Like a Good Neighbor

Primary Texts: Deuteronomy 30 plus Luke 10:25-37

This section of Deuteronomy is the closing of a long sermon given by Moses to the people of Israel. Within the liberation narrative, it falls well after their escape from Egypt, toward the end of the wilderness years.

Now, we know that Moses didn’t have a transcriptionist capturing his sermons and pronouncements to the people as they were spoken. Nor was there someone journaling and archiving news reports of events day to day to day.  The story of the Hebrew people was documented later.  

We know all that somewhere in the backs of our heads, but it’s easy to forget when we look to the Bible as a trusted, authoritative means of understanding the history of our faith. Which it is, even as it falls short of being a history book. It’s really more like a corporate memoir, based on the beliefs and memories of a collective, which means the people who first wrote down and read or heard the content of these scrolls, did so much later, likely Hebrews who were part of the 6th century Babylonian exile.

In of those time frames, when nearing the end of what must have felt a bit like exile in the wilderness with Moses and while awaiting the opportunity to gather again in their homeland, no longer scattered- the people of Israel are facing a future that is very unsettled and  unclear.

They are people in need of hope, a people in need of assurance.

This word from from God through Moses is offered in answer to those needs – a reminder that God is good. This word is also a reminder that the people’s response to the word, how they live in light of their relationship with God, shapes the nature of their future. Thus in this passage, we see Moses calling the people to renew their loyalty to God.  

It is, in some ways, a call to live into their identity. You see, this was a challenge presented

to God’s chosen people. They were already redeemed from slavery, redeemed by God from captivity.   Even In the ears of those listeners in exile, these words would have brought the reminder that they were still God’s people, still under the covenant of Abraham and Moses.

Moses calls upon the people to “choose life” – not so that they might enter the family of God.  (They were already in!) They are being asked to choose life within the bounds of their existing relationship with God. Moses calls on these children of God to choose life, so that they might experience life.

It actually reminds me a bit of some of the best advice I’ve heard (and occasionally shared) about making choices within a marriage. After the choice to become engaged and the choice to speak those marriage vows to one another…. There are billions of choices made throughout the marriage. And every decision you make in that relationship, alone or together, brings with it the energy of life – or the pall of death.

Mutuality of kindness, respect, hope, laughter, compassion, empathy… all these and more bring vibrancy, resilience, life to a relationship. Life and and the hope of a future, even if the way is not yet clear.

Not that human marriages are ever perfect, but that imperfection that strives toward life is a pretty good picture of what God wants for us and from us as God’s people.  The life Moses speaks of here is not limited to remaining physically alive or safe.  It encompasses good health, happiness, fruitfulness, and the experience of daily blessings.  Life means strength of body and mind and spirit, thriving in one’s relationships with others and in all aspects of one’s personal life. Life is shalom, that all-inclusive wellness, balance and peace.

And God has Moses speak not only about where the people are in the present (today), but about their tomorrows, on behalf of all the people and for the sake of all aspects of life going into that future.  God gives these words to Moses so that the people might live well and live long in the land that has been promised to them…

Reading from an even greater distance of time and space, we can still see and understand this truth, If we are to live the best life possible, we are to live as God commands… But not because each command followed earns us loyalty points toward some sort of reward. The blessings come in the living and the loving we are called and commanded to do.  

As we follow the path God lays out for us, we are able to live fully, wholeheartedly.  As we do so in community, that whole-heartedness extends to  our relationships with neighbors and family. You see, in addition to obedience, God’s people are to hold tight to God, engaging all of our heart, soul and might in loving God.  And loving those around us made in God’s image.   

There are two possible futures lifted up in our text:  life and death.  

Each choice the people make determines the shape of the future. God didn’t have a script already written out, detailing the future of the people. After all, the very fact of being in relationship creates a dynamic, evolving future with ripples of consequences flowing out of every decision, affecting what choices are available next.  

God certainly has the power to intervene and shift the momentum or change the direction of the people (and each person, for that matter).  If we believe that God can see beyond our own limited sight horizon, we can trust God to know all the potential outcomes in light of those rippling consequences.  And yet, the future remains in the realm of possibility, The realm of mystery still unfolding, stories yet unwritten,  open to what happens within the relationship, both for Israel and for God.  

And for us.  

Before I move on, I do want to lift up one phrase again. The verb used in the command “Choose life” needs just a little attention. This is the only time humans beings are the subject of a sentence using the verb behar.  

In every other case, God is doing the choosing.  In this case, Israel – the people of Israel – are commanded to choose to receive what God has promised. In this particular choice, they are uniquely bound to God, uniquely reflective of God and the the kinds of choices God makes over and over again.  

To choose life is to love God, to obey and to hold fast to God.
To choose life is to bear witness to God’s love and power and presence in the world.
In other words, if we are to be true image bearers of the one who created all life, we must make choices that give life

That is the good news Jesus carried to all around him.  That is the very life that Jesus embodied: the reality of God’s presence, the richness of God’s mercy, the opportunity to shape the future of all humanity by choosing life, over and over and over again, not for one’s own gain or comfort, but for the good of all. Even at the cost of his own life.

The parable in today’s gospel text is all about those kinds of choices, both made and avoided.  Listen to the word of the Lord from Luke 10:25-37.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

He answered, “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.”

And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

It is in our nature to imagine ourselves in any story.  

Jesus knew this.  In fact, he was counting on it.  

He knew that the lawyer – the man who knew God’s law backwards and forwards would relate most closely with the Levite, or perhaps to the priest. And while Jesus didn’t say who the poor beaten traveller was, the lawyer would likely have been able to see himself in that role, too.  

Jesus also knew that the lawyer, who was familiar with all the ways the law requires us to choose life, would want to be the one who shows mercy.  The problem is, quite frankly, that the one who shows mercy, the one who chooses life, is a Samaritan man.

Societies in biblical days were strongly tribal. You identified with “your people.”  At this time, there was much hostility between the Jews of Judah and Galilee against the Samaritans, who considered themselves Jewish, but whose center of worship was on Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem.  The orthodox Jews considered Samaritans not just heretical but also ceremonially unclean. Therefore, not someone to emulate. By comparison, the priest and Levite would have been deeply involved in temple worship. The Samaritan is the one our lawyer must acknowledge and consider a role model, because he is the one who actually followed the law.

All of this means that the outsider, the least desired… the heretic… is the one who understands how to be a good neighbor.

Given the nature of most suburbs in Central Florida, I’m lucky to live on a pretty stable block. The neighbors 3-4 houses in either direction on our side of the street have all been around at least 6-7 years, some even longer.  I know most of them and their kids or grandkids, and we tend to keep track of each other pretty well.  

This week, I have worried about my neighbor to the right and her two gorgeous little ones.  J was about 18 months when we moved into our house 10 years ago.  S was born a couple of years later. We’ve watched them grow taller and more mature over the years.

But it wasn’t until this week that I realized it was probably time for our neighbor N to have The Conversation with J. Not the birds and the bees talk, though that will have to come soon enough.  This conversation is about how to behave around other adults in public, especially the police.  

It’s a talk I never had to even think about, but my child isn’t black. No one in my family was seen as a threat at 10-11 or 12 years old because of the color of our skin.  And yet when I saw J out in the backyard this week, I realized that he is about the same age and size as Tamir Rice, the boy shot to death by police in Cleveland while he played with a toy gun at a park.  

I realized that J is just a few short years from being free to drive himself and friends around town.And that chances are, he will be stopped for something minor – like a missing tail light – as an excuse to see if this young black man is up to no good.

And it breaks my heart to think that this sweet, polite, funny little boy who loves baseball and karate needs to know that even saying all the right things can’t assure that he won’t wind up in the news or as a memorial hashtag.

J and L are pastor friends of mine who live in Iowa.  They are about as white a couple as you’d ever meet. You might call them poster children for midwest wholesome. They chose to adopt a child, and I remember their joy at bringing T into their home from an orphanage in Ethiopia when he was 4.  I’ve watched from afar as they helped him adjust to life here in the States, teaching him about snow and all the strange American foods he’d never seen.

Yesterday or day before L shared these thoughts online:

Our beautiful boy turned seven two weeks ago.
Seven is a marvelous age. Still a kid, but gaining independence all the time.
One night this week while I was at a meeting and after they’d taken Russo to the dog park, J sent T into DQ to get a strawberry shake with two straws and two spoons.
And T did it. So proud of himself!
He’s had swimming lessons the last two weeks.
This year, he wants us to drop him off and then go.
On the one hand, this is great. His independence means more freedom for us.
On the other hand, it is terrifying.
The more independent T becomes, the more he slips out from under the umbrella of white privilege with which we have protected him.
At seven, T is still breathtakingly beautiful. And he looks less and less like a little boy every day.
Adults don’t always smile at him in the store like they did when he was four and five years old.
The older our son grows, the more potentially threatening he becomes to some people.
And that is becoming more and more clear when we are out among people who don’t know him. (Google it if you don’t believe me– black children are viewed as threatening by alarmingly early ages.)
I haven’t had the heart/courage to tell him about Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, or the terrible shooting of police officers in Dallas.
(We talk about racism, but not with these specifics. We’ll teach him the stories and the heart-breaking litany of names and incidents someday, but not yet. I just want him to have one more year of childhood. Please. He has the rest of his life to bear this burden of knowledge.)
Guess what T wants to be when he grows up? A police officer.
During weeks like this one, it’s a struggle to keep the panic at bay.

There are black- and brown-skinned children not three blocks from this building, young men and women, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and mentors… all thinking the same kinds of thing.  

Will I be next?
Will someone I love be next?
And will our white neighbors care?
Will the white people who claim to know Jesus and follow the God who commands them to love their neighbor… care?
Will they say – will we say – in words an in actions – that Black Lives Matter?
Or will the people who have the power to choose life,  walk right on by?

When the Levite walked on by, when the priest chose not to stop, they effectively chose death, to leave the injured man to die.  

They chose death to avoid the mess that helping the man would bring into their ordered lives.

They chose death because it might have put their lives at risk to slow down in a dangerous neighborhood.

They chose death because they didn’t actually know the man, so his life didn’t matter nearly as much.

We are – most of us – pretty well insulated from the kind of violence that has filled our newspapers and television sets, our social media streams and other news outlets. We get to choose which narrator we want to tell us these stories,  and those choices shape the “reality” we experience and the way we see the people involved.

Here’s the thing…
if we believe that Jesus called and commissioned us to continue the work he started,
if we believe that we are part of God’s family and must follow the law of love to shape a future with life and hope,
If we are to choose life…
we don’t get to stay insulated.

We don’t get to virtually or literally walk on past our hurting neighbors.
We don’t get to pretend that none of this matters in our circles of influence.

Because when one part of the body rejoices, we all rejoice.
When one part of the body hurts, we all hurt.
When one part of the body mourns, we all mourn.

And friends, people are dying.
Entire communities are writhing in pain and wracked with grief.
If we are not heartbroken and searching for ways to offer life to them, beyond our thoughts and prayers, as individuals and as a community of faith, we are choosing a future that stinks of death.   

I don’t know about you, but I’m just not ok with that.

Not as the shepherd of this flock of believers, who cares deeply for your spiritual health
Not as a person who wants to live as an image bearer
Not as N, J and S neighbor or J & L’s friend.

I don’t want us to walk on by any more.

I do want to be part of a community that chooses the hard work of love, the hard work of life together, the sacred work of reconciliation.

Next week, we will look at the newly adopted Belhar Confession, its history and its call to the church in difficult times like these to be a place of life and hope and reconciliation.

For next six days, I invite you to join me in 2 activities.  First, read the letter to the Ephesians.  It’s not long, and if you’re reading three chapters a day, you can get knock out two days with it.   

Second, I ask you to join me with prayers of confession and lament for all those whose lives have been cut short – both the officers in Dallas and the list of men and women whose deaths led to the protests happening across our country.  These deaths were not solely the result of their choices, they were also brought about by the ways we in the American church have chosen to walk on by.  

I’m asking you to pray with compassion for all, like a good neighbor.

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