I have reflected on the life of my mother these past couple of weeks. She died on May 21st. I am fortunate that I have, as a friend of mine reminded me, a heritage of faith. My mother took very seriously the promises she made as a parent when I was baptized, to put in my hands the Word of God, and to raise me up in the Christian Faith, with the Spirit of the risen Jesus Christ leading and guiding her.
The Bible for me as a child came alive through something called Arch Books. They were children’s books with lots of drawings that accompanied the stories of the Bible. My mother gave me a dozen or two of them, read them to me until I could, and those stories have continued to speak into my life to this day.
One of my favorites was The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Perhaps you remember the story that Jesus tells of a man beaten up and left for dead by robbers on what was known as a difficult road. A priest passes by on the far side of the road without stopping. A Levite, an assistant to the priests, also passes by. And then a Samaritan comes, is moved with compassion, and cares for the injured man, gets him to a place of recovery, and foots the bill for the man’s care.
I still have that Arch Book. The parable Jesus tells is as current as today. But it’s the set-up of the story that is key: a righteous man comes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus, ever the good teacher, asks the man what the Word of God has taught him. And the man, an educated lawyer, responds correctly: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s the right answer. Jesus tells him it’s the right answer.
But then the educated man wants to show he’s a good man, to justify himself, prove that he’s right. And so he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
And that’s when Jesus tells the Good Samaritan story.
It’s a great question for the Church of today and for all of us who are journeying through this life. Who is my neighbor? The word is a relational word. Sometimes it’s easy to limit the definition of “neighbor.” The people within walking distance in my neighborhood. People in my Church. People who look like me, or who think like me. And yet when Jesus responds to the question, he really gives us two examples of who the neighbor is. The first is the person hurting in the middle of the road. The second is the Samaritan.
So as a pastor, a priest if you will, walking along the Waynesboro road, who is my neighbor? The easier answers are: the family from the Church who is grieving because their loved one died from a difficult disease, who I want to reach out to in their pain. Or the friend who is really hurting because of a divorce, and has reached out for help; or the congregation member or next-door neighbor in the midst of Covid-19, who wants to remain connected, who needs help with groceries, who made me my mask, who struggle with the fact that they haven’t had the human contact they so want. I do not use these examples lightly. However, I will also say, I will walk and kneel down and be the neighbor, show mercy as God gives me strength, without much effort.
But I have another neighbor who is hurting. He is hurting, he’s angry, as is the congregation he serves. They have seen multiple people who share their skin color — one, named George Floyd, a Christian who shared the gospel in the toughest parts of Houston, and was just starting ministry in Minneapolis — killed, unarmed, under suspicion for allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill. And another neighbor, who just two weeks ago, in the city of Waynesboro, shook and sweated in his car for an hour after going into a store, gently saying hello to a young girl, who ran over to her mother and said “that black man is trying to kidnap me.” One of the kindest people I’ve ever met, afraid, uncertain about what would happen next.
Who is my neighbor? Jesus responded with a simple story. The priest, the pastor, if you will, passed by on the other side. The unexpected Samaritan responded generously, on an uncertain road, and showed mercy.
Often, interpreters of this story point out the historical facts about Samaritans: they were of a different race, they worshiped God in ways the religious leaders of Israel didn’t approve of, and they had cultural customs that Israel didn’t understand. So shocked and biased was the lawyer that Jesus used the example of the Samaritan as neighbor that he couldn’t even name him; he could only grudgingly say “the one who showed mercy.”
But on this day, I think of myself, the pastor, and I think of the Church, including the mostly white congregation that I serve. You can listen to many stories and hear people far more eloquent than I speak to our national crisis. The Arch Book which my mother gave me speaks of relationship, and neighbor. The people we live with in Waynesboro, Augusta County, Staunton, and surrounding counties. And in that Word from God is the question of the day: Who is my neighbor?
We, the Church, are still one of the most segregated organizations in America. And yet we are gathered because we believe that “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” a song learned from my heritage of faith. We are on this difficult road with our neighbors. And this Jesus tells us a story of someone gravely hurt, in the middle of this road. Who will we be? How will we answer the question? Not just one time until the next tragedy, but recognizing that until we all die, we remain on this same road — together.