Sometimes, we just have to marvel at the timing. The readings were assigned by a lectionary committee many years ago, Nicole chose the music on Monday, a 517 day ordeal in a town in Florida has come to an end, and we just got lucky that today was a Healing Sunday. I speak, of course, as one who tries to be faithful and preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper (maybe nowadays that should be internet) in the other. I recognize that the verdict last night has stirred lots of passions. The usual suspects are grandstanding. The winning lawyers are crying that justice was done, the losing lawyers are crying that the justice was denied because of race or other factors, those who make their money off such tragedies are out, or promising to be out, in force, and others are tweeting or facebooking their responses to the world. A young boy is dead. A man is now public enemy number one in many quarters. I would expect that the workplace on Monday will be full of a number of conversations. I expect, if you are known as a Christian in your circle of friends or coworkers, you will be asked what you think, about where God is in this midst, or any other number of such questions. For those of us in the QCA, it may seem distant. On the one hand, we do not seem to have much racial tension around here. And when people try and stir up those tensions, I have firsthand experiences of how our judges work to diffuse those. But in other parts of the country, those tensions may just lie a bit below the surface.
Make no mistake, I do think things are changing with respect to race in this country. Our current President is proof that race is not the cavernous divide it once was, though we would be naïve to think that no one hates him because he is black. Part of the reason the cavern has narrowed, I think, it is driven by the fact that our melting pot is getting bigger and bigger. But, given each ethnic group’s efforts to define themselves as something other than American, or maybe to try to retain a bit of heritage, we always run the risk of racial explosions because, in a real sense, we are no longer just Americans in some parts of the country. In some places, we would call ourselves “Mexican-Americans”, “African-Americans”, “Asian-Americans”, and so on. In some sense, I think parts of the country have forgotten what we stood for. All of us, whether we are members of the DAR or even the Mayflower families, are Eurotrash or some other such undesirables. We laugh, but it is true. Except for the native Americans (there we go again) among us, all our ancestors immigrated to this country from another place seeking economic opportunity or religious freedom or the chance to start over. I wonder if our politicians in DC ever give any thought to that ancestor in their family tree who took that first leap. I doubt most do because I believe our fights about immigration would have more empathy and less name calling, but that is another subject. But in other parts of the country, there is very little effort to melt people in the pot together. Think back to the beginning of this case. Zimmerman was called a white Hispanic, whatever that means, and Martin was a black youth. Then came all the character assassinations, depending on who had the bully pulpit when. Neither the families nor the community had any chance to mourn the tragedy. Neither the families nor the communities had the opportunity to reflect on the tragedy and to see if systemic issues played a part. The battle lines were drawn early by people from outside the community, and the leaders wanted us to choose sides. Is this the best we can do? Have we truly come to this?
The questions began hitting me during trivia last night. The verdict was announced, and social media began to light up about it. Predictably, I had friends on both sides of those battle lines. Some were glad that Zimmerman had been found not guilty because they shared his concerns about their own neighborhoods and their own communities. For them, this trial had become less about the tragedy of a boy being killed and a man losing his freedom in another way, and more about a trail of the so called “stand your ground” laws, never mind that Mr. Zimmerman’s attorneys never used that Florida law to justify his actions. On the other side, my black friends wondered aloud whether their son or daughter would be next. Some of these men and women I have known for more than three decades. They would fit in well among us. They work hard. They cherish their families. If you pay attention to my facebook feed, a couple of them make me look light in the sarcasm department. They saw in the jury’s acquittal the re-valuation of their children. By that, I mean, they genuinely worry that if their kids, on the way to the local 7-11 to get a Big Gulp, passes through the wrong neighborhood, they might be killed and the perpetrator go unpunished just because the kids “looked suspicious” in the eyes of someone else. It used to be they had to worry about other neighborhoods or specific people. Before tonight I worried about my kid/s running afoul of gangs and drug dealers. Now? . . . Are they ever safe? Is their world going to be any different than my parents’? You can imagine the questions. What if it was your son or daughter whom we had buried under these circumstances some months ago? What would be your thoughts? What would be your cry to God?
Thankfully, all of today’s liturgy reminds us of our hope and of our calling. It also reminds us how the world needs to hear the Gospel. Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan, above the noise of selfish strife, we hear thy voice, O Son of Man. In haunts of wretchedness and need, on shadowed thresholds dark with fears, from paths where hide the lures of greed, we catch the vision of thy tears. Did I mention Nicole chose these words before this morning? Better still, Luke’s words today are of the Good Samaritan. It is a parable which we all know, as does much of the world. Like the Prodigal Son, it is a parable which is known by those outside the Christian community. But also like the Prodigal Son, it is a parable with different perspectives. Finding yourself at the water cooler this week and being asked about the verdict and its aftermath and what you think, you can point to the Good Samaritan, and everyone will know what they think you mean. We should always be showing mercy. Certainly, that is true and one of those perspectives. It is the perspective of one who sits outside the story and judges the behavior of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. But, have you ever considered the story from the victim’s perspective or from the perspective of the disciples?
Think back over the last few weeks. Jesus has set His face toward Jerusalem. He knows how this journey will end; yet He has determined to see it through to the end. He has sent His disciples ahead of Him into Samaria to announce that the Kingdom of God has come near through healings and other works of power. You remember Samaria. Samaria was scorned by Israel because the Samaritans did not keep the torah. Though God forbade that they marry other peoples, those in Samaria married outside the Jewish faith. Put in modern language, they were mutts and half-breeds. They were scorned by “true” Jews. And yet Jesus sends His disciples into their villages to proclaim the Gospel by word and deed. And how do the Samaritans respond? They are mad because they can see that Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem. Many refuse to welcome Him. Salvation has come this close, and they have rejected Him. It is tragic. It is also infuriating to some of the disciples. They ask Jesus if they should call down fire. These men, who have just been ministering to the sick and the possessed among the lost now want to call down fire and destroy them! It would be like us calling down fire on places where slaves are kept, destroying them for not seeking the freedom offered. Jesus rightly rebukes His disciples and reminds them that judgment is His and that there will be an eventual consequence to their rejection of God’s messiah.
And now. A lawyer seeks to demonstrate that he is deserving of God’s mercy. He asks Jesus about eternal life and wants the rabbi to tell him that he is a good man, deserving of God’s grace. And Jesus tells the parable. The presumably faithful priest and Levite pass by the man; it is the Samaritan who nurses his wounds and carries him to the inn. Can you imagine the shock to the disciples? Wait, many of them rejected You, Lord? They can’t be the good guys in the story! How will we know those who belong to the Kingdom of God? By their willingness to show mercy. The Samaritan goes to great lengths to show mercy. He spends a couple days’ wages, he gives up his oil and wine, and he sacrifices time as well a potentially safety (what if the robbers are still in the neighborhood). He also reminds us that the Kingdom is often spread one person at a time. Have villages in Samaria rejected Jesus. Absolutely! Has everybody in Samaria rejected Him and His message? Clearly not! Whether it was the man’s study of the torah or the testimony of the disciples or something else we are not told, the Samaritan man has a true grasp of the Gospel. How do we know? Because he lives it!
What of the perspective of the victim in our story? Have you ever considered the absolute reality that he represents each one of us? How many of us here are completely comfortable with the idea that our salvation is utterly dependent upon grace? How many of us are completely unlike the lawyer in the story and perfectly fine with not trying to justify ourselves to one another or to God? Remember, He knows our hearts! How many of us rejected the Gospel the first time we heard it? The second? The twentieth? The hundredth? Even when we did not recognize that we were dead and wounded, lying helpless along the side of the road as we tried to make our own journeys, the Lord continued to care for us. He provided food, He provided rest, He provided those in our life who testified to us of His love and grace, and He bore the cost of us being nursed back to health on that Cross He has set His face toward in our story today. In short, He brought us true healing! And like us before we found that He was seeking to restore us, He is seeking everyone we meet. Whether they know it or not, whether they accept the ultimate consequences of their rejection today or not, everyone we meet is just like we were, in need of healing, in need of being raised up.
It is from that perspective, brothers and sisters, that you and I are privileged to speak into messes like that town in Florida finds itself. You and I, by privilege and by responsibility of that loving Hand that reached down to pluck us from certain eternal death and punishment, are called to be heralds that His kingdom has come and is coming near. Can we understand Mr. Zimmerman’s frustration if robberies were really that prevalent? Sure. But does that mean we need to be arming ourselves to protect stuff? Some may choose to arm themselves, but in the grand scheme is that a disciple’s required response? Or should we not remind ourselves and others that we are to rejoice that our name is written in the book of heaven and not in the collection of toys that will pass away were He to return right now? Can we even understand the desire to be a hero, if that was the motivation behind Mr. Zimmerman getting out of the car after the dispatcher said “don’t”? Assuredly. But we are also a people called to remember that the real job of Savior has been filled! We don’t really need another hero because He has come near, lifted us up, and redeemed us. And can we understand the instinct, if one is being attacked, to fight back with deadly force? Absolutely. But we are also a people who follows a Lord who told us that the greater love is to lay down one’s life for a friend and then modeled that behavior on our behalf, thereby demonstrating His power and authority even over death itself. You and I can face situations which could lead ultimately to our deaths with a hope and confidence at which the world can only shake its head. I do not believe our Lord calls people to risk death unnecessarily or without being aware of the cost. Even our Lord asked in the garden that the cup be passed. But I do believe that when the lives of His people are taken from them, He will raise them up. He has promised and He has demonstrated the power to accomplish even that!
And what message do we have for those who find themselves under suspicion, like the young Mr. Martin that fateful evening? Well, if each of us is trying to live a godly life, we have probably found ourselves under suspicion more than once. Those who face life’s problems or death with a hope and a confidence are sometimes thought to be crazy; at other times, they are thought to be religious nuts. In any event, all of us have found ourselves on the outside of “normal” and of “acceptance.” How do we respond? Do we call upon God to rain down fire on those who reject us? Or do we remember the One we serve and the fact that it is Him being rejected, not us? Do we turn the other cheek, trusting vengeance is His, or do we take matters into our own hands?
And hear me well, brothers and sisters, these are difficult situations and difficult questions. It is precisely for situations like this that our Lord came down from heaven and walked among us. I cannot condemn young Mr. Martin because I do not know what was in his heart. I cannot condemn Mr. Zimmerman because I do not know his heart or what was in it. Only our Lord does. And in the end, He will see that justice is done. If either loved or loves Him, He will vindicate them. In fact, it is entirely conceivable to envision a possibility in which our Lord raises both to the same eternal feast, showing them the wounds that He bore for their hurt, their anger, their fear, their pride, their sin, their loneliness or whatever else that may have precipitated these events, are marked as clearly on His body as those marks of the nails and spear. Such is His love, such is His grace, and such is His power. I will leave the judgment and condemnation to Him because He makes no mistakes, and He saved me when I deserved such condemnation.
Of course, our task is not yet done. In the midst of this, two families are afflicted by tragedy. In the case of the Martin family, the tragedy is that of a lost potentially innocent life. In the case of the Zimmerman family, the tragedy is the likelihood that he will be hounded all of his remaining years for what may have been a perceived life-threatening situation. We can certainly pray for them, but can we do more? Can we identify and learn from any systemic mistakes? Society must begin to examine the events of that night and address those issues which contributed to these events, and you and I can speak into those discussions. Some of these will be hard questions. Some of the questions will seem to have no good answers, just less evil ones. Are “stand your ground laws” appropriate? Should there be a requirement that we listen to dispatchers? Do neighborhood watch people need different training or require more supervision? Does their volunteerism require greater responsibility? Did our legal system work? Were there efforts, successful or not, to pervert what we think of as justice in the American system? How do we ensure the integrity of our system of justice? Do we need outsiders supervising certain cases? Were some outsiders just self-aggrandizing? And, though it remains unsaid in many places, why is one death more acceptable than others? Worse, why do we not get worked up, wring our hands, and watch closely every death and subsequent trial in our beloved country? I was asked if it was true that 11,106 African American men had been killed by other African Americans since young Mr. Martin tragically died--he as referring to a website posting. I had no idea and was dreading the response, knowing, absolutely knowing it was race-baiting. Where were your pastors for those men? Needless to say, that was not the response I expected, nor was it not a powerless criticism. A self-professed unchurched wondering where our leaders were in the face of other deaths . . . black church leaders as white ones who were no wringing their hands about injustice on facebook had said nothing, absolutelynothing about the deaths 11,000 black men, plus how many white, Asian, hispanic, or women in the last 18months. Why? If we truly believe in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, should not the taking of every life be a national tragedy? We know, we who claim Him as Lord know that our Lord values every single human life; should not we as His appointed leaders? And, even though we live at some distance from these tragic events, part of our responsibility is to speak into those laws or attitudes which could lead to a similar tragedy in our area. Whether our neighbors know it or not, we need to be speaking into those systems and those attitudes which make this replicable in our own neighborhoods, even if such speaking and proposing and voting causes us to because outcasts yet again. Neither the discernment nor the fight will be easy, but you and I have been prepared for difficult tasks! You are the little church that called the community to feed the hungry a sit down meal 47 years ago! You are the community that began fighting a $32 Billion industry when you did not truly believe it existed. You are the community that has intentionally called the wider world to God’s healing grace each and every month for nearly 52 years! You can certainly speak, with God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s wisdom, into this mess when asked!
Brothers and sisters, every week you are a sent people. Each and every week I remind you that you are sent as heralds of His grace and love and mercy. This week, you are given the advantage of knowing the likely area of service you will be offering. Like the Samaritan travelling the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, you know the likely route and some of the potholes. Pray that the Lord creates in you the heart, not of the priest or the Levite in our parable this morning, but of the Samaritan, the outcast who modeled Christ before He knew the full extent and power of Christ, and gives you the love of mercy in your heart that you will see and hear the wounded and dying along your paths and speak His life-giving power into their lives! You may not have the answer to all their questions, but you certainly know the way to the One who does!