Sunday, July 10, 2016

Falling Far Short

Good Samaritan, Mildred Nungester Wolfe,
Mississippi, 1960s

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren't you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
And cut the world in two –
And see what worms are eating
At the rind.
   (Langston Hughes , 1931)
I have spent this past week grieving, listening, praying.

What can be said when unarmed citizens are shot by those trained and armed to keep them safe?

What can be said when misguided souls act out the misuguided belief that guns can somehow solve our sorrow?

I see, hear, read the same tired message: “If guns are outlawed, blah blah blah” and find myself shouting, inside my tired head: “No one is talking about outlawing guns. We’re talking about finding a way to make this world just a little bit safer. Please!”

I see the pushback against #blacklivesmatter, note the frustration and anger that bubbles up inside me, and wonder how any black person manages to contain it. (I was impressed and humbled by this careful, intelligent, eloquent response  to a snippy adolescent critique of a #blacklivesmatter tee shirt). 

It’s been eighty-five years since Langston Hughes wrote of being tired, worn down by the weight of racial oppression.

Fifty-two years since James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Nashoba County, Mississippi by a mix of police and KKK for daring to register black voters. 

Forty-eight years since Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee.

After decades of progress it feels like we’re marching backward into a fractured, painful past.

Our sermon text this morning was the parable of the good Samaritan.

I take that text seriously, try hard to live it out. As does our church, the Church of the Good Samaritan, an Episcopal church on the Philadelphia main line.

But in a time like this, tell me: who is my neighbor?

Philando Castile? Worked in the same school cafeteria for thirteen years. Wore his hair in dreadlocks. Pulled over for driving with a broken headlight. Shot four times in the side when he reached for his ID.

Who is my neighbor?

His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, pleading: “Please don’t let him bleed out. Please.”

Who is my neighbor?

The officer, standing beside the car, watching the bleeding man die. Is he my neighbor too?

I am helpless to help them. Helpless to change the system that they live in. A system that incarcerates one in ten young black men, funds our small cities on petty fines charged to black men driving broken down cars, insists we can all have guns then shoots black men for having them, sends their grieving, angry children to broken, underfunded schools. 

Our rector, Richard Morgan, began the sermon this morning noting that we read Jesus’ parable as instruction: love your neighbor as yourself. Go and do likewise.

But then he gently pried us loose from our normal interpretation: look at the context.

A teacher of the lawyer asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus answers with a question: “What does the law say?” 
“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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
 When my kids were small we had a book called “Who Is My Neighbor?”

The Good Samaritan, Ersnt Barlach, Berlin 1919
It wound its way through distant countries, depicting children of every shade, leaning toward a simple conclusion: “A neighbor is someone who needs my help.”

That simple.

That hard.

As Richard humorously suggested, it would really help if we could narrow it down: seven houses to the left, seven to the right.

If my neighbor is a woman in Minnesota slowly losing control as she sees her loved one dying AND my neighbor is a slow moving man in Baton Rouge afraid of going back to prison because he can’t keep up with child support payments AND the grieving communities in Dallas and Orlando AND every man, woman, child oppressed and afflicted by systems so broken and corrupt we’ve lost any hope of change, I quit.

It’s not possible.

Which is, apparently, the point.

I can’t love my neighbor as myself.

Can’t put a dent in it.

Can’t even come close.

As our good rector so gently made clear, WE are not the good Samaritan.

That role belongs to Jesus.

When he told the story, Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem to give his life for every battered, broken, smashed up sorry soul.

He is the good Samaritan. First, last, only.

If we’re going to find ourselves in the story, it’s as the dying traveler beset by robbers, ignored by the pious leaders hurrying past.

Even so, the parable’s ending doesn’t change: 
Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
 Go and do likewise.

I’ve been praying back through the tragedies of the week from a different point of view.

I have no solace to offer, no wisdom, no aid.

I am not the good Samaritan. I can’t even picture what that would be. Don’t see a way to help. Don’t even see a way to pray.

But I find myself thinking about the way Jesus became like us.

Took on our form, our sorrow, our humanity.

Chose to identify himself with us.

Chose to love us as himself.

In our prayer of confession, I find myself lingering on the word “we.” 
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Our failure is both singular and corporate. I have not loved.

WE have not loved.

How often we misuse that word we: we want our country back. We want to keep our guns. We want our streets safe. We deserve better.

Sometimes our “we” is national, regional. 

Sometimes it’s tinged with race, class, gender.

Too often it carries a sense of privilege, offense, self-justification, exclusion.

Maybe our first step toward healing is to see that we – all of us, weak, powerful, faithless, full of faith, white, black, citizen, stranger, male, female, other – we are all broken travelers on the side of the road. All helpless, hopeless, in need of care.

We judge too quickly.

We hurry by.

We look for quick fixes, easy answers.

We begrudge what it would cost to set our neighbors on a path toward wholeness.

The Samaritan risked his life, his time, his comfort to take the wounded stranger to shelter.

Leveraged his physical and financial resources to provide care for someone who had no claim on him.

Insisted he would pay whatever needed. The debt would be on him.

We fall so far short. 

Every day. 

In our policies, our practices, our prejudices, our superficial moments of silent prayer.

We have not loved our neighbors as our selves.

We don’t know how.

As I rest again in the words of our confession, I’m reminded that we start with acknowledgement of failure. We start with full repentance, honest sorrow, but we don’t end there. 

As we are healed by God’s mercy, by the kindness of our Good Samaritan, we gain courage and strength to walk in his ways, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?
The one who had mercy.
Go and do likewise.