Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 10:25-37
July 11, 2010
Pentecost 7-Proper 10C

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

If you live in this neighborhood or one like it, then you know the importance of being a good neighbor. In most neighborhoods around here there’s little more than a narrow driveway that separates one house from another. That means during the summertime when windows are open it’s easy to overhear what’s going on next door—and just as easy to be overheard. And in the wintertime, when you have to clear the snow from that long narrow driveway, it’s important not to rev-up the snowblower too early in the morning, and equally important not to blow the snow onto your neighbor’s house and windows. One positive aspect to living in such close quarters is that if you don’t like what’s on television at your house, you can put a chair by the window and watch whatever your neighbors are watching. Whatever the season, neighbors need to be good neighbors in a neighborhood like this.

The parable of the Good Samaritan all hinges on the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And as the children just illustrated, the Biblical definition of “neighbor” is much more inclusive than what we normally think of in our northshore neighborhoods. That question—Who is my neighbor?—was posed to Jesus by a lawyer. And whenever lawyers start asking questions, it’s time to sit up and pay attention.

Who is my neighbor? Just who is it that I’m supposed to love as much as I love myself? But just asking the question implies that there are some people who are not my neighbor. And if some people are not my neighbor, well, then, I can safely go through each day loving who I want to love, while simply passing by those who don’t fit my limited, segregated, restricted definition of “neighbor.” You see, when we ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” we’ve got all the veto power. We can define who our neighbors are just narrowly enough to make ourselves comfortable.

But Jesus turned that lawyerly question on its head in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A certain man was on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho. And it was, in fact, a long way down to Jericho. The road down to Jericho twists and turns and drops nearly three thousand feet in elevation in just 17 miles. That road afforded bandits and robbers any number of good hiding spots from which to surprise their victims. The man in the parable was set upon by thugs—was stripped, beaten, and left half-dead.

Well, along came a priest—a clergyman. And Jesus’ hearers must have heard this as good news. Admit it. If you were beaten up and laying half dead out here on Santa Monica Blvd, and I—your pastor—came walking along, most people would view that as a positive development, right? It’s my job to be compassionate. But imagine if I crossed over to the other side of the road purposely to avoid you. That’s what the priest in the parable did. He may have wanted to help; there’s nothing that says he didn’t. But according to the law of Moses, if that priest touched something dead then he himself would become unclean and unfit to carry out his priestly duties. He’d have a lengthy purification process to undergo, an expensive sacrifice to offer, and a lot of explaining to do.

Later a Levite came walking along. Levites were priestly assistants, kind of like elders or deacons. The same law of Moses applied to him and, like the priest, he made a hasty detour to the other side of the road. Both men could argue that they had kept the law. Both men could justify their actions with pious-sounding excuses. But . . . neither man loved his neighbor as himself.

Both the priest and the Levite made a conscious decision to look the other way. They made a detour so as not to see the half-dead man—so that they didn’t have to look at the poor guy. Because do you know what might have happened if they had stopped and looked at the beaten, bloody man? All of their excuses might have evaporated. You see, being a good neighbor necessarily involves looking—not looking the other way, but—looking at my neighbor’s misery and suffering. Only after we look can we love. Only after we open our eyes can we open our hands to do something about the suffering we see.

Beloved in the Lord, don’t look the other way. Don’t do the safe, convenient thing and look the other way when a neighbor is suffering. Open your eyes instead. On Judgment Day Jesus will say to those on His left, “It was me. I was the one that you met in the naked, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned; and you did not help me.” The response of the accused is not surprising. Do you remember what they say? “Lord, when did we see You? When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked or sick?” They didn’t see it because they didn’t want to see it—because they looked the other way—because they passed by on the other side.

Who is your neighbor? Who needs you to open your eyes and look? Who is it that you can see lying on the roadside of life, battered and beaten down, hurting and helpless? Is it a family member in a nursing home? A friend recently divorced? Is it that family you know that has to contend with the stigma of mental illness? Is it the widow who lives alone in your neighborhood? Parents of a special needs child? Someone you’re sharing a pew with this morning? All we have to do is open our eyes and look.

The lawyer’s question was the wrong question. Asking “Who is my neighbor?” allows us to go through life with blinders on—unburdened and uninterrupted—helping others when it suits our schedule and when we can get some recognition for our service—a little detail to add to the college application or job resume. The far better question to ask is this: To whom am I a neighbor? Who’s right there lying in my path beaten and bruised? Who is it that needs my neighborly attention? Who is it that needs me to be a neighbor?

That was the approach taken by the Samaritan in the parable. The Jews despised their Samaritan neighbors. Samaritans were considered half-breeds and heretics. They were impure both in race and in religion. When Jesus’ listeners heard that a Samaritan was coming, they probably suspected that this thug would finish off what the robbers had left undone. But they couldn’t have been more wrong.

The compassion of the Samaritan ran so deep that he didn’t hesitate to stop, despite the danger. The Samaritan wasn’t a priest or a pastor of any sort—just an ordinary guy doing the right thing. He did not look the other way, but climbed right down into the ditch with the beaten, bloody man. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey, took him to an inn and spent the night taking care of him. The next day he left two days’ wages with the innkeeper and ran a tab for the rest of the expenses.

The Samaritan undoubtedly had people to see, places to go, appointments to keep. But when you’ve got your eyes of compassion open, you have to expect surprises. You have to be ready to improvise. It’s Murphy’s Law that some poor, wounded, needy neighbor is bound to show up or call right about the time we’re running out the door—right about the time we’re sitting down for dinner—right about the time we’re settling in for a good night’s sleep—right when it seems that life can’t get any more hectic. There’s never, ever a convenient time to be a neighbor to someone in need. And most of the time we’re not—not very neighborly or compassionate.

But in Jesus you have a neighbor who’s even better than the good Samaritan. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took on human flesh and became your neighbor. He has compassion on you and He has joined you and me in the ditch of death. God sent His Son to be our Good Samaritan neighbor. Jesus loved God and loved a world full of neighbors so purely and perfectly that no one is excluded. He binds up your wounds with the wounds He endured on the cross. He pours the healing balm of holy Baptism on you. He brings you here to His church, which is essentially a hospice for sinners justified by Jesus. He forgives you and pays your debt in full. He serves you the bread of His body and the wine of His blood for nourishment, strength, healing and forgiveness.

Then the day will come when these half-dead bodies of ours will die altogether. The people and places and noises of this life will be silenced. But right then—at that very moment—Jesus Christ will be your neighbor—the neighbor who will not forsake you—the neighbor who will never look the other way and who will not pass you by when you need Him most. Jesus has already faced that robber called death, so that He can walk with you through that last bitter stretch—to the life of the world to come.

Already here and now—today—when you’re suffering in a way that others don’t understand—when loneliness or anxiety or depression seems to have taken all the joy out of your life—there’s still One who is your neighbor, right by your side. Because on the cross Jesus suffered in the dark dungeon of ultimate loneliness. Already here and now—today—as you stand all alone, quivering under the awful guilt of your sins, which nobody else even suspects, which would cause your friends to desert you if they found out, here too Jesus is the neighbor who stands with you—who cleanses you with baptismal water, who forgives and forgets, who feeds you with the medicine of His body and blood.

The question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” The question is, “To whom am I a neighbor? Who needs me?” That’s the question for all of us who follow in the footsteps of the good Samaritan. This is the Christian life—admittedly easier to talk and preach about than to do, and never done without the Lord’s help. He’s your neighbor. He’s your brother. His mercy and compassion will never fail you. Amen.

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