I’ve been reeling over these last 72 hours or so by the news in my country. I’ve seen two men die—killed by police officers in what appear to be unnecessary uses of deadly force. I’ve watched the aftermath of a sniper attack on police officers that killed five and maimed a handful more. There is far too much tragedy to go around right now.
After serving as a pastor for most of the last decade, I no longer preach regularly, but I wonder in times like this just what I would say if I had to step into a pulpit on Sunday. How would I try to make sense of this? What tiny little corner of the gospel could possibly bring meaning or comfort to the way a congregation might be feeling? How would I keep the peace, and still be faithful to the words and sacrifice of the Prince of Peace?
It’s a wrestling match, this weekly agony of what to say, and it only gets harder when the events and surrounding issues are as painful and contentious as the ones we’re neck-deep in right now.
What would I preach if it was my job to give the sermon this Sunday? Here goes.
So that I didn’t just find my own favorite crisis passage, I turned to the lectionary, a weekly list of passages that are designed to ensure that our congregations hear the whole Bible over time. I looked to see what was listed for this Sunday.
The gospel passage for July 10th is Luke 10:25-37.
That’s right, this Sunday we will read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus tells the story of a man who was beaten by robbers who took everything he had and left him in the street to die. Two religious leaders pass him by with no explanation—they simply cross the street so they don’t have to look at the man as he bleeds to death. Then Jesus introduces the hero of the story, the Samaritan. He bandages the man and takes him to a place where he can be treated for his wounds—all at his own expense.
Now we think of Samaritans as people who are somehow genetically predisposed to be helpful, but that’s not the story Jesus is telling. Samaritans were considered defective Jews—they worshipped in the wrong place and practiced the wrong rituals and generally believed in the wrong way. Think of the kind of person who offends you the most. Muslim? Gay? Republican? Liberal? Now make them the hero of this story, and you begin to see the point Jesus is making, not just here but in multiple places in the Gospels: Nothing—not behavior, not theology, not worship style—nothing matters to Jesus as much as the way you demonstrate love to the weak and helpless and wounded.
So why is that important on this sad Sunday?
I saw a man on my TV held down and shot to death in the street.
I watched a man on my laptop as he bled to death in his car.
I’ve seen the aftermath of police officers killed while guarding a peaceful protest in response to these two deaths.
The question I’m faced with now is this: Am I going to cross the street to avoid these tragedies, or am I going to look for some way to help?
I have the voices of my black brothers and sisters in my ear, desperately and persistently reminding me that these are neither the first nor the last black men who were killed by police while going about their daily business. I hear the stories—though I can never fully enter them and experience them—I hear the stories of what it feels like to be black and know that armed law officers see your teenage sons as criminals first and humans second. I feel the guilt at the idyllic life my own teenaged son has in front of him. He will never be pulled over and searched and humiliated because the color of his skin.
Am I going to cross the street to avoid these interruptions to my own busy life, or am I going to look for some way to help?
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a holy dare—it’s a slap in the face and a challenge from the Savior of the world to get off our collective rear ends and do something. It’s a cautionary tale about walking by when someone is dying in the street—or bleeding to death from a wound he didn’t deserve. No one wants to be the priest or the Levite in this story, crossing the street to keep our shoes clean. I don’t want to walk by, either, not when I claim to love and follow someone who died from a wound he didn’t deserve.
To walk by is to approve, it’s as simple as that. To walk by is to pass on an opportunity to use our status and influence and privilege to make something right that never should have been wrong in the first place.
Psalm 82 is also a part of this Sunday’s lectionary. Brace yourself. This psalm is a direct challenge to complacency, right from the get-go. Listen.
2 “How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
Consider this the benediction to the story of the Good Samaritan. How long will you throw your weight behind the perpetrators of injustice and wickedness? Because make no mistake, walking by is just another way of condoning what’s going on right in front of you.
The call to action—the call to faithful discipleship—the call to each one of us is to defend the weak and fatherless; take up the cause of the poor and oppressed; rescue those who have no power to rescue themselves; and literally to move them out of the path of those who would roll right past them or over them.
The point of Jesus’s story is that if an unclean outcast can be the embodiment of God’s love and compassion, how much more is expected of a safe, comfortable, privileged, redeemed child of God?
If I were preaching this Sunday, that’s what I would say. The real question I’m asking now is this: Would I really do any of this? Would you?