It has been another horrific week in our country. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith … officers targeted in gun violence in Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia. Then there are the ones we don’t hear about. Latinos like Pedro Villanueva, Raul Saavedra-Vargas, Melissa Ventura and Anthony Nunez – all killed in police related shootings last week – or Giovanni Lyiscott who was arguing with his father and dad decided to threaten him with a gun and shot him dead, or Stephen Brumby shot dead accidentally by his father at the shooting range … or the many we cannot name who die from gun violence inflicted by intimate partners or the ones who use a gun to kill themselves. “And who is my neighbor?”
A lawyer came to test Jesus. This was not someone coming to learn at the feet of Jesus – it was an adversarial encounter. The question as to which is the greatest commandment comes up in all three synoptic Gospels – and in Mark and Matthew, Jesus is the one who answers the question. Only in Luke do we hear Jesus turn the question back on his interlocutor and place the answer in the lawyer’s mouth. The lawyer summarizes the law by reciting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6: “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 then he marries it to a portion of Leviticus 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him he answered rightly “do this and you shall live.” But this lawyer proves that getting the right answer is not the same as living a righteous life. Knowing what to do and doing it are two very different things. Luke goes on to tell us the lawyer sought to “justify himself” when he asked the follow on question: “And who is my neighbor?” What follows is the parable nicknamed “The Good Samaritan” but it could have been called “the near dead guy in the ditch” or the “indifferent religious professionals” – but maybe those titles weren’t pithy enough.
We struggle to grasp the scandal of this story and we all like to think we too would be like the “Good Samaritan.” We can reduce this to a simple morality tale, but to do so relieves it of its scandal and after a week of such violence I think we need to be scandalized. Remember a couple of weeks ago when Jesus passed through Samaria after he set his face towards Jerusalem? What happened? They blew him off. Why? Well why not? The Jews accused the Samaritans of being half-breeds – people who defiled their purity by intermarrying with their Assyrian occupiers. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans actually offered to help rebuild the Temple, but the Jews rejected their help. The enmity continued as the Jews would not allow Samaritans into the Jerusalem temple to offer sacrifice, even though the Samaritans consider themselves observant of the Jewish law and believers in the God of Israel. The Jews would build a wall around their city to keep undesirables, including Samaritans, out. Jews hated Samaritans and Samaritans hated Jews. And this is why Jesus’ disciples were ready to rain fire down on those dirty Samaritans. Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?
So now Jesus tells a story to this hotshot lawyer seeking his own self-aggrandizement. A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho (“going down to Jericho” tells us the direction), is set upon by thugs who rob him, beat him and leave him for dead. The religious professionals in the story – the priest and Levite – both pass by not wanting to defile themselves as they head to the temple. Who knows? This guy might be dead and the touching of a dead body would make one unclean and therefore unable to render service in the Temple. Their Temple service was more important than a human life – they were wrapped up in themselves. The now late Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love isn’t hate: it’s indifference.” These religious professionals were indifferent to the pain right in front of them. They chose to ignore him.
But the one who was not indifferent was the one the hearers would have loved to hate – a Samaritan. He was moved with “pity” but the word also can be translated “compassion” – in Greek it literally means he “felt it in his guts.” He went to him to render aid, bind up his wounds, and get the man to a place where he could recover in safety … and he paid for it and promised to pay for whatever costs were incurred. Imagine the shock and awe of hearing a story about a person whom you have been taught all your life to fear and hate being held up as an exemplar of righteousness. Notice also the response of the lawyer when Jesus asks him which of the three acted as a neighbor to the injured man: “The one who showed mercy.” This lawyer cannot even bring himself to say “the Samaritan” – the closest he comes is describing the Samaritan’s behavior. So deep is the level of hatred and distrust.
Hatred and distrust are exactly what we are experiencing in our country right now. It has been on display and the body count is rising. This hatred and distrust are rooted in fear and a complete absence of compassion. We are afraid – we are all afraid. African Americans and Latinos are afraid. Police officers are afraid. Women are afraid. Men are afraid. LGBTQ folk are afraid. And collectively, we are letting our fears rule our lives and dictate our actions. And who profits from stoking this fear in us? As “Deep Throat” once famously said, “Follow the money.” Who profits? Well, for one, corporations who make guns and other weaponry for profit. If Ruger, Glock, Smith & Wesson, Remington and the rest of their ilk can make you afraid, they can sell more guns. Remember, your priest has a degree in Marketing and I know exactly how to make each and every one of you very afraid of something and then tell you how what I have to sell you will alleviate your anxious fears … the very fears I have stoked up in you. It’s brainwashing pure and simple.
So what are these fears which beset us? We are afraid of the “other.” We are afraid those we deem “not like us” will hurt us in some way. African Americans, Latinos, Middle-Easterners fear white people will hurt them – and they have good reason because there’s a history of this happening. White people are afraid that “brown skinned” people will make social gains at our expense and one day outnumber us … and then we will be on the receiving end of their oppression. Women fear violence against our bodies by men – and there is good reason we do because there is a history of that happening. Men fear a loss of control and power as women find their voice. LGBTQ folk fear being bashed by those who use Scripture as a weapon against them. Even though what provokes the fear in each instance differs, the bottom line is that we are all afraid. And when we are afraid, we withdraw from others, we move to black and white either/or thinking, we demonize those who are different, and our lizard brains fire off “fight, flight, or freeze” instructions with absolutely NO filters or consideration for the consequences. We withdraw into our echo chambers of like-minded people, stop listening to others, and like the lawyer we justify ourselves and our hatred. We speak violence and we act on it … and the body count is rising.
Those who make profits off of our fears are not the only ones benefiting from keeping us afraid. This fear is a distraction by those who are also trying to amass political power. The uber-rich plutocrats who now rule our country do so with no sense of noblesse oblige, the concept that wealth and power confer a responsibility upon the wealthy to act in ways which benefit all. The selfishness of our “me first” social Darwinism has created a society where everyone is in it for themselves. This is a fear based mentality which has a vested interest in keeping you afraid too. If the wealthy power brokers succeed in pitting those outside their ranks against each other by stoking fear and hatred, nobody will notice when the factory closes and the jobs get shipped off shore, or when the stock prices get manipulated, or when the river gets toxic chemicals dumped in it, or when we buy our politician’s votes, or any number of other corporate sins. And the body count will keep rising.
The fears and hatreds we amass are demonic. The hateful violent rhetoric is turning to action and it is killing us – all of us: Black lives, police lives, LGBTQ lives, women’s lives … all of this matters to God! All of it matters! I do not have easy answers to these problems, because there aren’t any. The answers are going to require hard work, soul searching, and repentance. We must again renounce Satan and all of the spiritual forces which rebel against God!
Last year after the Mother Emmanuel shootings I preached about the problem of privilege. If this week has not opened your eyes to the problem of privilege, I don’t know what will. Now I know some of you struggled with that sermon, but we are not finished with that conversation. I know I carry a heavy hand of privilege power cards: I’m white, highly educated (I have a Masters Degree), able-bodied, physically and mentally healthy, straight, cis-gendered, and economically stable (at least right now). I lack the power card of gender – being male carries more weight, power, safety and opportunity in our society than being female or queer. I also lack the power card of being a military veteran which, although it doesn’t always seem like it, does open doors of opportunity in this country – especially if you are an officer. Every one of us in this room has a different hand of privilege cards. Like a hand of poker, some hands play better than others. Our unbridled instincts tell us to amass the best hand we can and use it for our own advantage. The result of that are the development and perpetuation of systems which are fear based. Those who have the privilege fear it will be taken from them and those who lack the privilege live in fear of not having their basic needs met. The only way I know to break the fear cycle which privilege instills is self-examination and repentance which lead to love and compassion. Examining those fears which are operant in us and be willing to repent, to turn away, from them and turn towards the other we have feared and begin to build relationships based in love. In building those relationships, we need to lay down our hand of privilege cards and stop defending them. For those places where you have privilege, sit down with someone who doesn’t carry that same card and listen, really deeply listen, to their experience of life. These sisters and brothers are the beaten up bloody bodies by the sides of our roads. We need to sit with the discomfort of hearing things that are going to be hard to hear, the ways in which the power systems have beaten them down and how we often unknowingly participate in those systems. We need to be moved like the Samaritan with compassion – a word which means “to suffer with.” And for you my sisters and brothers whose hold privilege cards which come up short, who have been beaten up by life, we need you and we need to hear you. We cannot be transformed until our hearts are broken open – only then will the Holy Spirit be able to heal us and enable us to work together to dismantle the fears which hold us hostage and work for a just world where human lives are more important than corporate profits. We must, as I paraphrase the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.”