This is the final sermon I preached to my beloved internship congregation, after spending 11 months with them in Littleton, CO. It also falls on the morning after George Zimmerman's not guilty verdict in the murder of Trayvon Martin. To say that a flurry of emotions accompany these words is a grave understatement.
Let Streams of Living Justice, ELW 710
Let Streams of Living Justice, ELW 710
It amazes me sometimes which Gospel texts are on which Sundays—what are the odds that on my final opportunity to preach the word to you, I’d be assigned some of the verses I think are most important out of our entire canon? Funny how the Holy Spirit and the lectionary conspire, sometimes.
Oh, and since this is my last sermon here at Holy Trinity and I have so many things I want to say, I just had to be upfront and apologize to Linda Jantzen that, like my first sermon to y’all, it probably has three and a half main points—but it has just one theme.
Love your God and your neighbor.
There’s a sticker on my car that says it, if you’re wondering how important I think it is. Love your neighbor. Love them with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. You don’t have to listen any further if you don’t want to, because that’s all I’m really going to say. Jesus finishes the parable by saying to go and do likewise. So, feel free to go, now, and do.
Or stay and hear me out.
When I was in high school, we had a weekly bible study on Tuesday nights with our youth director, Jonathan. Jonathan was very frustrating, because any time anyone would ask a question, he would respond with a question—I don’t think he has ever given me a straight answer about anything. It was a sort of “stump Jonathan” game, because we wanted to test the depth of his knowledge—which was extensive—but he was too clever for us.
What was, in retrospect, great about Jonathan’s tactics was that he taught me to try and figure out the answers to my theological questions myself, and was off the hook for any time he had no clue what the answer was, himself. I have to admit that, when I now lead his youth in Bible Study on our summer mission trips, I employ the exact same strategy.
In today’s Gospel, we have a game of “stump Jesus,” in which a lawyer asks two of his best gotcha questions. First, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”—and of course, Jesus does not answer directly, but turns the question back onto the questioner! “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Jesus asks. True to form, the lawyer answers correctly—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 love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus gives the lawyer a gold star, but he’s not done. His second gotcha question—who is my neighbor? This is the important question with the important answer. We are all so comfortable with “love your God and love your neighbor” because we do not know who our neighbors really are.
It is often very easy to love the people that live next door to us because it is likely that they are like us. It is very easy to love the people sitting beside us in church because it is likely that they are like us. There are a lot of people that it is very easy to love. People we have known for a long time, our dearest friends and family—though not always—and everyone we have surrounded ourselves with based on the fact that it is easy to love them! They are like us and they are not threatening and their lifestyle looks like our lifestyle and we go to the same schools and the same grocery stores and the same bank and they have a car like ours and a job like ours and isn’t it just so nice to have so many lovely neighbors.
But that’s not how Jesus answers the lawyer. He tells a story of a man who is beaten nearly to death on the side of the road, and the upstanding citizens—a priest and a Levite!—who skip right over this man who is obviously very much in need of their love, and the Samaritan who is moved with pity and stops.
Very rarely will you hear me spout out the Greek words of a gospel text—because none of us are Greek scholars, so it doesn’t do us a whole lot of good. But this story includes my all-time favorite Greek verb. Σπλαγκνα. And “moved with pity” is an okay phrase but what σπλαγκνα really means is love that comes from deep within your core. Gut-love, my undergrad Greek professor taught us to translate it. And I hope you can recall a moment in your life where you were moved, viscerally, to gut-love for someone. Or where you can tell that someone who cared for you did so out of σπλαγκνα.
Since you’re Greek scholars now, you may also know the words φιλεω ερος αγαπη. These are the Greek words for different kinds of love. These words are based on who the love is for – family or friend, romance, divine. It’s interesting to me that σπλαγκνα never appears on this list. Maybe this is because σπλαγκνα is not to or from only a specific group. Anyone can σπλαγκνα anyone. Or maybe it’s because God does not have a gut from which to σπλαγκνα. But this Samaritan man did, and so, in Luke’s gospel, he σπλαγκνα’d this devastated traveler.
And that’s because σπλαγκνα is no ordinary love. It’s an extremely rarely-used word in the New Testament. Only two other times, actually. In Matthew 20, Jesus is “moved with compassion” for some blind people. σπλαγκνα. And in Philippians, the Apostle Paul loves the church at Philippi because of the love of Christ…both of those “loves” are σπλαγκνα.
Jonathan, my aforementioned youth director, didn’t take Biblical Greek, but I’m pretty sure he understood the concept of σπλαγκνα, because while you’re probably familiar with the term “heart to heart” conversation, Jonathan calls them “gut to guts.”
And when I studied abroad in Türkiye, we learned a toast that is said among the dearest of friends: “cam cam’a değil can can’a” – not glass to glass but soul to soul. Not glass to glass but gut to gut.
This is what we’re talking about, here. Love the Lord your God gut-to-gut. Love your neighbor around this table not glass to glass but soul to soul.
This man from Samaria—this man who by virtue of his birth was seen as less than human—is the only one in this story who has known the real meaning of love, and has known just who his neighbor really is.
But Jesus didn’t tell this parable about a real-life Samaritan man. This story is not about somebody else. He doesn’t tell stories for our amusement or our observation. This story is about you, and it is about me, and it is about people we know and it is about people we do not know. It is about every person who has ever heard it. And it is not about being nice. The weakest interpretation of the words of Jesus is to respond simply with niceness.
What this man from Samaria has done for his neighbor was necessary and merciful and compassionate and more than just nice. But, what happens when this man, upon his regular travel of this road, notices that, each time, there is an injured man, beaten and bloody on the side of the road. What happens when robberies continue to occur regularly, and he continues to help these victims, and continues to pay this innkeeper? While he’s doing necessary good, he’s perpetuating an existing, damaging system. What happens when this man begins to ask why there are so many robberies along this road? What happens when he begins to seek to change the way the world around him functions? It is in the immediate interest of these dying men to receive medical attention—this much cannot be denied. But it is in their best interest to walk a road that is safe, where they are free from harm. It is in the society’s best interest to address the needs of those who rob their neighbors—what could be done to keep them from resorting to criminal activity to provide for their families? Seeking justice for ALL your neighbors is to truly love them.
You have heard me before quote the words of Dr. Cornel West, an activist and professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, who is known for saying that “justice is what love looks like in public.”
This parable should lead us out into the public square to love our neighbors in broad daylight. To seek justice for our neighbors on the steps of our capitol buildings.
Catholic social reformer Dorothy Day has expressed this in a way that has sort of become my motto. She says,
"Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one's life for the sick, the maimed, the leper. But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?"
The charitable work that the church has done, historically, in the name of love has been so necessary and so good. And Holy Trinity has been no stranger to that important work.
Five times a year, we house and feed and transport and love families who are experiencing homelessness. What if we sought justice for those families, by advocating for living wages and fair housing practices, to the point where Family Promise as an organization was no longer necessary?
During the school year, we tutor and feed and love the Whiz Kids, who need a hand to get up to speed in school. What if we sought justice for those kids, by advocating for equitable school funding and teacher salaries and extra-curricular activities that allowed them to thrive—and, alongside their education, fought for a system that paid their parents enough to adequately feed them throughout the week?
Every few months, some of you gather together in worship with the women of New Beginnings Church at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, loving those women by treating them like the beloved children of God that they are. What if we also sought justice for those women by advocating for a criminal justice system that does not disproportionately sentence women of color to harsher mandatory minimums, and a correctional system that does not dehumanize them through isolation, poor medical care, and violent means of control—and systematically disenfranchises them forever, once they are labeled felons?
It is time that we take the words of Jesus seriously and make the move from mercy to justice.
It’s going to be hard. Justice in this country is complex, and often our criminal justice system disappoints us. Last February, in Florida, a 17-year-old unarmed black boy named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman. Last night, a jury pronounced him not guilty of murder. This verdict does little to reflect a society where neighbors are loved or where justice is served. The verdict itself notwithstanding for just one moment, there is still a young boy who is dead who should not be. There is still a neighborhood watchman whose life will never be the same. This encounter reflects a society for whom fear has overpowered love. The tears that this verdict brought to our eyes came from deep within our guts, deep within our souls. As we try to put the broken pieces of our hearts back together as we mourn Trayvon all over again, our guts are telling us, still, to seek justice.
Our guts and our God are telling us that this must not be the way we treat each other. We must love our neighbors, not fear our neighbors. What if we loved our neighbors so viscerally that we took that love so far as to never be silent when it comes to the sanctity of their lives—no matter who they are?
And so because this is the last time I will stand in this pulpit and tell you what I think Jesus is saying to us, please listen to me when I tell you that this is what he means when he says to love your neighbor.
This is what I have meant for the last 11 months when I have asked you to advocate alongside me for our neighbors whose voices have not been loud enough to effect change on their own.
This book and the stories like this that fill its pages are where I get those ideas and those words. You won’t hear me saying them anymore, after today, but they will still be in this book. And they will still be on the lips of every one of our neighbors who has been crying out to God for justice.
When you love with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind—when you do that in public—justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Go and do likewise.