“No Ifs, Ands, or Buts”

Sermon for Sunday, July 10th 2016 || Proper 10, Year C||Amos 7: 71-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1: 1-14; Luke 10: 25-37|| The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Could there be a more painfully pertinent gospel lesson for us at this time in our nation’s history? This time when, driven by fear and fear’s henchmen, anger and violence, so many of our brothers and sisters—our “neighbors” to use the biblical term—are being sinfully dehumanized by the actions and inactions of others…the actions and inactions of us, too? What a stand-in the nameless victim in this story is for all those we marginalize: Immigrants, refugees, Muslims, transgendered men and women, all black Americans– but especially young black men– and yes, police officers, too.

I’d like to share with you a bit of my own journey this week with this morning’s gospel. So I invite you to come with me as I take a close and discomforting look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

A man fell into the hands of robbers, Jesus tells us. Robbers who strip him not only of his clothes, but of his humanity; robbers who beat not only his body but his spirit into near-lifelessness; robbers who abandon their prey in the road to die, vulnerable and alone, like an animal. Robbers who see in this man with no name not a fellow human being but an object void of thoughts, feelings, or dignity, from whom they can all too easily distance themselves and thus do violence.

I contemplate the robbers in this story and am terrified by the questions that confront me: What robbers hide in me, doing violence to others by objectifying them with labels, categories, and classifications, rather than recognizing in them living, breathing, flesh and blood men and women as fully human and alive as I am? What robbers in me are stripping others of their humanity by lumping them into nameless, faceless groups for whom I may very well pray but with whom I may never break bread, enter into relationship, or call by name?

I contemplate these questions and I pray: Lord, have mercy upon me.

And turn to the priest and the Levite—both of whom tragically think they are doing exactly the right thing by avoiding ritual defilement. These men are just, righteous men– symbols of religious discipline and observance. But they’ve put the letter of the law above the spirit of the law, religious practice above God’s loving mercy, and in so doing they are equally guilty of stripping this man of his humanity, assaulting his spirit, and distancing themselves from him like some inconvenient object around which they must navigate.

It’s so easy for me to be outraged at their callous thoughtlessness, so easy for me to distance myself from them by labeling them “bad guys,” to turn them into objects of my self-righteous anger rather than recognize in them the all-too-human beings in whom my own shortcomings might be mirrored. Does not a Levite live in me, too? What moral high roads have I taken at another’s very human expense? When has my insistence on doing what I was so sure was the right thing left collateral damage in my wake? How often have I, too, avoided extending God’s mercy so as not to get my hands dirty?

I realize that for me the victim in this story is a stand-in for anyone or any group from whom I distance myself, like the priest and the Levite distanced themselves from this man. He’s a stand in for anyone or any group I strip of their humanity by not finding time for them, by having “more important things to do,” by not entering into relationship with them.

Convicted of my own sin I pray: Lord, have mercy on me.

Finally, I turn to the Samaritan. His people are despised by first century Jews, yet Jesus makes him the hero of his story: He who saw the afflicted man and did not turn away, did not quicken his gait, did not fear for his own safety, did not use his own sense of powerlessness to distance himself from the man’s need.

I read that the Good Samaritan was “moved with pity,” but know that the Greek here is better translated as “compassion.” The Good Samaritan feels compassion. He sees a human being, not an object or a label, and he feels compassion. It doesn’t matter if this person is from the wrong tribe, the wrong country, or the wrong side of the track, what matters is that he is a person, a human being—created in God’s image like you and like me. So the Good Samaritan acts. He does something. He shows the man mercy.

Now mercy is not a word we use a lot in this day and age. And it’s not one we often embody in our personal or political lives. I actually looked it up in the dictionary. Mercy, the dictionary says, is “action that embodies kindness toward the afflicted, or offers help to people in a very bad or desperate situation.”

Let me say that again: Mercy is action that embodies kindness toward the afflicted, or offers help to people in a very bad or desperate situation. Mercy identifies with, instead of against.

I consider in my prayer that there are entire classes of people in our country who are by any definition afflicted… afflicted by the vestiges of white racism and white privilege in which I am complicit. I pray about the lives all around me in bad or desperate situations and about which I do little or nothing.

I pray, again: Lord, have mercy on me.

I remember being taught in seminary that Jesus’ parables are intended to make one single, important point. In today’s gospel that point is made in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” I realize there is only one correct answer to that question: Everyone. Every living and breathing human being on this planet is my neighbor. The one single important point Jesus is making with this parable is that there are no exceptions. It doesn’t matter whether I dislike you, disapprove of you, resent you or fear you, it doesn’t change the fact that the Samaritan felt compassion and acted with mercy and Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” There are no “if, ands, or buts.” I am to go and do likewise. We are to go and do likewise.

There’s a young black woman named Austin Channing whose blog “Writing Toward Reconciliation” I follow. She’s a beautiful writer and a fierce advocate for racial justice and reconciliation. And in one of her posts last week Austin Channing had this to say to those of us who are white:

“I guarantee somewhere in your life is a space infested with decisions being made to benefit white people at the expense of black people and other races and ethnicities. It’s time to be a co-laborer, to risk your body along with mine. It’s time for urgency. Your thoughts and prayers and posts don’t mean much, if they are only for places far away, and never right where you live, work or worship.”

Right where you live, work, and worship. Friends, I hope, like me, you can hear the pain in Austin Channing’s words. I hope that like me, you feel the urgency of being co-laborers on this journey. And I pray to God you will join me in navigating—no matter how clumsily—this uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. Because black lives matter.  And I know–I have to believe– that together we can find our way…together we can participate in the healing instead of the wounding; together we can feel and act and obey Christ’s command to “Go and do likewise.”

And as we do, may we pray together with all of our hearts: Lord,have mercy on us. Amen.

 

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