Sermon: Come Near, Neighbor.

Again, God weeps, and says “this is not what it means to be a neighbor.”

I have to admit it: I’m feeling particularly fragile this morning. On Wednesday night, my wife Rachel and I heard about the shooting of Philando Castile only two miles from our home, and decided to stand with the grieving community that was beginning to gather there. I’ve been thinking about this morning’s text for a couple weeks, and have now been confronted by the importance of this story, told by Jesus to a person perhaps very much like many of us—a religious “expert” trying to be righteous without really having to do anything righteously.

And so I think it’s worth saying that I firmly believe that this text is not about how to be like the Good Samaritan. This text is, however, a command from Christ himself to reconsider who our neighbors are, and what it means to be a neighbor.

Because over the past few days (and weeks, months, and years), this question of who my neighbor is continues to shred through me. As I’ve read online opinions from around the world, and heard the anger, and seen the tears of protesters, and have tried to fathom the grief and pain of the police officers involved likely feel, I feel compelled to share in this sermon a piece of my testimony from Wednesday night, because again, God weeps, and says “this is not what it means to be a neighbor.”

Ian and Rachel Philando
Photo by Tony Webster, posted to Facebook. Rachel and I on Wednesday night at Larpenteur Avenue and Fry Street in Falcon Heights.
A live video stream from a car down the block broke into my Facebook timeline and into my consciousness on Wednesday night from the comfort of my home. A bloodied, moaning Black man named Philando Castile slumped down in the seat next to his strong (but frightened) girlfriend—a black woman named Diamond Reynolds. The smoking gun from a panicked police officer remained focused on a Black body, bleeding out.

“I need a ride, I’m at Larpenteur and Fry. I don’t know if he’s okay, or if he’s… not okay,” she said into the phone, gripped in cuffed hands. Within an hour, hundreds had gathered across the street from the murder scene to watch the investigation unfold. Many stood silently. Many cried out in grief and desperation. A fire truck blasted the street with water, clearing any remnant of the crime not collected by the investigation team. Like Abel’s blood cried out as it bubbled into the earth, we wept as strangers placed candles and flowers on the wet pavement where another Black person was killed unjustly.

Again, God weeps, and says “this is NOT what it means to be a neighbor.”

Just then an expert of religious law stood up to test Jesus.“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

I wanted to pray, to sing… to do or say something through my anger and tears. Perhaps it was for their own self-preservation, but when I saw groups of officers smiling and snickering from the street, I had to wonder: do they believe that God is interested in the well-being and salvation of Philando Castile? About both his soul AND his body? If so, would he be dead?

What about Anton Sterling?

What about Jamar Clark?

What about Sandra Bland?

What about Tamir Rice?

What about Michael Brown?

What about Freddie Gray?

What about Emmett Till?

Castile

If, as a society, we believed– truly believed— that God is interested in their salvation, would they still be dead?

If so, why is it that we keep hearing about their supposed criminal histories; hearing absurd justifications about all the reasons they deserved to die?

If we really believe that God created them and loved them, why do we keep pointing our fingers from afar, criticizing protesters, their tactics, their timing, as if being personally inconvenienced by traffic last night on I-94, or offended by their tone is worse than a fellow human being being killed simply for being Black in the wrong place at the wrong time? Would we remain complicit in perpetuating this particular brand of racism and outright white supremacy?

If we really believe that God created all of us and loves all of us equally, would we continue to believe that to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter” is to say that other lives don’t matter, or to be anti-Police?

I don’t think so. We’ve got to think a little bit more critically than that. We’ve got to elevate our thinking a little bit. We must be changed people when this kind of tragedy strikes.

Again, God weeps, and says “this is NOT what it means to be a neighbor.”

a-man-fell-among-thieves
Why did Jesus never explain this man’s criminal history, as if it mattered? 

But wanting to feel better about his own salvation, despite how he acts toward or thinks about others, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a high priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two months-worth of rent, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

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.”

Go and do likewise. Show mercy to those beaten and robbed of life at the side of the road. Be brave enough to do or say whatever it takes to be a neighbor.

So, who is our neighbor? Are we content with defining the word “neighbor” as the people who live on our streets? Or are we merely considering the abstract idea of other people as our neighbors?

The root for the word “neighbor” actually comes from the Greek verb “to come near.” A neighbor is the person who comes near. To be a neighbor is to come near to another person in the dark, messy, concrete lived realities of their lives.

What does it mean for us as Christians to be neighbors—to come near—to people experiencing such darkness and tragedy? What does it mean for us to walk on the road to Jericho and not pass by the person beaten and bloodied, merely offering our “thoughts and prayers”? What does it mean for us to just… shut up and show up?

Show up
This week seems as good a time as ever to try this thing on for the first time…
What does it mean for us to come near to Anton Sterling’s family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana after he was killed on Tuesday?

What does it mean for us to come near to Philando’s girlfriend, mother, daughter, and coworkers and students from JJ Hill Montessori in St. Paul after he was killed on Wednesday?

What does it mean for us to come near to the families, friends, and coworkers of the five slain police officers and the protesters who redirected their attention to protecting each other in that terrifying moment in Dallas on Thursday?

Dr. Karoline Lewis from Luther Seminary wrote this week that

“Your neighbor is not just the person living next door—in a house you never have to enter, into which you might never be invited, to whom you never have to speak. Your neighbor is not one who happens to be convenient for you to help. Your neighbors are not those whom you can keep in their place. Your neighbor is not the one who meets the qualifications of your company.

Your neighbor is someone who, without a doubt, is experiencing pain, struggles, challenges, and sorrow, and yet to whom you draw near. Your neighbor is someone who clearly has needs and you decide—I will help you. Your neighbor is someone who might even resist your assistance but you insist on it anyway.”

This should not be such a stretch for us as Christians—as disciples of Jesus Christ. After all, God made the decision to become human and walk among us. This decision is just such an act—a commitment to coming near, a desire to close the distance between us.

Jesus Painting

Maybe for us, this commitment looks like delivering a “thank you” card and home-baked treats to your local police force before delivering bottles of water to grieving protesters in St. Paul.

Maybe this commitment looks like acknowledging the righteous, holy anger of people with their backs against the wall—the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited—rather than reinforcing the walls between groups of human beings by maintaining physical and emotional distance and resorting to blind criticism and name-calling.

Frankly, I don’t know what this commitment to being a neighbor looks like for this congregation specifically, or for each of you individually…

But I do know that Jesus insists that we do make this commitment. And I know that when we come near our neighbors, the Kingdom of God inches closer to us, if only for a brief moment. And in each of those moments, we can hear a voice call out from the wilderness:

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord. The Kingdom of God has come near.”

“Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous hand.”

In each of these moments, we can hear the very voice of God saying,

THIS, my beloved children, is what it means to be a neighbor.

Vigil Luther
Dr. Albert Starr preaches at the Luther Seminary/Augsburg College/Lutheran Social Services/Minneapolis and St. Paul Area Synods vigil at the site of Philando’s murder.
Come near to us, Holy Spirit. Come near to us, God our Creator. Be near us, Lord Jesus. Give us wisdom to reconsider who our neighbors really are, and give us courage to be better neighbors. Amen.

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3 thoughts on “Sermon: Come Near, Neighbor.

  1. Reblogged this on With Good Courage and commented:
    A sermon from my friend Ian McConnell, reflecting on what it means to be and to see a neighbor. Much needed thoughts during these difficult, grief-filled, angry, helpless feeling days.

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