This is the sermon I preached at Grace-Trinity Community Church in Minneapolis, MN on July 10th.
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 neighbour 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 neighbour?’ 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 travelling 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 neighbour 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.’
This summer I have been the recipient of y’all’s warm hospitality. In my short time here, I have been graciously accepted as your neighbor. Previous summer experiences, however, have not always been as spiritually fulfilling. During college, I typically worked during the summer as a pizza delivery driver. My employment there encompassed a wide array of experiences, for better or worse. I’m amazed at how much of a person’s life you can be exposed to even in the brief transaction of handing their pizza at their doorstep. The most memorable moment, though, comes from my very first day, during what was only my third delivery alone.
The order was quite large and required me to drive to the far reaches of our delivery zone. As I left the store, my manager bid me the standard message– “Buckle up, drive safe, Domino’s loves you!”–but he also added a warning of his own– “Be careful, those apartments you’re going to can be rough. You’ll be fine, just watch your back.” And so that was how the delivery was framed. The transaction itself went as smoothly as it could: she answered the door quickly, had the payment ready as well as a good tip, and didn’t have any problems with the pizza. That all changed when I returned to my locked car and realized I couldn’t remember putting my keys into my pocket. I immediately entered a frenzied panic as I quadrupled checked every possible pocket and even went around on all fours looking under the car for one of those hide-a-key things on the off chance another family member hid one. I finally came to accept the bitter truth–I was locked out of my car while in the most isolated part of the delivery area on my first day. This, of course, would occur the one time I park illegally. I reluctantly made the call to my manager to explain what had happened and then to my parents to see if they would be able to bring out a spare key, which, after some time, my Dad was able to do. In the meantime, one of the residents approached me to see what was wrong. I quickly became aware how powerless and out of place I felt. I explained my predicament to him and he told me, “I can break into your car for you… For a price.” As appealing as it was to pay someone to break into my own car, I opted against it, politely telling him that as a policy, I couldn’t carry much cash (which was generally true, though in this instance I could still feel the weight of the $40 payment from my last order). We talked for a bit until he disappeared into his residence to return moments later with a wire coat hanger, saying that he’d let me use it to break into my car for free. He insisted despite my hesitance, so I then found myself sticking it down my door, pretending to know what I was doing. After awhile of me clearly failing at that, he finally took up the hanger and offered to do it himself. His efforts likewise proved in vain (though my car door still bears the marks of that night). In the meantime, he invited me to wait in his apartment and sample… a certain herbal remedy that might help me relax. Once again, I politely refused, citing work policy. My dad soon appeared with the spare key, allowing me to finally return to work. In our short interaction, the man became my neighbor, but what does that mean exactly?
The lawyer in the parable likewise wants to know. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?… Who is my neighbor?” He asks these questions to test Jesus and to validate his own faith. The lawyer is cognizant of the laws he must fulfill to inherit eternal life–simply put, to love God and to love your neighbor. What he then wants to know is, “so what are the limits?” The law from Leviticus he’s referencing only defines neighbor as his fellow Israelites–the people who look, talk, and act like himself. His second question– “Who is my neighbor?”–then seems to become “Whom don’t I have to love?” Surely not the Samaritans, they worship weirdly. Surely not those people–they do things differently.
Jesus doesn’t tell the Lawyer whom to love, rather he presents a scenario where the person who most fulfills the law of God, whose actions even the lawyer recognizes as neighborly, is Samaritan. Even Jesus has reason to dislike the Samaritans, having been rejected from entering their community because he was Jewish. Yet, with this parable, Jesus seems to be saying that a neighbor can come even from where we may least expect it. The laws the lawyer has spent his life studying have much to say about how he should treat his fellow Jewish peers. God’s law is very clear about how the Jews should live in community with each other, with a clear disregard of people whom they reluctantly share Canaan with. Jesus is not inventing the concept of neighborliness, but he is challenging whom we see as neighbors. With this parable, Jesus is challenging the lawyer, and subsequently challenging us, to see the Samaritan–or Muslim or Black or LGBT– traveler as more than just an undesirable person but as a neighbor, capable of life saving compassion and grace.
If Jesus were to ask me who are the clear villains in this parable, I think it would be pretty easy to say, “the ones who beat, stripped, and robbed the traveler.” It is clear that they are the ones who actively sought to ruin someone’s life. They are the ones who directly and purposefully brought hurt and pain into this world. Likewise, today it still feels easy to call out such villains. They are the ones who walk into a school, a place of worship, a nightclub with the intention of killing as many people as possible. They are the ones who, hidden in white sheets, declare their supremacy over other races. They are the ones whose comments and jokes show no care or respect for the dignity of those who are at margins of society.
So therefore, I can certainly say that I am not among the robbers in the parable. I was not taught to hold racial prejudices. I was not raised to act on racial impulses. I was not raised to view people of a different race as the “other,” somehow fundamentally inferior. In fact, I was not raised to even see race. By no means am I actively seeking to torment and displace others for my own personal gain. I am not a racist. At least, I don’t want to be. Yet, I feel I can still be part of the problem. I need not look far to see the more subtle ways racism manifests itself and privileges my life over others. Because of the color of my skin, I have access to a quality of education and healthcare denied to others because they live in the wrong part of town. Because of the color of my skin, through the process of gentrification, I can only call a neighborhood ‘safe’ and ‘desirable’ once people who look like me live and work there. Because of the color of my skin, I don’t have to worry about a routine encounter with police being anything more than that. Because of the color of my skin, I can pretend race doesn’t exist.
No, I’m not one of the robbers in the parables. But I feel like the robbers aren’t the only ones causing harm in the parable. Two people, the Levite and the Priest, saw the wounded traveler and elected to continue on. Their decision, however passive, was still a decision to let the man suffer. So long as I remain silent, so long as I tell myself that there’s nothing I can do, so long as I assume that justice will come from some other place, then am I any better than the Levite or the Priest? No doubt the Levite and the Priest had their excuses. Maybe they wanted to respect their duty to God, since touching a dying man would violate their purity. Maybe they didn’t feel comfortable facing the harsh realities of evil in this world. Maybe they didn’t want to show partiality to this one traveler, since, after all, #AllLivesMatter. Like the Levite and the Priest, I can make a whole manner of excuses. Ultimately, however, those excuses all boil down to “I don’t want to feel uncomfortable.” When the Levite and the Priest pass the wounded traveler by, whether they wished it or not, they chose to let their neighbor suffer and die. Likewise, when we fail to see the hurting and the broken among us as our neighbors, when we choose to go around, rather than comfort, the broken, we are still allowing evil to persist.
This week has provided painful reminders that the white supremacy that permitted slavery 150 years ago is still killing Black Lives. The same evil that killed Emmett Till in 1955 killed Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philondo Castile not far from this congregation. Through their deaths, Philondo and Alton, along with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many unnamed others, embody the robbed, stripped, and beaten traveler from the parable. Like the unnamed traveler, they were simply going about their everyday lives when a much more powerful force took everything from them.
In the wake of this and every tragedy, I find myself asking, “what can I, a single white kid from the suburbs, do?” Thursday, the answer was painfully obvious–join with other voices in front of the governor’s mansion in St. Paul. While there, I wept with those who wept, I demanded justice with my neighbors, I laid in the middle of the street in a die-in, I walked with those who were likewise called by the fierce urgency of now. As I joined in community on the governor’s doorstep and in front of the school where Philondo Castile worked, one thing became apparent to me: I was surrounded by people who, likewise, had no answers to the violence of the world, who likewise were unsure of how to respond, but who regardless knew they had to show up, to lend their voice, to feel uncomfortable, and disrupt the daily routines of life. The people who are leading the movement, who are the first to demand justice, who lead the charge in proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, maybe they are the Good Samaritans in our society. They, like the Good Samaritan, realized their capacity to change the world, even if only one person at a time. They, like the Good Samaritan, realized the power of showing up. They, like the Good Samaritan, realize that overcoming evil requires a much broader and more active understanding of neighbor.
In all of my experiences with race, both this week and throughout my life, one simple fact remains powerfully clear: there is a certain, clear, undeniable beauty that comes from community. When we learn to turn not on each other or from each other but toward each other, then we’ll see the face of God and the beauty of creation. So I’m inspired by those who create space to demand justice. I’m inspired by the parents who brought their kids to the march Thursday, and I’m inspired by the questions their kids asked.
Most of all, I’m inspired by people like that man from my first day at Domino’s who came to my aid in a time of panic. People who lay down their personal obligations and offer what they can. People who can see the clear divides that plague our society but regardless dare to be uncomfortable and show compassion. People who, when all else fails, still offer the powerful gift of community. When I looked at that neighborhood, I thought, “I don’t belong here.” When he looked at me, he thought, “Neighbor.” He came to me with a genuine offer of assistance (even if in a way I’m unaccustomed to). Ultimately, the greatest gift he gave me was his company as I waited for the spare key. I may have had to sit on the curb in the hot Memphis sun thinking about the stupidity of my actions, but I did not have to sit alone. I may not have realized it at the time, but my short time with him taught me more than I’ll ever know. He could have easily walked by without a second glance. He could have easily just dismissed me as some clueless, lost white kid. Honestly? I probably would have acted more along those lines. All my life, I have been taught, no matter how subtly, to cautious about that part of town. Yet all I found was a neighbor. I don’t even know his name, but in our short time together he exemplified what it means to be the Good Samaritan.
I still have the marks in my car door from that fateful encounter. They remain as a reminder to recognize the beauty of neighbors, to never deny a chance to be a neighbor, whether to a stranded traveler or a community demanding justice, and to never question my ability to challenge racial hierarchies. In this world, it is all too easy to follow the example of the Levite or the Priest. To pretend we don’t hear the cries for justice from within our community. To go back to business as usual. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from that one delivery and from marching with Black Lives Matter, it’s that we have so much to lose by not changing and everything to gain from embracing our neighbor