July 10th, 2016
There is something about this past week that seems to have chilled our nation. It’s like a scrape with death. Maybe now we realize what the stakes are—people get shot dead, senselessly, for no good reason, every day in this country. We have a problem with policing—in much of the country, policing policies are racist. Police target and arrest people of color. They shoot them with impunity. Guns make their way into the hands of deranged people far too easily, and these people shoot as many people that they hate until they themselves die—either at their own hand or at the hand of police, or a robot. It doesn’t seem like any other nation on earth has this problem like we have this problem. It doesn’t seem like France, or Australia, or England, or anywhere that has racism has the problem like we have it. And it doesn’t seem like they suffer the same mass shootings we do.
The world is too much with us, and I know many of you have to come to hear a word of comfort. But I don’t want to offer you cheap comfort. I don’t want to offer anybody any false hope. When I was ordained, I swore an oath that I would not do that. There’s a picture you can see from the Dallas shootings of a multi-racial group of people surrounding a baby-stroller, putting their bodies in the way of bullets so that they can protect that baby. Some see this as a sign of humanity in chaos, but all I want to do is ask, where is this multi-racial group when cops come to black neighborhoods or pull over black drivers? Where is this multi-racial human shield when it comes time to plan the strategy of a police department? Where is this picture at the voting booth or in the legislatures of our nation? So part of me wants to say, don’t get your hopes up. Things are going to get worse before they get better, if they get better.
Thank God, then, for Scripture and the Gospel. I’ve been thinking about this parable of the Good Samaritan, and I’ve been thinking that I’ve been thinking about it all wrong. I used to think that this was a parable about including the marginalized—as if Samaritans were the outsiders. But Jesus’ people were also outsiders to the Samaritans. But more than all this worry about which group of people hates which group of people, is that way Jesus cuts through that talk: Which of these three men was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Already Jesus eliminates space and moves directly to action, and he nullifies the question the lawyer originally asks—who is my neighbor? Now the question is, who was a neighbor—who acted neighborly? And Jesus answers the original question—who is my neighbor—by saying go and do likewise. In other words, go and be a neighbor.
Think of that shift—from who is mine to go and do. In the lawyer’s question, everything depends on someone else. If they are a neighbor, love them; if they aren’t a neighbor, you’ll have some more options. But in Jesus thinking you are the neighbor—and if you are a neighbor, then whomever you encounter will be a neighbor because you are a neighbor to them.
The only comfort I can offer today, the only thing I can say, is that when things go bad, when people’s lives are robbed not by bandits but police, when mass shooters rob the lives the guardians of our citizenry, Christians still get to do what Jesus has charged us to do: to be neighbors, even to those whom we might consider enemies. That is why nonviolence is our way of combatting injustice—nonviolence that searches for reconciliation and mercy.
There is a lot of senseless death. And Jesus says to the man today, who knows the heart of the law—to 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 to love your neighbor as yourself—that if he does these things he will live. You have to wonder, at times like these, what Jesus means—does he mean a good, long, quiet life? I am not so sure. I am already three years older than Jesus at his death, so, on one hand you might say this law didn’t work out for Jesus. I think instead Jesus means that we will live in a different sense, in the sense that doing right is gives life, that doing and believing in good in the midst of despair gives life. You will live as a neighbor to the people of this world, who live like men on dangerous roads, ever falling into the hands of bandits.
Any comfort I can give you today comes from this—God never tires of doing good in this world, and indeed has saved this world through Jesus Christ our Lord. God’s kingdom comes in the forgiveness of sins, the telling of truth, the serving of Christ. But it is the kind of salvation we discover as we put it to use in fear and trembling in this world. Do good to those that hate you. Work for justice. But the line between justice and vengeance is thin and vague, so above all, let mercy be your lodestar.
The lawyer gives the heart of the law. We hear from Deuteronomy, “Surely, this commandment I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe.” I love this part, especially today. Why do we not need to ascend to heaven to find the truth? Because God means for us to find truth here, in works of mercy and faithfulness. Our work is near us, in this nation, in this community, in this parish.
Our hope does not come from the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or acts or laws. I’ve learned over the past few years that even things as obviously good as the Civil Rights Bill and the Clean Water Act can wither under assault. Our hope does not come from movements or organizing. Our hope will not be found in better governors, police commissioners, or presidents. Our hope comes from our Father, who has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the beloved kingdom of his Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Our hope comes from knowing that all this earth will pass away, heaven and earth will pass away, and that God will show forth the glory of his love. We do not look for the goodness of God, therefore, in things that are far off, but rather by living as citizens of the beloved kingdom of Jesus Christ, right now, because we have already been made part of the kingdom that is coming. We work now to meet the coming kingdom, and we bear the news of hope, that justice is coming, justice is coming, reconciliation will happen, and God will have mercy on our groaning world.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack