Sermons

Not Who, But How

by Lin Story-Bunce

Luke 10.25-37, NRSVUE

Jay was a teenage boy who grew up in the southern part of Mississippi. He grew up in a community that saw being gay as evil. As a child, he was taught that gay people were not only wrong, but were also people to fear. He heard it from pulpits, from other Christians, and from family members. It was all he knew, and so it was what he believed.

When he moved to a college outside of his community, Jay was exposed to a new world that included people who were gay. He had gay classmates, gay teammates, and in one instance a gay housemate. His upbringing taught him to avoid gay people because he was afraid that being gay might be contagious – so he did everything possible (but not overtly mean) to avoid being alone with his housemate.

One early morning in their house, Jay had to do laundry in the very tight spaced laundry room. He intentionally did his laundry in the early hours of the morning because – well – for the obvious. But this particular morning, his luck ran out. Who knows – maybe it was intentional on his housemate’s part – maybe it was divine intervention – but on this morning Jay’s housemate was already halfway in to his first load of laundry. Jay realized it would be awkward to walk out, so He stayed to do his laundry, too.

At first, that laundry room and Jay’s mind were filled with the weight of all the irrational fears he had been carrying with him his whole life. But then, his housemate started a conversation with him about pizza, of all things. I guess who doesn’t like pizza? And then it just went on from there. Through baskets of laundry and even after the laundry had finished – the two engaged in a conversation lasted for hours. They talked about family, where we grew up, school, you know – all the usual things people might talk about. When they realized other housemates needed to wash clothes, Jay said good day to him and headed back to his room. 

Somewhere in the middle of his walk back to his room, Jay realized that his housemate was as much a human being as he was. In that moment, he realized everything he thought he believed and had been taught to believe was a lie.

In that laundry room, two worlds collided – two strangers saw each other, moved toward each other in care and friendship, they shared a conversation that poured oil over deep wounds, and bandaged hurt, that offered healing that, and that set them on a new path of friendship. 

In that moment, they became neighbors – one to the other. 

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“Who is my neighbor?”, the man asks Jesus.

WHO IS OUR NEIGHBOR – we ask, too?

WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES SOMEONE A NEIGHBOR? 

Is it proximity? Are we neighbors only with those who live close to us? Those whom we pass by weekly in the ice cream section of the grocery store. Those with whom we make small talk while walking our dogs or who bring our trashcans in on occasion when we forget. 

Is it commonality? Do our neighbors extend to those with whom we share common interests? Those that we take the pitch with when reffing high school soccer games? Those who show up to care for us when our loved ones die? Those on our fantasy football bracket? Or our nursing cohort? Or who happen to frequent the same bar we do? 

To whom are we responsible with our time? with our finances? with our resources? Sure – we know the right answer is our church; but where else? How far does this whole neighbor thing go? 

I mean – can’t we understand some helpful guidelines for exactly what our scripture means when it says things like Love God and Love your neighbor – because we can only do so much. Our dollars only go so far – our time is not limitless (and neither is our patience). Surely Jesus doesn’t expect all the people to be my neighbor, because that would be ridiculous! 

We aren’t trying to weasel out of anything – and I don’t think this inquisitive lawyer is either. It is an honest question from those of us who are just trying not to f- this whole following Jesus thing up. We are simply asking for the right answers for our study guide. Tell us exactly what to know – tell us exactly who to love – and we’ll do it! We’ve trained for this!

Or maybe it’s my own sympathetic reading here. When I entered college, I wasn’t a particularly good student. 1) I had never liked school – I liked sports – and school was just the thing I had to do to play on a sports team. 2) Because I loved playing and spent a lot of time on fields and courts, I didn’t develop very good study habits 3) Because I didn’t study, my grades were just average and I thought I just wasn’t a good student. I didn’t go into college with high expectations for my academics – circling back to #1 – it was just a means to an end. 

But colleges have a larger pool of athletes to choose from, and as it turns out – I didn’t play very much my first year. So I found myself with more time for studying than I anticipated. 

I became that kind of student – the one who learned very quickly how to study the guide and how to test well for As. 

The thing about this way of studying – of learning – of living – is that you often miss the bigger picture! 

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Jesus is packing up his things to move on to the next place. It’s been a hell of a week and he’s both enthusiastic about the momentum they have going and he’s exhausted by it. Just in the last chapter alone, the disciples are healing and working miracles, Jesus fed 5,000 people with a mere basket of food, Jesus has identified 72 other disciples to send out into the world and see how things go. Jesus has figured out how to delegate some of this ministry stuff and they are rockin’ and rollin’. 

The 72 are returning to report to Jesus and the other disciples what they have been up to. These are the only people we are told are around Jesus when this exchange begins. So it’s very possible that the lawyer who speaks up is not just some random critic – but is someone from within his own followers. 

Did Jesus say something that provoked his question? Or did something happen while out in his first week of ministry that has him trying to discern the breadth and depth of his ministry call.

“Teacher,” he says to Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a robust question from a one who is identified as a scholar of scripture who, we assume, is honestly seeking better understanding. Jesus, knowing who this man is, reverses the question: “what is written there in the law? How do you understand it?,” to which the lawyer quickly responds as one who knows his source: “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.” He answers correctly, and Jesus affirms the lawyer, saying: “do this, and you will live.”

But the lawyer apparently isn’t satisfied with that answer. There wasn’t enough clarity. “And who is my neighbor?” You can almost hear the subtext in that question, all that lies between those lines, the fine print, the terms and conditions. There within we find the question he doesn’t ask but implies for all of us throughout time and space who wonder the same: “who is not my neighbor?” I want to do this right, I want to minimize the risk that I’ll do it wrong, so define ‘neighbor’ clearly for me, Jesus!

So Jesus responds by telling a story. We’ve been in this series long enough now for us to expect a few things 1) When Jesus starts a story, we better hold on to our seats – there’s a 90% chance we aren’t going to get it! 100% the disciples won’t get it!  2) He’s up to something. He has no intentions of answering this guys question – and ever intention of turning this thing around. 3) We will be changed by the end. It happens every time!

This story that we call The Good Samaritan story is one of the most well-known stories of our Christian faith – and yet it only appears here in Luke?  You’ve probably heard this story 10 or more times in your life and have your own interpretations or ways you’ve learned to listen to it over the years. 

For the sake of our time together this morning, I’m going to ask you to let go of what you know about the text and what you bring to the text – and be open to hearing it in a new way today.  

The story goes something like this: (and I may add some little tidbits here and there)

“A man went on a journey down the Jericho road. This was a dangerous stretch of road, and out from the wilderness, the man was jumped and beaten, robbed and left in a ditch for dead. First came a priest who, seeing the man, passed him by on the other side.

Some suspect the priest may have been on his way to lead a religious ceremony and sound not risk becoming unclean. Maybe he had scripture to study, lessons to prepare, meetings to lead, people to see. But Luke doesn’t bother filling in any of these details – all we know is that he expresses no concern for this injured man.

Then came a Levite who, seeing the man, also passed him by on the other side. This Levite who would have known the law to care for the poor, extend hospitality to the stranger, to love his neighbor – but he does not stop either. On might assume that he knows that this could have been a trap set by the robbers to get others to stop as easy victims. Perhaps he had worship duties to attend to – again Luke doesn’t bother filling in any of these details – all we know is that he also expresses no concern for this injured man.

Then came a … let’s hold it right there for a second. 

Now this parable sounds a bit like the lead-in to a joke: A priest, a minister and a rabbi went into a bar…In Jewish stories there was an expected pattern. If you knew the first two you knew what was coming for the third. Shadrach, Meshach and…? Abednego, from the book of Daniel. Like today we recognize “Father, Son and ….Holy Spirit,” Or less theologically, “Larry, Moe and ….Curley.” For you young ones … Geiko, Catboy and … Owlette

For Jesus’ audience, if they heard “a priest, a Levite…” they knew what the next person should be: an Israelite. So when Jesus dives in to this last passerby, the man is fully anticipating is an Israelite … but this is Jesus we’re talking about … and it’s not an Israelite – It’s a Samaritan! 

We don’t know all that goes into making Israelites and Samaritans enemies, but it was a long held hostility that dated back to one of the early exiles. It has something to do with their mixed Jewish/Gentile bloodline, Samaritan religious practices, and the choice to not ascribe to parts of the Torah.

Jesus throws this guy in and we imagine our lawyer is left with two questions – what the heck – why him? And where is the Israelite? 

… but Jesus moves on without interruption. When the Samaritan sees the injured man he is moved with compassion. He goes to him and bandages his wounds, treats them with oil and wine. Then he puts him on his own animal, brings him to an inn, and takes care of him. The next day he takes out two denarii, gives them to the innkeeper, and says, ‘Take care of him, and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

When Jesus finishes his story, he looks back to the lawyer who is baffled – completely speechless by what he has just heard – and asks, “Now – which one became a neighbor?”

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And there’s the Jesus we know!! 

The lawyer came asking Jesus WHO is his neighbor – and just like that – the exam question shifts from WHO to HOW. 

Jesus doesn’t want to talk about neighbors – instead Jesus wants to talk about neighborliness. 

Jesus isn’t interested in helping us draw up neat pretty guidelines to decide who might qualify as a worthy, acceptable neighbor – 

instead, Jesus throws those guidelines into the ditch with a story about a depth of compassion that crosses social boundaries and defies economic expectations and turns the tables on faithfulness and righteousness. 

Jesus doesn’t want to talk about WHO qualifies as a neighbor – Jesus wants to know HOW someone becomes a neighbor.

Jesus asks, “Who did something that mattered? Who acted with compassion during someone’s moment of deep need. How did love show up in this story? Who became a neighbor to the one left half dead in the ditch?”

And it appears the lawyer picks up on the shift, too – 

Because when he answers Jesus –

“Which one became a neighbor,”

The lawyer does not answer “the Samaritan”

He answers, “the one who showed compassion.”

He, too, answers with HOW.

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For as long as I’ve heard this parable, it’s always been a parable about WHO – but today I’m sitting with the ways that this parable begs us to listen for the HOW.

Yes, on the one hand, this is absolutely a parable about extravagant mercy and grace extended from the most unexpected places and people. 

But even more explicitly, it is a parable that reminds us that the faithful response to loving our neighbor comes in the everyday decisions to see our neighbor’s need and to respond with compassion. 

When the levite and the priest see the man who has been beaten and left to die in a ditch. Luke says they see him and cross to the other side of the road to pass by.  Two actions – they see and they move away.

When the Samaritan sees the man left half dead in the ditch, Luke says that he sees and, MOVED WITH COMPASSION, he goes to him, bandages his wounds, treats them with oil and wine, moves him to safety, provides shelter, cares for him – and then needing to continue on his own journey, he provides for him even in his absence. 

Luke is not interested in motive – he doesn’t spend any time considering why the Levite and Priest didn’t stop to help – obligation, fear, religious purity. Though real considerations, Luke (and Jesus) don’t care. 

He is only interested in contrasting for us what love for one’s neighbor does and does not look like – This unlikely Samaritan embodies divine love one act of compassion at a time.

Luke and Jesus don’t want to know if we’re capable of following some arbitrary set of religious rules, whether we can ascribe to some certain set of beliefs, or even love some specific group of people entrusted to us. This is not the test Jesus is giving. 

They want to know whether we can see another human in a time of deep need and be moved with compassion to do something about it. They want to know if we will recognize a divine act of compassion when we see it. 

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Yesterday we celebrated Dan Cottrell’s life – a life that was lived with deep love and faithfulness. Again and again, as people recalled their stories of Dan, it was so easy to see one who understood the call to genuine compassion for others. One story I didn’t know until yesterday is that at one time, there was a woman in our congregation who 

This Samaritan story is the one we tell most often – but there are opportunities for us to respond to the pressing needs of those around us all the time.

A pastor relocates from his home states away to become the pastor of a new, growing, energetic congregation. He moves ahead of his family so that he can get acquainted with the community and find his family a place to live. But his wife and child stay behind. It is a lonely transition and one that takes an emotional toll on this young, new pastor. An older couple from the church sees how hard this is for him and invites him to come spend some time with them until his home is ready and his family can join him. In the mornings, he reads the newspaper while they all sip coffee and talk about what’s happening in the world. In the evenings, he sits in the kitchen with the wife while she finishes dinner. 

A refugee family moves into the duplex at the end of the street. A woman from the neighborhood goes over to introduce herself and sees that, with the exception of a few chairs and blankets, the home is completely empty. Over the next few weeks she makes trips to the local thrift store, picks up items off curb that are in good condition, and goes through her own excess of things that she can offer in hopes of helping them furnish their space. She drops things off now and then – and the checks in just so they know they are not alone.

Two housemates who have been avoiding each other for months end up sharing hours of conversation over laundry chores. Rather than walking away from one another, they see the opportunity to extend in friendship and are both changed – a mutual act of compassion toward one another. 

Now, you tell me – which one of these became a neighbor?

Go and do likewise.