In the name of the God of truth, compassion, and love: the F, the S, and the HS. Amen. (from Ps. 25:3-5)
Arise, and rule the earth, for you shall take all nations for your own, O God: the F, the S, and the HS. Amen. (from Ps. 82:8)
(Jesus said) “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10, verses 36 &37)
Wrong Question, Right Answer or The Courage to Be the Neighbor
Kate MacIntyre lost her decade-long battle with cancer in 2007. A stalwart of the community, she was known throughout Davidson, North Carolina for her public service. Those close to Kate say she had two passions. She loved art, and spent her career starting several initiatives to bring the visual arts to a wider audience, particularly to those with little means. She also loved to volunteer at the food pantry of her home parish, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. A few years later, St. Alban’s commissioned a memorial that combined Kate’s dedication to the arts and to the poor. A bronze sculpture of a man lying down, wrapped in a blanket, was placed on a bench just outside the church doors. The blanket completely covers his face like a hood, but his bare feet are left exposed. A closer inspection reveals the man’s feet to have large scars, meant to represent crucifixion wounds. The title of this sculpture: “Homeless Jesus.”
Personally, I believe Homeless Jesus to be a profound piece of theology. This one image encapsulates the whole gospel. The poor stranger on the street is certainly our neighbor. But he’s not only our neighbor; he’s our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There is no doubt this is true. But this truth, like any truth, is unsettling. We like our faith to be polite, familiar, and neat. The sculpture is provocative, odd, and messy. And the reviews on Homeless Jesus were…mixed. For sure, the parishioners were totally convinced it was consistent with their commitment to social justice. And some members of Davidson believed it was refreshing for a church to openly acknowledge the homelessness problem. But many more people were offended by Homeless Jesus, and believed it had no place in their community. The sculpture was on St. Alban’s property, but it faced a public road, and pedestrians often mistook it for an actual person, especially at night, and were frightened. Others simply disagreed with its message, like one woman, who called the police saying “Christ wasn’t a vagrant, and doesn’t need our help.” Still others admitted they were so uncomfortable that if they happened to be near the church, they would cross to the other side of the street so they wouldn’t have to walk by Homeless Jesus.
Today’s Gospel continues right through one of the meatiest sections of Luke. In Chapter 9, Jesus commissions the 12 disciples to go around the Galilee region do the same ministry he had been doing-healing the sick and preaching the Good News to the poor. After a successful mission, the disciples regroup with Jesus to assist him in feeding the 5000. Peter responds to this miracle by proclaiming Jesus to be the messiah. Jesus answers this proclamation by reminding the disciples Jesus will be betrayed, will suffer, will die, and will be raised. And he also reminds them that those who want to follow him must pick up their crosses first. The disciples then go with Jesus to the base of a mountain, but only Peter, James, and John take the hike up with him. At the summit, the three disciples witness Jesus transfigured by God’s glory with the two most important figures in the Jewish faith-Moses and Elijah-on either side of him. Then Jesus climbs down the mountain to begin his final journey to Jerusalem. When he and the disciples are fully into Samaria-surely the most hostile territory for Jews in Palestine-there Jesus commissions 70 of his followers to heal and preach. Despite the fact they are ministering to Samaritans, the 70 also do well. Just then a lawyer, that is an expert in the Torah, comes to Jesus to try and trip him up on a deep theological question: “Rabbi, this whole eternal life thing, how do I get me some of that?” Jesus does what he always does when presented with a question; he answers with his own question. “You know the law, so what does the law say?” The man provides a good summary of the law-love God (Deuteronomy 6:5), love neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus is willing to end on that note: “You’re totally right,” he says. “Live by that rule, and you’re golden.” But the man pushes Jesus even more. “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus uses one of his favorite teaching methods. He tells the man a parable. An unidentified man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho, an 18-mile road known as “the Way of Blood” due to its steep, windy decline, and because it was a favorite spot for thieves to ambush travelers. So, no surprise, the man is robbed and beaten nearly to death. A priest was traveling in the same direction, but instead of helping the man, he crosses to the other side of the road so he can pretend he doesn’t see the injured man. Next, a Levite, that is another man who served in the Temple, did the same thing-when he reaches the man, he crosses to the other side of the road. Finally, a Samaritan-an absolutely despised enemy of the Jews-walks by the man and is filled with compassion for him. So much so that he tends to the man’s wounds, picks him up, puts him on his riding animal, and takes the man to an inn. And there the Samaritan continues to care for him. Even though he needs to leave, the Samaritan gives the innkeeper money to continue to care for the man, and promises he will return, and pay off any more expenses that may come up. Then Jesus concludes with a question of his own: “Which of these men was a neighbor to the injured man?” The lawyer cannot even say the word “Samaritan.” “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus responds: “Go and do the same.”
How many of you have heard this story before? One could argue the Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most recognizable passages in all of scripture. It’s certainly one of the most famous of Jesus’ parables. Yet it’s also one of the most misunderstood. If we aren’t careful, we completely overlook Jesus’ point. It’s right there, propped up between the lawyer’s question- ”And who is my neighbor?”-and Jesus’ question-“Which of these three was a neighbor to the man?” So, let’s take a closer look at them.
And who is our neighbor? Everybody. Each character in the parable had a descriptive name-robber, priest, Levite, Samaritan, innkeeper-each one, that is, except for the man. Jesus just calls him a man. The man, of course, was the neighbor. But he wasn’t given a specific title or name because he represents every person. It doesn’t matter what someone’s legal status, gender identity, or sexual orientation is, no matter what our culture tells us. Everyone we come into contact with, everyone in our community, everyone on this planet is our neighbor. Especially those who scare us to death. In today’s Gospel, the priest and the Levite avoided the man beaten by robbers because they were afraid. But the Samaritan took the risk to enter into the man’s suffering and care for him. This call is our call. God demands that we love all people the same way God loves us-with a love that’s absolute, unsolicited, and unconditional. There are absolutely no exceptions. But we might say we just can’t do it. It’s too hard. It’s true. We can’t. But thank God it’s not up to us. We love our neighbors as God loves us because we love with God’s love. In the waters of Baptism, we are soaked in God’s love. In the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we are stuffed with God’s love. In our prayer together, we are filled with God’s love. And this love is so gratuitous, so generous, so infectious, that we simply have to share it everywhere with everyone. In other words, by an act of grace, we become God’s love to our neighbors.
And who is our neighbor? Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God loves us so completely that God desires to share in every part of our experience. It’s for this reason that God became human. And when God became human God sanctified every part of it. People are good. You are good. We know this because Jesus has the same body we have. He has the same emotions we have. The same joys we have. The same suffering we have. And Jesus is present in all of it, in all of us, right here, right now. This is what Jesus means in Matthew’s Gospel when he says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” This is also reflected in our Baptismal Covenant, where we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” These aren’t metaphors. These aren’t superstitions. These aren’t ideals. It’s simply how it is. Jesus is present in each of us. And when we meet our neighbor-our family, our friends, the mentally ill, the violent criminal, the single woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy, the person facing the end of a long, painful, terminal illness-when we meet these neighbors we come face-to-face with the risen Christ. And it’s in these moments filled with incarnation, we love the Word made flesh.
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? Here is the one fact often missed in this parable. Jesus never answers the lawyer’s question. According to Jesus, it doesn’t matter one bit who the neighbor is because everybody is. Instead, Jesus flips the question back on to the lawyer and on to us. The real question for us as we take our spiritual journey together is: What kind of neighbor should we be? A neighbor just like the despised Samaritan. We must love everyone, especially those who have been rejected, beaten, and exploited by the powers of this world. But what does this love look like? We enter into the spaces of others, seeing everything from their perspective, not ours. We have compassion, bearing others’ burdens, sharing their pain, and bandaging their wounds-all with complete intimacy and care. We pay others’ monetary debts, no matter how much. And we always come back for more. Because that is what we do. We love our neighbors as ourselves. And we love our neighbors as ourselves because they are ourselves. They are connected to us, part of who we are.
Let’s take a moment and look around the nave. Each person here is here because their lives were touched by Mother Robyn Arnold. If I had not met her, I would not have met and fallen in love with each of you. If I had not met her, I would not have thought God might be calling me to do something. If I had not met her, I would not be a priest. I owe Robyn my life. Because she taught me that it was possible to make the world a better place a little bit each day. Because she reminded me that everybody, even those who test my patience, push me out of my comfort zone, and shake me to my core is my neighbor. Because she showed me Christ is really, truly, actually right there in everyone. Because when I looked into Robyn’s eyes, I saw Jesus. What a wonderful, joyful, beautiful gift. I am forever grateful for that.
After a few months of constant harassment, St. Alban’s Church finally gave in to the pressure and removed Homeless Jesus from that bench. I’m sure the irony was lost on the Davidson community that they were, at least symbolically, kicking Jesus out. Fortunately, the sculpture found a new home outside a church in Detroit, Michigan in what is ground zero for urban plight, where it continues to draw attention and inspiration. One could make the argument that a good piece of art and the Good News of Christ produce the same results: they both force us to ask questions about ourselves-who we are and what we do. There’s no question that every homeless person is our neighbor. There’s no question Christ is present in every encounter we have with the homeless. But the real question Homeless Jesus raises is not who is our neighbor, but what kind of neighbor should we be, and how can we love in a world that chooses to ignore the marginalized? The answer is we’re called to be Samaritans, who help all people within our reach, meeting their needs with complete compassion. And whenever we remember our baptism together, whenever we break bread together, whenever we pray together, we’re filled with the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, who just loves us into the neighbor we were always meant to be.
Rev. Nathaniel K. M. Darville
5th Sunday After Pentecost, 2022