Sunday, July 28, 2013

Loving our neighbours in a racist world

Texts: Galatians 3:23-29 (one in Christ); Luke 10:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

We have just heard the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. It tells of a Jewish man robbed, beaten and left for dead; his betrayal by two religious leaders of his own community -- a priest and a Levite -- who pass him by without checking to see if he is dead or alive; and the surprising source from which his aid finally comes, the man whom Jesus says was neighbour to him and whom he should love. This man was a Samaritan, which was an ethnic group hated by many of the Jews of that time.

Jesus tells the parable in response to questions about religious laws for worship, and about how we are to behave in a society torn apart by religious and racial divisions. Though Jesus' parable is almost 2,000 years old, it still has a lot of relevance. Our world today, like Palestine during the times of the Romans, is torn apart by social, religious, and racial divisions created by centuries of war, conquest and colonization.

The parable is not from the Lectionary reading list for this Sunday. It was the Gospel reading for two weeks ago on July 14. When I went to church in Toronto on that day, I was surprised that the minister did not relate the parable to the big news item that had hit the media the evening before -- the story of the acquittal in Florida of George Zimmerman, a Neighbourhood Watch volunteer, who had killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin last year.

Zimmerman confronted Martin even though the teen was simply walking from a corner store back to his father's house in the neighbourhood that Zimmerman shared with Martin's father. Zimmerman in his attempt to be a "good neighbour" took note of Martin because of his youth, his black skin colour and his hoodie (or "bunny hug" as they are called in Saskatchewan). Zimmerman called 911 to report his suspicions. But despite a directive from the dispatcher to not confront the teen himself but to wait for police, Zimmerman left his car carrying a concealed gun, he confronted the teen, who was unarmed, and he shot him dead.

Clearly, this story is one that turns on the sorry history of 250 years of slavery in the United States and all the discrimination, social turmoil, and grief that has followed the end of slavery in the American Civil War of 150 years ago.

The murder of Trayvon Martin by Zimmerman -- for that is what it is, murder, despite the surprising acquittal of Zimmerman by the jury -- is one of how not to be a neighbour; of how racial suspicions continue to poison life in the U.S.; of laws that allow the carrying of concealed guns; and of the ridiculous "Stand Your Ground" law in Florida, which allows a person to use deadly force when they feel threatened even if one is in a public place where one could back away from a perceived threat.

It seems to me that the story of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman is one tailor-made for a reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan. But the minister two weeks ago in Toronto's Metropolitan Community Church did not refer to the news item. She surely had reasons. The news had broken late on Saturday so perhaps she didn't have time to change her remarks for what was an anniversary service. As a fellow minister, I can quite understand.

I bring the parable and the news story together today in the hope that it can help us reflect on the ongoing problems we face in a society created by centuries of colonialism and with all the ills of racism that colonialism breeds.

By the way, I went to Sunday worship on all the five Sundays I was away this summer. Some of my siblings questioned this behaviour. Why on earth would I, as a worship leader, attend worship when I was on vacation from all that?

My reply has several parts. One, I enjoy worship. I appreciate gathering with fellow seekers each week to reflect on our shared sacred values in the light of events today. Second, I sometimes enjoy being a member of the congregation instead of always being the presider or preacher. Third, I gain a lot by seeing how other church communities gather and what their life together looks like.

Our other Scripture reading today from Galatians 3 is also not from today's Lectionary list. It was the New Testament reading for June 23. I had it read here today because it, like the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, hinges on questions of law versus grace and the impact that God's grace has on a society divided between Jew and Greek, slave and free, and men and women.

None of us are responsible for the history of colonialism in a country like Canada or the United States, any more than the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus' time were responsible for the colonial history that had divided these two groups 800 years before the time of Jesus.

We come to consciousness as children and are forced to deal with the nature of the society into which we were born. I grew up in Cornwall Ontario in the 60s and 70s on the banks of the St Lawrence River and at the border of Ontario, Quebec, and New York State. Most people in Cornwall were of European descent, although there was a big split between the poorer French-speaking people in the east of the city, all of whom were descendants of the people defeated by the English in 1763 in Quebec, and the richer English-speaking people in the west.

A family of immigrants from Lebanon did live on my street. I was intrigued by them when news of war between Israel and its Arab neighbours filled the news media of the day. Then when I was in Grade 5, a girl who had immigrated with her family from India joined my class. Her presence was burned in my memory on a day when our class took a field trip across the river to Massena New York. We toured the hydro-electric power plant there to compare it to the one in Cornwall -- both products of the St. Lawrence Seaway development of the 1950s. This was back in the halcyon days when you didn't need a passport to cross into the United States.

I was shocked when the border control officers let us all through except this little girl from India. She  spent the day at the border while the rest of us went across the river with our teachers. What possible harm did these officers fear from this little girl, I wondered. Was her brown skin such a terrible sign?

In Saskatchewan today, the biggest legacy of Canada's sorry history of colonialism is our large population of people of First Nation's descent. This reality has not been very big in my experience since I came here two years ago because, for some reasons, not many native people live here right along the border. This contrasts with Cornwall which has a First Nations reserve on an Island in the River. But of course from watching news reports, I know of the many social problems that result from European conquest of our First Nations in cities like Regina and Saskatoon.

Now, the question of what to do about racial, religious and ethnic tensions that result from colonialism is not an easy one, of course. What we do get from Jesus' parable and from St. Paul's words today, I think, is a call to not let racial divisions poison our worship life, our mission as a church, or our day-to-day behaviour with our neighbours.

Jesus tells the parable when he is challenged by an expert in religious law. This man's summary of the law -- love God and love your neighbour as yourself -- is the same as the summary given by Jesus in a passage found in both Mark and Matthew. When the expert then asks Jesus for help in defining the word "neighbour," Jesus tells him the famous story.

At the end of his parable, Jesus asks the religious expert which of the three was neighbour to the man who fell in with the robbers. The expert points to the Samaritan, the one who showed him kindness.

When thinking of this parable in the past, I assumed that love of neighbour was shown by the kind actions of the Samaritan. But I now wonder if can't equally refer to the feelings the wounded man might have had toward the Samaritan. The original hearers of the parable, like the wounded man, were Jewish. Maybe the commandment "love your neighbour" is not just about acting with kindness towards strangers, but also loving those who help us regardless of who they are.

All of us are wounded in some ways and we all need help. In this life of many troubles, we are forced to trust people who are the hands and feet of God among us, including strangers who help us in ways both known and unknown.

Sometimes, God's love may come to us from sources we expect, such as from religious leaders and in "properly" conducted worship.

At other times, God's love may come to us from quarters that surprise us. It might be shown to us by someone from a religion or ethnic group we despise.

God is not found only in Judaism or Christianity or Buddhism or Islam. God is found in all religions, and in people of no religion. Unfortunately, people like the expert who are narrowly focused on religious law may not be aware of this gracious truth.

Jesus' parable doesn’t offer easy solutions, but it does point to our common humanity, which is a deeper calling than narrow religious law. It shows us that God's grace is here for us, although it is not always come to us from in our own in-group.

Paul makes this gracious news explicit in today's reading from Galatians. He writes: "as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

In the nearly 2,000 years since Paul wrote these stirring words, many millions have been baptized -- just like young Hunter here this morning -- and yet humanity is not yet united. But we know that in God's Spirit, we are one, and this truth can help us to see beyond our prejudices and unite us in the struggle for greater kindness and justice with people from different backgrounds.

Like the man who was beaten by robbers, we are all broken souls who need God's love and help in the form of the kind actions of their neighbours.

Sin and brokenness abound in our lives. But God's grace also abounds. This grace aids us in our struggles for justice; and it makes eternal life possible for any of us, whether we follow narrow religious laws or not. God in Christ helps us to accept grace no matter from what strange corner it might come.

Prejudice born of colonialism continues to divide us. But God in Christ unites and gives us life in all its pain, wonder, and joy.

Thanks be to God.


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