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Luke #41 Being Neighbors in an Unneighborly World

Being Neighbors in an Unneighborly World

Reading: Luke 10:25-37

One of the casualties of modern television viewing is the wild west of American history. When I was growing up it seemed like there was some kind of cowboy show on every night, from the Lone Ranger to Bonanza to Wagon Train to the Virginian to Rawhide to Gunsmoke, you could always find a cowboy show to watch. And if you went to the movies, there was usually a John Wayne, or a Kirk Douglas, or later a Clint Eastwood cowboy movie. Everyone knew the law of the west was the six-gun at the hero’s hip. One never knew when the gunfight would erupt, but there always would be at least one in every show. As they told the tale week after week, there was no room for the faint hearted in the West; Indians or robbers or scoundrels were as prevalent as aliens in the X Files. It was a fearful time to live; only the brave survived. In our time of course, there is law and order, the streets are all safe, and we live without fear and without carrying guns, right? No, that’s not quite right anymore. One is not safe from theft even on this campus. Then there are those other parts of Nashville—the parts where some of you work; the parts where guns show up at school sometimes, the parts that you would not dare drive alone at night.

Use the image of the old west with me this morning, or perhaps the image of the urban jungle like LA and you’re out for a Sunday drive on the Freeways. Imagine traveling alone through a section of town or perhaps the country that is notorious for thieves and gang warfare. A section of the road where even soldiers have been attacked, but you are traveling alone. It’s fairly rugged terrain, reminds you a lot of those old movies you saw in which there is some cutthroat behind every tree and around every corner. Imagine making that trip and having your worst fears come true. You round the bend of the road and you’re attacked from all sides. Before you really know what has happened, you’re being beaten senseless, your clothes are being torn off, you’re battered and bleeding and finally unconscious. More than being mugged, you’ve nearly been killed. It’s an isolated stretch of road that only fools like yourself travel alone, and you have no idea if or when any kind of help may arrive. You just lie there, baking in the sun, unable to holler for help, helpless to bind your own wounds, going from conscious to semi-conscious.

After what seems to be hours, you hear the sound of another person coming. You want to yell or wave for help but you can’t. The person comes near, sees you—you know he sees you—but he stops and stares and looks around and then with great fear hurries on by leaving you to rot in the sun. And you wait some more. Who knows if anyone ever will come by and help? Finally, hours later, someone again is on that deserted road. Once more, they at least stop, but they too just stare for a while; then their eyes begin to dart all around, as though expecting the thieves to return at any moment, and they hasten on off.

In your broken, bleeding, delirious condition, you are left to wait. Finally you lose consciousness. It is days later, in a bed, in a hospital that you regain consciousness. As you are aware enough to ask, you want to know what happened, how did you get here. And someone tells you the story—an Iraqi who spoke no English brought you in. An AIDS patient found you beside the road and bound your wounds. Whoever it is that you have always been trained to hate was the one who had the courage to stop and bind your wounds and bring you in. More than that, your hospital bill was paid in advance by this stranger.

It is hard to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan today, because we’ve already heard it too many times, and my re-telling this morning falls short in many ways of capturing the moment in Jesus’ life when a wise and understanding teacher of the law tried to trick Jesus. I’ve left out all the details in the discussion that prompted the story: a lawyer’s rhetorical question about inheriting eternal life. Jesus had just finished telling his disciples how thankful he was that the kingdom had not been revealed to the wise and understanding but to infants and babes when this man started up. He already was quite sure of himself and his own answers when he asked the question. But Jesus knew that also when he turned the question back on him and said, “How do you read?” With some pride, no doubt, the lawyer responded by quoting the great commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus would have been pleased to leave it there, but the lawyer still needed to show off, still needed to justify himself by getting Jesus to define the boundaries of the neighborhood. Who is it that I need to love as myself?

The answer given, of course, was not what he wanted to hear. Your neighbor is the person who has the courage to stop in very dangerous circumstances and drag you to safety when you’re about to die. Likewise, you are called to act as neighbor toward others you might see in such need of help. What a shock to the lawyer’s system it must have been to admit that his religious peers did not love their neighbors as themselves. Both the priest and the Levite at first appeared as givers of life and hope, but then they just ignored the needs and walked on by. I used to think that the main reason these two passed by was their legal code. If they touched a dead man they would be ceremonially unclean. But I have come to believe that, more than thinking about keeping the Law, they did not see a real person there—just an object. No matter what the motives of the priest or Levite, the greater problem for the Lawyer was not who didn’t stop but who did! Jesus says it was a low-life Samaritan who actually came to the rescue.

One question that this parable forces each one of us to ask is, who is worthy of our help? Who is it in our lives that we would consider unworthy as the lawyer considered the Samaritan unworthy? That is not just a question about those we would refuse to help, but those we would not want to help us! Who is worth being rescued by us, and how far are we willing to go in risking ourselves on their behalf? How much of our own fears are we willing to face in order to help others who are hurting? This is not just about stopping on I-40 to help a stranded motorist, although that’s part of it. It’s not just about riding the Inner City bus through the projects tomorrow night, although again, that’s certainly part of it. It is also about our ability to care for, and nurse back to health, even the people right here in our midst that are hurting and we keep passing by on the other side of the road. We just don’t see those who are struggling with eating disorders that are about to destroy them. We never see the guys addicted to pornography whose “double lives” are literally eating them alive. We don’t see the people that are loners—oh, we see them but we never quite have a conversation with them. International students who struggle with English and we avoid what we cannot understand—and vice versa. People who have set in the same row with us throughout this semester and we don’t have clue what his or her name is.

Yes, there is still the neighborhood out there, filled with those people and places and parts of Nashville that we wish would go away or we wish the cops could control better. Yes, it is a good thing when we have the courage to help a stranded motorist especially in these fearful times when thieves do use that ploy just as they did in the first century to gain another victim. But some of us here this morning are also beaten and bleeding inside. God forbid that they have to wait until the person we most love to hate offers them assistance!

The people in need of mercy are right here this morning. Someone suggested to me as I was struggling with this lesson that I just needed to go watch Fred Rogers and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. You all remember that show from your childhood. Fred begins every show with a line that I want to close with this morning. Fred invites every viewer into his audience by asking “Would you be my neighbor?” I ask you this morning “Would you be my neighbor?” Would you be neighbor to the stranger sitting five seats over from you? Would you be neighbor to person in front you that you’ve been trying to see around every day for the past semester? Do you need Jesus to have mercy on you this morning?

Delivered at Brentwood Hills, January 8, 1995 a.m.

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