The Elusive Neighbor

July 10, 2016 – 8th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10.25-37; Psalm 82

On Wednesday, like many of you, I went to bed knowing Alton Sterling had been shot and killed in Baton Rouge. On Thursday morning when I sat down to work on my sermon I read the news that Philando Castile had also been shot and killed. God, have mercy, I thought. On Friday morning, like all of you, I heard the news that five police officers, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens had been shot and killed in what had been a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest march. A nonviolent protest about legitimate grievances that black Americans face—hijacked by violence.[1] Christ, have mercy.

How does one find words to say in a week like this one? Like you there are a cascade of thoughts and feelings in my mind and heart.

As I thought about the familiar story of the Samaritan and the man who had been robbed and beaten and left for dead on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, I was also thinking about a black man driving his car—it doesn’t matter where, really—just driving his car. He was approached by others and was shot and left for dead.

The minutes passed by. His son wailed in grief by his father’s body with no one to comfort him. His four-year old daughter, still buckled in her car seat, started to cry. In their sorrow we hear the words of the psalmist,

“Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Several hours went by. But no Samaritan arrived. The man died. Where was the Samaritan?


In the biblical story, we can assume the man who is robbed, beaten and left for dead is a Jew. While he’s lying wounded in the ditch. Two other Jews—a priest and then a Levite (a person who served alongside the priests in the Temple) came down the same road, see the man who is injured and bleeding and they crossed to the opposite side of the street. For whatever reason, some of them probably really logical, understandable reasons, they didn’t get involved.

But the man is still lying in the ditch, so injured that he cannot even cry out for help.

Then a Samaritan came along. He also sees the guy lying half dead in the ditch. He’s moved with compassion and his impulse is to help the wounded Jewish man.

Samaritans and Jews, you may know, were not friends. They despised each other in fact. Each considering the other a heretic. Samaritans and Jews disagreed about the proper place and the proper way to worship God. Samaritans were descendants of both Jews and non-Jews. They were part Jewish but not all Jewish. Today they might be called bi-racial. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was so great that if the man who had been beaten was able to crawl for help, he might have preferred to crawl on his hands and knees than to be helped by a Samaritan. And it would not have been surprising for the Samaritan to look at the injured man and think, “He got what was coming to him” or at minimum, “He’s not my concern.”

But in this story, what we would expect is not what we get. The Samaritan becomes the means of healing and restoration of life for the wounded man. Without the Samaritan intervening on his behalf, the man would have died.


But for the black man driving in his car, there is no Samaritan.

It’s not like this is the first time it’s happened—not the first time someone has been shot on this road. In fact the road is strewn with black bodies. The road is dangerous and everybody knows it. And I keep wondering, if the road is dangerous and everybody knows it, where are the Samaritans? Where are the people who bind up wounds and take people to the hospital and pay the bill and check back to see that they are recovering? More than that, where are the people who have organized themselves along the road so that no one has to go there alone? So that everyone has a community to make it from one place to the next place safely and still alive? Where are the people who put their bodies on the line all along the route to make sure there are no more beatings and no more robberies and no more shootings and no more deaths? Where are the people demanding of the powers that be:

“Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Now I don’t mean no one is working on this. But collectively we have not moved the needle to decrease the amount of violence targeted at people of color. And we have not moved the needle to decrease the use of deadly violence as an outlet for frustration, disagreement, anger, and fear.

Not enough of us who are white have made this our problem. Not enough white people have decided that white supremacy and white privilege are a problem for us—as well as for communities of color. Not enough white people are convinced that we are a big part of the problem and therefore we must be part of the solution.

We are part of the solution when we fall on our knees and recognize that this way of living is killing us too. Not in the same literal killing that people of color experience but in the deep dehumanizing that we absorb into our hearts and minds in order to maintain systems and structures that enforce and preserve our privilege.


Central Presbyterian Church is a congregation that has had a commitment to social justice for decades. Our commitment is rooted in the Bible and the many times we hear, all throughout Scripture, of God’s intentional concern for those who are most vulnerable and most at risk in our communities. We are continuing that commitment in the projects that have grown out of New Beginnings: supporting kids in our neighborhood schools; developing closer relationships with our neighbors who come for lunch on Wednesdays; and standing as an ally and advocate for Simmons College of Kentucky in part by doing our work to understand and dismantle systemic racism. (If you haven’t signed up to be part of one of these three endeavors, you can find more information and sign up sheets on the table outside the sanctuary.)

Even more today our work in our community feels significant as an expression of God’s good news and as a witness to God’s redeeming love. But I also want to be careful that we do not think that is all we must be about. It is too easy to let the killing of black men and women and children be someone else’s problem.

Years ago I heard the acapella women’s group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, sing “Ella’s Song.” The refrain and one stanza go like this:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes[2]

And so we do the holy work of mourning and lamenting and crying and then we gather ourselves together and we continue to do the holy work of working for justice, building relationships and responding to God’s call to be a neighbor.

In the biblical story Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus does not ask, “Who is your neighbor?” He asks, “What kind of neighbor are you—[what kind of neighbor are we?]—to those who have been left for dead?”[3]

Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote a poem titled “Shoulders” that could be an appendix to the story of the Samaritan.


A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.[4]

* * * * *

[1], accessed 9 July 2016.

[2], accessed 9 July 2016.

[3], accessed 9 July 2016.

[4], accessed 9 July 2016.


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