I wrote this in the wake of the events this past week. This is my sermon delivered in Dalton, MA today, July 10. I used the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
The events this past week:
• Alton Sterling was shot early Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge, LA. The viral videos show him being tackled by police and while pinned to the ground a police officer discharged his weapon.
• Philando Castile was shot on Wednesday evening by a police officer after being pulled over for a broken taillight while driving in Falcon Heights, MN. According to his girlfriend, who narrated a riveting video immediately after the shooting, he was shot while getting his wallet as requested by the officer.
• Five police officers were shot dead and seven officers were wounded along with two civilians by a sniper in Dallas, TX who opened fire on Thursday evening during a peaceful demonstration, a demonstration planned and coordinated with the Dallas police and its organizers.
Any one of these is stunningly horrible and should never have happened. Any one of these warrants a sermon. But three?
I’m not going to dwell on the Samaritan today. Rather, my questions are two-fold. Whose bloody body laid on the Jericho road? Who were the robbers who stripped him, beat him, and went away? This crime was a gross violation of this man’s dignity and demonstrated a flagrant contempt of his life.
As I think about this parable and the way we typically treat it, we really don’t care about the victim. Jesus made him a plot prop to contrast the compassion between the Samaritan and the priest and the Levite. We focus on the Samaritan noting that his compassion was unexpected because it belied the prejudiced impression of Samaritans. Some commentators will make observations about the innkeeper. But the victim? We don’t even know if he recovered.
Other than knowing the perpetrators of this awful crime were robbers, we don’t know anything else. We don’t know how many they were. We don’t know their motive. We don’t know their history or their associations. We don’t know if they focused their attacks on people traveling the Jericho road or if they roamed the countryside. We don’t know if they even got something from the victim.
We can give the victim an identity, though. He is Alton Sterling. He is Philando Castile. He is Brent Thomas. He is Patrick Zamarippa. He is Lorne Ahrens. He is Michael Krol. He is Michael Smith.
These, men, civilians and officers, however were not the only victims to fall on the Jericho road. He is the victims of Orlando. The victims of San Bernadino. The victims of Charleston. The victims of Oak Creek. The victims of Newtown. The victims whom we’ve forgotten because too many people have violently died unnecessarily. They were left to die because we’ve done nothing to stop it.
A part of us, a community, was beaten and left for dead too. What is it that has beaten and bloodied us as a community? We see too many shootings and hear too many stories of senseless violence. Language that demonizes people of color or casts out immigrants or diminishes women and unjustly assigns criminal labels on people whose sexuality doesn’t conform to a traditional binary image has become commonplace. Somewhere our political culture lost sight of its responsibility to care for people who cannot care for themselves. We’ve written off people with mental illness and those who have no place to live, forgetting that the Son of Man was homeless, too.
Seven men died unnecessarily in public last week. They died violent deaths. And we helplessly wring our hands. We don’t know what to do. We’re scared because this is more than tragic. These deaths are a sign that something is really, really wrong and it goes way deeper than lax gun laws. Have we reached a point where we no longer value lives, especially those who are not like us? Has life become cheap? Are we the Levite or the priest whose lack of compassion and mercy allowed them to walk on the other side of the road?
We know the robbers. Racism. Greed. Individualism. Fear. Envy. Anger. Injustice. Self-righteousness. They have no faith in God’s abundance. The abundance of creation. The abundance of mercy. The abundance of compassion. The abundance of grace. The abundance of love. Do the robbers really believe they can control the Jericho road? Do they believe that power defined by unfettered rule over the world can prevail over the power of servanthood?
We can’t ignore the man in the road. The man in the road is not some prop to make someone else look great. The man in the road is the ideals to which we believe we live as a community of men and women, white people and people of color, young and old, native and immigrant, straight and queer, rich and poor. If we ignore the man in the road, we’ve consigned our community to death. We’ve let the robbers prevail.
But we don’t have to let them prevail. We can reclaim the Jericho road. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his speech “A Time to Break Silence,” which he delivered at New York City’s Riverside Church exactly one year before, almost to the hour, of his death, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”
We must stop closing our eyes to injustice. We must speak truth to power. We must renew our faith in forgiveness. We must eschew hate. We must stand with those who have been beaten down. We must bear the broken and bloodied bodies on the road to safety and offer succor and nurse them to health so they can join us to make real the promise we say every week, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We will reclaim the Jericho road and thus make it safe for all of God’s children to pass unimpeded, unharmed, and unafraid when we embrace and live out God’s radical, inclusive love. When we actually make room at the table for everyone and live out our belief that the bread and the cup have more power to transform the world than any weapon of destruction, we won’t see bodies on the Jericho road. When we cease to live in fear – fear of immigrants, fear of people whose skin color is not like ours, fear of the stranger – we won’t see bodies on the Jericho road. When we stop objectifying, demonizing and hating each other, we won’t see bodies on the Jericho road.
We won’t see bodies on the Jericho road when we take Paul’s words to heart (Rom 12:9-18):
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”