July 17, 2016
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
I bring you greetings and blessings from Westchester Community Church, United Church of Christ.
I bring you greetings and blessings from Chicago, where preachers and professors from Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, Sweden, Brazil, Haiti, Finland, Burma, and South Korea gathered for three weeks of intensive learning. And I thank you for the time and the continuing education. That helped make this possible.
Our readings this morning begin with Amos. He has shown up and announced terrible news for the king and indeed all of Israel. The Lord has spoken to Amos. God has shown him a plumb line, a builder’s tool for straightening a wall. And God has judged that Israel has not done what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord, so they are going into exile.
Amaziah does not like this news. Amaziah is a prophet in the court. Amos is a herdsman, a dresser of sycamore trees, a country boy. Now, to be a prophet, you are supposed to speak what the Lord has told you to speak. But to be a prophet in the court, like Amaziah, you get more rewards if you speak the words the king wants to hear. So Amaziah tells Amos to go make his living as a prophet somewhere else, he is messing with Amaziah’s gig.
Amos responds, I am no prophet. I make my living on the farm. But God has given me this word, and because the king and the court prophets will not hear it, here are the terrible, terrible things that will befall Israel.
There is always a danger in bringing a word from the Lord. And there is an even worse danger in ignoring God.
Our Gospel story begins with the question of a man who knows the Torah. He has studied the law. It says he is there to test Jesus. He is there to tempt Jesus to, to trip him up, to prove he knows better than Jesus what the rules of God are.
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back on him: “What does the Torah tell you?”
And the scholar gives a fairly standard summation of the law:
“You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.”
And it says that the scholar wanted to justify himself. He wanted to prove that he was righteous. So he asks: “Who is my neighbor?” His question is really: “Who deserves to be loved like this and who does not?”
So Jesus tells a parable. Parables are opportunities to see ourselves in a teaching moment. This parable begins with a body on the ground. We already recognize the story. A man is beaten and robbed and left for dead.
And right away we discover that there are two kinds of violence in the story. There is the immediate, physical violence: a body is on the ground, left broken and bleeding by the side of the road. That violence is more obvious.
The second kind of violence is less obvious, but even more dangerous. It is the violence that is done in the parable by a priest of the Lord. He sees this man’s hurting body, and he just keeps walking. It is the violence of the Levite. He also sees this man’s broken body, and walks past. It is the violence in that time of the Israelites hatred of Samaritans. The fact that the hero of the story is a Samaritan is common knowledge to us. But it would have been shocking to the scholar of the law and the others that heard it.
This second kind of violence is the violence that makes a claim counter to the claim of God. The claim of God is that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and is loved by God.
This second kind of violence views some as children of God, made in God’s image and likeness, and others are, well, something other. Other than human. Other than the beloved of God. Other than worthy. Other than deserving of love and respect.
This is the question the scholar of the law, the Torah, is asking: who do I get to treat as NOT my neighbor, Not my brother or sister, NOT a child of God? We can see why Jesus does not answer the question. The question is simply a justification for this second kind of violence. Who do I not need to love?
While we were in Chicago, we heard the same news you did. An African-American man shot by police officers. A body on the ground. We woke the next day and wondered if we had misremembered the city it happened in. Another black man shot by police. Another body on the ground. The following day eleven police officers in Dallas shot, five killed. Bodies on the ground.
The man who shot them hated that Black Lives Matter was non-violent. He hated white police officers even more because of the shootings of black men around the country.
And a room full of preachers, some of whom have been preaching since the 1970s, were silent. Where in all of this is there good news? How do we make sense of violence for ourselves? How do we find any Good News in this news for our churches?
There are voices that continue shouting like Amaziah. They say what people want to hear. “The only thing that stops a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun.” The police at the Black Lives Matter were protest were good people, and were all armed.
“We must arm ourselves in case the government turns tyrannical.” Is this not the justification the shooter in Dallas used?
“But Black Lives Matter is the problem. They are stirring up violence and anti-police rhetoric.” Except in Dallas, the police and Black Lives Matter are and have been on very good terms. They work together. They have a deep mutual respect.
Amaziah tells us the easy half-truths so that we can try and be comfortable. Amos tells us the hard truths, so that we can be faithful.
So what do we?
We do what the church has always done. We look to Jesus.
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Which of these people saw him as more than a body on the ground? Which of these people saw him as a child of God? The two religious types who saw the body on the ground as “other” and walked right on by? Or the stranger, the enemy, the outcast, who stopped and cared for him and made sure he was provided for?
The one who showed mercy. Mercy. A word used for the love of God when Jesus heals someone.
Mercy. The ability to see one another as children of the same God, regardless of race or station or status or language or culture.
Mercy. A love that shelters and protects us, and those we love, and those like us, and those unlike us, and even the “other.”
And Jesus said to him, Jesus says to us, “Go and do likewise.”
For the love of God, shown to us in Jesus, is big enough for scared white folks AND scared black folks. The love of God is big enough for Black Lives Matter AND police departments. It is big enough that we can lay our fears at the foot of the cross and begin again, and again, and again, to love one another as children of God.
Thanks be to God.