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Our Neighbors at Our Southern Border

In my previous congregation in Ohio an Orthodox Jewish congregation built a synagogue across the street from our church. I took a friend over to meet the Rabbi. As they conversed my friend, looking for some common ground, said, “My wife is Jewish.” The Rabbi said coldly, “No she’s not.” There was a big uncomfortable pause in the conversation. My friend said, “What do you mean my wife is not Jewish.” The Rabbi said, even more coldly, “She’s Reformed, not Orthodox.” In the same town I would have periodic lunches with the pastor of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. I always had to say the prayer at lunch because the rules prevented him from praying with anyone who wasn’t Missouri Lutheran.

Now, why would I open a sermon with those sad stories? Here’s why. The focus of our attention today is the familiar story of The Good Samaritan. In answer to a lawyer’s question about what constitutes a “neighbor,” Jesus tells the story about the man who was beaten and left by the side of the road. A priest walked by without helping. So did a Levite. The only one to stop to help was a Samaritan.

So, the Samaritan (the man from Samaria) was the good guy of Jesus’ story. This would have been shocking to the practitioner of Jewish law who asked about the definition of “neighbor.” Samaritans were despised by Jews. But here’s the thing. Samaritans were, themselves, Jewish. They read the same books, followed the same laws, and practiced the same rituals. But Samaritan Jews held Mt. Gerazim sacred and felt that God resided there. The Judean Jews held Mt. Zion in Jerusalem Sacred and felt that God resided there. So, just as the Rabbi in Ohio would not consider a Reformed Jew a Jew, this lawyer would not have considered the Samaritan a Jew and it would have been offensive to him to have this person be the good guy in Jesus’ story. This man would be considered to be ritually unclean. Contact with a Samaritan would be considered contamination cured only a special blessing by a priest. Hey, we contribute to this. We name this, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” which implies that the other Samaritans aren’t good.

Many times we miss this point about “neighbor” when we read the parable of the Good Samaritan. We assume the neighbor is the man in the gutter who was beaten by the robbers. I’ve preached it this way many times. The lawyer wants to know what he needs to do to inherit eternal life and Jesus quotes to him the Shema: 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 (love your) neighbor as yourself.” (Best known Jewish quote.) The lawyer wants to know who is to be considered “neighbor.” So the parable is told.

When we identify the neighbor as the man in the gutter, the takeaways are that we, too, should see people in need as our neighbors. We, too, should practice compassion – compassion defined as “sympathy in action.” We, too, should not be spectators, but we should be responders to those in need. We need to do something to help. If you’re not part of the solution, your part of the problem. There. You’ve just heard the cliff notes of my standard sermon on this text!

But the injured man is not necessarily the “neighbor” the way Jesus told this parable and the way Luke recorded it. After telling the parable to the lawyer Jesus asks him, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” The Samaritan. Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.”

There are many levels to this parable but I think it is important for us to reconsider people whom we have labeled unclean. I opened with the account of the Lutheran pastor in Ohio who couldn’t pray with me because I wasn’t a “pure” Lutheran because I think it illustrates that tribalism hasn’t necessarily gotten any better. We consider our culture, our race, our religion, our branch of our religion (!) to be pure. Those who don’t look like us, who don’t talk the same language we do, are considered somehow, “ritually unclean.”

When a nation defines itself by its culture rather than by its ideals, it is easy to see other cultures as unclean. For instance, if we insist that we are a Christian nation of European descent then it becomes easier to label others as “not us” … to label others as “others.” If we can somehow claim that people who come across our borders are murders, rapists, and members of MS13, then it becomes much easier to excuse putting people in cages. It becomes much easier to excuse putting children in cages and not allowing them soap or toothpaste. It becomes much easier to excuse separating children from their parents.

In what world would we ever do this if there were an influx of Canadians across our northern border? We wouldn’t put them in cages. We wouldn’t separate them from their children. They are white people who came from Europe like we did. We wouldn’t think of it. But we have declared Hispanics ritually unclean and we have been taught – taught – not to see them as neighbor. When we define our nation by our culture it is so easy to exclude. But when we define our nation by our ideals it is easy to include. Ideals like: Freedom and justice for all. Compassion. Decency. Lady Liberty holding out her torch welcoming the “tired, the poor, the huddles masses,” as Emma Lazarus’ poem put it.

I’m sorry, but I hope there is not one pastor throughout the ELCA this morning who is not using this text to say something about the horrendous conditions at our southern border. I’m pointing fingers at both sides of the aisle, but if you want to know who gave me permission to say something about social issues in my sermon this morning – you did. Christ the Servant Lutheran Church. As a matter of fact, you have commanded me to talk about social issues in my sermons. In Section C9.03 our congregation constitution states, “Consistent with the faith and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America the minister shall speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor, and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.”

Consider, if you would, Storm Lake Iowa. Flyover country. A place you might expect to be all John Deere baseball caps and apple pie. It’s population is about 15,000. It’s unemployment rate is under 2 percent. But all the farm boys have gone elsewhere. They don’t want jobs cutting hogs or laying block or working as orderlies. So, the jobs have been filled by Asians, Africans, and Latinos. The Storm Lake Elementary School is 90 percent children of color. About three-fourths of those are Hispanic – mainly from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. At least 500 more could easily be given work if they came. The local paper figures about a third of the immigrant community might be there without papers. Storm Lakes crime rate last year reached a 27-year low. Some 30 languages are spoken there.

Soon, all across our nation, ICE agents will be raiding towns like Storm Lake. That particular town may be a special focus. The town officials say that if their workforce is deported their meat packing businesses will either go out of business or go elsewhere. The editor of the Storm Lake times says that the only threat these immigrants pose is if they weren’t there. Our country is not “full.” There is room and there is need. They only reason we don’t want the immigrants is that we have been told they are a threat. They are unclean.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asked Jesus. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus said. “And who is my neighbor?” he asked. “It’s the Samaritan,” Jesus said. “The one you think is unclean.” Who are our neighbors? They are from Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador and a host of other places which may not share our culture, may not share our religion, or share our race – but they are people who desperately want to share our ideals of liberty and justice and mercy and compassion for all.

Text: Luke 10:25-37

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