The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven
Pentecost 8, Year C (Proper 10C)
July 10, 2016
Be Not Afraid
My friend Sally tells a story about growing up—growing up in the 1950’s on a farm in the deep south, a farm far outside of town—the sort of place where you only see the folks in your family, and the folks who live on the farm, and the folks who come occasionally to visit. Sally made friends among the folks that were around—and her best friend was another little boy just a couple of years older called Frank who lived on the farm, too. When Sally was about five and Frank was seven, they’d spend hours running through the cotton fields together and pulling one another around in a wooden red wagon along the dusty roads of the farm. They were the best of friends—until Sally started school, and she noticed that Frank didn’t go to the same school as she did. And as she got older she noticed that she never saw Frank at the same places she went in town—the soda fountain, the doctor’s office, even the movie theater. And finally, when she was older, and she invited friends over to the farm for picnics or dinners in the dining room, she learned that her best friend Frank wasn’t welcome to join.
You see, Sally is white, and Frank is black. And somewhere along the way Sally learned that it wasn’t okay for them to be friends. That Frank wasn’t welcome as an equal in her world. And what a perversion of the message of the incarnation that lesson was—a lesson she still grieves today. Sixty years later, it feels as though the divisions caused by racism should be healing, that we all know that black lives matter, that we all can get along. And yet in the last week we’ve felt the fabric of our country torn apart by the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa—deaths that have highlighted once again the scourge that gun violence, that the proliferation of deadly weapons, has brought on our nation. But our nation has been torn apart, too, by racial inequality—by the question of what role race played in these deaths—and the realization once again that, fifty years after the victories of the civil rights movement, that black people do not feel as safe, do not feel as equal, do not have the same protections and access that white people do.
I don’t know Frank, but if I did, I’d imagine that he’s felt grief about that separation, too—that division, that tear, in the fabric of creation—in the fabric of humanity—that racism that is so deeply embedded in our culture that black men in our country are imprisoned at higher rates and die more often at the hands of law enforcement officers—much higher than the numbers of white people or people of any other racial category in our country.
I wonder if Frank is afraid for his children, afraid for his grandchildren, this week, as the names of dead people have been spoken on our news channels, printed in our papers, crossed our lips, broken our hearts. I spoke with Sally this week, who said that she would be afraid if she had a son who was black—afraid for his safety in our society. Friends of mine, families with black sons, have been posting online about their own anxiety, their own fear, for their children growing up in our nation. People are afraid.
In the gospel today we hear of the story of the good Samaritan—the one that stops to help the wounded man on the side of the road—who binds his wounds and takes him to an inn for care, for safety. Jesus tells this story to a lawyer, maybe a Pharisee, who asks how to receive eternal life. He understands that he must love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength—and that he must love his neighbor as himself. We hear that every week in the summary of the law. But the lawyer is not clear on the scope—not clear on who it is he should love. “Who is my neighbor, Jesus?” the man asks. And Jesus tells him this story of the good Samaritan.
It’s obvious that the guy that gets it right is the good Samaritan, right? The priest and the Levite just pass by. And when I’ve heard that story in the past, I’ve sometimes heard that perhaps there was some sort of religious prohibition, some sort of excuse that the priest and Levite had—that perhaps there was some ritual impurity in helping the wounded victim in the ditch—and so they passed by, more concerned about maintaining the law than helping their neighbor in the ditch. Shame on them.
In his final sermon, the night before he was gunned down, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached about this passage, this story in Luke, at a church in Memphis, Tennessee. In his sermon, Dr. King points out that there might be another factor in the priest and the Levite’s decision not to stop. He points out that they might have been afraid. What if the man was faking? What if he wasn’t really hurt but was a robber himself, trying to trick them, lying there in the ditch? For the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is a long and treacherous pass, dangerous, known as a place where ambushes could occur. (Think back to last week’s gospel, where Jesus advises the disciples not to stop to talk to anyone on the road when they go out, but to go directly to the cities they’re visiting!) There’s a descent of over 3000 feet, a thousand meters, along the 18 mile stretch of that winding road. And so they were afraid—and their actions were arrested by their fear. Dr. King says that perhaps “the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’"
Friends, fear is gripping our nation, and it’s paralyzing us—for some of us, it’s making driving down the road, entering our own neighborhoods, walking down our own streets a fearsome thing. Maybe the world seems a more dangerous place today than it did last week—or the year before—more dangerous than we’d hoped and prayed.
If you are feeling like the man in the ditch, beat up by robbers and left for dead, take heart. Jesus is reaching out to bind your wounds, to give you shelter. He will not pass you by. And in his death and resurrection we see light and life. We can expect hope. We know that God’s love will conquer even the greatest evil. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice, Dr. King was fond of saying—and in Christ we can believe that truth, even in the face of fear and despair. The kingdom of God will reign.
But perhaps you find yourself in the story where the priest and the Levite are—afraid, scared to help, unsure of what to do. In that case, remember the words of Dr. King: “…then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'"
Can we look past our fear to take a chance, to put our own security on the line, to be willing to sacrifice something of ourselves—so that all people may be safe, secure, and equal? Will we take a chance on offering our own selves, our souls and bodies, in love to God—and in love to our neighbor?
Be not afraid. It’s all over the gospels, throughout scripture. Hundreds and hundreds of times—be not afraid. Live without fear. Don’t let fear stop you from being the wondrous creation that God has made you to be. Don’t let fear stop you from reaching out in love to your neighbor. Don’t let fear stop you from speaking out, from standing up, from calling out injustice—from expecting goodness and mercy and love. Don’t let fear stop you from reaching out in love to your neighbor.
And who is my neighbor, we might ask? In the gospel it seems, on first glance, that the man in the ditch, the one suffering, the one in need, is the neighbor to be attended to. But Jesus’s story reverses this assumption. The priest, the Levite, and probably the man in the ditch are all good Jewish folk—they are quite literally part of the tribe. But the Samaritan is an outsider—a foreigner—Dr. King calls him “a man of another race.” This Samaritan is someone who would have been other to the lawyer, to the Pharisee—not someone deserving of his time, his attention, his love. And yet Jesus calls him neighbor. “’Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ [The lawyer] said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Lk 10.36-37)
Who is my neighbor? The Samaritan, the other, is my neighbor. Frank and Sally are my neighbors. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are my neighbors. Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa, the Dallas police officers, are my neighbors. Somehow, though I’m struggling to understand it, even the Dallas shooter is my neighbor. And Jesus is calling on me to love my neighbor—to love my neighbor even in the face of the sin of racism—even in the face of the threat of gun proliferation and violence—even in the face of death. Jesus is calling on me to love my neighbor because love is the only thing that will counter this wave of violence and hatred that assaults the very heart of God.
What do we do, my brothers and sisters? We love God. We love our neighbor. We work for peace and justice and safety for all people. We pray. And we live without fear—do not be afraid—for God’s love will triumph over every evil.
In that sermon, his last, Dr. King concluded with words of hope that seem important to hear again today, words confident in the love of God, words from that preacher, from that leader, whose entire life was grounded in trying to love God and love his neighbor. Dr. King said, “…I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead... But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Be not afraid. Love God. And love your neighbor.
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- Pew Research Center, at http://www.people-press.org/2015/08/05/across-racial-lines-more-say-nation-needs-to-make-changes-to-achieve-racial-equality/ (accessed 7/9/16)
- Todd Beer, online at https://thesocietypages.org/toolbox/police-killing-of-blacks/ (accessed 7/7/16). For a different analysis with some different conclusions, see Quoctrung Bui and Amanda Cox’s reporting on Roland G. Fryer’s work in “Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings,” The New York Times, July 11, 2016 (online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/upshot/surprising-new-evidence-shows-bias-in-police-use-of-force-but-not-in-shootings.html) (accessed 7/11/16)
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington, New York: HarperCollins, 1986, pp 284-285.
- Marion Soards, ed., notes and commentary on Luke in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV with Apocrypha, 4th ed., Michael Coogan, ed. Oxford: OUP, 2010. Note 10.30, p 1851.
- This observation was pointed out to me by Bishop Andrew St. John, to whom I am grateful.
- King, p 286.