Monday, July 11, 2016

Sermon: "Neighbors and Fences"

Intro to Luke 10:25-37

In the paragraph just previous to Jesus’ telling of the Good Samaritan parable, we hear of the disciples’ travels to the land of Samaria.
We’re told that the Samaritans rejected Jesus, and the disciples immediate reaction was to want to rain fire down upon them and destroy them.
Quite a strong reaction we might think, until we consider the history that existed between the Samaritans and the Jews.
Historically, Samaritans were the remnants of Israel's northern tribes that remained after Israel fell to Assyria.
These remaining Israelites eventually intermarried with the Assyrians, "diluting" their Jewishness.  Samaritans hence- forth were viewed as a "mixed race," impure in blood and soul. When the Jews returned from exile and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans objected, because they believed God now resided in their territory on the top of Mount Gerizim.
Because there could be only one true place to worship God, and the Jews and the Samaritans disagreed on where that was, the two groups reviled each other and built up numerous cultural walls to keep from interacting with one another.
Hostility between the two groups came to a violent climax in 109 B.C. when the Judean king destroyed the Samaritans' temple.
There’s little wonder that Jesus' messengers were faced with stony rejection at the Samaritan village.
And little wonder that the tale of the Good Samaritan that appears in Luke’s gospel was considered one of the most radical stories of it’s time.
Who is our neighbor?
Our neighbor is the one whom we fear and distrust the most,
and the one we are commanded to love as much as we love ourselves. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
July 10, 2016 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:25-37

“Neighbors and Fences”

The house I grew up in on Long Island was a Levittown style cape, one of the many that sprung up in post-World II suburbia.
Each of the tiny box-like homes was identical and set on a postage stamp sized lot that measured 50 x 100 feet.
There was just enough room between each house for a narrow driveway and a strip of grass. 
For this reason, most of the homes in our neighborhood either had no fence or had only a short wooden fence that was more decorative than functional.
Except for our house.
We had a chain link fence that ran the length of one side of the house,
and a row of tall hedges that ran the length of the other side.

Growing up I assumed that this was my parent’s attempt to keep their ten children contained in one space, especially when we were young and prone to wandering.
It’s only when I was older that I learned that the chain link fence was owned and installed by our neighbor on the left, and the row of hedges was owned and installed by our neighbor on the right. 
Apparently our neighbors were more concerned about keeping us out of their yards then my parents were about keeping us in our own yard.

But I also learned that my father helped install the chain link fence put up by our neighbor on the left, and he dutifully trimmed the hedges put up by our neighbor on the right - never once complaining that the hedges were actually planted on our side of the property line.

Good fences make good neighbors.
So says the well-known proverb made famous by poet Robert Frost.

In Frost’s poem – Mending Wall - he and his neighbor walk the length of the stone fence set between their properties, repairing it as they did every spring. The two men worked together, picking up toppled stones and filling in the gaps caused by the frost heaves of winter and the wanton destruction of passing hunters.

But while Frost goes through the motions of mending the fence with his neighbor, year after year, he does so while shaking his head at the futility of their efforts.  Frost writes:

Here there are no cows.
We do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.

Frost’s neighbor repeats this mantra, and repairs the wall,
year after year, just as his father did before him.
While Frost laments the unnecessary division it places between them.

But even Frost admits that there are times when fences between neighbors make good sense.
When trying to contain livestock – or children – or mark the boundary between planting fields, so you know where your corn ends and your neighbor’s begins.

Truthfully, not all neighbors make it easy to be neighborly –
with or without a fence.
I’m sure many of us could share tales of nightmare neighbors who play their music too loud, let their animals run loose, use their property as a junkyard, or install an outdoor fire pit forcing their down-wind neighbors to stay inside with the windows closed, all spring, summer, and fall.  

When Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, surely he wasn’t talking about these neighbors. 

“Who is my neighbor?”
This question that the lawyer asks of Jesus is one that we human beings have been asking since we drew our first breath as a species in this world.

Whom should I trust? Whom should I fear?
Whom should I share resources with to survive?
Whom should I withhold resources from out of necessity?
Who is worthy of my love and compassion?
Who is deserving of my hatred and suspicion?

This is the question the lawyer asks of Jesus.
If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, surely our neighbor doesn’t include everyone.

“Surely it does,” was Jesus’ response.

To emphasize his point Jesus told his followers a story that had one of their most hated enemies playing the role of the hero.
Nowadays we bestow the title of “Good Samaritan” upon hospitals and those who stop to help strangers in need.
But for Jesus’ Jewish followers the only “good” thing about a Samaritan was that they largely stayed in their own land and knew better than to wander where they did not belong.

Yet in Jesus’ story the Samaritan is the only one who behaves like a true neighbor – he is the only one who shows mercy - to someone who has been robbed and stripped of his clothing and is not easily identifiable as friend or foe.

Here Jesus throws in an added twist - the hated Samaritan is not the only one who qualifies as a neighbor in this story.
The hapless victim who was left to die in the ditch is a neighbor as well.

Now, we may look at this parable and say, “Of course the stranger in the ditch is worthy of our compassion” – but when we look at the story in its historical context our response may not be so black and white.
The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was not a safe place to be, at any time of day, but especially at dusk.  
It was known to harbor roving bands of robbers, rapists, and other questionable characters up to no good.

Knowing this, we may be more forgiving of the Priest and the Levite who crossed over to the other side and hurried on their way.  
Robbers were known to pose as decoys – pretending to be strangers in need - to lure unsuspecting travelers off the beaten path and into harms way.
Who could blame the two Holy Men for playing it safe in such a bad neighborhood?
How many of us would stop to help a stranded motorist after dark in the South Bronx, in South Chicago, or in even in South Boston?

And the man who was robbed and thrown into the ditch?
We may wonder if he is deserving of some blame for his predicament.
Just as we question the innocence of certain victims today.
What was he doing in that neighborhood at that time of day?
He was likely up to no good himself.
The attack could have been gang related, or drug related, and if we dig a little deeper we may find that the “victim” has a rapsheet of criminal offenses that makes him even less deserving of our sympathy, empathy, or compassion.

If our train of thought has ever gone in this direction we too may feel the sting of Jesus’ words.
When we ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus’ answer may not be one we want to hear.

Our neighbor is Alton Stirling and Philando Castile and the countless other men and women of color who have died in police shootings under questionable circumstances.
Our neighbor is Michael Smith, Lorne Aherns, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, Brent Thompson, and the countless other police officers killed in the line of duty while attempting to keep the peace amidst anger and distrust.
Our neighbors are the forty-nine gay, lesbian, and transgendered people murdered at a Hispanic dance club in Orlando by a gunman who claimed his religion made him do it.
Our neighbors are the two hundred and ninety two people, mostly Shiite Muslims, many of them children, who died when terrorists detonated a truck bomb at a market in Baghdad during the holiest week of the Islamic year.  

We may want to remove the labels, to say that these are stories of people killing people out of their own fear, and that we shouldn’t get caught up on the defining characteristics – black, white, gay, straight, Muslim, Christian, Police, civilian – because the reality is that all lives matter and all should be equally mourned.

This is true.
Yet there’s a reason why Jesus told his Jewish followers a story about a Good Samaritan.
Because he knew the label “Samaritan” would provoke them and challenge them to shift their perspective.
Because even though their religion taught them that all lives matter, the truth was that Samaritan lives mattered less to them.
Samaritan’s were just too different – in their culture, their dress, their language, their beliefs – for the average Judean to feel attune to their stories, their experiences, their pain, their capacity for love and mercy.  

We may wonder why God made us this way.
We may wonder why God gathered up the dust and breathed life into us, 
creating us as male and female, gay and straight, able bodied and challenged,
giving us dark skin, and pale skin, and every shade in between,
giving us the capacity to develop different ideologies and religious beliefs, along with the audacity to stubbornly insist that we alone hold the truth.
We may wonder why God created so many differences in us that we can’t help but look out at the world and build fences around us based on gender, race, nationality, religion, wealth, politics, and a hundred other qualifiers that we find to divide us.

But what if the fences are not meant to divide us?
What if the fences are there to help us to come together? 

As human beings we’re natural pattern seekers, and sorting the world into discernible boxes helps us to bring order to what would otherwise appear to be chaos.
It’s helpful for us to know where the boundaries are. 
To understand that our shared human experience doesn’t mean we all have the same experience.
To learn that to be male, black, Christian, or gay, means we experience the world differently than someone who is female, white, Muslim, or straight.
Because of how we were raised, how we’ve been treated by others - and how we perceive ourselves - as someone who has or lacks power, privilege, or opportunity.

The story of the Good Samaritan acknowledges the reality of this world -  that we’re not all the same.
We’re neighbors in the sense that we’re all human,
we’re all equal in the eyes of God,
and we’re all equally deserving of love, compassion, and mercy –
but we’re not all the same. 

And perhaps that’s the point of God’s wondrous creation.
God created us to tell the human story in a hundred million different ways.
And God gave us ears and hearts that are tuned to listen to those stories and learn from them, and to not dismiss or refute the stories of others because they are different from our own.

Robert Frost wrote:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

A good fence allows us to lean over to our neighbor and listen.
It’s not so tall that we shield our neighbor from our view,
And not so impermeable that nothing ever grows between us.

Jesus asked, 
“Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"  
The lawyer replied, "The one who showed him mercy." 

And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."    


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