I've been doing a lot of supply preaching lately. Here is a sermon I gave at a church in the Western suburbs of Minneapolis.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Louisiana...”
July 15, 2007
Pilgrims United Church of Christ
Maple Grove, MN
I love summer for many reasons, but the reason I love it the most is because of vacations. When I was younger, my family embarked on several trips from my native Michigan to my dad's home state of Louisiana to visit his relatives. Spending time in Central Louisiana was always an adventure to me. I got a chance to have fun with my southern cousins and eat some wonderful Southern cooking.
My dad is now in his late 70s. When he was in a young man in his twenties, he left Alexandria, Louisiana to move to my hometown of Flint, Michigan to make a new start. His sister, Nora, was already living here, so he had family to help him get on his feet. Like many African American men at that time, he took a job in the many auto plants found in Flint. Dad worked at the old Buick plant for nearly 40 years.
Early on, Dad would go back home to see his Mom. What I learned that the trips he took South were quite different from the ones he would take with my mother and I some twenty years later. You see, it was mid-1950s. Dad had grew up in the Jim Crow South were segregation was the law. When Dad would go back South, my Aunt Nora would make a basket of fried chicken for the journey. My Dad's mother would do the same thing on the journey back. You can probably guess why. Fifty years ago, it was not so easy for a young black man like my father to stop at a local restaurant and get food. Dad also couldn't stop a hotel, so that meant sleeping on the side of a road until a cop told him to move along.
Of course, the civil rights movement made such practices illegal. By the time I came around, we stopped at restaurants and hotels in South without a stare. But every time I do, I remember that it was not too long ago, that someone like me wouldn't get in the door.
I love the parables of Jesus and the parable of the Good Samaritan is probably one of the most well known. You all probably know it by heart. Now, people have seen parables as moral tales that tell us how we should live. I tend to think that parables are a peek into what God's kingdom or reign looks like. Yes, we should try to live according to the principles set out in these parables, but what is important is to see how God is acting in the world and to join in.
Like many of you, I have looked at this story again and again. I thought I knew the story until I looked at it again. The young lawyer asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life and Jesus gives him a straightforward answer: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul and stregnth and love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer said he was doing all these things. But for this person, just doing all this was not enough. He was self-righteous and frankly, was looking for a loophole. “Who is my neighbor?” he said.
Who is my neighbor? The lawyer was focused on himself. He wanted to know who he had to be nice to get into heaven. It's almost as if he saw this as some sort of initiation: be nice to so-and-so and you get bonus points to eternal life!
We are a lot like the lawyer in this aspect. When we read this story, we think it means that we should love our neighbors. I'm not saying that we shouldn't, but that is not the point of this story. Jesus tells the story. A man is traveling down the highway and is overcome by theives who leave him for dead. A priest and a Levite see the man on the road, injured and dying, and simply pass him by. The third person, a dreaded Samaritan, sees the injured man, puts bandages on his wounds and takes him to a nearby hotel to recuperate. The crux of this story comes next. Jesus asks, “who was a neighbor to the man?”
That, my sisters and brothers, is the point of this story. It is not who is our neighbor, but are we a neighbor to others? Are we moved with pity to help those around us who are friend or foe?
The America that my father encountered in the 1950s was one that wasn't neighborly. Restaurants and hotels did not extend welcome to my father, simply because he was black. It was when people like Martin Luther King who believed we should be neighborly to those around us, that this inhospitality changed for the better.
If there is a “moral” to this story it is not to love our neighbors, but to be a good neighbor. God in Jesus Christ was a neighbor while on Earth. He met with the lowly, healed the sick and even forgave those who killed him. The God we love and serve is the Ultimate Neighbor, who loves and cares for creation.
How do we become good neighbors? Maybe it means that we befriend and be Christ to a gay man that was never made to feel welcome at the church of his youth. Maybe it means working to bring affordable housing to a community. I think you all get the idea. We are called by Christ to be good neighbors.
I should add, that being a good neighbor doesn't mean that we are loved by the world. The Samaritan might not have been seen in a good light by the man by the side of road when he recovered. Some will not receive our help. And you know what? God understands. God and Jesus came to be a good neighbor and it got him killed. But then we don't do this because we are looking for a reward. We do it because we follow a God who loved the world so much that he became one of us, suffered with us and died for us. This God lives again and is with us as we seek to be good neighbors to those who in our midst.
In 1989, our family went down South yet again. We were making our way through Mississippi and stopped at a rest area. I was a sophomore in college and Dad was pushing 60. As we were about to get into our car and continue of journey to Louisiana, a middle age white man came forward. You could tell this man was down on luck. He said he and his family were from Alabama and were without food. He pleaded for some food. Now, my mother is known for packing our car with lots and lots of food- more than we were ever going to eat. We headed back to our car and gave the man what we could. He was quite thankful and went to his car and his waiting family. I could see from their station wagon, that they seem to be carrying all of their possessions in that vehicle.
I never did ask why my parents why they did what they did, but I gather they did it because they were Christians and took taking care of others seriously.
Looking back I found it somewhat ironic that here was this black family that showed compassion to a white family that needed help, when a few decades prior, white people would not allow my father a place to eat or sleep.
I don't think my parents were better than those people of the Jim Crow era; I just think that they knew that being a Christian was more than talking about your religion, it was about living out that faith.
In the end, what really determines our faith is not how holy we are. They priest and the Levite were holy men, but their faith meant very little when it mattered. What matters is how we live this faith out.
Go and do likewise. Thanks be to God. Amen.