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Sunday, July 14, 2013

See and Seen, Known and Know

Being neighbor to each other is the way God intends to have us break down all that would divide people, the way God intends to heal our hearts and lives, the way God intends to heal the world.  It’s actually pretty simple.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 15, year C; texts: Luke 10:25-37; Deuteronomy 30:9-14

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

I remember my mother’s difficulties with leaving behind our hometown after our family moved to St. Paul in the early 80s, when I was already in my junior year of college.  Specifically, how much she missed knowing people and being known by people.  The television show “Cheers” was on the air, and the words to the show’s theme were especially poignant to her: “Sometimes you want to be where everybody knows your name.”  She didn’t know the parents of my siblings’ friends, and they didn’t know her; and that bothered her.  She felt as if she was, and our family was, almost anonymous.  She missed feeling part of a community.

We live in a strange time, a time of great mobility where people rarely live in the same place all their lives anymore.  So unless you live in the same small town for a great many years, your experiences are from time to time going to be like what my mother experienced.  There was nothing intrinsically wrong about Mendota Heights.  There may even have been people living there for decades who in fact felt as if they knew others and were known.  But for the most part, we can live our lives with pretty serious boundaries between us and those who live near us.  And it’s worth asking if even in small towns does that idyllic, nostalgic view of “neighbors caring for neighbors” still exist any more?  Did it ever?

This is how we live when we hear this story: we live in a busy, hectic world, in a large metropolitan area, where people have back patios or decks or balconies instead of front porches, and get into cars inside garages, only opening the outer door from inside the vehicle, and exiting inside that sealed box.  Many neighborhoods don’t even put in sidewalks on either side, let alone one side, unless you live in the city where the sidewalks of old still exist.  This is our world as we hear Jesus tell us this story yet again.

What I wonder, though, is if the reason we need to hear Jesus again is that we might actually like having some space between us and our neighbors.  We might like that we don’t live where “everybody knows your name,” because we don’t necessarily want people to know everything about us, or think they know everything, or believe they should be involved in our lives.  That’s led to lots of pain for people over the years.  What’s the line, in other words, between intrusive nosiness of another person and honest care and concern?  Between our need for privacy and our need to know we are not alone?  Between wanting to help someone who’s in need and being afraid of becoming obligated to continue that help?

There is in this story, at least for me, the question of desirable and undesirable intimacy.

We’ve all heard the thought that in Jesus’ story the priest and the Levite might not have wanted to touch the almost-dead man for fear of becoming unclean.  If he was, in fact, dead, which they wouldn’t know until they touched him, they would be unclean, unfit for service to the Lord until they followed the rituals and times which brought them to religious cleanliness again.

Whether or not we think that absurd today is hardly the point.  It was real enough for them.  Though it seems clear that the Hebrew Scriptures would also have challenged these two to do the just and righteous thing and help, and let the consequences be what they might be.  But at its core, their actions as Jesus tells his tale show two people who do not want intimacy with this man.

To help is to risk a lot: the possibility of being a victim of an attack themselves; the possibility of becoming unclean; the possibility of having to spend money; the possibility of having to be inconvenienced because they’ll have to follow through and get this man to safety; and the certainty that this contact will be by its very nature an intimate one.  Ignoring the person makes life run much more smoothly.

We’ve also often heard, with regard to this story, of the difficulty the Samaritan overcame in helping, because he was considered an outcast to Jews.  As Jesus tells it, the two Jewish leaders ignore this clearly Jewish man, and the outcast Samaritan admirably does not.

But I wonder what the guy in the ditch thought.  I have it on pretty good authority that people who are near death tend to accept help from anyone who offers; however, we have all read of people who are perhaps not hanging by a thread who are able to summon enough energy to reject the services and help of someone whom they consider unacceptable – racially, morally, ethnically, whatever.

So at first the man in the ditch likely doesn’t have a need or an ability to resist.  But what happens when he comes to himself, and realizes that a dirty, outcast Samaritan not only helped him, but touched him, put him on his filthy beast, and brought him here?  That he is obligated now to someone he’d rather not be within 50 yards of?

That’s a drastic example Jesus portrays.  But it seems true to our lives.  There are just some people whose help we don’t want, whom we’d rather would leave us alone.  People who mean well, but who, for whatever reason, we don’t want knowing such things about us, or trying to help.

Intimacy is, well, intimate.  And though there are doubtless infinite variations in how close or how far away any of us build such boundaries and fences around ourselves, it is more than likely that we all have people we’d prefer didn’t know enough about us to be able to help us.  That is, people with whom we don’t want such neighborly intimacy.

And the difference for us from the man in the ditch is that we can far more easily hide our wounds, our pain, our problems, than can a man bleeding from multiple injuries and lying half-naked in the weeds.

So maybe we need to stop saying “It’s not just your neighbor next door Jesus speaks of,” and say, “What about those people next door?”

You see, when we do what we commonly do with this parable, and extend the category of “neighbor” to beyond our geographic neighbors, we conveniently, and probably unintentionally, allow ourselves to ignore those who are greater risks to us.

The Levite and the priest both could likely think of distant people whom they believed worthy of aid and assistance, of someone acting in God’s grace.  It was the one close at hand they didn’t want to know and touch.

And the man in the ditch likely could at least not feel threatened by Samaritans who lived in a town he never went to anyway.  It was the one who touched him and to whom he now owed his life that he didn’t want to think of.

So what would happen if we started to know those people we see every day, or at least who live next to us every day?  Not that we’d open our veins to them and pour out all our fears and concerns of life, but just get to know them.  See them, and be seen by them.  Know them, and be known by them.

I’m sure there are many here who do that, but I’m also pretty sure there are many who do not.  To worry about starving children in the Sudan and actually do something to help is far easier than to engage a neighbor who lives next door in the need they have.  With the latter, you never know when you’ll be done with the care you are giving, or how intrusive in your life they might become in turn.

Jesus is describing to this lawyer a way of living in community which is simultaneously giving and receiving, one which is open in both directions.  It implies great risk, of being vulnerable with other people and therefore having the possibility of being wounded even more deeply.  And even if the person is actually helpful to us, we need to be willing to risk letting others help us, not feeling like we have to slog through this life alone, that it’s OK to ask for and receive help.

But it’s also a way of life where we don’t ask “who is my neighbor?” as did the lawyer, rather, “how am I a neighbor?” the way Jesus changes the question.

I recently read of a congregation, if I remember this correctly, which challenged itself, members to members, to have each person intentionally get to know the 8 people or families that lived closest to them.  The impact this made on all these people’s lives was beautiful; people were able to help and care for their neighbors where before they never would have known enough of them to help at all, and in turn were helped and cared for by these former strangers to them.

It also shouldn’t escape our notice that barriers and walls between people break down not from a distance, typically, but when we begin to have relationships with them.  Horrors like the Holocaust and other genocides aren’t able to happen in places where people actually see their neighbors, know their neighbors, even those different from them, and have relationships with them, begin to care for them.

Rachel Held Evans, a popular Christian writer and blogger, says this about what it means to begin to see and be seen, to know and to be known by our neighbors, by others.  She writes:  “Our relationships have a tendency to destroy our categories, to melt black and white into gray, and I don’t think God is disappointed or threatened by this.  I think God expects it.”  [1]

I think she’s right.  Once we have a relationship, vulnerable and real, with anyone, they cease to be “other” and become “neighbor,” and all abstract stereotypes and prejudices begin to disappear.  We begin to see a world emerge where people truly are neighbor to those with whom they live, and “neighborhood watch” takes on a very different feel from someone stalking an unknown person in their neighborhood, shooting and killing them, and then being declared not guilty by the law.

To understand Jesus’ parable and to live it is to see a way for the healing of the evils and destructiveness which pervade our world and cause so much death and pain and grief.

It shouldn’t surprise us by now, but Jesus in this simple story is actually showing us a path which not only brings life to each of us, but, if lived fully, would heal this world and bring us all closer to the love God desires us to know.  In love of neighbor, both given and received, we are immersed in the glory of God’s grace.

I suppose the only thing we need to ask is, are we willing to do this?

Because we can’t hide behind the defense that Jesus is too unclear about things, that the will of the Triune God which Christ reveals to us is vague, and that life in this world is more complicated than a simple answer.  Moses, in Deuteronomy today, delightfully destroys that bulwark: “Surely this commandment . . . is not too hard for you, or too far away,” he says.  “You don’t need to find someone to go to heaven and get it, or cross the oceans to find it.  It’s in your mouth and your heart for you to observe.”

We can squirm about the uncomfortable reality that following Jesus’ call to love our neighbor – literal neighbors and others – will inevitably create in our lives.  We can resist letting others be neighbor to us, letting them into our lives enough to be God’s grace to us.  We can directly refuse to seek a life which is defined by love of God with all our hearts and lives and by love of neighbor.

What we can’t do is say it’s too hard to understand or know.  Then we’re just like the lawyer, trying to justify ourselves.

Jesus says today that we know “the right answer.”  “Do this, and we will live.”  And so will the rest of the world.  It is as simple as that.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen


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