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Sermon: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? July 10, 2022

July 11, 2022

This is the sermon I preached at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL, on July 10, the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, the day after returning from our mission trip to Martin, Slovakia. You can view the service here and the bulletin here. The picture is me and Rollo the armadillo in the Bible School in Martin. I’m grateful to God, and to the people of the Center for Christian Education in Martin, for a wonderful experience. It was great to be back together after our pandemic separation.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. I just flew in from Slovakia, and boy, are my arms tired. Truth be told, I am tired; tired out with the joyful exhaustion of a week well spent with ten other members of Grace’s mission team to Martin. After a two-year hiatus due to COVID, we returned to help lead Vacation Bible School. The week was marked with all the fun of VBS: raucous songs, funny skits, creative art projects, and deep engagement with the scriptures. All accompanied by the renewal of old friendships, beautiful views, and wonderful food. It’s amazing that only thirty years ago, these people were beginning to emerge from the shadows of Soviet communism. What wonders and joy God has wrought; what transformation God has brought! Sadly, everything old is new again. Russia creeps westward, not only with ideology but with the guns of war. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, an estimated twelve million people have been displaced. Of those, five million have sought refuge in foreign countries. Nearly 1,000 of those have made their way to Martin, mostly women and children seeking safety while their husbands and fathers remain at home. So it was that our Vacation Bible School was trilingual, with almost twenty children from Ukraine joining our ranks. We were blessed with their presence as we claimed together the hope of a God who is greater than suffering and evil, all evidence sometimes to the contrary.
  2. A few days ago, a Slovak friend related a conversation he’d recently had with a Ukrainian woman who is helping the Center for Christian Education with relief efforts. He had mentioned to her in passing that he hadn’t before seen the dress she was wearing. She replied that it had recently arrived in the mail along with much of the other clothing she had left behind. Their house, you see, had just been bombed. Her husband figured there was no point in hanging on to things at home any longer and shipped off what he could to his wife in Martin. This story, these lives, are just one example of the pain inflicted when human neighborliness goes wrong; when we turn on one other, hurt and abuse one another, impose our will on one another. When love is forgotten, replaced by violence, hate, and war.
  3. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Well, you know the Law, Jesus says. Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s all so simple, isn’t it? Except for what follows: But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, and who is my neighbor? We just can’t get out of our own way, can we? God creates this beautiful world in which we are meant to live in community with God and one another. In which we are meant to love. And like the lawyer, the first thing we seek to do is justify ourselves, which is to say we want to be the arbiters and adjudicators of the law, seeking to limit its claim on our lives and increase our authority. Surely, we say, not everyone is my neighbor. Surely, I don’t really have to love everyone as myself. As we twist inward in sin, we love God less and less and love our neighbors hardly at all. We create a world in which nation invades neighbor nation. A nation in which we begin to fear neighbors as potential threats, scanning neighborhood events for escape routes if needed. From far-off Russia to nearby Highland Park to the darkness that lurks in our own hearts, turning us from one another, we see that true neighborliness is hard to find.
  4. Who is my neighbor? Jesus tells a parable: A man was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was set upon, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. First a priest and then a Levite approach him, but they both pass him by. These religious hypocrites are too caught up in their imagined importance to God to actually do what God desires of them. As a quick aside, traditional interpretations of this parable often make particular note of the Jewishness of these two. These two are Jews who are self-righteous, but this does not mean that all Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day were self-righteous, nor that such attitudes are endemic to Judaism but absent in other religions. Let’s not pretend that people of any and all religions can’t be self-righteous jerks. Here ends today’s reminder to avoid casual antisemitism.
  5. Back to our story. These two self-righteous dudes walk right on by their fellow human being, lying half-dead in a ditch. But a Samaritan – an outsider, an outcast, one of those people – comes by. And he has pity. Drops everything he was doing, gives him first aid, a lift, and a room at the inn. All on his own time and his own dime. Drops everything he was doing to show love to this man. Which one of these was a neighbor, Jesus asks? The answer is as obvious as it is surprising: the Samaritan. Go, Jesus says, and do likewise. Go, and love.
  6. Here, I think, is about as far as we usually allow ourselves to go. Just so, here is where we are tempted to get the parable of the Good Samaritan wrong. A man is dying by the side of the road. Two men pass by. One doesn’t. This one is neighborly; go and do likewise. The temptation is to imagine that Jesus wants us to figure out which of the three we are to emulate and then do it. Sure, but that can only come later, because if we are honest with ourselves, the person with whom we most identify in the parable is the guy in the ditch. We are broken, bruised, beaten half-dead by the powers of this world and the sin we have unleashed. We are also, of course, the robbers who do the beating and the self-righteous who walk on by. Sure, we should be the Samaritan, but Jesus’ parable is first a conviction and a diagnosis. We are the ones who have sinned, in things done and left undone. We are the ones who are dying in a world wracked with war and violence. We are the ones who need pity. And who should come walking down the road but Jesus, this outsider who hangs out with outcasts, who drops everything, the very joys of heaven; to stoop low to us, to bandage our wounds, and deliver us safely home. This is the very nature of the gospel, that gospel that Paul writes has come to you. Not because we have justified ourselves, but because in our sin and in our suffering, God chooses mercy, grace, and love. Because in the incarnation of the Son, God chooses to be our neighbor.
  7. And that’s just the beginning! The love of Jesus is so great that he takes our place in the ditch, allows himself to be robbed, beaten, stripped, and put to death. No room for him in the inn; never has been. Just a slab in a cold, new tomb. But God refuses to let that be the end of the story; indeed, for this purpose Jesus was born into our world. To die. And to live, that we might find our life not in ourselves, but in him. If our life is in him, we already live on the other side of death. Safe passage on the road to life, abundant and eternal, is guaranteed. In him, in him alone, do we find the power and the peace to live the life of the Samaritan. Once we come to see that we have received everything from Christ as a gift freely given, then are we finally free to freely give. Alive in Christ, we can finally turn from hate to love. From self to others. We can finally be neighbors, knit together in the beloved community of God.
  8. This does not mean we will not face difficulty; far from it. This world will remain a broken place until the day of Jesus Christ. But we are made, Paul writes, “strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power,” and “prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.” On my last day in Martin, I visited the community center where Ukrainians can come for food and household products, or help filling out paperwork, or a bit of free childcare, or a hot cup of coffee, or a friendly face. Or all of the above. I went before they opened, not wanting to be a tourist gazing upon the needs of others. After a nice visit with the staff, I made my way out. Two people were there early, waiting for the center to open. A mother and her young son. And I couldn’t help but think that, but for a few different circumstances, I could be looking at Erika and Torsten. Seeing our fellow human beings as family, we can see ourselves as neighbors. As neighbors, we can do something.
  9. Bohdan, the director of the CCE, shared with me that he has learned not to ask people from Ukraine how they’re doing (How are you?), as that question could force someone to engage with trauma when they’re not ready to do so. Instead, he asks, “How can I help you? “I keep thinking about that. While asking how someone is doing can be a perfectly good thing to do, it’s also a question that does not demand anything of the asker. How are you today? Not great, lying half-dead in a ditch. Okay, have a nice day! Jesus doesn’t simply ask us how we’re doing; he gives us the help he knows we need. Binds our wounds. Patches us up and brings us home. Pays the price for us out of his own pocket. Brings us from death to life. In him, we are doing well. May we, in him and for our neighbor, also do good. May we ask what our neighbor needs and let their answers be holy claims upon our living. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

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