What follows is the manuscript of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 10, 2016, at the New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, New Wilmington, PA.
It took until Friday before I was willing to admit that I couldn’t do it. My first day in the office was Wednesday, after being away for a short vacation with my family. I knew that upon my return, I would immediately need to begin planning a memorial service for Bud Green, because I had received news of his death while I was away. On the way home Tuesday; I became aware of the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Not again,” I thought, as the outrage raced across social media. On Thursday, as I was plagued with a migraine headache, my newsfeed was filled with stories about the shooting death of Philandro Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. I went to bed that night sad and tired.
On Friday, the first thing I saw upon opening Facebook was a report about the heinous and opportunistic shooting of a dozen police officers in Dallas. And even then, I tried to tell myself that this Sunday would be business as usual, but I knew I was kidding myself. By four o-clock on Friday afternoon, I was setting aside my Sermon on the Mount sermon for this morning, and knew that I would have to start over.
So I apologize to those of you who came this morning hoping for words of wisdom from the Sermon on the Mount. If you really want to know what I was going to say about keeping promises and living a life of integrity, I can email you a copy of the manuscript I won’t be using, now. Because instead, I feel forced by the events of the week to preach about Alton Sterling, and Philandro Castile, and the five Dallas police officers who died in the line of duty: Brent Thompson, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. And I don’t know if you need to hear someone preach about it; maybe you came to church this morning hoping to escape the news for a while. But I need to hear it. I need to know how to respond faithfully; I need to know why these shootings, which happened in far away places to people I don’t know, have rubbed my soul so raw. And so I preach… in the hopes that God’s holy Word will make sense of the senseless. I invite you to listen, as I preach this morning to myself.
Many of you know that the Session is prayerfully reflecting upon a proposed new vision for NWPC, which, if we feel God calling us to do so, we will officially adopt in the fall. One of the four points of that vision, shared with many in the congregation by way of an email back in May, is that we seek reconciliation in Christ. Our Session just happened to meet this morning in order to contemplate that very point, and to discuss with one another the church’s vital role in participating in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in a context that includes both the unjustified and unjustifiable murder of black folk by law enforcement and the indiscriminate and horrific murder of law enforcement officials who were dutifully protecting protestors. Participation in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation is that such participation can mean many, many things. It can mean sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with those who have not heard it, both at home and abroad; it can mean championing issues of social justice, including the way the carceral state is destroying communities, and our justice system is stacked against certain demographics; it can mean developing or supporting ministries of peacemaking; it can mean providing for, or advocating for, the material needs of underprivileged neighbors; it can mean reconciling ourselves to the environment entrusted by God to our stewardship; and many others.
The question Christians face in circumstances such as those that unfolded this week is, “How do respond in a way that is faithful to the teachings and Spirit of Jesus Christ? What must we do?” This weeks lectionary, from the gospel of Luke, just happens to ask that very question, when I man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus says, “Well, you’re a lawyer — what does the law tell you?”
And the lawyer responds, “It says ‘Love God and love your neighbor.’”
And Jesus says, “Exactly!”
But wanting to justify himself, the man asks, “But who is my neighbor?”
Ah! And there it is: the question that asks Jesus to help us figure out how to put faith into action. “Sure,” we think, “We’ve all heard, ‘Love God and love your neighbor.’ The preacher never seems to tire of telling us that that’s what the Bible says. But in order to justify the choices we’ve made, we need to know what the word ‘neighbor’ means.”
And so Jesus, who rarely ever answers questions with direct answers, makes up a story to illustrate his thought: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”
If I’m being honest, I’ve sometimes asked the same question the lawyer asks. I have the benefit of already knowing how Jesus will answer me, but I ask anyway, hoping that he’ll answer differently. Because if I’m being honest, I don’t always want to hear Jesus’ answer. Jesus wants me to love people who I find it very hard to love, because he loves them. Jesus wants me to seek the good of my enemies, which makes me wonder, “What’s the point in having enemies, if I have to seek their good?” and I understand fully well the illogic of my question, but I ask it anyway, because even though I already know Jesus’ response, I hope he’ll change it. I can’t pretend that the Parable of the Samaritan has no word for me; I can’t pretend that I’ve got it all figured out; I can’t pretend that I’ve graduated from that lesson and moved on to something else. To put it succinctly, sometimes I’m annoyed by the love of Jesus, because it drags me along into loving people I’d rather not.
But I also can’t just pick and choose the things about Jesus that I like. I can’t decide that his death and resurrection justifies me, but I don’t have to turn the other cheek. I can’t decide that the blessings of the beatitudes apply to me, but his admonishment that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” does not.
And even when I think I’m getting it right, I’m reminded about how wrong I can be. Recently, a wise young theologian tweeted:
Such wisdom sheds light on my arrogance, my smugness, my sense that “I’m really good at this, and Jesus must be very proud of me!”
Here’s another thought, from author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber: “When we draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ Jesus is always on the other side.”
The question “who is my neighbor” is apropos for this morning, because New Wilmington Presbyterian Church is — through no fault of our own — a remarkably white church in a remarkably white town. We might, therefore, excuse ourselves from certain aspects of the ministry of reconciliation, citing our local context, and go about our business. But as Eugene Peterson has said:
And as long as the children of God are dying in our nation’s streets — whether children with black skin or children wearing blue uniforms — we cannot, we shall not cross the street to the other side.
When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he showed us what being a neighbor is by taking the beaten, battered, brokenness of our humanity upon himself, and vowing to pay the price for our healing. When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he proceeded to the cross and showed us mercy, saying, “Go and do likewise.”
And so as we try to justify ourselves by asking Jesus, “Who is our neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling a story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”
“A man was selling CDs outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge.”
“A man was going for a drive with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter.”
“A man was dutifully protecting and serving a group of protestors.”
And just as my young friend turned our assumptions on their heads when she said, “We’re the sinners,” Jesus turns the lawyer’s assumption over, saying, “You’re the neighbor!
Go and be neighborly to those you hate.
Go and be neighborly to those you fear.
Go and be neighborly to those you don’t understand.
Go and be neighborly to those whose skin is a different color than yours.
Go and be neighborly to the homeless.
Go and be neighborly to the friendless.
Go and be neighborly to the foreign immigrant.
Go and be neighborly to the Muslim.
Go and be neighborly to the Jew.
Go and be neighborly to the homosexual.
Go and be neighborly to the atheist.
Go and be neighborly to those whose politics don’t make sense to you.
Go and be neighborly to those who might not return the favor.
Go and be neighborly to those whose oppression is not yours.
Go and be neighborly to those who are held down by a system from which you benefit.
And be neighborly.”
Last summer, in response to the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the Reverend T. Denise Anderson, who was just elected Co-Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), wrote the following:
I have a love-hate relationship with [the] word “ally.” I find too often it’s a self-appellation, and one that is often unearned. We should apply the same rule to it as we do to nicknames. You can’t give yourself a nickname; other people give it to you. To give it to yourself comes off as pretentious. It’s the same with self-proclaimed “allies.” I know you mean well, but what about your life demonstrates that you walk in solidarity with others who experience life differently from you because of their skin color…?
And then citing and echoing the thoughts of another Presbyterian woman, who had used the parable of the workers in the vineyard as an analogy for those of us who have not been involved in this struggle because we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s not “our” struggle, she closed her thoughts by writing, “Whether you got in the game early or late, it’s important to simply get in the game at all. But, if I may use an idiom that we often say in reference to the product of the vine, ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere.’ Some of us are long overdue for our break, while others have yet to clock in.
“Your shift is upon you. Kindly report to work.”
Our shift is upon us, brothers and sisters, and our work — our participation in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation — is hard, hard work. Jesus has identified who the neighbors are in the world — and they are us. As this sermon is about the Parable of the Samaritan, I have titled it, “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?” At last, I think I understand that the answer to that age-old question is embedded in the question. So let me ask this one instead: as Christ calls us to participate in the ministry of reconciliation, will we look to the cross, or will we look to cross the road?
Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy. Christe Eleison. Christ have mercy. Amen.