Building a New Way:
Practicing Neighbor Love
Pastor Jeff Wells
Second Sunday After Pentecost • June 3, 2018
Scripture Lesson: Luke 10:20, 25-37
I love this parable. I love the Samaritan man. I want to be like the Samaritan man! I would really like to meet him. I want to get to know him and learn his story. I really want understand how he became the person he was. How did he develop the compassion and strength of character that made it seem so easy and so natural to him to go out of his way to help a stranger who was hurt? He risked his own safety – even his life – to care for a person he did not know at all. He generously gave his time and his money without asking for or expecting anything in return. In fact, he knew he would probably never see the injured man again.
What does this have to do with “Building a New Way”? I think the story that Jesus tells captures so much about what it means to live in the new way that Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” We call it the “kin-dom of God” to reflect its inclusive, non-patriarchal, and communal nature. And we mean the same thing when we talk about building beloved community. What does the Samaritan’s story say about the kin-dom?
The religious and legal expert in the story asked Jesus, “What do I need to do to get eternal life?” Let’s be clear – “eternal life” is not something we gain only after we die. Our experience of God from birth to death and beyond is one continuum. The kin-dom of God is completely intertwined with the eternal and all-encompassing cosmic life of God.
So, the call and the task God has given us is to figure out how to live into this kin-dom. The kin-dom of God is not some ethereal and far-off realm that exists only in God’s ultimate vision creation. It is not an experience beyond our grasp in the so-called “real world” of messy, sinful humanity. No – the kin-dom is an existential possibility. The kin-dom is here and now. The kin-dom is the messy, imperfect space in which we strive to live together according to the desires of God and express the love and justice of God. The kin-dom is constituted by people just like us in loving relationship with God and with one another. This is crucial: the kin-dom of God is constituted in loving community with God and one another.
Jesus used the Samaritan as an example of what it means to live in the kin-dom. Love of God and neighbor is its very foundation. When we speak of building a new way, we are talking about love. Jesus was not talking about some easy sentimental love or love as a sweet emotion. He meant love as a lived commitment to take action, even for our enemies. The source for this kind of challenging love can only be the love of God for us and within us. The Samaritan man went out of his way to show extravagant love for his “neighbor.” This is the kin-dom in a nutshell – learning to live in such a way that we are continually practicing extravagant love toward one another and toward all of our neighbors.
Now, the priest and levite also thought they were doing the right thing. I imagine they thought to themselves, “We are holy men, chosen by God to be leaders of our people. We must follow the rules about ritual purity and maintain the status and the social order that have been handed down to us. What would happen to our community if we just stopped following the rules? There would be anarchy – chaos – God would condemn us!” In the midst of their concern about rules, they forgot the one overriding rule: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
Sadly, “following the rules” is too often the fallback position of church authorities. That has certainly been the case in the United Methodist Church regarding the treatment of LGBTQ persons. So often, we hear bishops and others say, “Well, I know it is not right that the church treats LGBTQ people unjustly, but we have to uphold the rules of our denomination.” In spite of what Jesus taught, Christians so often fall into the trap of thinking that the rule is more important than the hurting persons who are in right front of us.
Now, notice that the man set upon by robbers is not identified and the Samaritan man never asks him anything about himself. He doesn’t say, “Are you a Samaritan or a Jew or a gentile?” He does not ask about the man’s race, religion, economic status, sexual orientation, or gender identity. He simply acts – out of love. It did not matter to the Samaritan who this man was – he saw only someone in need.
The Samaritan was able to reach out in love almost instinctively. And, he risk his own life to do it. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was very dangerous. He could not know for sure if the robbers were still around, hiding in wait for another victim. He did not know if the naked man by laying by the side of the road was himself dangerous. The Samaritan man’s actions tell me that this was not the first time he had acted this way. It occurred to me for the first time this week that he carried a first aid kit for this scenario: oil, wine, cloth for bandaging wounds. I imagine that he had, over time, made it a practice of helping people who were hurt, ill, in trouble, suffering poverty, vulnerable, outcast, or lonely. It had become a habit of his heart to reach out in love. It had become such a part of his character that, now, it came naturally.
What made it possible for the Samaritan to give of himself so freely? And how can we develop that same freedom to love? Maybe he had good parents or teachers. He must have had a consciousness and openness to the divine Spirit working in him and speaking to his mind and heart. The Spirit helps to enlarge our hearts and guide us to those who are in need. Surely, he was part of a community that embraced this sort of neighbor love. And, as I said, the Samaritan man must surely have practiced – not only in his attitude and his words, but in his actions. It takes practice and a supportive, loving community to develop the aspects of our character that allow us to become kin-dom people – giving ourselves for others, empathizing with the suffering of others, caring as much about others needs as our own.
I want to be like the Samaritan man, but I admit that I still struggle with being a kin-dom person. I still need practice. I am sure that everyone of us has acted at times like the Samaritan man. I suspect that each of us has also, at time, acted like the priest and the Levite. Living in or around New York City, don’t we all pass by folks every day who are in need? I see someone laying on the sidewalk, and I walk on by – not every time, but often enough. I fail to give to everyone who begs from me, as Jesus taught. Sometimes, I don’t believe the person is truly in need. My desire is to live by this motto, “Help them all and let God sort them out.” Yet, I falter when I try to climb to such heights of self-giving love. Still, I this is the height I believe God wants us to strive for.
It feels like we have this battle inside of us and in our life together between our impulse to love and the feelings of fear, prejudice, inadequacy, scarcity, and greed. We constantly see and embody in ourselves examples of both great selflessness and selfishness. This is why it is so important to participate in a community like ours in which we can practice together living according to the values of the kin-dom – especially the instruction to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Here, we can open ourselves to let God shape our hearts, minds, and spirits. We can learn how to make the impulse to love manifest in our lives and resist the forces – both temporal and spiritual – which keep us from loving God and our neighbors. The body of Christ is our school for love.
The kin-dom of God is founded on love and love dares, love risks, love breaks the rules. God calls us to be daring risk takers and rule breakers for the sake of love. Accept Jesus’ challenge to love extravagantly. Take risks for love. If any rule or principle or norm of behavior keeps you from caring for someone in need, then break the rule! Jesus did exactly that. He was continually risking himself and breaking rules in the name of love. That’s why he got into so much trouble. Ultimately, that is why he was executed by the state. Jesus gave himself willingly – even his very life – for the kin-dom of love. For God so loved and loves the world….
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffry L. Wells
All rights reserved.