There was this… moment.
About four years ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of white nationalists marched through town, carrying confederate flags and assault rifles, chanting slogans and slurs, because they wanted to protect a statue of another white nationalist that stood in a park.
And there was this… moment… when a group of clergy, trained in the art of nonviolent resistance, following the example of the Reverend Doctor King, linked arms and blocked the white nationalists from walking into the park. And this group of white nationalists came at them, shouting and spitting and swinging. And the clergy braced themselves.
And more than one of them looked around, and saw that no one was about to come to their aid, and thought, “This is how I’m going to die.”
And then a group of Antifa counter-protestors got between the white nationalists and the clergy, so that the clergy could escape. And it is true that the clergy who were there were also anti-fascist. And it is true that the clergy who are committed to nonviolence do not agree with the tactics that Antifa embraces.
And it is true that more than one of my clergy colleagues who stood at that entrance to that park, arms linked and watching the police stand by, has said that on that day, Antifa saved their life.
And all I’m saying is: in those moments—in those most important moments when we are facing down evil and our lives are on the line—we do not get to choose our neighbors.
In today’s reading, a lawyer asks a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus responds, “You’re a lawyer. What is written in the law?”
And the lawyer 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.”
And Jesus replies, “So… that. You inherit eternal life by doing that.”
And the lawyer—who seems awfully confident in his ability to love the Lord his God with all of his heart and soul and strength and mind—adds another question: “And who, exactly, is my neighbor?”
So Jesus tells the most famous parable of all. You’ve heard it before. You know it in your bones.
There was this traveler… who was robbed and stripped and beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. And he was too weak to move or to cry out, and he thought, “This is how I’m going to die.”
And then he saw, just a little way off, a priest. And he thought, “O thank you God! This is someone who will help. He knows how to inherit eternal life! He knows to love the Lord our God with all of his heart and soul and strength and mind, and his neighbors as himself!”
But the priest… passed by.
And the traveler let out the little bit of breath he had left. And he thought again, “This is how I’m going to die.”
And then he saw, just a little way off, a Levite. And he thought, “O thank you God! This is someone who will help. That priest may not have known. But this man will. He knows to love the Lord our God with all of his heart and soul and strength and mind, and his neighbors as himself!”
But the Levite… passed by.
And the traveler let out the last of the breath he had left. And his eyes fell closed. And he thought for the last time, “This is how I’m going to die.” And he greeted the darkness.
And then he woke up… in a bed… breathing. And there was this innkeeper who told him, “A Samaritan brought you in. He said he had found you broken and bruised on the side of the road. So he bandaged you up and brought you here. And he gave me some money and told me to take care of you. In fact, he told me to take care of you no matter the cost, and that he would pay me back whatever I spent on you. So here’s a $50 Toblerone from the minibar.”
And the traveler said, “A Samaritan? One of those people who only follow their own version of the Torah? And ignore the writings and the prophets? And worship on the wrong mountain? The people who call us heretics when they’re the heretics?”
And the innkeeper replied, “Yes.”
When he’s done with the story, Jesus turns to the lawyer and asks, “Which one of these people—the priest or the Levite or the Samaritan—was a neighbor to the traveler?”
And the lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.”
And Jesus replies, “So there you go.”
You’ve heard this parable before. You know it in your bones. The priest and the Levite are the respectable ones… the people with authority… the folks who everyone can trust. For many of you who are listening to this sermon—and for me, too—they are police and firefighters, doctors and businessmen, politicians and pastors. They’re… y’know… us.
And it is nothing against anyone in those professions to say that they aren’t always the ones who show up when we’re in need. Sometimes, they’re jerks. Sometimes, they’re more concerned with their status than with service. Sometimes, they have other stuff going on. Sometimes, they are in the middle of their own crises.
Sometimes… for whatever reason… they just pass us by. And, sometimes, for whatever reason, we pass others by.
And the Samaritan, of course, is the other. He is the foreigner, the alien, the outcast, the marginalized. He’s different enough that we know he’s different; but similar enough that we might be fooled if we don’t look too closely. He’s the one who we do not expect to help us; and he’s the one who we would pass on by if we saw him left for dead on the side of the road.
Or, at least… he’s the one who wouldn’t go too far out of his way to help us; and the one who we wouldn’t go too far out of our way to help.
And the traveler is left with this. The respectable ones who he expected to help him, for whatever reason, passed him by. And the other who he expected to pass him by, for whatever ever reason, showed him mercy. And now that other is his neighbor… and the traveler has to love him.
So often, when we hear this parable, and when we hear Jesus tell the lawyer to go and do likewise, we think that Jesus is telling the lawyer to go and be like the Samaritan.
And maybe he is. And we should definitely be like the Samaritan. If we someone left for dead, we should care for them. And get them in our car. And take them to the hospital. And be ready to hand over a couple days’ wages and promise more. People should look at First Congregational United Church of Christ and say, “They do not pass by. They go out of their way to help. They are neighbors.”
But I also think that Jesus is telling the lawyer that his neighbors—his real honest-to-God neighbors—are the ones who show him mercy, who stand up for him, who care for him when he’s been beaten, who provide for him when he’s been robbed, who stand between him and danger, who insert themselves between him and death.
Whether they are respectable or not.
And I need to be a little careful here. Because I want to make a delicate point.
We are called to love. We are called to love God with all of our heart and soul and strength and mind, with everything that we have, and with everything that we are. We are called to love strangers and welcome them with extravagant hospitality. We are called to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. We are called to love. Period. End of sentence.
And we are called to love our neighbors. We are called to love the ones who show us mercy… who show us kindness… who help. We are called to love them as we love ourselves.
And there are a lot of people who talk a big game about helping—there are a lot of people who talk a big game about showing mercy—who, in the moment, for whatever reason, pass us by. And we are called to love them. Period. End of sentence.
And there are people… people who are outcasts and marginalized… people who are troublemakers and heretics… who show us mercy… who stand up for us… who care for us when we’ve been beaten… who provide for us when we’ve been robbed… who stand between us and danger… who insert themselves between us and death.
And they are not always the people who we would choose. But, it turns out, we do not get to choose our neighbors. And there will be these… moments… when we will be surprised by who shows us mercy. There might even be moments when we are so surprised that we can’t even see that it is mercy; when we want to call it anything but mercy; when we want to invent ulterior motives, or hidden agendas, or nefarious backgrounds for our Samaritans.
But there are these moments when we will be surprised by mercy. And in those moments—maybe even especially in those moments—we see the neighbor who we did not choose… the neighbor who we did not choose… the neighbor who we maybe didn’t even want… and love them.
Because it is there, in that moment of unexpected mercy, in that call to love the unexpected person, that we find life eternal and abundant.
Period. End of sermon.