses. And he said people would know we are his disciples by our love.”
Now I am sure that many of you have your own feelings about Islam, and that’s fine because we don’t have the time to cover them, but the lawyer had his own thoughts about the Samaritans as well, and Jesus told him that he was wrong. They were still neighbor.
In the novel The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, Ivan Karamazov, one of the main characters says, “one can love one’s neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it’s nearly impossible.” I’ve always been struck by that quote, and for a long time I thought it was true, but I’m beginning to think that the opposite might be the case. That it is easier to love in the reality than in the abstract. Because in the abstract it is much easier to use stereotypes and other ways of distancing ourselves from the other. But when they are in close quarters than we need to take them for who they truly are, not for who we think they are. Now does this mean that there won’t be people we don’t like up close, certainly not. There are lots of people it would be easier to love in the abstract because loving them in person is hard, but that’s not how it always is, and so let me close with this story.
In my last community we were blessed with a very strong and diverse clergy group that included not only the standard protestants and Catholics, but also three rabbis. One of those rabbis, who was an Israeli citizen, whose parents lived in Israel, and who had a family member killed in a Palestinian bombing, had been quite vocal in the past in regards to Israel and the Palestinian question. Each year we held a community Thanksgiving service which included all of the houses of worship, and one year it was suggested we also invite the Islamic community, as the Islamic Center of Boston was located in the town immediately to the south of us. But we did not know what the response of the rabbis would be. We did not want to destroy one sense of community and relationship in order to open up another set, but it turned out they were open to the possibility. But when the day arrived, we still did not know what to expect, but not only did this rabbi go over and great them, but he greeted them with the traditional Hebrew greeting of “shalom Aleichem” or “peace be upon you.”
When we let fear dominate our lives and we construct fences, both literally and figuratively, to keep out the other, when we construct boundaries and constraints, when we create insiders and outsiders, then we have violated God’s understanding of loving our neighbor. Love here is also not described as a feeling we have for another person, but instead as action. Love is something that is demonstrated by acting in the world. Blasé Pascal once said, “never trust anyone who tells you they are a Christian. Why? Because if they were truly a Christian, they wouldn’t have to tell you.” Every act of genocide from the holocaust to Rwanda to Bosnia to Darfur, would never have happened if we all saw the other as neighbor. Wars would never take place if we all saw the other as neighbor. Every act of social injustice would never take place if we only saw the other as neighbor. Anytime that we try and put restrictions on whom we will love and whom we will not, we have violated God’s message. Anytime that we say that I know God does not love that person then we have missed the gospel message entirely. Anytime that we limit people and try to make them less than human we have violated God’s commandments. Anytime that we see anyone as being excluded from God’s kingdom then we have violated God’s love.
God calls us to live lives open to God’s love, which means to live lives without fences or boundaries, to live lives without fear. 1st John, chapter 4, verses 18 and 19 say “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts our fear… we love because he first loved us.” Indeed, the first message delivered by the angels about the coming Christ child is “fear not.” We are called to live cross centered lives. And how do we do that? We love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind, that is the vertical, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, that is the horizontal. That is how we live cross centered lives. You cannot love God without loving neighbor, and you cannot love neighbor without loving God. Go and do likewise. Amen.