July 10, 2016

Language Barrier

What a terrible week! Seven days ago we prayed that the promises of life, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness would be shared among all people, then we experienced daily deadly reminders that the efficacy of those promises have never been self-evident to African Americans and that evil and ancient forces always seek to undermine and destroy the conditions that make genuine and honest community possible. Fear, racism, vengeance, inequality before the law, and addictive violence have unleashed their fury again, like menacing clouds on a hot and humid summer day.

Unlike talking about heat waves and thunderstorms, however, naming and speaking about the forces we’ve witnessed this week is fraught. The shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens expose some of the deepest and most volatile fault lines running through this nation. So deep are these fissures that even our ability to communicate becomes weak and language itself seems to fail us.

Speaking of race, it seems that some—specifically people of color—have been having “the Talk” and raising their voices for so long that the unwillingness of others to listen leaves them speechless.

For others—specifically white people—our privileged place in society tempts us to believe that race is so irrelevant in contemporary America that we either lack the will to have a conversation about it in the first place, or we discover that we lack the cultural grammar to communicate effectively.

Honestly, this week on the six train I overheard conversations between New Yorkers and tourists who didn’t speak the same language that were easier to follow, displayed infinitely more patience and trust, and made more sense to me than the venomous reactions on social media to the statement “Black Lives Matter.”

Something like a language barrier impedes discussions about race in this country, a barrier that those evil and ancient forces arrayed against God’s family are more than willing to exploit.

Of course, it is inevitable that our backgrounds and experiences influence our perceptions of events and how we understand them. Even those of us gathered here this morning would tell differently the stories of what happened in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas this week, and I’m sure that we have different ideas about what these things mean and what should happen next.

There’s not necessarily any sin in that.

However, when perceptions and understandings fuel arrogance and pride, when our point of view excludes the validity of all others, when the way we see the world leads us to turn a blind eye to oppression, injustice, and violence we must confess that by the measure of God’s righteous plumb line, our hearts are listing, wanting, and flawed.

It is incumbent upon us, therefore, as it’s been incumbent upon believers in every age, to know the truth about ourselves, humbly to do the work of confession and repentance, and to allow God’s Spirit to make steady our wobbly ways and to bring us back into a true and right relationship with God and one another.

God taught Moses this truth by giving him the Ten Commandments that forever linked our theology and ethics and drawing a straight line between the One who is worthy of worship and our neighbors who are worthy of respect, fairness, and justice.

God taught this to Amos, too. That’s why the prophet who railed against religious corruption and economic exploitation, also challenged God’s people to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

And Jesus still teaches this truth to all with hears to hear his parable about a merciful Samaritan.

This is how Luke introduces the iconic story.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have given the right answer,” said Jesus, “do this, and you will live.”

“What do you read in the law about eternal life?” asked Jesus.

“Love God with everything you’ve got and remember that all neighbors matter.”

“That’s right!” said Jesus. “Now go do it.”

But the lawyer had a peculiar reaction to Jesus. Luke says he wanted to “justify himself” or “to make himself right.” Given the context, I think it’s fair for us to infer from this that what the lawyer really just wanted Jesus to tell him that he was doing a great job and didn’t need to change a single thing about the way he was living his life.

The lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Clearly this man wanted Jesus to draw a line between the people in his life—separating them into neighbors whom he should love and others whom he could ignore—a line that I’m sure the man expected to follow precisely his understanding of “my people” and “those people.”

And that should sound familiar to us because the same forces at work in our time were working on the lawyer’s heart, too.

By asking Jesus to locate love of neighbor’s end, the man was participating in an age-old habit of persons in power—saying the great and magnanimous thing, but doing little to see that statement become reality.

To love one’s neighbor as oneself is a radical statement, too radical for the lawyer, in fact, so he asked Jesus to tell him that some of those people weren’t really his neighbor after all.

When our nation’s forefathers signed on to the idea that “all men are created equal and endowed by their create with certain inalienable rights,” they made a radical statement, then continued to buy and sale some men, women, and children, too.

When, toward the end of the 1800s, it became the custom to pledge allegiance to our flag and republic, proclaiming “liberty and justice for all,” all still only meant some.

Fear, racism, vengeance, inequality before the law, addictive violence, the failure of language—we know these forces well, and they were present in the communities Jesus visited and in the lives his ministry touched, too, so Jesus bound these up and wove them into a story for the ages.

He set the story in a violent place in the aftermath of a violent event—a man was beaten and robbed on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

He cast the story with people of social privilege like the lawyer—a priest and a Levite.

And he made the story’s protagonist a racial and religious minority—a Samaritan.

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Jesus asked, “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.”

The Samaritan didn’t just pray for they man. He didn’t just march for better security on the Jericho Road. He did the hard, selfless, generous work of mercy.

Jesus teaches us that mercy has the power to short circuit the evil and ancient forces that undermine and destroy the conditions that make genuine and honest community possible.

It’s not being proven right, it’s not maintaining our privileges, it’s not being satisfied with justice and equality for some people, it’s mercy—mercy is the blessing that breaks open hardened hearts, compels actions, and changes lives.

Mercy restores sight to those who have become blind to oppression, injustice, and violence.

Mercy leads us to confess that by the measure of God’s righteous plumb line, our hearts are listing, wanting, and flawed.

Mercy—our experience of it and our mandate to do it—is for us the essence of God’s Good News.

It is incumbent upon us, therefore, as it’s been incumbent upon believers in every age, to know the truth about ourselves, humbly to do the work of confession and repentance, and to allow God’s Spirit to make steady our wobbly ways and to bring us back into a true and right relationship with God and one another.

Fear, racism, vengeance, inequality before the law, addictive violence, the failure of language—where can we find the path to eternal life in a landscape fractured by these?

“Go,” says Jesus, “and do mercy.”

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