“Who is My Neighbor?” sermon

This weekend, I had the privilege of planning and leading a Saturday Bible study and Sunday worship service focused on immigrants and refugees. Since I seem to be preaching just once or twice a year, I thought I’d share my sermon here for those who are interested. The text for the sermon is the famous story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

If you’d prefer to watch the video version, you can do that here (start at 3:20 to skip the pastor’s video greeting). Or you can read the text version below.

I don’t normally open sermons with a joke, but I’m going to try one this time, so bear with me. Three women were interviewing with NASA for the chance to travel to another planet. The interviewers called in the first candidate, a brunette, and asked her which planet she would like to go to and why. After pondering for a moment, the brunette said she would choose Mars because she wanted to explore the possibility of extraterrestrial life on another planet. When it came time for the next candidate, a redhead, to be interviewed, they asked her the same question: “Which planet would you like to go to and why?” After a short pause, the redhead answered that she would like to travel to Saturn because she’d always been fascinated by its rings and wanted to study their chemical makeup. When her interview was over, the interviewers called in the third and final candidate, a woman with black hair. When they asked the black-haired woman which planet she wanted to go to, she thought for a minute before saying, “The sun!” Stunned, the interviewers replied, “Why would you want to go there? You’d burn to death!” Shaking her head at them, the black-haired woman answered, “No problem. I’d go at night!”

Now, this joke has nothing to do with refugees and—at least as far as I can see—no real lesson to teach us about God. However, it does give us a little taste of what it might have been like to be one of the original listeners hearing Jesus tell the parable of the Good Samaritan from our text this morning. As you were listening to me tell the joke, who did you expect the third candidate to be? Most likely, you assumed that she would be a blonde, since we’re used to hearing jokes about a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. And the original form of the joke was indeed written featuring a blonde. I would imagine it startled you a little bit when you heard that the third woman actually had black hair, since that’s not a typical joke character. When you’re expecting something formulaic, like a blonde joke, and the formula gets changed, you notice. And I think Jesus intentionally used this fact to get his listeners’ attention in our passage for today.

Because that’s how listeners would’ve felt when they heard Jesus telling the story of the Good Samaritan. You see, it was customary in Jewish storytelling of that time to tell somewhat formulaic stories, in which you would have 3 characters: a priest, a Levite, and an ordinary Israelite. Priests and Levites were the elite of Jewish society with their high-ranking jobs at the temple, so non-elite ordinary Israelites would naturally express occasional jealousy or resentment towards them through jokes and stories. The endings of these stories would always show the ordinary Israelite in a good light at the expense of the priest and Levite, letting the non-elite listeners feel good about themselves.

As the story of the Good Samaritan begins, it seems to perfectly fit the pattern of these stories. We hear of the plight of an unnamed man who is accosted by robbers along the road. Not only do the robbers steal everything the man has, but they take all of his clothes and beat him nearly to death. When they leave, he is lying naked and injured on the side of the road, with no one there to help him. But then a priest comes along—a religious professional—someone who can tend to this man’s wounds and keep him from bleeding to death. Except that the priest crosses to the other side of the road to avoid going near the injured man. And then another religious professional—a Levite—walks by. Again, our hopes are raised that maybe the man will get help, only to see once again that the passerby chooses to ignore the man’s situation and walk by on the other side of the road. By this point in the story, Israelite listeners would’ve been able to predict how the story would end. After the self-absorbed religious elites walked by without offering aid to this man, an ordinary Israelite would come, see the man in trouble, and choose to help him. Or at least, that’s what they thought would happen.

Instead, though, it is not an ordinary Israelite who saves the day. In fact, it is the least likely person an Israelite could have expected: a Samaritan. It’s hard for us to fully comprehend how much Jews and Samaritans hated each other at that time, since this famous story of the Good Samaritan has prompted countless churches, charities, and hospitals to include “Samaritan” in their name. We think of being a good person as synonymous with being a Good Samaritan. But in Jesus’ time, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Jews and Samaritans were bitter rivals to the point of being enemies. The people known as Samaritans were actually originally Jews themselves—they were the residents of the northern kingdom of Israel when the formerly united monarchy split into separate northern and southern kingdoms. After the split, these two groups grew further apart, with the Jews in the south blaming the northerners for all the bad things that happened to them. Because of this longstanding hostility, it was common for Jews in Jesus’ day to refuse to even speak to Samaritans, let alone touch them. They were seen as dirty at best, or malicious at worst.

And yet, here it is a Samaritan—not a Jew—who comes to the aid of this injured man. It is a foreigner, an outsider, an enemy, who has the compassion to help someone he does not know. While the injured man is unidentified in the story, the fact that he is traveling on the Jericho road makes it highly likely that he is a Jew. Under normal circumstances—that is, had he not been beaten unconscious—this man would probably have avoided all contact with Samaritans. But here he is, in his time of greatest need, and this Samaritan traveler, though aware of their differences, decides to give of his time and his resources anyway to provide the aid the injured man needs.

The fact that the hero in this story is a Samaritan rather than an Israelite is the most conspicuous way in which Jesus subverts expectations in this passage, but it is not the only one. Jesus is famous for his overturning of societal expectations, and this passage is full of examples. In fact, the entire story of the Good Samaritan is itself a reversal. The very beginning of this passage shows Jesus being confronted by a lawyer or legal expert—that is, a man well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. The lawyer wants to test Jesus; he wants to trick Jesus into making some mistake, thereby proving his own superiority. But unfortunately for this lawyer, Jesus cannot be tricked so easily. Jesus parries each of the lawyer’s questions with a question of his own, not allowing the lawyer any chance to “win” the confrontation.

So after Jesus has agreed with the lawyer’s assertion that the core of the Law is to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, the lawyer makes one last attempt to stump Jesus. He asks, “And who is my neighbor?” While the lawyer’s motives to ask it are questionable, this is actually a reasonable question. After all, it’s impossible for us to personally love or help every single person in the world, so we have to draw the line somewhere, right? Are our neighbors just the people in our families? On our street? In our city? In our state? In our country? What about fellow Christians in other countries? Or what about children dying of malnutrition and preventable diseases in other countries? The list could go on forever, and it’s a difficult question to answer. The lawyer knows this, and he is expecting this question to provide the verbal victory he so desperately desires.

But again, the lawyer does not get what he wants. Jesus answers the question of “Who is my neighbor?” using a story. And not only does he answer through a story, but the story actually changes the question. You see, even though the story is named after the unlikely hero, the Good Samaritan, it is not actually a story about the Samaritan at all. It is a story about the victim. The whole story is told from the perspective of the injured man, even though we don’t know his name. In choosing to structure the story this way, Jesus is making a statement about what it means to be a neighbor.

When you ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus is saying that it shouldn’t be about learning which person in need you should help. The better question to ask, as Jesus asks at the end of our story, is “Which of these potential helpers was a neighbor?” In other words, neighbors are people who show mercy. People who help those in need. The real neighbor is the one who offers help, not the one who needs the help. The identity of the person in need is actually completely irrelevant, as we can see in the fact that Jesus gives no identifying details for the injured man in the story. So we should not be asking ourselves which people are deserving of our help; we should be asking ourselves how we can be neighbors to anyone and everyone who is in need of our care.

The beauty in this perspective is twofold. First of all, it tears down the boundaries we human beings like to place around ourselves. It doesn’t allow us to draw a line between “us” and “them” that excludes some people from being included among our neighbors. As we can see in the fact that the person in need and the neighborly caregiver in this story come from opposing groups, human categories do not matter when it comes to neighborly love. Instead, the God whom Jesus shows us is a God of all people, who has compassion on every single person and shows mercy to everyone in need. The God whose love we share with our neighbors is too great, and too overflowing with love, to let imperfect human categories like nationality or ethnicity stand in the way of compassion.

The second reason I see so much beauty in this perspective is this: it encourages us not to distinguish so much between the server and the one being served. If a neighbor is a person who shows mercy, then loving our neighbors means showing mercy to those who themselves also show mercy. Neighbors are not passive recipients of other people’s help. Neighbors are people who care for one another out of their own unique skills and resources. Neighborly love is reciprocal. As we see at the beginning of this passage, love of God and love of neighbor are intertwined. The two core commandments of the Law are to love God and love our neighbors. So our love for our neighbors is a reflection of the love of God. Our very capacity to love and show mercy comes from God, and we should not use our acts of compassion to feel superior. Rather, seeing one another as neighbors helps us to recognize the gifts and mercy that all of us can contribute. Sometimes we’re the ones offering aid, but sometimes we’re the ones in need of aid. Together with our neighbors, we can share in the mercy of God, spreading God’s love to every place in which it is needed.

So on the one hand, Jesus’ reversal of the question from “Who is my neighbor?” to, essentially, “How can I be a neighbor?” reframes the conversation about neighborly love in a way that helps us better realize our own potential as neighbors. But on the other hand, the difficulty is that he never actually answers the lawyer’s question. We still have no concrete answer as to which people in need we should help and which we can pass by. The story of the Good Samaritan teaches us to love our neighbors by showing mercy to anyone in need, no matter who they are. But this leaves us with the tough decision of trying to discern how we should best use our own gifts, talents, and resources to reach out to those in need—since there are far more people in need, and far more kinds of needs in the world, than any one person or even one congregation can address. And that’s okay. He doesn’t say so in the passage, but I believe that Jesus is leaving this command open to some interpretation. That is, love of neighbor will look different for each person. We each have different gifts to offer, and we’re each filled with passions for different types of ministries. Through study, prayer, worship, and Christian community, we can discover ways to direct our gifts and passions toward the most appropriate ministries, seeking to spread mercy and love to those whom each one of us is best suited to reach. Our individual ways of loving our neighbors will differ, but we all share in the fact that God’s love inspires us to be neighbors who show mercy to those in need of help.

And this brings us to the issue of refugees and immigrants. As I’ve already suggested, if you have your eyes open for it, you will find people in need of compassion everywhere you look. But I want to specifically lift up refugees and immigrants today because they are people who are too often overlooked. The fact that many of them arrive speaking little to no English means that native-born Americans like most of us rarely interact with them. Add to that the fact that they have different customs, eat different food, dress and look different, and sometimes live in isolated neighborhoods, and we have entire groups of potential neighbors that we neither know nor really care about.

In our Bible Study yesterday, we explored some of the Bible’s teachings about immigrants and refugees. We learned that some of the most famous Bible characters were themselves immigrants and refugees, including Abraham, Moses, and even Jesus. We learned that God specifically commands the Hebrew people to treat immigrants well, to welcome strangers, and not to oppress foreigners. In Jesus’ famous parable of the sheep and the goats, we saw that welcoming the stranger is listed alongside feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and clothing the naked as a way of reaching out to Jesus himself in the form of the “least of these.” While reaching out to refugees and immigrants is not the only way to love our neighbors, it is clear from the Biblical witness that it is one we must not ignore.

In case you’re wondering, an immigrant is someone who moves to another country to seek a better life. Many of us, including myself, are descended from immigrants who arrived here many years ago. A refugee is like an immigrant, except that refugees are forced to leave their home country due to persecution. While most immigrants can take some time to plan their trip, refugees often have to flee their homes with no advance notice. Immigrants can—at least in theory—return to their country of origin to visit or even move back, but refugees face persecution and likely death if they attempt to return home. Immigrants’ and refugees’ journeys to this country differ, but both groups of people face enormous challenges as they attempt to pay for the journey, learn English, adjust to American society, find housing, and look for work.

The plight of the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan is reminiscent of the plight of a refugee. This man is simply living his life, going about his business as he walks along the road in the middle of the day. All of a sudden, though, the man finds himself targeted by a group of people who attack and rob him. In short minutes, the man has gone from a productive member of society to someone whose life is in danger and who desperately needs help.

Similarly, the people we know of as refugees don’t start out as refugees. They used to be ordinary people, living their lives in countries they loved and considered their home. But then something changed. Oftentimes, it was a civil war that brought about violence and created divisions among people who used to coexist peacefully. Neighbors started to fight neighbors, and identities that didn’t used to matter—like what ethnic group or religion a person belonged to—suddenly were a matter of life and death. Members of certain ethnic groups, religions, or political parties were no longer safe in their own country and had to flee. Wars like this have produced refugees from many different countries including Somalia, Rwanda, and Laos. In other cases, the persecution was less overt but no less significant. I’ve worked with large numbers of Bhutanese Nepali refugees in Chicago and Sioux Falls who were forced out of their home country of Bhutan when the government suddenly refused to recognize their citizenship and civil rights simply because they have Nepali ancestry.

Once they’ve escaped the borders of their home country, refugees often spend years, or decades, in refugee camps in neighboring countries. There, they subsist largely on food rations, living in crowded and dismal conditions, since they’re not allowed to leave the fenced-in camps to find work. In rare circumstances, the crisis that caused them to flee subsides and they may return home. But in many cases, refugees stay in the camps indefinitely or are eventually resettled in a new country altogether, like the United States.

While resettlement in the U.S. offers work and education opportunities far beyond those of refugee camps, it is still a grueling process. Refugees undergo a long and intense series of interviews, must take out loans to pay for their plane tickets to America, and find themselves placed in a country whose language, customs, infrastructure, and climate are infinitely different from anything they’ve experienced before. They may not be physically injured like the man in our passage, but the task of adjusting to this new country is too great for them to accomplish without the support of others.

As Christians, we are called to be neighbors to those around us, and that includes refugees and immigrants. We, as native-born Americans, are perfectly equipped to be a resource for people like these refugees who arrive in our country—and here in Mankato—needing support. We’re already experts in the English language and in American culture and society. We understand how to shop for groceries, how to navigate Mankato’s streets, and how the public school system works. As simple as these skills may sound at first, they are all completely new to most refugees. How will they learn these skills if no one bothers to teach them? There are already numerous organizations here in Mankato and around the country offering a variety of supports to refugees, from help with housing and basic food needs, to English classes, to guidance in the job search process. The major refugee-oriented organization here in Mankato is the Minnesota Council of Churches. One of their staff will be presenting to us this morning after our potluck. I hope you will stay for her presentation and think about ways that you might want to get connected to that organization. There are also pamphlets outside the sanctuary detailing several other ways you can reach out to the immigrants and refugees in the Mankato area, from becoming an English tutor to donating sewing supplies.

The refugees and immigrants in our communities represent the stranger Jesus calls us to welcome. They represent the injured man on the road, whom many elite people have passed by without a second glance. Whether it’s in a small act of giving a donation or a larger commitment like becoming a tutor or mentor of a refugee, we can all do our own small part in extending Christ-like hospitality to those around us whom society often excludes.

In all of this, though, let’s not forget why we care in the first place. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors—to show mercy to those in need—irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, or any other category we might use to divide people. The fact is that we are all children of God, created in many colors, with many languages, and with a beautiful diversity of cultures. When we decide to act in love as neighbors to immigrants and refugees, we are not only following in the footsteps of the Good Samaritan. We are also opening ourselves up to the mutual relationships that come from becoming true neighbors with the people around us. We can use our gifts and resources to provide much-needed aid to our newly arrived neighbors, but in the process we help to build new relationships that bless us as well.

In my year of working in an adult ESL classroom with refugees and immigrants, my refugee students inspired me daily with their work ethic, their deep love of family, and their joyful generosity to one another and to myself. It is my hope and prayer that the Hilltop family can grow to include our brothers and sisters of other nationalities and backgrounds. We are all God’s children, diverse yet all beloved. If we can reach out in love, acceptance, and friendship to those who are different from us, I firmly believe that we will experience joys and wonders—as well as struggles—that will help us to grow as people, as neighbors, and as followers of Christ. May we be moved by God’s love in our hearts to see Christ’s face in our neighbors, and to live out his call to show mercy to all those in need.

Amen.

 

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About carissalick

United Methodist deacon, ESL teacher, wife, learner, mom
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