july 11, 2010

Anna Blaedel
July 11, 2010
Psalm 82
Luke 10:25-37
First UMC, Osage
(with help from Feasting on the Word)

On New Year’s Day, 2009, on a BART platform in Oakland, California I myself have stood on countless times, 28 year old Johannes Mehserle fatally shot 22 year old Oscar Grant.

Mehserle, a police officer, claimed Grant was resisting arrest, though multiple videos taken during the arrest dispute that.
Witnesses and digital video show another white officer punching Grant at least twice in the face, and standing over him shouting racist epithets.

Mehserle is white. Grant was black.

Grant was face down on the ground, unarmed, hands held behind his back. Mehserle shot Grant in the back, while Grant was restrained

Mehserle’s only defense was that he meant to pull his taser, but instead accidentally pulled, and at point blank range shot, his gun.

Grant died seven hours later, leaving behind a four year old daughter.

The verdict was handed down this last Thursday. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a 2-4 year sentence. The sentence was handed down from a jury that didn’t have a single black woman or man on it.

My heart is breaking. For the family and friends of Oscar Grant. For the communities in Oakland, held in a state of shock, outrage, and disbelief. For all the people who have too many reasons to distrust a justice system that too often is unjust. Yes, even for Mehserle, who has taken a life…committed an act of violence…with whatever intention…that can never be undone.
Oscar Grant’s family urged a nonviolent response to the rage so many feel. They called on people not to allow their anger to erupt in violence, continuing the tragedy.

God, help us.

I could not help but draw connections between this horrible set of events, and our lectionary texts this morning…Psalm 82, and the parable of the “Good Samaritan” from Luke’s gospel account.

Hear again the words of the Psalm: God calls the judges into God’s own courtroom and says, “Enough! You’ve corrupted justice long enough, you’ve let the wicked get away with murder.”

Grant’s mother, upon hearing the verdict of involuntary manslaughter, said, “The system has let us down, but God will never let us down.”

The psalm continues: “You’re here to defend the defenseless, to make sure that underdogs get a fair break; Your job is to stand up for the powerless, and prosecute all those who exploit them…”

God, help us.

On April 23, the Governor of Arizona signed SB1070 into law. Proponents and critics alike call it the “broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations.” Failing to carry, at all times, documents identifying you as a legal resident of this country is now a crime. Police are mandated, not just allowed, but required, to stop anyone, anyone, they think might be in this country illegally. I doubt any of us, here, now, could actually offer documentation of our legal status. Remember, this isn’t a driver’s license. Do you have your birth certificate on you?

This bill, which will go into effect in August, does nothing to resolve the issues of violence and smuggling along the boarder. It does not address our economic dependence on cheap labor. It is an unfunded mandate. It even makes it illegal to give food, water, shelter, or space for worship to undocumented immigrants.

It does give legal license to pick on undocumented immigrants, along with all US citizens and legal residents of the state, or those passing through, who happen to look and talk like immigrants. It is a good thing this law wasn’t in effect on that road between Jerusalem and Jericho, so many years ago. The Samaritan looked different, and talked different, and was just passing through. He was not a citizen. He was helping a man of unknown immigration status. He might have been arrested and deported before he could have helped the man left for dead by the side of the road.

God, help us.

Psalm 82 is a cry for God, the Chief Justice, to take action. The issue is not an absence of God’s justice, not an absence of God’s action, but a failure on our part to actively pursue justice. The psalm is set to strengthen our resolve and conviction that God can, that God desires to, use each of us in building a more just human community. The psalm calls us to look to God for vision, and to depend on God with humility as we go about trying to do what God requires of us, which is to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly.

God, help us.

This morning’s gospel text is one of the most familiar parables found within all of Jesus’ teachings. The parable of the “Good Samaritan” points to the essence of Christianity.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, familiarity can breed a certain contempt.

Well known evangelical preacher Jim Wallis asks, in conjunction with this parable: When a parable becomes a cliché, can it still function in the life of the community? A “Good Samaritan” is commonly recognized as anyone who comes to the aid of another. But is this really what Jesus was getting at? Was he only offering a variation on “Be helpful when you come across people in trouble?” Was he just giving us a parable to make us feel guilty when we ignore a homeless person?”

Wallis offers these responses to his own questions, “I do not want to exclude offering help to those depending on the kindness of strangers, but this parable goes beyond that. It not only lays down a big challenge but makes an even bigger offering of gospel or good news. This is a story for people who recognize that they are on a journey—not just a journey from womb to tomb, but from birth to rebirth, from partial life to abundant life. The gospel proclaims what God pours into the hearts of all those who journey in a dangerous world…”

Wallis concludes, “This is more than a parable about a helpful stranger; it is about the transforming power of God at work in those who travel the dangerous roads in our world, mobbing us into the fullness of life, eternal life, here and now.”

We are all called to be on a journey from birth to rebirth, from partial life to abundant life.

A few years ago, a twelve year old Palestinian boy, Ahmad Khatib, was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers near his home in the West Bank. The boy had been playing outside, and holding a toy gun. After two days in hospital, he died. His parents, grief stricken, understandably angry, made the decision to allow his organs to be harvested for transplant…to Israelis. Six people received his heart, lungs, and kidneys, including a two-month-old infant. Ahmad’s mother, Alba, said, “My son has died.
Maybe he can give life to others.”

These parents journeyed into a depth of compassion I find almost unfathomable, and fueled by a deep knowledge of the love of God, they loved their neighbor, and began to life into eternal life.

The demographic designations in these two contemporary stories mean something to us, don’t they? Likely, they mean different things to different people, but we understand something of the background tension, the conflicted history when I say: white police officer…young, urban black man…undocumented immigrant…illegal status…Palestinian…Israeli soldier…
The word “Samaritan” would do the same for the original audience of Jesus’ parable. The Samaritans were “those people…” The people you don’t want for a neighbor…the people you don’t want for a pastor…the people you don’t want next to you in the pew…they were outsiders…different…their religion was viewed as odd, even abhorrent by the Levite priests.

Who would we least expect goodness from? Who would we least expect to be helped by? Who are we least likely to help? Who, even, would we not want to stop, if we were vulnerable, by the side of the road? Who would we go out of our way to avoid, looking the other way, justifying our indifference, assuring ourselves that after all, someone else will likely come along soon…

That is who the Samaritans were.

This parable does so much more than endorse compassion, generosity, and kindness toward strangers. It demands that its hearers, that we, embrace opportunities to practice love for others in powerful ways…especially when it goes against everything we think we know. It challenges us, stretches us, invites us, calls us—to work with, rather than against, God’s transforming power, justice-love, and invitation into eternal life, in this life.

In the midst of these signs against hope, I want to share an image of hope, a glimpse of this parable beginning to be lived out, here.

On June 27, after worship, a few of us gathered downstairs in fellowship hall for the Coffee & Conversation about United Methodism that all of you were invited to. My beliefs changed because of this conversation.

We talked about John Wesley’s firm and unwavering belief that we, WE, are made perfect in love in this life.

I, along with most United Methodist pastors I know, haven’t quite found it in us to agree with Wesley. Perfect in love…in this life?

I want to believe it. I believe some come close. I believe even more earnestly try, and commit their whole hearts and lives and souls and strength to this sacred tasking. I believe this is the call, the ideal…But perfect in love? In this life? Maybe it is simply knowing how far I still have to go that has kept me from seeing this as a real possibility.

And, I am too aware of all the ways we hurt each other…In big, obvious, awful ways—like Oscar Grant’s death…like the law in Arizona, and all the ways God’s children are finding their humanity and sacred worth reduced with words like ‘alien’ and ‘illegal.’…like the countless deaths of unarmed Palestinian children at the hands of heavily armed Israeli soldiers…

And the ways we hurt each other in the small, daily, but still damaging ways: harsh words spoken in church kitchens, talking about each other behind backs, making assumptions, sharing gossip, telling half-truths, expecting others to be just like us, turning away from someone in need because, well, do they really deserve our help?

As a saying I recently heard goes, a saying I have taped to my office desk: “We hurt people and are hurt by people because we are people.”

Perfect in love? In this life? Whew.

But. As this small handful of us talked and thought through this belief of Wesley’s we came to new understanding, and I began to believe it might be possible. Not easy, but possible. And, that being perfected in love might be the same as becoming a Good Samaritan.

The root of “perfect” is connected to “purpose.” Meaning, our purpose is to love. Our God given, God created, God desired purpose, our very reason for being, is to love. Love our neighbors as ourselves. To hold as our purpose, to commit our lives to, to order our days around…Love.

That is what God wants from us. That is what Jesus teaches us. That is what scripture commands of us. That is what the Spirit enables from us…

What do we need to do to get eternal life? Love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and love our neighbor as our self.

Because we need each other. We need each other to learn to live and love. We need each other to fulfill our God given purpose. We need each other to survive.

God, help us…

May it be so. Amen, and amen.