In today’s Gospel the lawyer asks about the commandments. He wants to know what he needs to do in order to have things be right for when he dies, when his heart stops beating, and the only thing he sees in front of him is the face of God. “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” he asks. Jesus asks him what he knows about God’s law, what has he been taught? And the man replies with the well-known verse: “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.” Jesus applauds the answer. “You’ve got it,” he says. “Do that and you’ll inherit eternal life.” But the lawyer asks that other question, “Yes,” teacher, but “who is my neighbor?”
It’s a big question. It’s a question asked by countries, as foreign aid, disaster relief, and immigration are debated. It’s a question asked in our communities as we all face needs that more-than-surpass resources. And, then, it’s also a question that people of faith ask, especially since Jesus so often mentions the neighbor. If we’re going to follow Jesus, if we’re going to be Christians of any sort, we need to know something about our neighbor.
But this question alone, “Who is my neighbor” can be misleading. Too often, it can become a kind of puzzle of piety, a fill-in-the-blank for faith. The assumption sometimes (the assumption of the lawyer, and perhaps our own assumption on occasion) is that once we can just identify our neighbor, then we can begin to do ministry to her or him, and we will be saved. We just launch a mission study or report, and then areas of need can be carefully categorized and charted. Needs are assessed. The “needy” are identified. Then a committee or task force ranks these, a new venture is named with a snappy acronym or slogan, a program is begun, and ministry happens.
It is very much a ministry of doing unto others, but doesn’t necessarily take into consideration being neighborly.
I’m not knocking long-range plans and I’m in no way criticizing an organized approach to mission or parish life. But if we only ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and then go and “do unto them,” we may be missing something of the Gospel. We can miss the reception of God’s grace and we can miss how grace is meant to be the motivating factor in being neighborly.
Back in our Gospel, when the lawyer wonders, “Who is my neighbor?,” Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus turns the lawyer’s question around. Rather than asking who IS the neighbor, Jesus suggests the real question is, “who has acted as a good neighbor to another?” The real question that gets us closer to the kingdom of God is the question we can ask ourselves, “When have I been neighbored?” When has someone been neighbor to me? When have I been down on my luck, shoved aside and overlooked? When have I felt beaten and bruised, neglected and forgotten?
The point of the Good Samaritan story, I think, is to see ourselves in the ditch.
People often come by the church, trying to get out of a ditch. Sometimes they call, because in many listings, All Souls is right near the top, alphabetically. Sometimes they walk by and ring the doorbell. And then, sometimes when they see me on the street, dressed as a priest, they ask for money. I’m sure they ask you, as well. When this happens, I’m usually pretty careful. I ask good questions and I think I try to discern whether a person is scamming me or not. [Whether I should try to discern, or simply give when asked, is a topic for another sermon.] But I do have a weak spot.
If someone is ever stranded and is trying to get home, or get to their friends, or get “wherever,” I’m usually good for a few dollars. Even if it turns out the person is lying, I gamble on someone who says they are stranded because I remember once being stranded. I remember that particular “ditch.”
I was stuck in a train station. This happened I was in seminary (the first time around). I carried no credit cards and was between checks. I had just completed an internship in New York, had taken the train back to Princeton and had several pieces of heavy luggage. When I got to Princeton Junction, I found that I had missed the last shuttle into Princeton. There were no cabs. My friends were all away for the summer, and no one was around. And so I slept at the train station that night, waiting for the train the next morning. The neighbor didn’t come for me that night. Oh, I was in a safe, clean place—a far cry from really being lost or being stranded altogether, but that brief experience of dependence, of being out of control, of being vulnerable—has stayed with me. And it is that kind of experience that compels me to show compassion to (to “suffer with) others. Remembering the times when I’ve been in a ditch helps me to be neighborly to others. I’ve been in other ditches—when I was sick and someone called, when I was broke and someone loaned me a few dollars, when I was heartbroken and someone simply cared. I bet you have known a few ditches, as well.
One of the most famous “ditches” in religious imagery comes from the 14th century, from Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). When she was 30 years old, Julian almost died from a fever or some other ailment, and while she was sick, she received a vision from God. She wrote down her vision, but continued to pray to God for more insight. Twenty years later, she wrote down an extended version of the vision.
A part of her vision imagines a Lord and Servant. Julian sees a great Lord who has a devoted servant. The Lord sends the servant off on some errand, and the servant is excited to do it. But then the servant falls into a ditch. The servant “is greatly injured” as Julian writes. [The servant] groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but cannot rise to help himself in any way . . . And all this time his loving lord looks on him most tenderly . . .with great compassion and joy.”
She goes on to explain that the great tragedy in this accident is that the Lord sees all of this and understands that the servant has simply fallen into a ditch. The Lord commends and approves the servant “but he himself was blinded and hindered from knowing this will. And this is a great sorrow and a cruel suffering to him, for he neither sees clearly his loving lord, . . . nor does he truly see what he himself is in the sight of his loving lord.” That can be the real tragedy of being in a ditch—we come to think we’re all alone, we’re forgotten, and that even God doesn’t see or care.
When Julian begins to understand her vision fully, she begins to see that Adam is the servant, who falls and is then raised up. But Christ is the Second Adam, and is the servant who willingness goes into any ditch or deep place, to redeem us, to be with us, and to love us. Christ is with us here and until that day when, (as Julian says) “every passing woe and sorrow will have an end, and everlasting joy and bliss will be fulfilled, which day and time all the company of heaven longs and desires to see” (Showings, p.276).
The collect for today asks God to grant that we might “perceive and know what things we ought to do, and that we might have the grace and power faithfully to fulfill them.”
In addition, may the Holy Spirit remind us of the times when we have been in ditch, so that we might call upon the memory of such times as we continue to love our neighbor.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.