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Beyond Fear and Suspicion

Proper 10C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


A member of Immanuel told me when he went out to pick up the paper one morning early this week, he could read the headline through the blue plastic wrapper. Another weekend. More people killed in Chicago. He couldn’t bring himself to open it. That was before Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile was shot in St. Paul, sparking new protests across the country –that was before five police officers, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens were killed and seven others wounded in Dallas.

Another week. More tragic gun violence. We reach a point that we become bewildered. Are hearts are heavy with lament.   What’s happening to our country?

When did it become ordinary to watch people die? On Facebook, Twitter, and cable tv, viral videos of carnage have become the wallpaper of daily life. Cell phone cameras and social media show many of us things we didn’t know, or perhaps what we didn’t want to know.

In response, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton read from the gospel of Luke. Jesus came to Nazareth, stood in the synagogue and read: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  (Luke 4:16-19)

The all too frequent occurrence of the deadly shooting of African American men by police, she thinks, is because we can’t see. “We can’t see each other as fully children of God and we tend to look at each other through the lens of suspicion and fear.” Today, we could point to the same kind of blindness in Dallas, in Orlando, in Brussels, in Dhaka, in Baghdad, in Medina –the list goes on and on.

In our gospel today Jesus offers a radical solution to the problem of radicalism and to blindness rooted in suspicion and fear. No. Our parable is not about being a do-gooder. Jesus has shown us how to open our eyes, our hearts, our hands and minds so wide we begin to may recognize our true neighbor even when they stand among our religious enemies. Substitute the name ‘ISIS’ or ‘Taliban’ for ‘Samaritan’ and you begin to understand why Jesus’ loveable parable made the temple leaders blood boil.

Jesus shows us that all people are our neighbors; everyone is a child of God. The basic meaning of neighbor in Hebrew, Greek, and English is “to be near.” (Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks) The Priest and the priest-helper proved not to be true neighbors because they widened the distance between themselves and the injured man lying in the ditch. They looked but did not see. They saw but were blind. They would not come near the man in the ditch. They proved they are not true neighbors, despite their impressive credentials.

Were the priest and Levite in a hurry? Were they afraid of being robbed and beaten themselves? Might they have regarded themselves as superior and therefore aloof from the responsibility of helping this lowly stranger? All of these seem likely explanations for their un-neighborly behavior.

Jesus taught the disciples to learn from their religious enemy, the so-called good Samaritan, to look beyond the attributes of race, religion or nationality and see the men in lying in the ditches of society as their fellow human being.

In our country today, we are getting close to seeing something about ourselves we rarely acknowledge but is always there—the racism which keeps us both from seeing our neighbor and from being good neighbors. This week, in response to the shootings of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota President Obama asked, “What if this happened to a member of your family?”

We are getting close to something very important here. As a country we have begun to expose the deep vein of racism that runs throughout our history, within our society, in our churches, and in all of us. Racism is one of the devil’s most effective snares. It is pernicious, malignant, insidious, and ubiquitous. It is only to be expected that when it begins to be exposed, the furniture will start to shake and our inner demons will be awakened.

Slavery flourished in America for 250 years until January 1, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared its end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Just two years later, by 1865, the outlines of Jim Crow laws fall in place that effectively kept blacks in the same position. It took another 100 years for the civil rights movement in the 1950’s to begin dismantling this system until 1965 President Lyndon Johnson Voting Rights Act. Just six years later, in 1971, president Nixon began the war on drugs that carried through Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years that again lead to the mass incarceration of blacks and people of color; stripping of civil rights, lack of opportunity, poverty, and the now infamous school-to-prison pipeline.

The Police are not inherently more racist than any of the rest of us. They’re just the ones with the guns who must make split second decisions about life and death consequences. It is not disloyal to expect more police transparency and accountability. But neither is it fair to expect our men and women in blue to be better than we are willing to be. We all share the lens of fear and distrust that blinds us to seeing our neighbors. We must all commit ourselves to doing the work of exposing the evil systematic racism and cleansing ourselves from the sin of racism by the grace of God.

(By my count as an amateur historian) there have been only eight years in the entire history of our country and the prior colonies when an organized system of racism was not in place. It is unraveling again. We are at a watershed moment. We have a rare opportunity in our generation to take a step forward to form a more perfect union, to let there be more peace on earth, to strengthen human dignity shared by all people, to become good neighbors, to follow the way of Jesus’ cross, to turn our bewilderment into joy and our lament into praise. Do not be afraid. Set aside the lens of fear and suspicion. Set aside racism and love your neighbor as yourself.

If you want to know God, then love your neighbor. If you want to know your neighbor, then love God. Loving God and neighbor are not separate items on some pious to-do list. They are two sides of the same coin. They form a single pathway into the abundant life God intends for us all. Devotion to God and service of neighbor form the double-helix of the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. They are the skeletal structure upon which the whole chapter hangs and the key to unlocking the pain and bewilderment we face today. Here—here is the doorway that opens to the fullness of grace. It is never far from you, but it is always only as far away as your neighbor.

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