*Blogger/Preacher’s note: Preaching is rarely an easy task, much less so in the wake of national tragedies. It is difficult, if not impossible, for this preacher to completely check all of my white privilege and bias. I am not a black person, nor am I a police officer. I am, however, a priest tasked with proclaiming the gospel into a very particular context. I’m thankful for my friends/colleagues who gave me useful feedback and encouragement to talk about what’s on everyone’s mind. This is, to be sure, an imperfect attempt to address racism and violence, but my hope is that it is better than saying nothing at all.
Proper 10c (click here for lectionary readings)
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave the whole world blind and toothless.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Given the events of the past several weeks, it is difficult not to feel as if we’re living in a blind and toothless time.
Conversing with a close friend while I was on vacation recently, he confided that for the past two weeks in a row there had been random disturbances in the pews behind him in church that caused him to wonder whether there was a gunman on the loose. One week it turned out just to be a homeless person who was disoriented, not violent; the next week a woman who had fainted in the summer heat. Both times fear flickered through his heart.
Another friend described how she had to have a serious sit down conversation with her teenage children about exactly what to do and what not to do when pulled over by the police. For her black children, she feared, this is a matter of life and death.
With what seems like a weekly barrage of tragedies, it is difficult not to despair. It is difficult to see beyond the issues to truly see the people we’ve been taught to fear. It is difficult to see when the whole world seems to have gone blind and toothless.
Just a few short weeks ago we witnessed the horrifying news out of Orlando. This past week, we heard of yet more violence towards persons of color, and then the horrible scene that unfolded with violence against police in Dallas. While each of these tragedies certainly had their own unique circumstances, they all share a common burden of violence, suffering, and pain – the kind of grief that causes us to become blind to our neighbor who suffers.
I must say, there are people that I know and love who hold drastically varying opinions on matters such as gun rights and the second amendment. My guess is you know and love people like this too. There are people that I know and love who hold drastically varying views on Black Lives Matter, policing, terrorism, immigration, political candidates, gay marriage, reproductive rights, environmentalism…the list of issues could go on and on and on. And my guess is that you know and love people who hold diametrically opposed viewpoints as well.
Knowing and loving them doesn’t mean they don’t irritate the snot out of us and make us mad as hell. We might want to call them all manner of nasty names. They may frustrate and infuriate us, but as is especially true in the case of family – we’re stuck with them. And we’re stuck with one another, too.
Sure, we could de-friend them on social media or simply write them off as racists or communists, rednecks or thugs. But were we to take this logic to its extreme conclusion, we might only find ourselves standing in a corner alone, isolated from anyone whose opinions are not as sophisticated as our own. I somehow doubt that any one of us could be argued out of our beliefs. We cynically joke “Oh, don’t burden them with the facts, it won’t change their minds,” because when it comes down to it, these are deeply embedded emotional convictions.
But I can’t help but wonder whether this is the same kind of deeply embedded emotional conviction that prevented the priest and the Levite from coming to the aide of the man in the ditch who was left for dead. Perhaps they saw “an issue” rather than a person.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one bible story that is still rather well known in society at large. The phrase “Good Samaritan” is used to describe anyone who would go out of their way to help another (like helping an elderly person cross the street, or rescuing a kitten from a tree). But the reality of this story is much more severe. What we witness here is not merely a good deed, but a complete and utter reversal of what was expected: If this were a multiple choice test, everyone would have known the Samaritan to be the least likely to come to his aide.
There are all sorts of conversations we could have about why this lawyer stood up to test Jesus on this matter of the law. You see, “love your neighbor as yourself” was not something Jesus invented as a clever saying, it was a longstanding tradition and commandment from the Torah. We could chase all sorts of rabbit trails about why the priest and the Levite didn’t help the dying man; how they would’ve become ritually unclean on their way to serve in the Temple, or may have been afraid of being ambushed and robbed themselves. We could go into great detail regarding the centuries of bad blood between Jews and Samaritans.
But on this Sunday, following a week filled once again with horrible violence and great suffering, we are confronted with a terribly challenging and relevant question: Who is my neighbor? Is a Black Lives Matter protester my neighbor? Is a police officer my neighbor? Is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or any and all of the people I’m supposed to hate my neighbor? Go ahead, fill in the blank about who we’re supposed to hate the most.
But Jesus’ parable leaves me with an even more disturbing question to ponder: Who is not my neighbor? Who do I not have to love?
When Gandhi said “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave the whole world blind and toothless,” he wasn’t coming up with that all on his own. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is an old allusion to punitive fairness and justice in the Torah. In a time when retributive “justice” was enacted with gross inequality, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth might have been seen as an advancement of justice through the moderation of violence.
But when Jesus was offering his interpretation of the law in the sermon on the mount, he taught a yet more excellent way:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (as an aside, this is the very reason we pray specifically for our enemies in the Prayers of the People)
My friends, I am not nearly clever enough to suggest how reasonable gun legislation might be passed, or how to effectively thwart terrorism. I am not able to tell you exactly how we are to overcome racism, sexism, homophobia and all of the many atrocities that result from them.
All I know is that of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, it was the one who showed mercy who was truly loving his neighbor as himself.
Mercy. Only by mercy shall we regain our vision and heal our wounds.
Nowhere does it say this will be easy. Nowhere does it say it won’t be inconvenient and costly. Jesus only says, “Go, and do likewise.”
The Rev’d Brad Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Proper 10c (2016)