Sunday, February 21, 2021

Phil Kniss: When we can’t choose our neighbors

Lent 1: Who is my neighbor?
Luke 10:25-42

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Did you know Jesus was a sneaky story-teller?

Well, most any story telling is a bit sneaky.
Because we don’t tell stories just to pass the time.
We tell stories to teach and shape and change us,
through the back-door so to speak.

When you want to encourage change—
in a person, in a family, in a community, in a system,
in a whole nation—
stories are a wonderful change agents.
For a simple reason.

Give someone a rational argument
why they should act or respond in a certain way,
and two things usually happen.
They analyze your argument, to judge and decide.
And they stay emotionally unhooked from that decision.
Usually, since the change you want comes with a cost,
the listener has strong incentive
to find a hole in the argument,
so they can continue, unmoved, with status quo.

But if you tell them a story they can inhabit,
a story where they picture themselves as a character,
there’s a better chance they pause, from analyzing it,
and listen with their heart, with emotions engaged.
They may let the story carry them, rather than try to argue with it.
Suddenly, they can imagine themselves in a new future.

It’s true when it comes to how you respond to COVID-19,
or to white supremacy and systemic racism,
or to climate change,
or to reaching across the political aisle,
or to resolving any sort of conflict.
It’s usually not a superior argument that changes people.
It’s walking with people in life, and sharing the same stories.
It’s knowing someone who died of COVID.
It’s having family members who walk a different path.
It’s having a deep friend willing to speak hard truths
and stick with you as a friend.
And it works in matters of faith, as well.
Stories help us grasp what it means to be Christian
in everyday life.
They help us choose to take risks in following Jesus,
help us love and embrace the Bible.

I’m not knocking careful thinking.
We must exercise our minds.
We must think well, think deep, and think true.

But if we want to encourage change,
if we want to motivate someone else, or ourselves,
toward a new way of living,
we need to engage the matter with our whole selves,
mind, emotions, and body.
And the tool of choice is story.

Jesus was a master of this way of shaping people.
Someone would ask him a question
in order to catch him on a fine point of the law.
And instead of answering directly,
Jesus would tell a story.

We think we already know today’s Gospel story.
The phrase “Good Samaritan” is part of our English lexicon.
We assume the story encourages compassion, and it does.
It’s a lesson in not being too holy to help, like the Priest or Levite,
but to stop when we see someone hurting,
no matter who it is or how busy we are.

That makes for a good enough story to tell.
But maybe it’s not the story we need.
Humans are already pretty good at being compassionate—
seeing someone in distress,
and bringing aid and comfort.

That kind of story is a nice story.
But Jesus wasn’t known for telling nice stories.
Jesus was a tricky storyteller.
He told stories to transform people and challenge systems.

And did you notice what Jesus did here?
He was in a discussion with an “expert in the law” (it says)
about loving our neighbors.
And the expert asked,“So . . . who is my neighbor?”
That’s a boundary question.
Religious people want to know where the line is,
where religious obligation ends.
And like most religious groups,
1st-century Jewish leaders had their lines drawn up,
separating the deserving from the undeserving.

So instead of answering the question,
and giving the legal expert a point to argue over,
which is what he wanted,
Jesus told a story.

A poor man was beat up, and lying by the side of the road.
Two other religious leaders (of different groups)
walked by on the other side.
The legal expert could see how this would unfold.
This will be a lesson to love the wounded person as my neighbor,
to show compassion when your neighbor is wounded,
even when you are an important person
with other agenda.

I can hear him rehearsing his response in his head.
“Yes, Jesus, well-spoken.
The law does ask us to aid our wounded neighbors,
even when we need to sacrifice self.”

But the tricky storyteller threw a . . . small curveball,
when a Samaritan fulfilled his religious obligation,
and showed compassion to his wounded neighbor.
Samaritans were despised by Jewish leaders,
especially by experts in the law.
Because Samaritans were outside the line of obligation.
But okay, the legal expert could set that little fact aside.
Point still taken.
We need to love the neighbors we find on the side of the road.

But . . . Jesus had another trick up his sleeve.
He said, “Now that you’ve heard my little story, tell me.
Who do you think was the neighbor?
Who was your neighbor?”

Whoa, what just happened there?
The expert was so busy identifying with the religious leaders
walking down the road,
seeing a beat-up man as the potential neighbor to love.
And suddenly, the expert is the man on the side of the road,
and the travelers are the potential neighbors.
And the question becomes,
which of the travelers, is the neighbor you should love?

Well . . . that’s an awkward moment.
The story just got flipped on him.
And the question hangs in the air, framed in a story,
without a legal point to argue.
The question was simple.
The answer was simple.

“Who is your neighbor?” you asked.
Well . . . Poor Wounded Man . . .
who was your neighbor?
Who in this story should you be loving?

The expert couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”
He just mumbled, “I suppose the one who helped him.”
“Good,” Jesus said.
“You just answered your own question.”
And he walked to the next village.

There is nothing new or revolutionary about
Jesus teaching us to show kindness to neighbors in need.
We have been taught that since the time of Moses.
Kindness and compassion are universal moral goods.

The emotional hook in this story
takes us beyond generic kindness.
It exposes our prejudice.
It reveals the limit of our compassion.
It unmasks the false notion
that we can choose our neighbors.

Most of do choose where we want to live, based on various factors.
We might choose our neighborhoods,
but if we are followers of Jesus
we don’t get to choose our neighbors.

The neighbor is the one God places in our way.
The one we can hardly avoid . . . but wish we could.

Who is the Samaritan neighbor in your life? and in my life?
The one we are somehow attached to or beholden to,
even if we are slow to admit it, name it, embrace it?
Of course, I wouldn’t stand here and tell you who to love,
in so many words.
That wouldn’t be Jesus-like of me.
So I just leave you with this story Jesus told,
and ask you, dear beat-up-person-by-the-side-of-the-road?
Who is your neighbor?
And we can just let the question hang there,
while we move on to the next village,
in our slow and steady journey toward Jerusalem,
in the Gospel of Luke.

With that,
I think it’s appropriate to engage in the ancient church practice
of corporate confession.
There’s a traditional confession in the Book of Common Prayer,
that I have often found meaningful.
And our new hymnal, Voices Together,
includes it, with a few adaptations.
Let’s pray it together.
It’s in your bulletin, and the first part is in unison.

one Let us confess our sin in the presence of God and one another.
all Most merciful God,
we confess that we are captive to sin
     and cannot free ourselves.
We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
     by what we have done
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
     we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
Forgive us, renew us, and lead us,
     so that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways,
     to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
one God, who is rich in mercy,
     loved us even when we were dead in sin,
     and made us alive together with Christ.
By grace we have been saved.
In the name of Jesus Christ,
     our sins are forgiven.
Almighty God
     strengthen us with power
     through the Holy Spirit,
that Christ may live in our hearts
     through faith. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, February 21, 2021

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