It's Not Them

First Christian Church, Emporia, KS

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Sermon by Dr. Paxton Jones, Regional Minister

Texts: Luke 10:25-37

The gospel reading for today is the lectionary text from Luke 10:25-37, which in the NIV reads this way:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered: “’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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Good morning!  I bring you greetings this day from your regional church staff as well as from all of your Disciple brothers and sisters throughout Kansas.  It is a privilege to be here, as always, to celebrate with you the wonderful things God has done with and is doing thru this congregation—and a true blessing to be asked to fill this pulpit in David’s absence.

When he called me several weeks ago to ask if I’d fill in, he wondered if I might somehow share with you some of the things I learned during my trip to the Middle East this past spring.  I wondered, too, although it’s certainly not appropriate to turn this time into a travelogue. Then when I saw the lectionary’s scripture for today and realized that I’d actually been on that road four months ago, it just all sort of came together.

I suspect that if you only know one story from the New Testament, or perhaps from the whole Bible, it is this parable of the Good Samaritan—despite the fact that Luke’s is the only gospel that tells it.

A lawyer, an expert in the law both civil and religious (because in Jewish society there was no distinction between the two), challenges Jesus with a seemingly simple question. Unlike in Matthew and Mark, where Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment, this lawyer asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is a loaded question, because such inheritance was the reward promised to God’s covenant people, those whom God had promised to make into a great people, to bless, and to give them a land (Genesis 12:1-3).

Instead of answering directly, Jesus instead asks the lawyer how he understands the Law—which was also a trick question, because there were hundreds of laws governing nearly every aspect of life. Knowing the foundation of all of those laws was the Ten Commandments, the lawyer summarizes them in those familiar words we heard earlier.

Then comes that most alluring of temptations—and damning of phrases—wherein the lawyer, ‘wanting to justify himself,’ asks that most chilling of questions: “And who is my neighbor?” It is often described as the most un-answered question in history, because instead of answering it Jesus tells him a story.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and I mean literally going down as this steep, winding, dangerous road descends almost 3,300 feet in 17 miles, when he was attacked by robbers, beaten and left for dead. A priest, then a Levite, see him lying there and pass him by, but a despised Samaritan finds him and cares for him, becoming the hero of the story.  Don’t you know how much that must have irked the lawyer? How, as he listened to the story unfold, how scandalized he must have been? How he must have thought to himself “Not him. Not him! He’s a … he’s a Samaritan!”

Then suddenly the story ends, and the lawyer startles as he realizes Jesus is asking him another question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” And he’s trapped.  In his arrogance the lawyer sought to justify himself, but there is only one correct response that can be given, and he does so grudgingly. “The one, I suppose, who had mercy on him.”

What’s a fellow to do when snared in his own prejudices?  Jesus knows, so he told him to “Go and do likewise.”

I’d like to tell you that all of this ‘wisdom’ sprung full-blown into my mind that late afternoon as my tour group made the reverse journey from ancient Jericho up to modern Jerusalem, but in truth I’m only now able to verbalize my thoughts, feelings and impressions from those 2 weeks in early March.  In 13 days, we covered a lot of ground, meeting with our Global Ministry partners in Cairo, Beirut, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. We had audiences with the Muftis of Egypt and Lebanon and conferences with Bishops and seminary presidents; delivered Dignity packets and supplies to refugees in a makeshift camp less than a mile from the Syrian border; walked the streets of occupied Hebron accompanied by young volunteers from Ireland, Spain, Colombia and Norway; sat with a grieving mother whose 12-year-old son had been shot dead while playing soccer in his school yard by an Israeli settler, who was not and never will be prosecuted for the murder; and were serenaded by kindergarteners who are part of the fourth generation of Palestinian refugees in a “temporary” camp established in 1948, trapped there because to move out of the camp means to forfeit your “right of return” to your home and homeland.

You cannot assimilate all of that in 13 days. You cannot comprehend why Lebanon, with a population of 4 million Lebanese, has welcomed 1.5 million Syrian refugees in addition to the half million Palestinian refugees who have been there since 1948 … while some in the United States would limit the number of refugees we’d welcome to 10,000 a year.  You cannot view that God-awful Wall being built by the Israelis, pass through their countless security checkpoints, and witness their treatment of all Palestinians, including Christians, as lesser beings and understand how they fail to see the stark parallels between what they are doing and what was done to them by Nazi Germany.

Then you come home to the nasty rhetoric that presidential politics have become, to the partisanship of Congress and of the Kansas Legislature, to the brutality of mass shootings, to the discrimination against – well, you name it, and to the blatant fear in which we live … and you want to scream, “What is wrong with you people?”

Then you realize that you’re one of “those people” too. So you can only shake your head, clutch your heart, and weep.

But that’s not true. 

After Elie Wiesel, probably the best known and certainly the best spoken survivor of the Nazi death camps, passed away last weekend, I pulled my copy of Night, his memoir of his time in the camps, off of my bookshelf and thumbed through its pages.  The book was hard to read and almost impossible to put down as it recounted mankind’s inhumanity to mankind.  Not surprisingly, the media and social media were flooded with stories about and quotations from his life. Things like:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference” and

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

And I understand that instinct, and he’s absolutely right, except, of course …

There’s no such thing as Us and Them; there is only Us.

Several years ago, fed up with all of the partisan rhetoric that was and is so prevalent, I began adding a quotation with my signature at the end of my emails. The first one I remember adding was from Stephen Colbert, who said:

"If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, we either have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it."

Around that same time, I wrote an article that essentially said the same thing.  Man, did I hear about it!

“How dare you!” I was told in no uncertain terms. How dare I “bring politics” into religion! As the Regional Minister, I had no right to … yada, yada, yada.  I listened to them rant for a spell -- maybe 30 seconds, maybe a minute – before I said, as calmly as I could, “So what you’re telling me is that the Church may not speak up on behalf of the poor, the widowed, the homeless, the ‘other’ … which I find astonishing, because time and time again Jesus spoke on their behalf.  ‘Whenever you have done it for the least of these,’ He said, ‘you have done it unto me.’” Sadly, they didn’t like my answer; sadly, they didn’t realize that it’s not Us and Them, but only Us.

I’m pretty sure they haven’t been any more pleased with my subsequent quotations, that

“If our church is not marked by caring for the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, we are guilty of heresy” (St. Ignatius of Loyola)

and

“Injustice ANYWHERE is a threat to justice EVERYWHERE” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

but they haven’t called me back.

“Who is my neighbor?”  When the lawyer asked Jesus this question, he didn’t lecture him about neighborliness. He told him a story that in essence addressed his first question about how to inherit eternal life. 

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” he asked.

“The one who had mercy on him.”

“Then ‘Go and do likewise.’ For eternal life is in the doing.”


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