Monday, November 12, 2012

"Who is my neighbor?"

From Sonnenberg Mennonite Church, 14367 Hackett Rd, Apple Creek, OH 44606, USA
Sonnenberg Mennonite Church
As my last post indicated, I have said goodbye to my Virginia home of the past four years and returned to my home state of Iowa. Today is the first day in my new home of Toledo, Iowa, which is where my wife grew up. Yesterday, on my way from Virginia to Iowa, I had the privilege of preaching at Sonnenberg Mennonite Church in Kidron, Ohio. It was the first opportunity I'd had to preach in some time, and it was a wonderful experience from start to finish. Many thanks to all who were connected with my stop here.

Sermon text: Luke 10:25-37
Title: "Who is my neighbor?"
Slightly edited text follows...

This parable often goes by the name, “The Good Samaritan.” The phrase “good Samaritan” has deep cultural acceptance in this society. It is a phrase that in popular usage indicates a person who has gone out of their way to do something caring for another person. For instance, if you were to find yourself stranded on the side of the road with a vehicle that’s run out of gas, and some stranger stops to help you, taking you to the nearest gas station to fill up your car, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to hear that stranger be described as a “good Samaritan.”

Christians, though, should be careful not to let the popular usage of this phrase make us miss the powerful things that are going on in this parable that Jesus tells as an answer to the question: “Who is my neighbor?” His answer would have been deeply offensive to the lawyer Jesus was talking to, as I’ll explain in a moment, but it should also be troubling to us as Christians, lest we get too comfortable with ourselves and who we think our neighbors are or aren’t.

Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine a kingdom in an ancient time, united under a powerful and popular king. In the years following this beloved king’s reign, the kingdom is split in two by warring factions hungry for power. The two resulting kingdoms reluctantly co-exist beside each other for a few hundred years; sometimes there is peace, sometimes war. Sometimes alliances, sometimes political intrigue. Never is there trust. Then one of the kingdoms is destroyed by a conquering empire; most of its people scattered to other realms, and the land resettled with foreigners. Imagine yourself, then, as a citizen of the kingdom who’s left standing, having just watched your sister kingdom destroyed, replaced by an alien people. Years pass and your own kingdom is destroyed in similar fashion – sent into Exile, only being allowed to return some years later under the permission of another, slightly more benevolent empire. You set about the work of rebuilding a life on the land that used to be your kingdom but will never fully be so again. And you’re back close to those alien people in what used to be your sister kingdom’s land. You still don’t trust them.

What I’ve just narrated is the political history of Israel’s experiment with monarchy and kingdom-building in the Old Testament; an experiment that did not go well. It helps explain the story of how two different peoples – “Jews” and “Samaritans,” Judah and Samaria – emerged from the story of one people: Israel. And “politics” in this era was not somehow separated from “religion.” Jews by the time of Jesus were mostly convinced that Samaritans had ceased worshipping the One True God ages ago. By the time of Jesus, this Jewish/Samaritan animosity had been simmering for around 700 years.

So if you were to put the phrase “good Samaritan” in the mouth of a Jewish expert on the law, which is whom Jesus was having this conversation with, it would be a bitter pill to swallow. To make matters worse for the lawyer, Jesus was turning the Scripture he had just quoted back around on him. “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.” Nestled around these passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus are commands for the people of God to love and care for the alien in their land. The first command to love God with all of your being is followed by “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which comes from Leviticus 19:18. In verse 34 of that same chapter, we hear another love command: “Love the alien as yourself.” The love commands for the oppressed and marginalized in Deuteronomy and Leviticus are always connected to the experience of Israelite slavery in Egypt. Never forget, God urges, you were once aliens. Remember, then, who delivered you from oppression, and never forget to extend similar mercy to the oppressed in your land.

Imagine, then, how frustrating this parable is for the expert on Mosaic law to hear: Rather than the people of God – the priest and the Levite – showing such love for the alien, it is the despised alien who is showing such love and therefore faithfulness in God’s sight. Worse still is that this is happening on the Jerusalem to Jericho road, which is Judean territory. What is this alien doing in our land? The nerve of this man, Jesus, to tell such a story!

But God’s mercy sometimes comes from where we least expect it. The love of God breaks into our normal, everyday lives in surprising, sometimes shocking ways. In the parable Jesus tells, we see the love of God shine through Samaritan, the alien in the land, reaching down in pity to show compassion in concrete ways. A vision of the kingdom of God is glimpsed in this act. It’s tempting, perhaps especially for Mennonites who rightly value service, to want to identify with the Good Samaritan. But what if we imagined ourselves as the person lying in the ditch, beaten and robbed? What if we were on the receiving end of mercy from someone we considered offensive?

Well, for one thing, this situation looks something like what Paul describes in Romans 5, where he says that “(I)f, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” Paul is pointing out that our salvation came on the cross of Jesus Christ while we were still enemies with God in our sin. But in his rising, how much more abundant shall our life be? And it is abundant life – eternal life – that the lawyer was originally asking Jesus about: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

There is a sense in this parable that the Samaritan is like God in that a stranger is giving mercy to one in need. We are in need of God’s grace and in our sin, God is strange and alien to us…yet even still God extends mercy to us all the same. But Jesus is also telling us to be like the Samaritan. We are to be like the Samaritan because the compassion he showed the beaten and robbed man is how one loves the neighbor, even the enemy. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” Paul said in 1 Corinthians. It’s like that here in Luke: be imitators of the Samaritan as he imitated the way of Christ. Love God, love your neighbor; this is how God loves, this is how we are to love. There is no final separation between loving God and neighbor, even if your neighbor is someone you find offensive or strange.

Neighbors are, Jesus tells us, those who see past things like religious and cultural differences in order to show care and compassion. Notice how much the Samaritan invests in the man who is beaten and robbed: He cleans and bandages his wounds, takes him to an inn and cares for him through the night. It’s not until the next day that he gives the innkeeper two days’ wages to cover expenses, with the promise that he would return to pay any additional expenses for the man’s care. To be a good neighbor, then, takes time and energy. And sometimes we must practice this kind of love in hostile territory, as Judea was hostile to the Samaritan.

God’s mercy sometimes comes from where we least expect it. Have there been times in your life that you’ve been surprised by God’s grace coming from strange places or strange people? I’d like to share a few instances of this from my own experience. I grew up in a small town in rural Iowa, just east of Des Moines. As a state, Iowa is over 90% white-Caucasian, and my hometown certainly reflected that. People who looked or acted differently than me weren’t a big part of my experience growing up.

With few exceptions, this relatively comfortable white bubble followed me through a college education and into the information technology field, where I worked through most of my twenties. In my mid-twenties, living in a suburb of Des Moines, a friend from church and I were sitting around chatting about our desire to be more involved in the local community. He said he knew of a halfway house on the north side of Des Moines that one of the members of our congregation was involved with. So after 9pm this particular night, we drove to the halfway house, in what was to us was a very different kind of neighborhood. We knocked on the door. An African-American man answered the door, looking at us suspiciously. After introducing ourselves and our reason for showing up on his doorstep, he invited us in. We asked him how our congregation could help the halfway house. I’ll never forget his response: “We need a milk ministry.”

A “milk ministry?” I almost didn’t understand what he said because I had never heard the two words used in the same sentence, much less paired together. But for my bewilderment, it was an incredibly simple request. With a house of up to ten ex-offenders, just out of prison, these guys went through milk in a hurry, and milk is expensive. So right then and there started a ministry: once a week, someone from our congregation would deliver four gallons of milk to the house. This experience, in some ways, changed my life forever. While I participated in the ministry, I became friends with the director of the house, Mario, the man who invited us in, himself an ex-offender. One night as I stopped by the house with four gallons of milk, I had my wife and daughter with me, who had never visited the house. Mario welcomed us in and invited us to dinner with him and the guys in the house. Accepting hospitality from a house full of former criminals and not feeling one ounce of anxiety seems like a big step, but it felt completely natural.

Mario is the one who introduced me to people in the Iowa Department of Corrections, getting me more involved in community restorative justice programs in the Des Moines area. It was through this work that I discovered Howard Zehr, the “grandfather of restorative justice,” and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and the Seminary at Eastern Mennonite University, where we relocated to for the past four years. I could tell more stories about how my sense of the world was exploded at EMU, going to teach conflict transformation at the Mennonite-affiliated college in Ethiopia last year, but for the sake of this sermon I’ll only bring us back to this one point: My life was radically changed by the experience of being ministered to by someone who first struck me as strange and unfamiliar, my African-American brother in Christ, Mario, who had peered out the door those years ago, probably thinking these two white boys from the suburbs were pretty strange and unfamiliar, too. God’s grace was active through this surprising, neighborly man.

I happen to be preaching this morning on the way back home to Iowa, where after four years at EMU we’ll be settling in my wife’s hometown, a farm town not unlike the one I grew up in. Rural communities in the Midwest, as I’m sure you’re aware, are struggling. The town we’re moving into has a growing Hispanic community that hasn’t been well accepted in town. There’s a Native American reservation just outside town that’s long been a source of some consternation from the mostly white community. There’s a juvenile detention facility in town. All of these places are possible sites of divine surprise and kingdom work that God may be inviting my family into as we settle there. So even in small town Iowa, like perhaps in small town Ohio, one needs to take seriously Jesus’ hard answer to the question: “Who is my neighbor?” Like the Samaritan to the Jewish lawyer, we should be ready to be surprised at what the Lord has in store for us, and to show a willingness to be surprised from where and from who it may come from. God may be trying to teach us how to love more deeply, and more daringly. May it be so in our life together as the body of Christ. Amen.

[An edited version of this sermon also appears on the Mennonite World Review blog.]

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