A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on July 15, 2007.
Based on Luke 10:25-37 (Proper 10, Year C).
There’s a bus stop on Pleasantville Road in the heart of Briarcliff that I noticed recently. It’s not new. It’s been there for as long as I’ve been here – so at least five years. But who among us takes the bus? If we want to go anywhere we hop in our cars and drive. It doesn’t matter that gas is $3.25 a gallon because a) For most of us the cost ultimately doesn’t matter that much and b) We’d rather not go somewhere than have to take the bus. God only knows how often they even run.
But I’ve started taking note of the people who wait at the bus stop. Obviously if I’d never before noticed the bus stop I certainly never took note of the people waiting to take public transportation; they were invisible to me. But now I see them. They’re almost all people of color – Latinos, African-Americans; I assume many are immigrants; some are young, some are elderly. They’ve probably come to Briarcliff to do some menial task like scrub our floors or edge our lawns. Perhaps they care for our elderly at the Atria or pump our gas or tend to the greens at Trump National or even baby sit our children. Eventually the bus will stop to take them home; back where they belong, away from here. These people make up the invisible class. The ones whose work we welcome but whose physical presence we do not.
One point of the well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan is that it charges us to simply open our eyes. There are many in society we would rather not see. Their mere presence holds up a mirror to our racism and intolerance and indifference. And we’d rather avert our eyes. Out of sight, out of mind. The Priest and the Levite would prefer that this wounded man on the side of the road didn’t exist. Even though they don’t stop to help, he still makes them think, if fleetingly, about someone beyond themselves. And thinking of others is not something that necessarily comes naturally. Look at the lawyer’s question in this parable. “Wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” The question makes him the center of the universe. By asking “who is my neighbor?” the man assumes everything revolves around him. We’re all guilty of this.
For someone to be “invisible” to us is not a reflection of that person’s worth, but an indication of our own self-centeredness. Our inability to see the woman waiting for the bus or the guy cutting our grass means we are blinded to anything or anyone who doesn’t directly impact us. And this myopia is dangerous because it limits the possibilities of God’s creation. Yet when we have eyes to see the other, it is a first step in addressing the inherent injustice.
The lawyer’s question also does something else. It assumes there is a limit to the number of people we would consider neighbors. And so he seeks a legalistic formula to determine just how far his responsibility to be neighborly extends. God forbid you’d love someone you weren’t obligated to love. Think about it this way: If someone were to ask you to define specifically who your geographical neighbors were, you’d start with the houses next door. They’re obviously your neighbors. But what about the folks next to your immediate neighbors? They live in the same neighborhood so they’re probably in. But how far would you extend the line? By zip code? Township? Walking distance? And if there’s a specific house you’ve determined to be the last one you’d include, well what about their next door neighbors? It all gets a bit fuzzy.
In Jesus’ time Jews reflected a fair amount on the question of neighbors. The word literally means “someone who is near to me.” “Neigh” comes from the word “nigh” – as in when someone draws nigh upon you. Neighbors were normatively defined as those who were “near to me” – family, friends, members of the same religious community. The closer they were, the deeper the obligation. The more remote they were, the lesser the obligation toward them. And you couldn’t get any further removed than a Samaritan, a religious heretic with whom you never had any contact at all for fear of being made ritually impure. There was absolutely no obligation to help a Samaritan. A Samaritan was the ultimate member of the invisible class. And so you see the irony in this story that it was a Samaritan who stopped to help the man on the side of the road.
Being a neighbor is often about just coming “near” others. The Priest and Levite don’t just pass by the man on the side of the road, they pass by him on the “other side” of the road. They don’t even want to get near the poor man. If a neighbor is defined as someone “near to me” the priest and Levite actively move farther away. The Samaritan didn’t become the injured man’s neighbor by ministering to him but simply by coming near him.
Yes, this parable speaks of how to treat our neighbors but first it defines the concept of neighbor. Through it, Jesus expands the entire notion of neighborliness. It isn’t just our friends or our family or those who live nearby. There are no boundaries or limits to being a neighbor. Just as there are no boundaries or limits to God’s love for us. Our neighbors are our fellow children of God and we have an obligation to everyone. We don’t pick and choose who to love. We love all because God loves us all.
This parable isn’t meant to pick on lawyers (though there are certainly plenty to pick on around All Saints’). But it does highlight the absurdity of a legalistic interpretation of loving one’s neighbor. I bid you to reflect upon those who may be invisible to you; think about the neighborliness shown by the Good Samaritan. And, as Jesus said to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007