Sermon: Proper 10 RCL C – “Neighbors”

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This is probably something you’ve seen, but I don’t believe I’ve shared it with you.  It is the comedian Robin William’s list of the top 10 reasons to be an Episcopalian:

10. No snake handling.

9. You can believe in dinosaurs.

8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.

7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.

6. Pew aerobics.

5. Church year is color-coded.

4. Free wine on Sunday.

3. All of the pageantry – none of the guilt.

2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.

And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian:

1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

That is a list that most Episcopalians could agree on.  It is a humorous way of looking at how we see ourselves. Not only is it essential to have fun with such things, but it is also important to take a more serious look, and we, in the Episcopal Church, received the results of one of these more serious looks in Jesus in America, a study, commissioned by the church, that came out in March.  Its goal: to learn how people understood Jesus and the church. What did we learn?

When we as a Christian people look at ourselves, we believe we’re doing a pretty good job representing the faith: in the 50%+ percentiles, we see ourselves as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful.  Those are good qualities. However, those who are not religious have a different view of Christians.  In the 50%+ percentiles in this group, Christians are seen as hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous.  Not such good qualities.  We look just fine to ourselves, but not to others.

It would seem that many have a bad taste in their mouths regarding Christianity and Christians, and that bad taste is getting worse.  I read a bumper sticker that said, “I’ve got nothing against God.  It’s his fan club that I can’t stand.”  Not necessarily original.  You have all probably heard the Gandhi quote from several years ago, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  However, the Christian “image” seems to be deteriorating even more, but it’s no wonder when we spend so much time condemning what we dislike instead of proclaiming Who it is we love.

Please don’t misunderstand; I am in no way lumping you all in this category. You are not guilty of this type of behavior. Still, in the eyes of many today, you are guilty: guilt by association because we all live under the banner of Christianity regardless of denominational lines, ideologies, theologies, etc.

For some, to overcome, the appropriate response is to separate and attempt to isolate themselves and shout in their loudest voices, “We are different!  We are better!  We have the answer!”  But this does not resolve anything.  In all likelihood, it only compounds the original problem because Christians begin fighting with other Christians, and the rest of the world sits back and laughs at the hypocrisy.  At the other end of responses are those who simply walk away, disillusioned and frustrated with their experience with Christianity, because they had believed it was something different.  They thought it held meaning for their lives and answers to life’s questions, but they discovered it was no different—if not worse—than the secular world.  In between those two extremes is just a great deal of apathy.

Is there a way out?  Absolutely.  And we begin to see that way when we answer the question that was put to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?”

Our Gospel reading today is probably one of the more familiar: the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus tells the story after a rabbi asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus’ answer is simple, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.”  However, the rabbi was more interested in one-upping Jesus than actually seeking wisdom, so he added a follow-up question, “And who is my neighbor?”  In response, Jesus tells the parable.

A man, presumably Jewish, was attacked on the road and left for dead.  A priest comes by but does not stop to help.  Another of the religious leaders comes by, but he does not stop to help either.  It is the Samaritan that comes across the dying man, and it is he that helps.  To fully understand the parable, we must understand two critical details of the story, 1) the relationship between Jews and Samaritans and 2) the perspective that the parable is being told from.  

First, Jews and Samaritans: we’ve covered this before, but the best way to understand that relationship is to look at the state of Jewish / Arab relations today.  There may not have been open warfare between Jew and Samaritans, but the animosity between the two groups is similar to Jews and Arabs. They don’t get along.

Second, generally, we understand this parable from the perspective of the Samaritan.  Would we be like the one that helps the injured man, a person who is often regarded as an enemy? Would we see this enemy as our neighbor? However, Bishop N. T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, tells us that we’ve got it the wrong way around. (For the record, we are to look at parables from all perspectives.  That’s how we learn from them.) Wright says the proper perspective is viewing the parable from that of the injured Jewish man.  Will he decide who his neighbor is? Wright puts it this way, “Can you—that is, the injured Jewish man—Can you recognize the hated Samaritan as your neighbor?  If you can’t, you might be left for dead.”  See how the story turns? It is no longer about you being this big-hearted person saying, “Look at me. See me helping this poor slob.  Aren’t I a good neighbor?” No. It is about that “poor slob” deciding whether or not you’re a good neighbor.  

Imagine lying on the side of the road, beaten and bloody, half dead.  Several people, maybe even your priest, see you but can’t be bothered with stopping—too busy or whatever—and then, the one person you detest, despise, loathe more than anyone else comes by and instead of pointing at you and laughing and declaring, “I see you’ve finally gotten what you deserve!”  Instead, this person stops and begins to offer you help.  What do you do?  Because you detest, despise and loathe them, will you tell them to go away and leave you to die? Or, are you going to think to yourself, “Perhaps this isn’t such a bad fella after all?  Perhaps this person is my real neighbor?”

The world around us has a very poor view of Christianity.  We are not going to change the world’s opinion. Still, we, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, may be able to change our community’s view of Christianity by showing them that we are willing to set aside race, creed, politics, and financial status, all of it for one straightforward reason: we want to serve, which is to love. In the process, the community might decide that we are not such bad neighbors after all.

Will our community—the wounded and the injured—will they know we are their neighbor if we shout out what we like or don’t like?  Whom we agree with, or whom we disagree with?  By our staunch view on this topic or that?  No.  They’ll know what we think and maybe, rightly or wrongly, what we believe, but they will not know us as their neighbors.   

Thomas Merton writes, “Corrupt forms of love wait for the neighbor to ‘become a worthy object of love’ before actually loving him.  This is not the way of Christ.  Since Christ Himself loved us when we were by no means worthy to love and still loves us with all our unworthiness, our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.  That is not our business, and in fact, it is nobody’s business.  What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can.” (Disputed Questions, p.125)  If we shout out at the world who they must be and what they must believe before we will love them as neighbors, then we’ve honestly forgotten how it is that Jesus loves us.

We can change our community’s view of Christianity not by just seeing them as our neighbors but also by loving them in such a way that they see us—see us!—as their neighbor.  That is the church we are called to become.

Let us pray:
Heavenly Father,
look upon our community of faith
which is the Church of your Son, Jesus Christ.
Help us to witness to his love
by loving all our fellow creatures without exception.
Under the leadership of our Bishop
keep us faithful to Christ’s mission
of calling all men and women
to your service so that there may be
“one fold and one shepherd.”
We ask this through Christ, our Lord.

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