My friends, today we are challenged to ponder the question of “who is my neighbor?” within the context of the two great commandments of loving God and my neighbor as myself. The Israelite people come from a long history of studying and interpreting the law—one only has to look to the Old Testament book of Leviticus to know and understand that this people had law-keeping down to a fine art.
What this people was challenged by Moses to see, as related in our reading from Deuteronomy today and later by Jesus was the fact that the law is written on their hearts—the words of love, compassion and care are already in their mouths—in their psyches—they, and us by extension, are already hard-wired for loving—God made us this way—we only have to act upon it.
In the recent speech by our president, Barrack Obama, after the second shooting by the police of a black brother here in Minnesota, he challenges us basically with the same question as Jesus in today’s Gospel, in the simple statement, “We are better than this as a nation.” This was in regard to the fact that our black brothers and sisters are stopped by police 30% more than are whites, once pulled over; they are three times more likely to be searched and are shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites. African American individuals are arrested at twice the rate of whites and are 75% more likely to be charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimums—they receive almost 10% longer sentences than whites for comparable crimes. Jesus asks us to consider, “Who is my neighbor” and our president says, we all as a nation, can do better!
When the Book Shelf closed this spring, I picked up, It Takes a Village by Hillary Clinton— in deference to the election year, a book that I had always wanted to read. It lays out her life-long care and passion to raise our children well. Given what each one needs to grow well—first the basics; food, shelter and clothing and moving on to the next and probably more important elements; love, care and respect; each child can grow to become an asset to this world, and as Hillary stresses throughout, it takes a village, all of us, to make it happen.
In the president’s speech, he mentions that we ask much of our police force at times to patrol cities that we have forgotten about, where jobs are scarce as are good schools—where, as Hillary has said, “the village” hasn’t always cared well for its children.
While I believe that we are hard-wired to love, we also know that those who aren’t loved as infants and small children aren’t necessarily going to grow up to be loving people. Children also need guidance about right-living—how to live in our world with others. And we have all witnessed what happens when children don’t get this guidance.
In some respects, given the fact that God made us to be people of love, it would seem that this shouldn’t be a hard thing to do. Yet, as we see in Leviticus and in our reading from Deuteronomy today, Moses needed to remind the people to keep their eyes on the heart of the law, not merely the letter of the law. You will recall from last week—Paul let us know that merely performing ritual isn’t enough—we have to engage our hearts. And then there is free will—both a blessing and a curse at times—a gift that each of us must struggle with to become all that God intended us to be.
By the time of Jesus, there must have been a true disconnect between the letter of the law and the heart of the law for him to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. There was also apparently, in their thinking, a disconnect, as to what it meant to love God and to love their neighbor as themselves. Jesus makes it clear that if we say, “we love God,” we must extend that love to our neighbor.
And yet, I struggle as I know you do with those who misuse and abuse power in Church and State. I struggle to love those who refuse to see, because they are in power, that there is any different way to come at a problem—that listening to where another is coming from is what we are called to do in our world from both a human and a spiritual standpoint if we ever hope to live in peace on a personal, national or international level. Our president’s call was not to us as members of any political party, but as Americans. We can’t refuse to help immigrants out of fear; we can’t label whole races, cultures or denominations as bad because of the evil of some within any particular group. And finally, in light of the recent black shootings, I am called to task as a white person of privilege simply by how I happened to have been born to not have to worry about my adult children being pulled over for little or no offense because their skin is white too. And I have to ask if in my life, I am doing all that I can to safeguard the children of my black brothers and sisters because the danger is not in my own backyard.
So, we must face the question—who is my neighbor? Jesus tells the people and that includes us, that our neighbor is anyone basically who needs us—our neighbor has no gender, culture, race or particular way of life—and further, our neighbor must be treated as we would want to be treated. President Obama said in conclusion to his speech, “What if this happened to someone in your family? How would you feel?” And friends, until we can truthfully answer this question and do something to change “the way it is” mentality, we can’t say that we truly love God.
Treating others as we would want to be treated has to be the starting and ending point and if it were, we could accomplish so much—so much! If we wouldn’t want the evil we are about to do, inflict on another by word or deed, to happen to us, then we simply should not do it to another. We need to stop—stop—stop—before we act!
Part of the trouble is that we live in such a fast-moving culture that wants everything now, where claimants to Second Amendment rights demand automatic, rapid-fire weapons designed only for killing humans, and all this has left us as much less of a reflective people. What indeed would you do if what happened recently in Louisiana and in our beloved state of Minnesota happened to someone you love? So, let us stop and reflect, finding a better way that calls us to our best selves—the part of us, hard-wired to love.
We see an interesting twist in today’s Gospel—the model for right behavior comes from the one most despised and looked down upon by the Israelite people—the Samaritan. He is considered “less than” by probably everyone mentioned in Jesus’ story—even the man he is helping; yet, this despised one, shows the way. Which again lifts up the truth that goodness is not inherent to individuals because of race, gender, nationality and the same can be said of evil.
I have shared before who the Samaritans were and why they were despised, but in order to make the reading more understandable, a bit of review. When the Babylonians took the Israelite people into exile, not all the people were taken. The people living around Samaria were Jews too, but during the time of exile, they intermarried and became lax in other Jewish practices too. When those in exile returned, they began to look down on the Samaritans for lacks in rigidity following the letter of the law—they seemingly had forgotten the heart of the law. This judgmental attitude on the part of the returned exiles, given their own treatment in captivity might strike us as strange given Moses challenge to always get beyond the letter of the law to its heart.
We might look to ourselves in this regard. As I shared earlier, I often struggle with those in both Church and State who talk the good talk, but fall far short of the heart component. There is a contingent in Rome and in more conservative groups throughout our Church who are worried that Pope Francis will destroy the Church that they have become comfortable with—a practice that involves law first and second, if ever, love. One cannot look at the life of Jesus and see anything but love first.
So, how do we stack up? I think we all have been subject to the judgments that happen in a split second upon meeting someone new who is different in any way from those we generally associate with. And if we never take the next step to move out of our comfort zone, to get to know the person behind the outward appearance, we may very well miss a wonderful connection.
Today’s readings speak of loving God and our neighbors as ourselves, which is many times not easy. In fact it will often demand that we pay a price to fulfill our call as Jesus’ followers—we may be the only one and we may stand alone. The Samaritan cared for one who was in his culture, his enemy. He could do this because God’s law of love was written on his heart. He may not have followed the letter of the law—but he had the heart component down! How about us, do we act on a regular basis out of our hard-wiring to love, or is our faith just on the surface? The Levite and the priest were on their way to the temple and would have become ritually unclean had they stopped to assist their brother who had fallen in with robbers. Evidently the letter of the law was their guide, not the heart of the law.
Who are the people that we perhaps don’t want to be seen with? Is our faith big enough to include any and all in our circle of friends? Because that is what we say we believe in here at All Are One. Sometimes we don’t want to be bothered, but often times it takes little time to give the gift that each of us is already hard-wired to give.
My friends, our call today is the same as for the Levite, the priest, the Samaritan. We must go the extra mile; pay the price of truly being Jesus’ followers by standing with our brothers and sisters in need. As we reflect on the violence of this past week, the disparity in the freedoms in this country and what we can do about that, we must remember that there is one thing we know for sure in this country—there are far too many guns with little or no restrictions on who can purchase them, which makes all of us less safe and vulnerable. I believe that most of us would agree that when a situation escalates the prominence and availability of guns makes that situation immediately more dangerous. So, let’s be calling our Congress people and demand the votes that will make all of us safer.
The book I mentioned earlier by Hillary Clinton, published in 1996 spoke of a time when all the measures now being asked for to make our country safer were in place—waiting periods to purchase, background checks and bans on the types of weaponry that could be purchased. All these measures have been dismantled over the years because the letter of the law has become more important than the heart of the law.
My friends, may God bless us all as we strive to love with all our hearts, minds and souls.