SERMON – Mr. Jesus’ Neighborhood

A sermon preached by Eve MacMaster at Emmanuel Mennonite Church, July 14, 2019

Lectionary texts: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-10; Colossians 1;1-14; Luke 10:25-37

In the Old Testament reading, we heard part of Moses’ farewell speech.  He tells the Israelites that the commandments that God has given them are neither too hard to be carried out nor too remote from practical everyday life: “God’s word is very close to you, It’s in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.” Loving the Lord and walking in his ways are possibilities open to anyone. 

Paul writes something similar to the Colossians. “Living as God’s holy people is already happening among you,” he says. “because you have been graced with faith, love, and hope,

You’re already producing good deeds. Just keep growing in your relationship with God.”  

In today’s gospel story, Jesus gets specific about what this means. He’s in a public place, speaking to his disciples, when a lawyer, a man educated in the Jewish religious law, comes out of the crowd and walks up to Jesus. He’s been sent from Jerusalem by the temple officials who have heard about some of the unsound, radical things that Jesus has been teaching.

He arrives when Jesus is welcoming the return of seventy disciples that he sent on a preaching and healing mission. The lawyer overhears Jesus tell them that they have seen what prophets and kings desired to see and hear but did not see or hear.  So! he thinks to himself, “These ignorant villagers are gullible. They’ll listen to Jesus and think he knows more than the experts in Jerusalem. I’ll show them I know more than Jesus.”

The crowd leans in as the lawyer speaks to Jesus. “Teacher,” he says, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The question isn’t sincere. He doesn’t want information or insight.

Jesus realizes it’s a trap and responds with another question: “What’s written? How do you interpret the Law?”

The lawyer has to answer Jesus’ question, even though Jesus hasn’t answered his. He doesn’t want to find out the truth. He wants to win the debate, to expose Jesus’ ignorance and show off his superior knowledge in front of the crowd. He uses his skill in scripture studies by combining a verse from Deuteronomy with a verse from Leviticus: “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 turns to smile at the crowd and then looks at Jesus, expecting an acknowledgment of his brilliance.

“You have answered right,” Jesus says. “Do this, and you will live.”

Now the lawyer is the one who’s challenged. He thought Jesus was the one who had to prove himself, and now he’s on the defensive. So instead of accepting Jesus’ answer as the end of the encounter, he tries again, determined to trap him into saying something that can be used against him by the temple officials in Jerusalem. “And who is my neighbor?” he asks.

It’s not a hard question. Mr. Rogers could explain it to him. But Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer –he never does – and instead, he replies with what we know as the story of the Good Samaritan.

The story is commonly understood as a simple moral lesson: a “good Samaritan.” is someone who helps a stranger in trouble. When people remember that Samaritans and Jews were hereditary enemies the lesson includes overcoming of racial and religious prejudice.  By making the hero a despised outsider, the story becomes a judgment on religious people’s assumptions about God.

Underneath the apparently straightforward moral lesson, “Go and do likewise,”-is a much tougher challenge: Can you recognize the hated Samaritan as your neighbor? If you can’t, you might be left for dead.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement was an evangelist who famously said,  “The world is my parish.” One of the points Jesus is making in the story of the Good Samaritan is truer now than ever before: The world is one neighborhood. We are to consider all people our neighbors. God’s mercy can be revealed through anyone, even someone from the wrong nation and the wrong religion — anyone who acts with compassion toward people in need.

There’s a fierce debate going on now among American Christians about how to respond to the immigration crisis. On one side are church agencies and volunteers who engage in dramatic and massive mobilization as thousands of migrants are released onto the streets of cities along the border without resources food and medicine or any other resources. On the other side are those who claim the necessity to follow the law, ignoring the greater claim of God’s law on those who profess to be Christian.

Sarah Eary, the community integration manager for refugee resettlement at Lutheran Social Service of the Southwest, says that even those who follow the law are treated as cruelly as undocumented immigrants. An article in the current Nation magazine quotes her as saying:

“Our community is united in the fact that when people are released and are here legally – and that includes asylum seekers, despite Trump’s claims to the country – we want them in a shelter,

want their basic needs provided for. We do not accept that they will be dropped on a street corner with absolutely no way to fend for themselves. It’s a humanitarian issue. We will not allow an atrocity to occur in our community.”

The Nation article goes on to say: By making the hero a despised outsider, the story becomes a judgment on religious people’s assumptions about God. The Nazis crowded Jews into ghettos, immiserated them, reduced their access to food and water and then ridiculed their poverty, their dirty clothing, their smelly bodies, their propensity to disease. Long before the Final Solution was dreamed up by Hitler and his henchmen, they used these images in their media to make the broader public afraid of Jews – afraid of them as carriers of disease, immorality, and crime. Such is the treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers today: the state-sanctioned humiliation, the relentless demonization.”

Yet there are many Christians who say the church should not get involved in politics, should not give support people who are breaking the law. Never mind that it’s the federal government that’s breaking the law on welcoming refugees.

We’re God’s people, followers of Jesus, We can’t pass by while most of the world’s people lie half-dead in the road.

In April, 1945, the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for participating in a plot to kill Hitler. He was a pacifist who believed that violence was inconsistent with the gospel. But during the war he became convinced that the crisis was so great he must act,

and he joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot was discovered and Bonhoeffer and the others were arrested, imprisoned, and condemned to death.

Bonhoeffer’s writings speak across the generations to our concerns. He thought the church had become irrelevant by putting God on the boundaries of daily life, rather than at the center. God belongs in the midst of our life, he said, with the church, not at the boundaries, but in the middle of the village.

He anticipated the insights of liberation theologians when he called for looking at “the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the powerless, the oppressed in short, from the perspective of the suffering.”  

After the war some German Christians were reluctant to call Bonhoeffer a martyr, since he had been executed for political rather than “religious” charges. This attitude, which would set the life of faith apart from the world and its concrete demands, exemplified the religious mentality that Bonhoeffer rejected – the mentality that still prevents sincere Christians from acting like Good Samaritans.

For Bonhoeffer, following Christ was a matter of engagement in this world, “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world.”

God’s word is very close to you. It’s in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it. It’s not complicated. It doesn’t take a lifetime of study or a seminary degree. All it takes is love for God and our neighbors.

Let us pray:

Compassionate God,

give us boldness and grace to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, to defend the oppressed and the marginalized, and to speak up for the homeless, the unemployed, the immigrants, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. for each of these was made in your image, and it was for all that Christ gave his life.

We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

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