Sunday, July 10, 2016

Our Neighbors

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 10, 2016

Year C, Proper10: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Our Neighbors
            A few weeks ago some members of the Jersey City Together clergy, including me, were invited to speak to some of the men and women who had just graduated from the academy and were about to go out onto the streets as the newest members of the Jersey City Police Department.
            I speak in public all the time, but I’ll admit that as we waited to begin I was nervous.
            I imagined these brand-new officers sitting in front of us, pretending to pay attention, enduring these boring ministers who had no idea what it was really like out there, just getting through it until they could move on to the next part of their training.
            But, I was wrong. It wasn’t like that at all.
            First, I want to give Mayor Fulop his due. He promised a more diverse police force and he has delivered.
            Looking around at the 25 or so new, and shockingly young-looking, officers who were there, I saw what Jersey City looks like today, with lots of blacks and Hispanics and some Asians and Middle Easterners, almost all of whom grew up and still live in Jersey City.
            To my surprise, these young cops were extremely attentive, friendly, and curious as the clergy members spoke about the history -the often not so good history - between the JCPD and people of color, as they spoke about the issues in the south and west of the city where all of the new officers are being stationed – again, kudos to the mayor.
            When it was my turn, I acknowledged that they would, probably every day, encounter people behaving pretty badly.
            After all, obviously, nobody calls the cops when everything’s fine. Nobody calls the cops when they come home and the door is locked just as they left it. Nobody calls the cops when they’re having a peaceful supper at home. Nobody calls the cops when a father reads his daughter a bedtime story. Nobody calls the cops when their kids walk safely past the drug dealers on their way home from school. Nobody calls the cops when their kids sit at the kitchen table and do their homework, when their husband doesn’t stop off at the bar on his way home, when a woman says no and the man accepts that answer, when it’s a quiet night on the street with people just shooting the breeze as they sit on their porches.     
            Nobody calls the cops when everything’s fine.
            No, instead, every day the police encounter people behaving pretty badly.                                                                                
            So, I asked –challenged - the young officers, to not grow hardened, to not judge people based on the worst things they do, to still see the people, all the people they encounter as fellow human beings.
            I still stand by that, of course, but after everything that’s happened this past terrible week, if I had another chance to talk to those new cops, I’d challenge them to love all the people they drive by, stop, pull over, question, and arrest, to love them all as neighbors.
            As we hear in today’s gospel lesson, this is Jesus’ great and oh-so-difficult challenge for us all: to see and treat everyone, especially the people we’re taught to hate and fear, especially the people we may have good reason to hate and fear, as neighbors.
            Our neighbors.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we hear an exchange between a lawyer and Jesus.
            You may have noticed that Luke, who tells us this story, doesn’t much like the lawyer. Luke writes that the lawyer “tests” Jesus by asking, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            Sounds like a good question to me, but, Jesus, typically, throws the question right back at the lawyer, asking, ”What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
            Of course, the lawyer knows the law and so he answers, “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.”
            Jesus approves of this answer – this answer, which is one long commandment – there can be no love of God without love of neighbor.
            But, the lawyer isn’t done yet and asks Jesus a follow-up question, “And, who is my neighbor?”
            Now, this seems like another perfectly reasonable question, right?
            As Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar of the New Testament, notes, the lawyer’s question is a perfectly fine legal question, but, she writes, “in the context of love, his question is not relevant.”
            She writes, “To ask ‘Who is my neighbor’ is a polite way of asking, ‘Who is not my neighbor?’ or ‘Who does not deserve my love?’ or ‘Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?’ or ‘Whom can I hate?’”
            Well, to answer the lawyer’s question, Jesus tells what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan.
            Even people who don’t know much about the Bible know the Good Samaritan because it’s entered our language – the Good Samaritan offers to help to someone in need.
            Often we’ve been told that the lesson of the parable is that we should help those in need. And, that’s true enough.
            But, as Levine points out, the parable is much more radical, much more challenging, than that.
            Jesus’ first hearers might have expected better of the priest and the Levite in the story since Jewish Law demands help for those in need – but they would have also known that the road was dangerous. Who knows? It might be a trap. Or, the bandits might still be nearby. Better to just go.
            But, since Jews and Samaritans had pretty much hated each other for centuries, Jesus’ first hearers would have been shocked that a Samaritan could be “good” – that a Samaritan would risk his own safety, spend his own money, to help the Jew in the road.
            Jesus’ first hearers would have been shocked that a Samaritan would see the injured Jew as a neighbor  - that he would love the injured man as a neighbor – and they would have pondered what it would mean to accept help from a person they had been taught to hate and fear.
            The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
            And, through the parable, Jesus answered, “Your neighbor is absolutely everyone, especially the people we’re taught to hate and fear, especially the people we may even have good reason to hate and fear.”
            They are all our neighbors and we are commanded to not just tolerate them and not hurt them, but we are commanded to love them.
            If we really take that in, really take it seriously, it’s probably at least as shocking to us as it was to the people who first heard the parable, people who had such a hard time imagining a “good Samaritan.”
            Who is our neighbor?  OK, here we go: Cops, the mostly good and the racist few; the Black Lives Matter Protesters; whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans; ISIS; Hillary Clinton; Donald Trump; the NRA; the ACLU; Republicans; Democrats; independents; gay people; the people from Westboro Baptist who protest at funerals carrying horrible signs; immigrants, documented or not; fundamentalists; atheists; Jews; Muslims; soldiers; pacifists; the drug dealers on the corner and their customers; the person who makes fun of us or hurts us or hates us or breaks our heart…and that’s just for starters.
            All neighbors, every last one of them, and we are called, commanded, to love them.
            Very, very hard – it’s only with God’s help that we can even begin to love all of those neighbors as ourselves.
            Very, very hard – but it’s the way of life.
            And the choice is clear because we see the other way – the way of death – all around us. We see the way of death as we arm ourselves to the teeth, as we see people as simply their skin color, or their religion or their language, or the uniform they wear, as we see people as the worst thing they’ve ever done, rather than as beloved neighbors.
            We see the way of death all around us.
            But, if we look we can also sometimes see the way of life.
            You may know that one of the tragic aspects of what happened in Dallas is that the march had been very peaceful. In fact, members of the Dallas Police Department helped plan and lead the march and posted on social media photos of smiling officers standing beside smiling marchers. The police seemed very much focused on protecting the protestors, intent on treating them as beloved neighbors…and then the shots rang out.
            But, for a time, there it was: love of neighbor.
            You know, I don’t want to make this even harder for us, but I really believe that, because we are so diverse and yet get along pretty well, the three Episcopal churches, and especially St. Paul’s, we have a special vocation to model love of neighbor – the love of absolutely everybody – right here in our community.
            Not easy, and as Jesus knew and we were reminded this week, it’s actually quite dangerous, but we have God’s help and Jesus walks beside us every step of the way – Jesus who always calls us not to death but to life – Jesus who calls us to love God and to love absolutely everybody - Jesus who calls us to love our neighbors.
            May it be so.