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Neighbor as a Verb
Preached at the Cathedral of Hope, Dallas, Texas on 7/12/1998
This morning, our journey through the Bible leads us down a well-worn path. We encounter a story we know as "The Good Samaritan."
Even those unfamiliar with the Bible know this story. We understand what being a "Good Samaritan" means. Hospitals and social service programs are named after this doer of good deeds from Samaria.
It is hard to preach on this story because it is so familiar. What new is there to say about it? We understand the point Jesus is trying to make. We know weíre supposed to be "Good Samaritans."
Recently, a woman walking home was assaulted and raped in daylight on a busy street. The assault continued while people watched from across the street. Finally, a 12-year-old boy dialed 911. When the police arrived, the assault was still in progress. They estimated 50 people witnessed the attack, but all refused to aid the victim.
That has become our modern image of the sidewalks of New York City. The only problem is that this assault took place two summers ago on a sidewalk in Austin at the University of Texas.
They were mostly Texans who passed by on the other side. Mostly people who grew up all their lives in the church. Mostly people who had known the story of the Good Samaritan since they were kids.
Survey after survey indicates that the people we consider real heroes are the women and men who make great sacrifices and take great risks for others. Our heroes are those who give without gain. Those who do good, but go largely unrecognized and unrewarded. People of generosity, optimism and faithfulness.
We say those are the people we admire, respect and hope to be. But what happens? How is it that our lifestyles and everyday practices are so out of synch with what we say we value and honor?
Perhaps preaching on the Good Samaritan is hard, not because it is worn out, but because it challenges too strongly the way we live.
We live in a world where most folks are more likely to identify with the man in the ditch. We tend to feel as though we have been the victims of lifeís injustices. We have been robbed by the system. We have been beaten down and cast aside, first by our dysfunctional families and now, by a homophobic society.
Most of you probably sleep a little later on Sunday mornings than I do. Getting up early on Sunday is the price we preachers pay for working only one day a week. But by sleeping late you miss Jerry Falwellís Old Time Gospel Hour television show.
This morning, his sermon was about what it meant to live as a Christian in the latter days of the 20th century. You should have seen the look on his congregationís faces when he announced that his sermon today was entitled "The Good Deeds of the Holy Lesbian."
Of course, that is not true. But the reaction Jerry would have gotten in his Baptist church from a sermon by that title would have been similar to the reaction Jesus got from a story with a Samaritan hero.
We donít have time to explore the reasons the righteous despised Samaritans. Suffice it to say that the way modern fundamentalists feel about lesbian and gay people is a pretty accurate parallel.
Which brings me to my point for this morning. If the world is looking for Good Samaritans in the closing days of the 20th century, they ought to be looking through ourront doors.
I know it is tempting for us to see ourselves as having been beaten up by Christianity. The radical right works relentlessly to rob us of our rights and leave us broken in lifeís ditches.
But it is that very oppression which uniquely qualifies us to be Jesusí unlikely heroes in this modern story we call life.
In the story Jesus told, the religious people who were listening felt anger toward the robbers until the Samaritan showed up. They felt a blind, irrational rage toward Samaritans. Devout Jews wouldnít even walk through the part of the world Samaritans inhabited.
If the truth were known, Jesusí listeners held more deep-seated anger and hatred toward Samaritans than toward the robbers.
It didnít make sense, but Jesus knew prejudice seldom does.
The man in the ditch was the victim of robbers who stripped him and left him half-dead, but the Samaritan was the victim of religious hatred that would do the same thing to him if given half a chance.
The people listening to Jesus probably would not have done physical violence to the Samaritan; after all, they were good people who hated the sin, but loved the sinner...
Prejudice and disdain stripped Samaritans of their humanity. They were verbally beaten up at every turn. Samaritanís human worth was disdained, and they were cast out of the family of God.
Thatís why, when Jesus made a hero of the hated and despised Samaritan, he completely flipped their world upside down.
After the story, when Jesus asked the religious legalist which person had been a neighbor, the lawyer couldnít even bring himself to say "the Samaritan." He simply said "the one who showed mercy."
Jesus told the lawyer to go and do likewise. That would have been like Jerry Falwell telling his church to go out and be holy lesbians.
Because this story is so familiar, we miss its power, its irony and its impact. Jesus was turning their world on its ear. And Jesus was teaching us how we were to be in this world.
We, who are despised and rejected today, can most effectively turn the world upside down by living in this world as neighbors.
Our call is to be compassionate, caring models of true community. Tenderness of heart is one side-effect of our oppression. We are to let that motivate us to model compassionate living.
Jesus calls us to make neighbor a verb rather than just a noun. We are to make it something we do not just something we are.
Nothing else has the power to up end homophobia like homosexuals living out the teachings of Jesus. It will change forever what people mean when they say lesbian or gay.
Look at how the actions of one vilified and despised man changed forever what the world thinks when it hears the word "Samaritan."
How the Jerry Falwells feel about lesbigay people isnít the only thing that needs to be changed. It may not even be the main thing. We must also change how we feel about ourselves. Nothing can do that as powerfully as changing who we are.
So long as our community sees itself as the victim in the ditch, we will remain powerless and half-dying.
All the therapy or pop-psychology or self-esteem mantras in the world will not make us feel better about ourselves, until we also find a way to be better people.
Let me say this as plainly as I can:
Good people are generous.
Good people are compassionate.
Good people are kind.
Good people are neighbors who care sacrificially.
Are you really a good person by your own standards? Do those you work with call you good? How about the poor people who share this community with you? Do they think you are good?
All the therapy in the world will not make you feel good about yourself, if you are not by your own standards good.
All the designer clothes and fine cars and houses will not, and cannot, give you a sense of worth.
All the sex in the world will not make you feel attractive and loveable.
That is a temporary fix. It is all a lie.
If you want to feel good about yourself, become a good person. It is as simple, and as painfully difficult, as that.
Long ago, a young couple forged deeply into the woods of western Kentucky. There, they staked their claim and began to farm and raise a family. Every few months, they had to journey several days to a settlement where they could trade for supplies.
One day, after the kids were born, the man made the supply run alone leaving mother and kids at home. Shortly after he left, the woman was working in the garden and stepped on a rattle snake which bit her several times.
Knowing she would die before her husband returned, she ran to the house and began cooking everything in the house. As the stove heated the little kitchen, the poison began to spread through her body and sweat poured from her body in puddles. Soon, her clothes were soaked, and she felt weak.
Finally, when all was cooked, she called the kids and told them she was going to take a long nap. She assigned them the chores and told them to take care of one another. She showed them what to eat for the next several days; then, she drifted into unconsciousness.
Several days later, when the farmer returned, the children ran to tell him that mommy had been sleeping for several days. She was unconscious, but still alive. He put her and the kids in the wagon and made the several days journey to the nearest doctor.
By the time they arrived, she had regained consciousness. The doctor explained that all the heat of cooking had caused her to sweat out enough of the poison to survive.
Her exertion on behalf of her children cleansed her of the poisons.
This world is full of toxins. Is it possible that the antidote for them may be found in being the Samaritans the world today calls good?
The lawyer began his conversation with Jesus by asking what he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus told a story about a despised person who was good, then told the lawyer to go and do likewise. Thatís advice I canít improve on.
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