Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘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.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Who Is My Neighbor? Luke 10:25-37
I heard this story recently about someone who moved to Maine from away. He is African American. When he moved here, he wore his hair in long dread locs. And, he got pulled over all the time. He was pulled over so often that it became difficult for him to get around town. And, it wasn't like he was a chronic speeder or terrible driver. He was actually a very careful, conscientious driver and, he still got pulled over all the time. He wondered if it would get better if he cut his hair. Even though he liked his hair and thought that he should be able to wear it any way he pleased, he also wanted to be able to drive around his city. He cut his locs to see if it would make a difference. Nearly immediately he saw a change. While he may still get pulled over occasionally, overall, it is much easier for him to get around town. He's pretty sure it's because he cut his hair.
I heard a similar story from a ministerial colleague. Her family is from Bangor, but her brother now lives and works in Florida. Whenever he comes home to visit his family, he gets pulled over all the time. Nathan is a clean cut high school teacher. He's also black. He cannot drive around the city that he was raised in without being under scrutiny. Whether it is driving around the mall or driving down to Bar Harbor, he gets pull over. I have also heard that if you are Latino and driving through York County, you can bet that you'll be pulled over. I persistently hear people blame all of Maine's drug problems on black gang members who bring drugs here from away, as though they are having twist white Mainers' arms to force them to try heroin. All of these stories are floating around in my memory this week as I heard the news of the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and 5 police officers in Dallas. I remembered these stories as I read one man's question to Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?"
The story is in the book of Luke. An expert in religious law stood up and asked Jesus a question. Referring to him respectfully as teacher, he said, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus, knowing that he was a Pharisee and knew Scripture well, turned the question back to him. He asked, "What have you read in our religious law?" The man answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all you soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said that he was right. His insight would bring him life. Then, the man asked one more question, just to make sure that he was really getting to the heart of the matter. That's when he asked, "Who is my neighbor?" This is the story Jesus told in response.
Imagine a man who has been beaten nearly to death lying in a ditch. He needs help. Three people are going to walk by him, but only one person will offer help. Two people walked by, people of significant importance in the community, people who lived lives dedicated to their faith, this faith where love of God and love of neighbor were paramount. But, despite all of their religious injunctions to care for the poor and outcast, they walked on by. They didn't even touch him to see if he was ok. Fortunately one person stops, a Samaritan. That's right, the good guy in the story is a Samaritan. None of the original hearers of this story would have expected that.
There had been tension between the Jews and the Samaritans for centuries. Each thought the other was doing Judaism wrong. Jesus would have been raised in a culture where he would have been taught that the Samaritans were not good people... that they were heretics and not ethical. The enmity between the two groups was deep. Just a few chapters before this story, when a Samaritan village would not host Jesus and his followers, Jesus' followers offered to try to make it rain down fire from heaven to destroy the village... That's how little they were taught to value Samaritan life. In the case of a relatively minor case of disrespect, they thought the best response was to destroy all the Samaritans. We should remember that it would have been very surprising to hear a Jew tell a story where a Samaritan was a hero. And, yet, that is exactly what Jesus was doing. A bloodied and beaten person from Jesus' community might not expect a Samaritan to help them. And, yet, that is what is happening in this story.
After telling the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, who was a neighbor to the wounded man? The lawyer, ever wise, said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said, "Go and do likewise." Jesus said that having faith was being neighborly. Being neighborly means showing mercy. Anybody who shows this kind of mercy is following the law, even if the one following the law is a Samaritan who you've been taught to be suspicious of. The question that I have this morning is "what is stopping us from showing the kind of mercy that Jesus was preaching about?" I wonder if it's fear, the kind of fear that turns off our empathy? It is awfully hard to show mercy if you're too afraid to look at the battered body laying in the ditch.
I once heard a story about a family in Augusta who's life was made harder by their neighbors' fear. I may have told you this story before. Initially, they felt very lucky to live in their neighborhood. Their neighbors seemed to delight in the presence of the little boys in the family. The boys were often stopped by friendly grown-ups who invited them in for cookies. As the boys grew, their mom began to hear frightening stories from their neighbors. Her neighbors, the same ones who had given her sons cookies, would whisper and worry about shady characters coming through their neighborhood. The mom realized that they were talking about her sons. As her sons had grown into young black men, the neighbors had grown frightened. The neighbors had forgotten the many year's worth of cookies. All they remembered was their fear.
My hunch is that most of the neighbors would not be able to articulate where the fear came from. That's the way implicit bias works. It is so much a part of our culture that we don't realize that it has seeped in and warped us into fearing our neighbors. Studies have shown us that decades and decades of social training have taught us to fear black men and boys in particular. Young black boys are often judged to be older than they are, and therefore more responsible for their actions. They are given fewer chances by people in power. Because of the way fear of black men and boys has been engrained in our culture, it is often harder to see them as people with needs. If it is harder to see them, it is harder to be merciful. It's harder to be like the Samaritan.
This fear has real consequences for people of color. Take, for example, the terrible bind that we have put police officers in. So much of their funding is wrapped up in arrest rates, either because the federal grants they must apply for prize high arrest rates or because the county needs revenue and expects officers to get revenue by handing out lots of tickets to people for petty offenses. This means that they feel pressure to engage a lot of people and go after easy arrests and fines. They may also be asked to do their job in a way that prioritizes heavy-handed policing of relatively harmless offenses. We demand that they work with a heavy hand, thus increasing the amount of adversarial encounters they have with civilians. You combine this with the implicit bias against people of color in general, and black men and boys in particular, you have a recipe for combustion. We saw some of that combustion this week.
Part of what makes the attack on the officers in Dallas so disheartening is that the Dallas Police department had seen the adverse affect that unchecked fear had on their work in the community and were working diligently to correct it. They were trying to reintroduce mercy. They were being trained to de-escalate potentially combative situations. They were having regular trainings on appropriate use of lethal force. They are trying to be transparent through the use of body cameras and by releasing data about their work. They were even told that traffic violations were not to be understood as a source of revenue, which, according to one article I read, meant that they wrote half as many tickets this year as they did in 2006. They even worked together with Black Lives Matter protesters. They were re-emphasizing empathy and their city was stronger for it. It just shows that the shooter was only interested in destruction, not justice. Had he been paying attention, he would have seen a department that was working hard to be more like the Samaritan, to be more merciful and less fearful. But, his own anger tipped him over into the violence that he decried.
Who is my neighbor? How do I see them and respond with mercy? Dr. Martin Luther King offered this advice when trying to answer these questions. He said when you see someone in danger or in need, rather than ask the question "What will happen to me if I help them," ask "What will happen to them if I don't?" What will happen if white Americans don't see the burden that systemic racism is placing on people of color? What will happen if we don't equip our officers with the tools to do their jobs justly and with mercy? I think the short answer is, "Nothing good."Jesus once asked the lawyer, and I think asks us, too, "Which one was a neighbor to the one who had been beaten bloody?" The answer is the one who showed him mercy. Let us be reminded of our call to mercy. People's very lives are depending on it.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Are you interested in asking for must just and merciful policing? Check out the work of Campaign Zero to learn about policies that you can advocate for in your community: http://www.joincampaignzero.org/#campaign
German Lopez is a journalist who cover, among other things, police reform. I found two of his articles particularly compelling this week.
- This article about how we can balance mourning violence against police officers while also advocating for more merciful policing:
- This is an article about how implicit bias affects policing:
Want to know more about implicit bias? Check out Project Implicit:
A helpful description of reforms that the Dallas Police Department had been enacting: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/dallas-police/490583/
I found the following biblical commentaries helpful:
Mikeal C. Parsons: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2912
Michael Progress: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1722
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2628
Marilyn Salmon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=635
Wil Gafney: https://revgalblogpals.org/2016/07/08/11th-hour-preacher-party-what2preach-when-blood-is-running-in-the-streets/
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Dr. King:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.