There are many phrases from today’s gospel lesson that might echo in our hearts and souls after hearing them. I want to invite us to consider two of them. One, a question, “Who is my neighbor?” and the other, an imperative invitation, “Go and do likewise.”
The first of these phrases, the question “Who is my neighbor?” is asked by a lawyer within the context of having a conversation with Jesus. After asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, the lawyer, prompted by Jesus, gives his own answer by quoting first Deuteronomy 6:5 and then Leviticus 19:8,
"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." (Luke 10:27)
Jesus tells the lawyer that he has answered correctly and then, perhaps bolstered by Jesus affirming his own right answers, the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Upon hearing that question, Jesus launches into the parable of the Good Samaritan to try and explain heaven’s wonders in earthly terms.
Now, some of us might remember that, years ago, the inhabitants of Sesame Street sang a little song that asked, “Who are the people in my neighborhood?” I can’t help but think that God was working through the secular ways of Sesame Street, ministering to children and families through a wildly popular PBS children’s television show, helping their watchers explore this question and learn about their neighbors.
And it’s a good question of course! Who are the people in our neighborhoods? “Who is my neighbor?” Are they the people living on my street? The people who attend the same church or school?
And the answer, whether that answer is being given to the world by Jesus to the lawyer or by God through a secular context such as Sesame Street or by us is simple - though perhaps not always comfortable: everyone is our neighbor of course!
Because if we think about the story of the Good Samaritan that we’ve just heard from Jesus, and we think about how Jesus illustrates his point about neighborly love not by using one of his fellow Jewish sisters or brothers as the hero or heroine, but by using one of the “others” of first century Judaism, a Samaritan; then suddenly we begin to realize that Jesus is not only implying that we are to love our neighbors, but that we are to break down perceived boundaries between us and the people around us as part of expressing and living that neighborly love.
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Which means we need to think long and hard about where our love for others stops, or at least stalls. Because as we focus on the question, “Who is my neighbor?” within the context of the story of the Good Samaritan, we find that we are called by God to love everyone everywhere all the time, no exceptions.
Which brings us to the second phrase upon which we are focusing today: “Go and do likewise.” These are Jesus’ parting words for the lawyer and, at least for today, for us. “Go and do likewise.” An imperative invitation: Break down the perceived barriers between you and other people in the world; discover with God’s help in the loving arms of communities like Redeemer, New Paltz where your love stops, or at least stalls out, and then do something about it.
Did you know that studies have shown that when terrible things happen like car crashes, or someone verbally or physically attacking another person; in such instances when one person steps in to help, suddenly others spring into action to help as well? And strangely enough, when no one steps in to help, well, then no one steps in to help.
“Go and do likewise,” is an imperative invitation from Jesus to bring radical love of neighbor into our practices of interacting with the world, yet it is not easy to accomplish. Not for us humans at least, with all of our excuses and blind spots and down right sinfulness and selfishness and fear.
Yet thankfully God, who sees all the wrongness of humans - including our sometimes making other humans out to be less than - has intervened with Christ‘s power. It is this power, not our own, that makes true neighborly love possible.
It may be tough to be honest with ourselves about all the exceptions we make to loving our neighbors, all the times when we are like the Priest and the Levite of the good Samaritan story, keeping to our side of the road when a sister or brother has desperate need of us.
This is why we must die to ourselves and rise to new life in Christ. This is why the greatest commandment starts with loving God. Because when we love God we cannot help but love all of God’s children in this world, no exceptions. And this is what Jesus is making possible by the cross: love of God and through this love also of neighbor.
It’s as though Jesus takes our individual and collective moral compasses, whether they are old school plastic compasses such as the one I used in the woods as a child or the newfangled compasses on our phones; Jesus takes these compasses and gives them a new true north – a new true direction towards the love of God for the love of neighbor.
Sesame Street preached it with puppets and every day visitors of different races and vocations: our neighbor is everyone, and we are called to love them. Now we need to preach it in our day by building bridges with people of different faiths, by building local and global communities working together for peace, by standing up for justice amongst those marginalized and vilified due to personal fears or for political gain.
For the cross does make it possible for any of us and all of us to move from one side of the road to the other - as the Samaritans recognizing other Samaritans who, though different than us, are still just as called and blessed.
Look, only by Christ’s redeeming and saving efforts can God’s good works become possible through us, broken clay vessels that we are. And we rejoice to be clay vessels because that allows the glory to belong to God alone! Ok, so maybe sometimes I’m totally grumpy about being a clay vessel. But nothing says we have to be cheerful all the time as wanna-be-Jesus-followers. Nothing says we have to be anything more than human.
We are being woken up to the power of the resurrection in our lives so that we might be the humans who step in first to help our neighbors. At car crashes and in corporate headquarters and on the borders; in classrooms and as the Church proclaiming that because of God’s goodness in Christ showered freely upon us, we can cross every roadway, every perceived divide and look this world in the eye and say “you are my neighbor.” I will do everything God’s power may grant me to help you and heal you so that healing may be our legacy and the world may come to praise God‘s holy name.