Sunday, July 14, 2013

Won't You Be My Neighbor?


Pentecost 8 (Year C)
14 July 2013

Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Luke 10:25-37

Last night, as I was trying to get the baby to go to sleep, I heard the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial. He was found not guilty of murder in the second degree. Last March, Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in an altercation. Zimmerman suspected Martin of trespassing or other wrongdoing and pursued him (against police advice and warning). They got into a fight and Zimmerman had a gun and used it.

Who was the neighbor?

             In 1973, a psychological experiment was conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary. Students were told they were in a study on religious education. They completed surveys about their own religious thoughts. Then they were given a task- to either talk about seminary jobs or to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. They were told to give the talk in another building. Some were told they had plenty of time, but others were told they were already late.

On the way to the other building, they passed a man moaning and calling for help. Regardless of their speech topic, students who thought they were late stopped 10% of the time. Only 10%. Those who thought they had plenty of time stopped 63 % of the time. Overall, 40% of the students offered some help to the victim.

Who was the neighbor?

The parable of the merciful Samaritan isn’t just a story with the upshot of being nice. It is not something we get to do when we have time (Princeton study) or when people are not frightening to us (Zimmerman/Martin story). It is the way we are supposed to live our lives. It is the essence of the commandment: 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

When I say the word commandment, we all get a little indigestion. A commandment sounds like something we know we should keep and at which we expect ourselves to fail. Well, what if we came to understand it in a different way? What if we came to hear those words as a blessing: 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.

These words are a blessing, a gift from God, when we understand them to be one of the ways God is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit. It is not drudgery, not a task that we can ignore because we have received grace, not something we can wait on until we have time or money or both. To love God and to love our neighbor is God’s gift for this moment and every moment.

            We have lost the sense that the author of Deuteronomy is trying to impart: Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

            In ancient Israel, the sea represents chaos and fear. In the passage, God’s commandments toward a just society, neighbor love, and worship life are neither stored in heaven nor far away in hell. You don’t have to extra pious to hear them or receive them. You don’t have to have an arduous journey or send an adventurer to retrieve them. The commandments are part of God’s blessing. Do we work for the blessing or does it come to us through Jesus Christ? Just as we aren’t striving for grace, we aren’t working for God’s laws. They are written all over us with the grace of God… and, just like the grace that we only begin to understand as we rely on it, the commandments begin to reveal our freedom as we follow them.

            My great-uncle, my paternal grandfather’s brother, died last month. My dad saw Uncle Max a week before he died and Max told him this story:

Sometime in the ’50s, Uncle Max and Cousin JE Dunlap went to Fayetteville to help JE’s sister on some project, maybe a move or building a porch. On the way home by way of Raeford, they came upon a couple of teenage Indian (Native American) boys selling watermelons. They stopped and discussed the virtue and price for a few moments before JE remarked what a nice farm it was and if they owned it, angling toward an invitation to come bird hunt. One of the boys said, “Mister, these watermelons are the only thing we have in this world.” Max and JE bought them out without further negotiation.

Who was the neighbor?

            In a movie, an interaction between two white men in their 30s and two teenage Native American boys would not look like this. Yet, this is the story. And who is the neighbor? The neighbor is the person we stop to help and the neighbor is the person from whom we are willing to accept help.

            The commandments of God and the story of the neighbor who showed mercy aren’t merely about “being nice” or even “doing the right thing”. They are about the nearness of God, the nearness of grace in our hands and our mouths. Every. Single. Day.

            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.  It is both a commandment and a blessing. It opens us to the closeness of grace and the ways God uses us. When we trust in the blessing (not burden) of this commandment, God helps us to see how we can help those around us. We learn to trust our neighbors and we are more clearly involved in how God’s kingdom comes.

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.  Fewer young black men will end up dead or in prison. Fewer trials will end with verdicts that frustrate and disappoint and seem far from justice.

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.  Sometimes you end up with a bill at a hotel on the road to Jericho. Sometimes you end up with a bunch of watermelons. Sometimes someone pays your bill or buys all your watermelons. But “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe”. And it is a blessing.

Amen. 

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