At events like this one, Nancy was known for her Famous Chipped Ham and Cheese Ball. She didn’t share the recipe and she certainly didn’t just make it for anyone. When I showed up as the new pastor, Nancy had only known me for mere weeks before my ordination which was being held at the church with a reception to follow. And it was a great thing I know when the church secretary gleefully announced that Nancy decided to make her Famous Chipped Ham and Cheese Ball for my reception. I thought there might be a little overselling about this cheese ball, but more importantly, she was taking this step for me, someone who was still a stranger, who was “not from here” and we all know what that means. And after all, I was a new pastor and you never know what you’re going to get. How could she be sure she would want to do this? If she thought it through, she might change her mind. But Nancy, not known for being spontaneous, took that extra step believing we shared something. The extra step.
That’s what Jesus is talking about when he’s asked what someone has to do to be saved, to have life. Of course we know the answer-we know the words: Love God ( say it with me) with all your Heart, and Soul and Mind and Strength. And Love Your Neighbor -As Yourself. We know the words.
But right away comes the question- the limit, the least common denominator- well, who exactly do you mean when you say “Neighbor,” Jesus?
It’s the question of low expectations.
Rather than answer, Jesus opens, as he often does, with a story.
One we know well. About the man who is attacked and left for dead in a ditch. And how two, possible of “his own,” two people just like him, see him… And Pass on by.
Choosing to not get involved, not get dirty. They’d rather not. They pass on by.
But someone no one expected, stopped-The Samaritan. Who is called “Good” In our telling ( not Jesus’). Called “Good” because the audience of the victim never thought anything good about Samaritans. And this belief had formed over centuries, of land grabbing, and punishment, and violence and mistrust, and slurs lived out. And arguing over who worshipped God correctly. And well, more hatred than we have time for today. Yet THIS man, the Samaritan- he didn’t honor the least common denominator, he didn’t fulfill the low expectation.
He saw a need for healing and help and he had compassion.
More than pity- deep in his gut he was moved- his heart was touched.
And he showed mercy.
Mercy is the extra step.
It’s the step that turns that word “love” into real life.
He took that extra step, or probably a few, over to the ditch, and stooped down to meet the man, not just see from a distance.
Then he took the extra steps to walk back to his donkey and get his wine and oil, to cleanse the wounds and begin the healing.
And he probably took the steps to perhaps tear his own clothing to bandage the man’s wounds.
He took more, probably heavy steps, to heave the man, that felt like deadweight, onto the donkey. The donkey that was helping him get where he needed to go easily and quickly. He had somewhere else to go.
But now all those extra steps to walk alongside that donkey carrying the man, to the inn.
And the extra steps to carry the man into the inn, and up the stairs to sleep.
He took the extra steps to reach into his money bag and give the coins to the innkeeper, money destined for his own family. The family who later probably asked him- you did what? For who? Why?
That was our money you gave away!
I imagine him trudging back up to stay with the man and watch all night.
And the next day he promised even more steps- to come back and pay whatever it took.
All those steps- concrete acts of compassion-showed mercy and love without conditions.
Mercy is what can heal and give life beyond mere words.
By the end of the story, Jesus has flipped the man’s question – it is not about “who is my neighbor.
Jesus’ question asks- which man BECAME a neighbor?
Who lived into being a neighbor? With more than words
This is the question of what to expect of love with real flesh and bones.
It’s the question that has the power to shape our lives together in all our relationships.
And it's the question that demands an answer the headline of our paper yesterday read “DO ANY LIVES MATTER?”
And when CNN asks- HOW WILL WE HEAL?
It won’t happen with just more words or some new program.
It takes more than that and more than just us continuing on our way.
Christ is our example. He traveled all the steps it took to save us and give us life. In all the places where left to our own devices, we’d be in ditches of our own devising. All the places where we pass on by because we’d rather not see, places of mistrust. Places where we are fractured and need of healing. There is not a heart unbroken lately.
Christ came to save all of this and we don’t earn this life- all we can do it receive it. Receive God’s mercy like the man in the ditch and give thanks that it is for us. And be so grateful that we can think of nothing else to do but share God’s limitless love.
By making it real.
By something as simple as really seeing someone and reaching out. Or by seeing someone reaching out to us and receiving them.
We’re called to be a part of the unexpected grace not low expectations.
So I invite you to do something unexpected. Please stand as you are able and reach out both hands. Now make an effort to reach someone with your left hand and your right hand. Until everyone is holding every other hand. And not one hand is reaching out, empty.
As long as it takes and as many steps as it needs.
NOW…now we have become neighbors. Keep holding on. This feels different!
Even in small unexpected moments we can more truly become neighbors.
Henri Nouwen wrote-
“Those who choose, even on a small scale,
To love in the midst of hatred and fear
Are the people who offer hope to our world.”
God’s love and mercy are hope for the world
Shown in even one extra step.
Sometimes we are reaching, and sometimes we are receiving
Both are part of truly being neighbors.
Recognizing what others have to give is just as important.
Recognizing that lives matter. AND that healing is not only necessary, it is achievable-
When we reach beyond ourselves. In mercy.
We must take these steps believing we share something.
Because we do- we are all children of God.
Now more than ever, our lives together must be truly lived together
In the belief that in Christ there is hope for God’s world.
We CAN truly become neighbors- let us no longer allow anyone to undersell the power of Christ in this.