As Jesus teaches, in this week’s gospel passage, a member of the group trained in the laws of faith stands up – to test Jesus, the scripture says.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks.
Jesus, good teacher that he is, returns the question: “What does the law say?” he asks, “What do you read there?”
The student, a good student himself, has been paying attention. He doesn’t offer all 613 mitzvot found in Hebrew scripture. He doesn’t list the 10 commandments. He answers with the same answer Jesus himself gave earlier when people tried to test him before, the summary of the law: “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 you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Yeah,” Jesus says. “So go do that.”
“But….technically speaking,” the man asks, “…who is my neighbor?”
It’s a question we might be asking right now with each report of the news.
Jesus responds to the man by telling a story. It’s the same story told in our stained glass window at the back of the church: a man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho, when robbers stripped him and beat him and left him for dead. A priest walked by, crossed to the other side of the road, and passed the man without helping – or even, it seems – acknowledging him. A church leader – a Levite – walked by just as the priest had, also passed the man without helping. Then a Samaritan – an outsider, a stranger – came near, saw the man, and was moved to help him. And that Samaritan didn’t just stem the bleeding, but bandaged the man’s wounds and took him to a place where, at the Samaritan’s own expense, he made sure that the injured man would have everything he needed to recover completely.
“Who was the neighbor here?” Jesus asks the one who would test him.
“The one who showed mercy,” the man replies
“Go, and do likewise,” Jesus tells him.
One of the ministries of this parish is of people who go, and do likewise, on a regular basis. Good Samaritans at St. Augustine’s take two-week rotations in which they care for people in practical and meaningful ways – coordinating meals when somebody is sick, or rides to and from the doctor when someone can’t drive. It’s matter-of-fact, and real, and loving, and kind.
Good Samaritans came around a member of this parish after she had had a stroke some months ago. They served as her neighbors: they made sure her family had dinner each night, they helped her children get home safely from school, one member even walked her dog. When we spent time together earlier this week, and she gave me permission to share this piece of her story, this member said, “I knew they had my back. I knew this church cared for me and for my children. I knew you had my back.”
Good Samaritans came around my own family when we came home from my brother-in-law’s funeral in December. I can still see Margaret Duval standing in Puhlman Hall as I was getting ready to leave for the trip, and saying to me, “Okay, I’m bringing you dinner when you get back. Would it be best on Sunday or on Monday?” And when I tried to defer, when I tried to say – oh, we’d be fine, Margaret said again, “Okay, I’m bringing you dinner when you get back. Would it be best on Sunday or on Monday?” What I can tell you is, practically speaking, John and I didn’t have to go to the grocery store that week, and our family was fed. What I can tell you is that those practical acts of kindness showed our family that we were loved, in ways that we will not forget.
A little over a year ago, Samaritans gathered at the rectory with other ministers of care to talk about why they do what they do. What I heard again and again from those who serve in this ministry was that they had received care from other Good Samaritans at St. A’s. Someone had stepped in and been a neighbor to them at a time when they needed it. Someone came near, and saw, and offered what they had to give. And so our Good Samaritans, having received, chose to go and do likewise. I can tell you that’s why John White serves in that ministry.
That effort builds a fabric, it seems to me, a community of people knit together through these practical acts of kindness. There’s a sort of vulnerability in extending help, and a sort of vulnerability in acknowledging that we could use some help, something that changes us, establishes a trust that maybe wasn’t there before.
It’s a trust we need.
And I don’t know what to do about all that we have seen in the news this week, and in recent weeks, and months. I don’t know what the answer is to the present breaking of our communities – to this world as it is, so clearly not what God intends it to be.
I don’t know what to do about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being shot and killed by police officers in what could otherwise have been peaceful and non-lethal exchanges. And I don’t know what to do about police officers being targeted and shot and killed at what would have been and should have been a peaceful gathering of citizens.
What I can tell you is that, in my own life, my neighbor is one of our closest friends, the father of our godson, a white man who serves as a state police officer in Oregon. What I can tell you is that my neighbor is a priest, my friend and colleague, a black woman with a six-year-old son whom she reminds anxiously and often to keep his hood off his head. He’s six years old.
Fear is all around. And the more we allow it to take hold, the more isolated we become, the more we cross over to the other side of the road, the more we avoid eye contact, the more we consciously or unconsciously forget to show mercy, the more we define those we are not responsible to be neighbors to, the more we vilify, the more that fear is all around.
Those practical ways we have to show mercy and kindness feel small in the face of this beautiful and terrified world right now. And we need them. We need you. We need each other – to come near and to see one another and to show that we care. We need everybody to practice those small kindnesses that together will help us repair a fabric that has been so badly torn.
We need neighbors. So go, and do likewise.