The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
This week will mark the 3rd anniversary of the NAACP’s 98th convention in
The N-word has been used as a slur against blacks for more than a century. It remains a symbol of racism, but also is used by blacks when referring to other blacks, especially in comedy routines and rap and hip-hop music. The Rev. Otis Moss III, the pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ here in
In today’s gospel, Jesus takes his turn and buries some old notions of race and class. Jesus, in one fell swoop, lays to rest the answer to a question which could give sanction to hate. Because the ultimate question that must be answered by society today is “who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells a story that is familiar to most of us. The problem is that familiar stories are sometimes like the hymns we sing. The words are so well known, that we don’t hear them. It’s sort of like a siren wailing down the street at night or a barking dog- both are heard but unheeded. And so it is important for those who preach the gospel to take these familiar truths and time-worn stories and lift them up so that we can see them in our contemporary context. We need to amplify them and let their messages find us where we are in our own time and in our own world.
Jesus’ story was sparked by a man who was a lawyer, a professor of law and skilled in the religious laws and traditions of the time. This man interrupted as Jesus taught the gathered crowd. This man, who was sort of a Ph.D. in rabbinical studies stood up and asked a question. I can imagine that the crowd was stunned to silence as they prepared for what seemed to be a real confrontation. The crowd was silent and the lawyer asked, in all of his academic regalia, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” But Jesus knew that the question was a trick and it was asked only to bring criticism upon him, so Jesus did not answer directly, but he let the professor answer his own question. Jesus said, “What does your law say? You have studied it. How do you interpret it?” The professor 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.”
Now Jesus knew these words all too well for they were contained in the Holy Scriptures. He had read them and meditated on them and heard them in the synagogue as a child and lived them. And so Jesus agreed and said, “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.”But the professor did not want it to end there, so he pressed Jesus further. He asked, “So, who is my neighbor?” And this is the question that we must ask as a society today, “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, who am I supposed to love? How wide is the circle of persons that I must love? The professor must have thought, “After all, I am a member of a very special people, and I have special standing among these people.”
Some of us in this country think that we have special standing as God’s people. We think that God is an American citizen and as he shed His grace on this country he somehow despised the other creation he has made. We don’t think people of Middle Eastern descent can share in God’s grace. We don’t think that Iraqis or Iranians or Sunnis or Shiites can be partakers in the grace of God. In doing so, we adopt a very dangerous stance of exclusion and exclusivity which caused and is at the root of racism and sexism and all the ism’s and phobias which plague us as a society. We even as the Black community have historically fallen into this dangerous psychology of exclusion among our own folks.
Who is our neighbor? This question in today’s gospel pericope goes a step further, because the expected answer for the professor is already implicit for him in the question. I sense in his question the air of elitism and selfish ambition; an air of exclusion and excommunication. The asker of this question seems to expect Jesus to say that he and only he and his clique of a few are his neighbors. My intuition tells me that he was expecting Jesus to preach a Gospel of exclusion and not inclusion, and so it must have come as quite a surprise when the answer to the question was offered in the form of a parable on the
This question is disturbing to me because I dare say that the context of the question may be familiar to many of us today. We belong to exclusive organizations. We live in exclusive neighborhoods. We may be perceived as being a part of an exclusive church where only certain types of people are welcomed. We don’t associate with certain types of people. Our children cannot play with certain other children whose parents don’t fit the mold or cut the mustard. We associate with people who have MD’s and JD’s and PhD’s but have forgotten about the GED’s. We can get hung up on skin tone and obsessed with hair type and disregard those that don’t fit into our standard of beauty related to our own internalized oppression. We whisper about those who may dress differently and speak differently and live differently. And I am disturbed because we as individuals and as a people stand accused, and in some vicarious capacity share the guilt of this ancient query. And we ourselves ask in different ways and in different times and in different seasons this question for the ages, baited with the guile of elitism and exclusivity- who is my neighbor?
Lawrence Otis Graham, in his controversial book Our Kind of People exposes the insular world of the Black upper class. He discusses debutante cotillions, arranged marriages, and memberships in our exclusive sororities, fraternities and other clubs; he discusses not only the obsession with complexion and top credentials from certain schools, but he maintains that even where we sit on Sunday mornings says something about status. Graham notes that the black upper class has most often been associated with the Episcopal and Congregational churches. Graham says, and I quote: “Despite earlier affiliations with the Baptist and Methodist denominations, and the larger number of blacks who currently make up these congregations, the black elite have often selected the more formal high Episcopal Church. The Episcopal faith was attractive because of its formality, and both faiths were well known for having well-educated clergy and a small number of members. In every city where there are members of the black elite, there is an Episcopal or congregational church that dominates the upper-class Black religious scene.” Well, look around. Now whether we agree or take exception to Graham’s description, we must admit that as sinful humans, no matter what race, we have the proclivity to elitist, prejudiced and separatist attitudes within society as a whole and even in the Body of Christ. And so the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is a question relevant for us to examine today.
And so Jesus painted one of those pictures that he often paints for us in parable form. He told us a story. Jesus starts his story with the main character, simply identified as “a man.” He said nothing about the identity of the man’s tribe, his race or his clan. He was simply “a man.” No mention was made of his social class or skin tone or dialect or even the language he spoke. We don’t need to know all of that. All we need know is that he is a man, a human being. It could have been anybody.
The man was on a journey through dangerous and lonely highway. Robbers and muggers were known to attack travelers and this man was beaten by thieves and left for dead. His clothes were even stripped from his body so that we cannot identify anything about him based on his apparel. We don’t know whether he was a poor man who wore cheaply woven cloth or a rich man who wore cloth of unseamed purple with a deep hem. So we don’t have the advantage of getting our prejudices working. He could have been a person of our own race and class, and if we knew, we might have helped him out of racial pride and ethnic loyalty, not out of pure compassion. Jesus made the story tell only of another human in need, half dead, beaten and robbed.We don’t know how well educated he was or how poor he was. We don’t know what family he came from or what side of town he lived on. Barely breathing, he was a man left to die in his suffering.
A priest came by and saw the man, but would not go near him, perhaps concerned about staying pure and not being defiled by what was to him an unclean, dead body. He crossed the street to avoid him. Then a Levite, an upper-middle class, well-to-do member of a closed fraternity from a proper family with the best education of the day. He did pause to look at the man, but he couldn’t tell who he was. He would never be caught on the
This, I believe, is why we as African Americans should see in this parable a weapon for our warfare against racism and for human rights and equality. It has served as a clarion call to act in an ethically responsible way, even if the wounded victim on the road is not part of my own group, and even if the person might be my oppressor. African Americans in the face of oppression have taken great solace in Jesus’ story. For here was a man from society’s margins who had enough God in him, enough common compassion for a fellow human being, to stop on a dangerous road to help one who appeared to be the “other” but was in reality a “brother”, a fellow human being in need.
And so Jesus looked up at the law professor and asked, “Which of these men do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise”
Who is my neighbor? It is not just the people sitting in this church with us today. Our neighbor is not just those who live next door to us. Our neighbor is not just those who look like us or speak like us. Our neighbor is not just the one whom we deem respectable. But our neighbor is the one who is stumbling down
But our culture is ruthless. It leaves homeless people sleeping under bridges. It is violent. It allows death-dealing drugs to exploit and destroy the poor. It is cold. It treats children as though they asked to be born in ghettos. It is uncaring. It penalizes the old and the indigent for being sick and needing medicines and medical care. But in God’s family, there are no outcasts and we have no right as God’s children to pass on the other side. We are called to be compassionate and so we need to be about creating ministries of compassion. We are not called to just care for one another and entertain one another and keep our doors tightly locked to the needs of this community. We are called to hoist up the marginalized on our own animals of hope and be instruments of God’s justice and healing.
I like the way that Sam Proctor put it when he told the story of how he went to Nash County North Carolina to give a speech at a 4-H Club Conference. In those days, everything was segregated and so this was a black 4-H club. Dr. Proctor was at the time the president of
So they went back to
And so I ask you today, are you willing to serve him? Are you willing to reach out and seize the opportunity to serve him? Are you willing to reach across race and clan and class? Are you willing to create ministries in this church to serve him? Are you willing to reach out beyond these red doors to serve him? And I believe that if we get enough folk like that who love Jesus like that , who realize that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus. If we get enough folk like that, showing compassion for our brothers and sisters, one day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.