Mourning Doves and Neighbors — July 10, 2016

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NicholasA Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 10, 2016

Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Luke 10:25-37

One of the simple pleasures I enjoy is watching the variety of birds that visit the feeders in my front yard. I especially love the vividness of the goldfinches and cardinals and I realize that like us humans all birds can’t be gorgeous and that there is great diversity among them. This week a rather unique one appeared- a white mourning dove with just a slight smattering of tan spots.

Googling this description, I learned that it is a less than common type that is kind of an outcast among the typical deep brown doves. In fact, it has difficulty finding a mate because its lack of color is unappealing to the rank and file. It’s quite true. It’s a loner, pretty much ignored by the others. He’s been spending a good amount of time in the yard, often in a corner by himself. To the rest of the bird community, he’s almost invisible. I think it’s clear that it is an outcast—simply because of the color of his feathers.

Columbine. Ferguson. Charleston. San Bernardino, Orlando. Baton Rouge. St. Paul. Dallas. When will it end? I have no answers for you. What has become clear to me is that our culture is saturated with fear, anger, and rampant discrimination and that violence has become the product of that lethal combination.

It was so in the time of Jesus which is why he told the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s a parable that has been allegorized, analyzed, moralized, dramatized, and puppetized. The shock is that Jesus would introduce a Samaritan as the role model—as the “good guy” who does what the priest and Levite should have done.

Considered half-breeds by homeland Jews, Samaritans were the most despised of all peoples. If we want to hear this message the way the lawyer did and the way the crowds in Judea did we might change the identity of the Samaritan to one that reflects prejudices with which we are all too familiar. Think about who would be the last person the world’s conventional opinion suggests might stop and help us if we were lying in a ditch bleeding to death.

I’m sure we can all connect the dots here and get the connection between the story of the Good Samaritan and the events we’ve watched unfold over the past month. This story is the foundation for the well known maxim “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” In the dialogue between Jesus and the lawyer, Jesus does not answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” but rather the question “Whose neighbor are you?” The answer is “Everyone” because Jesus does not limit the commandment of love—as the lawyer probably wanted him to—to those tied to him by blood or communal association.

Clearly, the theology of “Do unto others” has eroded in what some of our religious and political leaders tell us is a “Christian nation.” In the wake of this week’s events, I know that “Jesus weeps.” As do the parents and siblings and friends of those who have been killed. It would be no wonder if Jesus did not want to take back his religion.

That little unusual dove in my yard prompts me to offer another slant on the Gospel of the Good Samaritan. Note that the victim has no name. We know nothing about him except that he was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves who beat him and left him half dead.

Perhaps this anonymous character in the story is the embodiment of anyone who has been beaten down by oppression, discrimination, exclusion, and violence. Maybe this unnamed person is representative of anyone who at anytime has been kicked to the curb, marginalized, ignored in their pain, treated as though they were invisible.
Maybe some of you can relate to that. Maybe some of you have felt as abandoned as the man left to die on the road to Jericho—as abandoned as the parents, significant others, children and friends of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and those five Dallas police officers.

There is deep meaning to this Gospel if we imagine it as a metaphor. The extravagance with which Jesus describes the way the Samaritan cared for the man left to die is an invitation for all of us to be healed and caressed and comforted by the extravagant love of God—especially in times like these. The victim has no name because he is all of us. Who among us has not felt like we were left by the roadside at some point in our lives? The Samaritan is Jesus whom the religious authorities of his own time rejected and ridiculed.

The inn is the place of refuge we seek—no matter who we are or on what road we are walking. It is the place where broken sojourners may rest and be refreshed; where those of us who have been beaten up by the world or robbed of our peace and security, or who sometimes feel more dead than alive can check in and be bathed in the compassion and care of its sanctuary and of the community that lives there with us.

I’d like to believe that this sacred place is the inn for us and those not yet here. We can’t ease the pain of those in Minnesota, Louisiana or Texas. We can come together as a community of hope and prayer, celebrate God’s great gift of diversity and use our voice, our resources and our vote to stand up for our neighbors wherever the evil of systemic and pervasive racism raises its ugly head.

As we try to make sense of what is going on in our nation, as we wonder where will violence strike next and how many will die, as we struggle not to sink into a deep hole of hopelessness because there seems to be no way to stop this madness, all we may have right now is the safety of this place and the strength that its community provides for us.

But it can’t end here. We may not be able to stop it in places where we don’t live and work and go to school, but we can act here to be sure that no neighbor of ours suffers the indignity and atrocity of racism. The business of a faith community is the business of God—to work with religious and civil authorities to establish and maintain a way of life that fosters understanding, dignity and wholeness, a way of life that is life-giving and not death-dealing.

While we recognize and support the faithfulness of the vast majority of our police officers, people of integrity who will give their lives to serve and protect, we need to demand more comprehensive scrutinizing of an applicant’s psychological and developmental fitness for this important work. And as white folk, we need to admit that we have no clue what it is like to walk in the shoes of a person of color nor do we know what it is like to have to give our kids “the Talk” about how to stay alive in the face of potential racist encounters.

We are everyone’s neighbor. Those drab brown mourning doves in my yard don’t know any better than to shun the other because of its color. They lack the free will to decide to ignore or welcome him. Humankind, on the other hand, does. We can do better. We must do better. God expects nothing less of us.

We make a promise here to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace, to respect the dignity of every human being. That’s what the Good Samaritan did. Jesus tells us today: “Go and do likewise.”

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