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Who is our Neighbor? – it takes one to know one

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These days, there seems to be a whooole lot of name calling going on. It’s a good idea to have some snappy comebacks ready and on hand. What’s that one about rubber and glue? There’s another oldie but goodie: “it takes one to know one”. Uh huhn. Ever considered this a compliment, though? That may be precisely what Jesus is saying in today’s parable about the “Good Samaritan”.

Now, to understand this parable, must understand that, in Jesus’ time, saying the “good Samaritan” was like saying, “the hilarious accountant”, or “the shy Italian”, or “the honest politician”. Because everyone “knew” that all people who came from Samaria were bad: for any Jewish person at that time period, they knew that the Samaritans, who lived in the hill country near Galilee, rejected the idea of Jerusalem as the center of worship, and worshipped instead at the Temple on Mount Gerizim. This practice created a huge “schism”, or break, between the Samaritans and the Jews after the Babylonian exile.

Eventually, when Christianity was in its full swing in the 4th century of Roman occupation, Samaritans were prohibited from worshiping there. Today, Mount Gerizim is located in what we know as the hotly contested West Bank of Palestine. Yet, for Jesus, defining someone as a “neighbor” doesn’t have so much to do with where they live, or even how they worship, but in how we treat them.

This is one of the successive passages in Luke’s Gospel that outlines how we are to recognize the Messiah: by our seeing, our hearing, and predominantly by our doing. In today’s reading, it is a lawyer (a “kind lawyer”?) whose intellect leads to an important question about our identity as Godly people. We are not told the culture or rank of the man who is robbed on the road; he is simply a human being in need. We don’t need to know anything else about him. Do we?

Jesus points out the identities of those who fail to offer help, because it goes against the common stereotypes of the time: the religiously pious people, like the priest and the Levite (a tribe of priests), did nothing to help the man in need. This is the same criticism that outspoken Amos, a southern prophet speaking to the Northern Judeans, gives to the ruling class during his time. Amos preached a radical message of social justice. During a time of prosperity in Judea, Amos warned the ruling class that their oppressive treatment of the poor and needy would lead to their downfall.

Both Jesus and Amos based these expectations on one thing: our Covenant with God. We made a promise to God: to love God and to love our neighbor. Not only to worship and be religiously active, but also to actively care for one another; to, as the Psalmist says, “save the weak and the orphan, defend the humble and the needy, rescue the poor”. We know this is what we ought to do; we truly want to do it. Sometimes, though, we lack the “grace and the power to accomplish” it.

I want you to know that I hear your feedback about “all this social justice preaching”. It can be troubling. It’s no wonder that Amaziah told Amos, “listen, uh, ixnay on the usticejay in ethelbay! This is the king’s sanctuary, man! Lighten up or hit the road!” It would be so much easier for me to get up here every Sunday and simply remind us that “Jesus loves you”, and call it a day. But, as Amos said, “the Lord took me and said to me, “go prophesy”! Social justice is an inherent part of our sacred text, both the Gospel and the Hebrew Scripture. And it is based on Love: God’s love for us, our love for God, and our courage to love – truly, actively — other human beings, whoever they are.

Where are we to find this boldness? Paul prays for the Church in Colossae: “may you be made strong” and “lead lives worthy of the Lord . . as you bear fruit in every good work”. He prayed for them to have the “patience to endure everything”. Just so, I pray for our Church, here at St. James, in the Diocese, in our country, that we may persevere, in times of “chance and change”, not only in talking the talk, but in walking the walk. The Jesus Movement about which our Presiding Bishop preaches is not just a static idea, it is a movement, moving forward, actively loving in this world of hate and fear; to become a neighbor so that we can recognize one, without being blinded by stereotypes.

I’d like to finish by telling you a story, about when I was a little younger, in seminary, and still very idealistic, and a little fearful.

During that time, I had the privilege of serving in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, with a Metho-Bapti-Costal Church Fellowship called “City of Refuge”. My mentor, the Rev. Yvette Flunder, began an HIV-AIDs clinic there, along with several shelters for homeless youth, and a thriving food bank. One Saturday morning, I was serving at the Food Bank, unloading huge trucks, alongside clients of the food bank who were also volunteers. This particular Saturday, I was wearing jeans and my Tony Llama coy(girl) boots, a gift from friend when I had finished radiation therapy.

As we passed along the boxes of food, one of these volunteers, a middle- aged black man, looked down and said, “Nice boots! Where’d you get those?” I felt a little uncomfortable, a little scared, a little white girl in the City. But still I said, “They were a gift from someone when I was cured of cancer.” He stopped what he was doing, and he, surprisingly, alarmingly, lifted up his shirt. Pointing to a scar across his midsection, he said, “I have a scar too, see. Glad to be alive. Praise God!”. We smiled at one another, across the rice and canned fruit. “Praise God, indeed!” My heart beat slowed down. In that moment, we knew one another. We were neighbors, he and I.

Takes one to know one; takes courage to love one; to love others as we are loved. Let it ever be so. And may all of God’s prophets say, AMEN!

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