Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 10, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
It feels like we’re being tested as a nation, and we’re failing. This past week felt like a new low in the already sickening churn of violence that scars our society and exposes its fundamental flaws. The news media portray our nation as a land where neighbors have become enemies, where polarization and segregation along lines of race, class, and politics have led us to the brink of war. And it’s true that these are serious problems, and that we are painfully far from getting serious about addressing them. Denial is killing us, but so too is the media’s sensationalism, their shameless and breathless appeal to our worst instincts, our prejudice, fear, and blood lust.
Things weren’t so different in Jesus’s world. The animosity between Jews and Samaritans was at least as intense as our major national divisions. Each group considered the other to be apostates who had betrayed their own tradition. In one regard, they did us one better, as they also forbade even visiting the others’ towns. That level of self-segregation may seem extreme to us, but it was all the more so to them, when you consider the strong tradition of obligatory hospitality that characterized the culture of the region, and still does.
So when an expert on Jewish religious law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the most radical definition that could have existed in their society. And yet his reasoning, grounded in law, custom, and experience, is so impeccable that the lawyer accepts his astonishing answer, even as he can’t bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan.” The point isn’t just that an enemy can and should be considered a neighbor. Jesus also deftly turns a passive and abstract question into an active and concrete answer. As much as we trouble ourselves over categories and rules, God is much more interested in people and works of mercy. We could stand to be a lot more like God.
As my friend, Father Matt Tucker, wrote, “This is what being a neighbor looks like: it looks like looking upon everyone you meet, regardless of faith or tribe, as a person worthy of dignity and compassion; a person you are willing to take risks for, the risk of rejection or humiliation or worse; it looks like regarding those who are different or even repugnant, even your worst enemy, as a member of the family. It’s literally our job.”
And it’s really hard. Always has been, always will be. Very few of us can manage to live up to Jesus’s standards consistently. We have our own challenges. We’re just individuals struggling to survive in a sick and broken world. Life was even more difficult for the people Jesus ministered to, and yet he set this incredible standard. He didn’t mean it as a burden, though. He gave it to us as a blessing, a way of showing us who God is, a source of hope and direction for people in need of both. Every time we do get it right, and manage to love our neighbors despite ourselves, we encounter God in them and in ourselves, and we’re treated to a glimpse of heaven. And if you do read past the gory headlines, you’ll see smaller stories about a greater phenomenon, the expression of mercy and compassion. People reaching out to people who are different from them, who would be easy to avoid, stereotype, and hate, and instead offering encouragement and support, affirming the fundamental goodness and decency that are also a part of us, and are stronger than the forces that divide us.
We have a long way to go in this country toward living up to our national ideals of liberty and justice, let alone Jesus’s higher ideal of mutual love, but Jesus has shown us the way, by being the way, and our steadfast companion on the way. He showed us that divine love can disperse worldly fear, that despite what the world tells us, our virtuous sacrifices are not in vain. The road to the fulfillment of these ideals is longer and more treacherous than the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, but we do not walk it alone.