This past year I’ve been reading a lot of books that I was supposed to read earlier in life. I was a big reader growing up, but of course you can’t read everything. And so, I went back and tried to fill in the gaps. I read Tom Sawyer last fall, and Huckleberry Finn this spring. And then, this week, I finally read a book that I probably should have read in elementary school: “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”
CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are a series of children’s books that reflect his, at the time new-found, Christian faith. Reading this particular book as a Christian adult, it’s hard to miss that he’s retelling the Gospel story. And it’s not giving away too much of the book to tell you that the four children who are the book’s central characters go in search of a lion named Aslan, who acts a whole lot like Christ.
When they are told about Aslan for the first time, one of the children wonders about this lion asking, “but is he safe?” And the answer comes, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
So often we want life to be safe, and too often we equate safety with goodness. And, to be fair, safety is indeed easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s always good, and that doesn’t mean that maintaining our safety is the right choice.
Today’s story from the Gospels reminds us of that. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, are asking him who their neighbors are. And Jesus tells a story, one that we have come to know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.
A man who is traveling is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the road. And as he is lying there dying, a priest comes along. He sees the man, but doesn’t stop. In fact he crosses the road to avoid him. And then a Levite, another religious leader, comes along, and he crosses the road too. And by this point two men who belonged to the same people as the beaten man, two of his religious leaders, had walked right by. Things looked grim.
But then a third man, a Samaritan walks by. Samaritans were considered so lowly that the beaten man normally would not even speak to them. But Scripture tells us that the Samaritan sees the beaten man and he is “moved with pity”. He bandages his wounds, and takes him to an inn, and pays for it with his own money. Then he tells the innkeeper to feed the man and take care of him, promising that he will return and pay for it all.
Jesus finishes the story and he asks, “So, who was this beaten man’s neighbor?” And the reply comes, “The one who showed him mercy. The Samaritan.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”.
Sometimes we ask the wrong question. We ask “who is my neighbor?” But the right answer for a Christian is simple. It’s “everyone”. But Jesus asked a different question here. He asked the religious leaders who was the neighbor of the man who had been beaten and left for dead. And in that instance, it wasn’t “everyone”. It wasn’t the two religious leaders who had left him crumpled on the side of the road. Instead, it was the man who had stopped, and given everything to save him.
Neighbors are as neighbors do. Loving our neighbors requires action, or else we aren’t really neighbors. And sometimes loving our neighbors means being willing to put our own safety and comfort at risk.
Jesus never promised us safety. It would be a mistake to think that. In fact, Jesus told us that we must be willing to risk everything to follow him. Or, to use the story from Narnia, of course Jesus isn’t safe. But he’s good.
I’ve wrestled with staying safe but wanting to do good. I’ve wrestled with saying I want to love my neighbors, and actually doing so. I think we all do sometimes.
And, I confess, that some Sundays I have wrestled between the safe option of preaching an easy and unchallenging word, and the good option of risking something in order to follow Jesus.
This was one of those Sundays.
This past week we kept waking up to bad news, in the midst of a summer of bad news. One morning we woke up and heard about Alton Sterling, a man in Baton Rouge, who was shot multiple times during an arrest. The next day, Philando Castile was shot five times while reaching in his back pocket for his wallet during a police stop.
I could get away with saying nothing about this today. We are hundreds of miles removed from the violence. We are not a congregation where most of us typically wrestle with what it means to be black in this country. And by bringing this up, I may be making some of you uncomfortable.
But the lectionary text today was the Good Samaritan. And the question Jesus poses about the man who is crumpled on the side of the road looking for help is “Which one of these was his neighbor?” And the safe answer is “we are all neighbors”. But the good and right answer is “the one who crossed the road to help him”.
I want to be a good neighbor. And this week I remembered what one of our literal neighbors said a little over a year ago when he stood in this sanctuary talking about race in this country. Rev. Bob Thompson stood here and told us that the only place he had ever been called the “n word” in his life was Exeter, New Hampshire.
And so, I can’t ignore my neighbor when he says that. I can’t pretend this is a sermon that should only be preached in Baton Rouge or Minneapolis this week. I can’t walk on by while someone waits for help.
There’s an old expression: “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t haggle over the cost of your garden hose.” You do what you have to do. You put out the fire.
Take that metaphor further, and there are some other things you don’t do either. First, you don’t deny that your neighbor’s house is burning. Your own house might be safe and comfortable, but if they are running out of theirs, you should believe them when they say they need help.
Second, as an illustration I saw this week showed, you don’t say “well, all houses matter” and then go around spreading water on every house in the neighborhood. True, no one’s house should burn, but if everyone else’s is doing pretty well, and your neighbor’s is on fire, you have to be able to say “this particular house matters” and turn on the hose.
That’s why I say “Black Lives Matter”. Not because they matter more or less than the lives of any others, but because right now too many of our African American neighbors are losing theirs. That was true last summer in Charleston. That was true this week in Atlanta where a black man was found hanging from a tree. People are dying. And if we want to be called neighbors, we have to be willing to cross the road and help those who do not have the option of safety.
I want to say this also. I don’t want anything I say this morning to be construed as anti-law enforcement. I have worked as a first responder myself, I have led trauma debriefings with law enforcement, and I have family members and friends who are police officers. I know that the vast majority of officers are good people, who put their lives on the line daily to save others.
And that’s why the shootings this week in Dallas broke my heart too. Five officers will never go home again. There is absolutely no justification for the slaughter of police officers, no matter how angry someone might be. And the man who did this, he was angry. He hated police officers, and he also hated the very same African American activists that were first blamed for this attack.
The reality was that the officers and the activists who led the march the officers were at had a longstanding, positive relationship. And when the shots were fired, they protected one another. While talking heads on television blamed one group, the reality is they were there on the ground, being neighbors to one another, even as they risked being shot.
And I am so tired of people being shot. I am so tired of people having to be afraid. I am so tired of looking at the Scripture for the week and thinking to myself, “And how do I preach about this text in the aftermath of another shooting? Of more hatred? Of injustice? Of xenophobic rhetoric from our so-called leaders?”
I think you might be too.
And if you are, I would say this: we are called to be good…not safe. Because we follow a Lord who, like Aslan, is good, but not safe. And the only hope I have now is that Jesus alone is Lord, and Jesus alone can guide us to a better way.
We cannot allow our fears or the tools we use to calm them to be our lords anymore. We cannot offer excuses to not cross the road and tend to the broken. We cannot look away, and we cannot choose our own comfort.
I usually try to end my sermon with a comforting word. Something that will give you hope and make you feel good. But today, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you this: the time for being safe has ended. Now is the time to be good. We must each figure out what that means, and then we must each cross the street, and do what we must in order to earn the title of neighbors. Why? Because Jesus told us to.
Jesus. “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” And in the end, maybe that’s the best sign of hope that we could hope to have. Amen?
For thoughts on putting faith into action in urgent times, check out Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0829820299?keywords=glorify%20emily%20heath&pc_redir=T1&qid=1453486699&s=books&sr=1-1