Dangerous Unselfishness

Sermon for Sunday, July 10, 2016 || Proper 10C || Luke 10:25-37

dangerousunselfishnessDuring the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.

This morning I’m supposed to do part three of our four part series about being born again as followers of Jesus Christ. But instead, I need to talk about what has happened this week in the United States. I’m not qualified to comment on the killing of black men by police officers; nor am I qualified to comment on the killing of police officers by snipers at peaceful demonstrations. What I am qualified to talk about is my own experience growing up in the Deep South as a white guy.

So I’m going to tell you about the four times I’ve been stopped by the police. Two of them happened when I was sixteen for rolling through stop signs. One of them happened when I was driving my almost ex-girlfriend’s car, and her inspection sticker was out of date. And one of them happened when I drove into Texas for the first time on Interstate-20. About half an hour into Texas, I got pulled over by Officer Clark of the state troopers who wanted to know why I had been driving in the left lane for so long. I had never been in a state where you had to drive in the right lane except for passing. There were signs but I didn’t really understand them. And he and I had a wonderful conversation about me going to Dallas to work at a church, and then he let me go.

Never once when I was stopped these four times by police did I fear for my life. Never once was a police officer rude to me. Never once did I feel threatened. That is not the experience of our black brothers and sisters. The more I read about the shootings of people pulled over, the more disheartened I get about the state of race relations in our country.

Growing up in Alabama I saw firsthand the sublimation of racism. It wasn’t too overt in the 90s, but it was there simmering below the surface. I lived about ten miles from where George Wallace stood in the doorway of the schoolhouse at the University of Alabama to bar entrance of the first black students to matriculate there. That legacy continues down from parents to child.

This week, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police officers when they were stopped. Philando Castile and I graduated high school the same year. I read about him this week: he was a lunchroom supervisor at a magnet school in St. Paul, Minnesota. By all accounts, he knew the names of all 500 children in his school, and he knew the food allergies of all 500 children in his school. I can’t even remember my own food allergies. He was in the car with his girlfriend and her daughter. He complied with the police, and yet he is dead.

My heart goes out to his family. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video on Facebook, but I read the transcript. I have cried about this. And I think the thing I cried most about was my own inability to do anything about it. Except what I’m doing right now – which is acknowledging that this is a problem in the United States and has been for a very long time, and will continue to be a problem in the United States until we all are talking about it.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the movement called “Black Lives Matter.” There’s a counter-movement called “All Lives Matter.” This counter-movement seems to have its heart in the right place, but from everything I’ve read from the people who run Black Lives Matter says that the All Lives Matter campaign debilitates what they are trying to do.

Of course, all lives matter. But we live in a country where some lives have mattered less than others because of our history, our continued prejudices, and so many other factors. When we acknowledge this history, when we acknowledge that some lives in the the United States have mattered less than others, when we say “Black Lives Matter,” we are raising up that life to the level where it always should have been. We place that group in the “all” category, where it has always belonged.

The lesson for today that I just read from Jesus – the parable of the Good Samaritan – is incredibly profound for this particular discussion. In this parable, Jesus responds to a question from this lawyer. The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Did you notice Jesus doesn’t answer that question? That question is way to easy for Jesus. What’s the answer to that question? Everyone. Everyone is my neighbor.

So the question that Jesus answers (and he does this all through the Gospel, by the way. Any time anyone asks him a softball question, he answers a different, much more difficult question, that he wishes they had asked). The question Jesus answers is, “How can I be a neighbor?”

So we have the joke – this is told in the style of a joke. There are three characters: the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. And in Jesus’ culture, the Samaritans would have been the butt of jokes. Growing up in Alabama, there were Alabama-Auburn jokes (those are the two big colleges who have a rivalry). There are “blonde” jokes. Think of it like. This parable that Jesus sets up is a joke, but the punchline is very different from what people would expect.

So the man is bloody and beaten on the side of this dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The priest goes by. The Levite goes by. Did you notice they don’t just walk by and ignore him? Did you hear what they did? They go to the other side of the road, as far away as possible, and then go by. And then the Samaritan goes by, binds his wounds, and brings him to an inn.

Thinking about this parable this week, I was thinking again about Philando and Alton, these two men who were killed this week, and I was wondering what character in the story they are. It’s pretty easy to see them as the man beaten and bloody on the ground. But truly, they are the Samaritan. The Samaritans in Israel were not trusted, they were thought of as pseudo-citizen half-breeds. And yet Jesus uses one of them as the prime example of compassion and mercy in this story about neighborliness. This Samaritan, if were were telling this story today, would be a black man. That’s who Jesus would be talking about if he were telling this story today in the United States.

Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners and people on the margins. And yet he still cared for all. I do believe that Jesus would say, “Black Lives Matter,” just like he in his own actions said, “Poor lives matter. Widows’ lives matter.” All lives do matter, but sometimes in our society we need to raise up one group that has been criminally subjected to injustice for so long.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes the parable of the Good Samaritan in his final speech, the one he gave on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated.* This was a speech that had nothing to do with race really. He was talking about the sanitation workers in Memphis. And he is talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, about this question about how to be a neighbor, and he says a phrase that is so wonderful. That we need to cultivate a “dangerous unselfishness.” A dangerous unselfishness. A risky unselfishness so that even though we live in a very, very white part of the United States, we do not put ourselves in the position of the priest and the Levite who just close their eyes to the tragedy around them.

Dangerous unselfishness puts us with those who are being treated unjustly, with those who are afraid for their lives if they get stopped by the police. At the end of the passage about the Good Samaritan in his speech, Dr. King brings up two questions. He says the priest and the Levite, when they walk by that man on the ground, are thinking to themselves, “If I stop and help, what will happen to me?” But the Samaritan, when he sees that man is thinking, “If I don’t stop and help, what will happen to him?”

There was a problem with the audio for about 12 seconds around the 3:20 mark, and I had to re-record a few lines.
*The full text of Dr. King’s speech can be read here.


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