By the Rev. Eric Long
On July 10th I preached on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. That was our first Sunday together after the shooting deaths of two African American men by police followed by the assassinations of five police officers in Dallas. Many of you have been kind enough to ask for a copy of that sermon, while others were out of town given the busyness of the summer months. Therefore, below is an adaptation of my sermon notes from that day so that it can be read.
I pray this inspires us all toward greater empathy and understanding of each other.
Our neighbors are everyone and our neighborhood is the world.
Sermon: Luke 10: 25- 37
In Mary Gordon’s novel, “Pearl,” the main character decides that her life should be forfeited as a testimony against a terrible thing she’s done. Actually, a terrible thing she’s said. Now I know that sounds crazy, but that’s the premise of the novel. In this young woman’s mind, she believes this is the only just way forward: her words have caused tremendous pain; therefore she needs to end her life because human life can cause so much pain.
As you can tell, “Pearl” is a cheery novel!
One compelling thing about it is how vividly it speaks about the careless ways we do inflict pain on each other. For Pearl, it was on a young man named Stevie, who was naïve, awkward, illiterate, and just not as quick-witted as others. And Stevie was keenly aware of these weaknesses in himself and highly sensitive about them, particularly when it came to Pearl: a beautiful, smart woman who had shown him some attention. That is, until he did something reckless, and Pearl responded with the terrible words: “How could you be so stupid!”
These terrible words tore into Stevie’s soul. They were perhaps the worst of all possible words for him, from the worst possible person. And they ultimately led to his death because Stevie was not able to face a world where the one person’s words he cared about most were cruelly flung at him in the most painful sentence ever. And so Stevie ended his life.
As I said, “Pearl” is a cheery novel.
Pearl decides she has to end her life by starving herself to death as some sort of atonement for Stevie’s life and as a testimony against human pain. She wants the ending of her life to be a statement. She says, in fact, that she wants to turn her whole life into one sentence – something that speaks against pain. And so she decides to go down this extreme path.
By choosing this horrible path, she does, in fact, reduce her life to a single sentence, but not the one she intended. Instead of making her life a sentence against the pain we casually cause, she made her whole life about the pain she casually caused in the one sentence: “How could you be so stupid!” Through her actions, she was making that one sentence the measure of her entire life. And because she reduced her entire life to that one terrible sentence, that one terrible sentence became a death sentence for her.
There’s a great chance that the whole premise of the story I just described seems ludicrous to you. Who in the world would sacrifice their life because of one thoughtless sentence? But when you turn the story around just a bit, it starts to connect with our lives – particularly this week – way more than it should, for just consider how easily we judge one another and sum up each other in a sentence. How we make judgments about another human being and reduce them down to one terrible sentence: “He’s nothing but a thug.”…a refugee.” “…a criminal.” “…a junkie.” Or this week in Dallas, “…a cop.” Or the old standards: “There’s that guy who ruined his business, had the affair.” “That’s the woman who had the DUI, whose kids are always causing problems at school.”
While we could not imagine making Pearl’s decision to sum up our own existence in one sentence because we know that we are much more than the worst things we have done or any summary judgments hurled our way, we casually do this to one another. And in so doing, we kill the full dimension of each other’s humanity – by reducing each other’s humanity to one terrible sentence: “You are only the worst thing you’ve ever done, or the worst thing I believe you’ve done.” And this itself is its own sort of death sentence because in so doing we assassinate each other’s full human worth.
I’d like to hold this up before us right now, after this week of both careless and thought-through violence and the flurry of words surrounding it all. I’d like to hold this up before us during this election season, where this great reduction of human beings is being done with abandon, and even with joy, glee, and uncaring regard for how it further divides us and prevents us from fully considering each other in all of our many dimensions. This is because our politics have devolved into a public demonstration of the viciousness of our age, with our casual, easy indictments of others. The candidates act as if the other candidate or members of the other party can be summed up by the worst sentence or two ever constructed about them. More insidiously, they do this to whole groups of people and, in fact, they will rely on us to do the same in order for them to win. “That person is only… That group is only….” “They’re all only…” We will hear it over and over and over again. “That person is only….only….only.” Only none of it is true because none of us is ever only one thing.
I pray you believe that — and believe it enough to fight this ugliness — because nobody’s life can be reduced to a sentence, particularly the most uncharitable one that could be written. For when it is, we can also see that it can literally become a death sentence.
Today Jesus tells a famous story. So famous, in fact, that if I said, “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word, ‘Samaritan,’” many of you would answer, “good.” But if you asked that question in Jesus’ day, I can assure you “good” would not be the answer. For no one in Jesus’ day – outside of Samaria – would say there was anything good about a Samaritan. “Samaritans, they’re all terrible. They’re unclean. Defiled. Racially impure. Their ancestors intermarried with the enemy (Assyrians). They collaborate with the Romans today. They worship wrong. Heretics all. They’re worthless and hostile and dirty and other and not us. Samaritans are anything but good.” Except to Jesus who tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Because no one’s life can be reduced to a sentence, particularly the worst sentence that could be told.
Now this is a great story. A lawyer wants to test Jesus. And being a lawyer, he’s great with sentences. Sentences that test. But after the great sentence that says that the way to true life is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, everything comes down to one final sentence: “Who, then, is my neighbor?”
Who is your neighbor?
Politicians will tell you few people are. Your fears will do the same. Few people are your neighbors – only those who think like you, vote like you, maybe even look like you.
But who does Jesus say is your neighbor?
If your life were to tell a sentence that answered that question, what would it say? Who is your neighbor?
The priest’s life in Jesus’ story told a sentence: My neighbor is not as important as my ritual obligations and religious worldview. I’m too much better and more important than my neighbor.
The Levite’s life told a sentence: My neighbor is not as valued as my ceremonial cleanliness before God. I can’t risk being sullied in my normal community for the sake of my neighbor. He’s not a member of my tribe.
And the “loathsome” Samaritan’s life told a sentence: My neighbor is everyone, particularly everyone in need, even those nothing like me, who even hate me. Therefore I will give all that I have, no matter the personal cost to me, for the sake of my neighbor.
Who is your neighbor?
Jesus says your neighbor is everyone in this world. And right now, in this world, we need Christians who really believe that. My Facebook feed certainly says we need Christians today who really believe that. Our newspapers shout we need Christians today who really believe that. For the literal love of God, we need Christians today who really believe that. And act on that.
Everyone is our neighbor. And our neighborhood is the world. For Jesus says our neighbors are all people, everywhere, particularly those whom we could find great reasons not to consider our neighbors. All those Samaritans in our lives. And even though we could put together a lot of sentences with a lot of reasons to justify not helping them; although we could come up with all kinds of death sentences against each other’s humanity, it doesn’t change the fact that they still remain our neighbors according to the neighborhood rules of God.
We are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper. There will never be enough words to write any of them off from the human family.
Jesus picks a Samaritan as his example of what a good neighbor looks like and then turns to us and says, “Go and do likewise.” Because our lives are making a sentence. They are speaking of not only who we are but how we prize the God-given humanity of those around us. But it is not the tsunami of words we utter that form that sentence at all, but rather how we live our lives with whomever “the other” is in our lives that speaks the most.
Who, then, is your neighbor?
Sharing with you the neighborhood of God,
The Reverend Eric Long, Rector