Sunday, July 10, 2016
Even though I’m from Nebraska, being from OMAHA is a lot different from living in more rural parts of the state. So when we were living in the country, seven miles from the closest town (near Stromsburg, Nebraska), I learned a lot. Here’s a tip, should you ever be traveling out on Nebraska gravel roads – GPS will not work. Also, don’t drive on roads marked “minimum maintenance road” in January when there’s snow on the ground! We had been living in the country for about a year and a half when I ventured out on such a road after a parishioner had become homebound while recovering from a broken foot. I had been to visit this retired farmer and his wife at their home once before…in June. Keep in mind also that at the time I was driving a 1996 Saturn two-door coupe that was great for gas mileage and parking in tight spaces in downtown Chicago, not exactly built for gravel roads in rural Nebraska. I headed down the most direct path to their farm on what looked like a road lightly dusted with snow…until I got stuck. The snow had drifted in spots and hadn’t been cleared, because, it was a minimum maintenance road! I couldn’t go back or forward – the body of the car was resting on top of the snow drift. Very embarrassed, I called the retired farmer for help. He brought chains on his pickup, but in trying to pull me out, HE got stuck. So he called his brother-in-law, who happened to be the church council president, and HE got stuck. There we were, standing knee deep in the snow, two pickups and a little white Saturn stuck in the middle of nowhere on a cold January day.
Here’s what was amazing…we waited for no more than 5 minutes when two workers from the feedlot across the highway came by with a loader to pick up some silage for the cattle. There was a huge silage pile about a quarter mile from where we were stuck. With barely a word, these two workers one by one used their loader to get all three of us safely back on dry ground again. They smiled, waved, and then disappeared with their load of silage. It was like two angels appeared to help us.
What was amazing about this experience is that these workers only spoke Spanish – no English. We had just been talking about this in our congregations about the growing population of Spanish speakers in our area, from less than 1% to more than 5% in the last ten years. When I had suggested that we should be reaching out to our new neighbors, I met some resistance: they should learn English, they probably aren’t even here legally, there really aren’t that many of them, and so on. These two parishioners that had been on the receiving end of these strangers’ help had been the most vocal opponents of building relationships with our new neighbors. Our encounter was a modern-day Good Samaritan parable. I believe Jesus was speaking directly to us through this experience – these were our neighbors, and instead of helping them, THEY first helped us. The politics and labels of the particular cultural identity of our new neighbors disappeared when we met these neighbors face to face. We were people in need, they were people who could help. As we recounted that amazing experience, it changed the congregation’s perspective.
You see, a lot of us know this Good Samaritan story – it’s the golden rule, right? Treat others the way you want to be treated. Love your neighbor as yourself. But the lawyer wants to clarify who his neighbor is and who his neighbor isn’t. In the parable, the people we would expect to help this man, the people who are religious, who KNOW the law just like this lawyer does, they don’t! Jesus doesn’t casually use the qualifier “Samaritan” like we might say “Texan” or “Nebraskan.” “Samaritan” had negative connotations for faithful Jews. Today we might insert – “An illegal immigrant,” “a Muslim,” “a white police officer” or “a black man,” to carry the same meaning. It’s the Samaritan – the outsider – who shows mercy, who “gets” what loving your neighbor as yourself truly means. And we are STILL obviously trying to understand what Jesus is trying to say in this parable as American Christians today.
It’s been quite a week of bad news, hasn’t it?! I am still shocked and saddened first by the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, then the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota followed by the awful slaughter of police officers in Dallas. If this week isn’t a wake-up call for the church, for us to hear this gospel message from Jesus today about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, I don’t know what is. Jesus is clear – love your neighbor as yourself…no excuses. Love your neighbor if he’s black or white, gay or straight, legal or illegal, a police officer or mentally ill. This is not a political message – it’s at the core of what it means to be Christians that clearly we are straying away from as a country, and it is deeply troubling. The church’s purpose – OUR purpose as the people of God – is to call people back to this message of loving people who are different, helping people regardless of who they are, pointing them to the love of Christ.
Most of you know we just got back from a refreshing vacation, Erin’s first big vacation. It was so great to see family and friends and the beauty of God’s creation out in the Pacific Northwest! What is fun as a parent is seeing Erin’s personality come out. She’s a true pastor’s kid. She loves people. It doesn’t seem to matter who they are – young, old, male or female. And we have encountered very few people who don’t smile back. Even when Erin’s behavior was quite obnoxious – crying for at least a half hour on the return flight back, the guy sitting next to me said, “You have an adorable baby!” I’m realizing as a parent that there are very few people who don’t like babies. Most people (not all) love babies. Babies are great conversation starters, in fact. And as a parent, I wonder, at what point will people no longer be enchanted with Erin? We all were children once – Micah Johnson, Philando Castile, those police officers, that Good Samaritan, JESUS himself – they were all babies that people smiled at, were happy to interact with and love. And at some point our sin keeps us from seeing all of humanity as God sees us, from seeing not just babies but all people as human beings worthy of love, respect, and fair treatment: doing what we can to be helpful and in relationship with each other. It makes me wonder if it may have been more effective for Jesus to say, “Love your neighbor as you love your babies!” which sounds silly, but I think gets at the heart of Jesus’ point and the problem with our fractured society that we are seeing over and over again is broken! Too often we are simply just out of relationship – out of relationship with our neighbors and with God. Jesus is calling us back into relationship. Jesus is calling us to take risks to build new relationships, to try to understand one another especially if our experience may be different, and certainly to speak out against injustice and violence of any kind.
Here’s the truth – God has not forgotten us. God loves us as God’s own babies, no matter how old we are. God absolutely knows we’re broken, damaged, capable of awful things, but God didn’t turn away or walk on the other side of the road…God instead sent his most precious baby Jesus to go to the cross for us so that we ALL might be saved in spite of ourselves – not because we deserve it, but precisely because we don’t. God in Jesus Christ shows us best how to love God, love our neighbors, and even love ourselves. Now Jesus is asking us to go and do likewise. A few people from Bethel are worshipping at San Andres, a primarily Spanish-speaking Lutheran congregation on 24th and J Street this morning. We are praying for our police officers – what more could we do? Troy will share with us his story, which includes his work with veterans. How are you reaching out? How is God pushing you to love the Samaritans