Texts: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
But I do think that I have to stand up here and say something about it, something that will help us move in a positive direction, something that begins to express how hurt we all are over the extrajudicial murders of two more black men by officers of the law and over the senseless violence against both police and civilians during a peaceful protest. I do think that as a preacher and as a Christian, I cannot be silent. Unfortunately, I do not know what to say.
Because of the promises of scripture and because of my own personal experience with God, I believe in eternal life. I believe that it’s not something that is reserved for life after death, but that it is something that God offers us now, life that is deeper and richer and brighter and fuller, that it is life lived with God. I have seen glimpses this eternal life thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit through the Church. I also believe that eternal life isn’t just for you or me individually, but for all creation; that God is working to fulfill and perfect the whole world so that everything that has breath will one day experience this eternal life together.
But this week, just as with every story in the news of a terrorist bombing or a person dying for being arrested while black or a police officer being killed for the sins of his or her colleagues, I am left hurting, hoping, wondering where is this eternal life? How long, O Lord, shall we cry for help and you will not listen? What can I do to help stop this madness?
I’d venture a guess that I’m not the only one who feels this way, that maybe some of you feel like this, too. For those of us wondering how our world might finally come to possess this eternal life, I offer this parable as one place to begin.
One obvious lesson from this parable is one about who is our neighbor. Samaritans were despised and mistrusted by Jews; they were considered heretics. The lawyer in the story is so shocked by Jesus’ parable that when Jesus asks him for his interpretation, he can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan,” saying instead, “the one who showed mercy.”
Throughout the gospels, and indeed throughout the whole Bible, God intentionally seeks out and identifies with the vulnerable, the poor, and the outsiders. It should be obvious to us that, if Jesus were to tell the story for us now, that the he might challenge us to see as our neighbors those who are most vulnerable, poor and on the outside of society now; for example, the kind of people who might fear being killed by police at a run-of-the-mill traffic stop.
This is the same sentiment that is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement: not that police are bad or that other lives don’t matter, but that there are people—our neighbors—who are being feared and discriminated against and oppressed and even killed by the very agencies who are sworn to serve and protect us, and that we should all be concerned about this precisely because we are neighbors. To recognize our interconnectedness in spite of the small things that divide us is to begin to experience eternal life.
This parable also points us to eternal life by showing us what it means to be a neighbor. The Samaritan on the road becomes a neighbor to the man in need because he “is moved with pity” for him. The verb in Greek comes from the word for "vicera," "bowels," "guts;" it literally means to experience gut-wrenching emotion, to be moved in one’s deepest being. We would call such an experience “compassion.”
The Samaritan experiences compassion for his wounded neighbor, and that compassion compels him to respond with kindness. He picks the man up, puts him on his own animal, and takes him to an inn where he pays the innkeeper to care for him, promising to cover any other expenses the innkeeper may incur. This is what separates compassion from pity: pity might make us feel sad or sorry for someone, but compassion compels us to act, even when it costs us, even if it means we must also suffer. In fact, the word compassion literally means “to suffer alongside” someone. This suffering with our neighbor, Jesus says, is how we inherit eternal life.
It seems backwards, doesn’t it, that suffering with the people we may not even recognize as our neighbors is the way to experience eternal life; but if anyone would know, it is Jesus, the Son of God who left heaven to be born as a human being and experience all of our pains and sorrows as well as our joys, to live and teach and walk among us knowing that we would eventually kill him for it. Through his Passion—his suffering alongside us as a human—Jesus makes eternal life available to us; so in some way it makes sense that our compassion—our suffering alongside each other—might help us experience it.
This is what gives me hope, because in the midst of the bloodshed and the fear, the violence and the anger, I see God at work in the compassion that draws us together. I see Jesus crucified again by our fear and hate alongside Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, lying dead beside Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krohl and Lorne Ahrends and Michael Smith, but I also see God at work churning our guts and breaking our hearts with compassion for those who have died and caring for those who are left.
I have hope because the evil acts of humanity that crucified Christ did not have the final word in his story, and the evil acts that killed these people and so many others does not have the final word in this one. God answers death with eternal life, life that pains us and moves us in our core to act with compassion for our neighbors who live in fear of the law and our neighbors who put their lives in danger to protect.
In a statement earlier this week, our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton said, “Until we in the white community feel that the death of a person of color is our death, too, nothing is going to change.” To be neighbors to our sisters and brothers of color is to realize that in the events of Baton Rouge and St. Paul and Dallas, we are killing ourselves. It is the privilege of every white person to be able to separate ourselves from these horrible deaths, to remain untouched by them because these murders happened somewhere else to somebody else. It is our privilege not to live among police who fear us. But it is our compassion that makes us suffer with our black and brown neighbors and feel their pain as our own, and it is that pain that will drive us to bring change.
We have hope in eternal life that is stronger than death because Jesus showed up, because he suffered alongside us and showed us what that life looks like. This is our call as followers of Jesus: to show up, to see our neighbors and give our lives in service to them, as Jesus did. At this table we him, his body broken for us, his blood poured out for us; and as we eat and drink he shares this broken, poured out life with us, so that we, too may be broken and poured out for others, that through us, his eternal life may continue to spread.
In the midst of death, where do we find eternal life? Perhaps it is not just in healing, but in hurting together. Perhaps the eternal life of God is the ability to share the rawest pain and anguish with our neighbors so deeply in our guts that we are compelled to share our lives with them, just as Christ does with us.