This morning, I preached this sermon on the Good Samaritan at First Presbyterian Church in Argenta (North Little Rock). After church, I went out to lunch with some friends. When I walked out of the restaurant, I saw a black woman crying. She was 58 years old. Her home just burned down in a fire. She approached a white woman to ask for financial support, and the woman had literally shooed her away and said “ask one of your own kind.”
This is why I stand with the black lives matter movement. Because we do not live in a world where all lives matter. Yes, all lives DO matter, but I’m not sure that any demographic has experienced more hatred and less affirmation of their humanity. No group in the history of the United States has been as dehumanized as the black community. This movement is about protecting, cherishing, and affirming the belovedness of black lives. I will proudly and loudly say that black lives matter until society actually reflects this truth. Until people like the woman who shooed the black woman away to “her own kind” recognize that she in fact sent away her neighbor.
Below are Prayers of the People I prayed in church today (written by Rachel Shepherd) and the sermon I preached.
Black lives matter, y’all.
Prayers of the People
Creator God, we thank you and praise you because you made us and everything we see. In the beginning, all lives mattered equally: the plants yielding seed, the fruit trees of every kind, the swarms of living creatures in the water and on the earth and in the air. As people began prioritizing their own power and privilege, you noticed that some lives seemed to matter more than others. You sent prophets to remind us: “Slave lives matter! Poor lives matter! Widowed and orphaned lives matter!” We responded that all lives matter and turned away, not wanting to make the changes your words required.
When you came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, you continued to make your priorities clear: “Lepers’ lives matter! Samaritan lives matter! Children’s lives matter! Women’s lives matter! Hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and imprisoned lives matter!” We responded “All lives matter,” and nailed you to a cross for the crime of calling us out. After a very real and painful death, you rose again to share meals and good news with the people you loved.
Holy Spirit, you placed a flame in us so we can’t help sharing the good news. You remind us still that the “least of these” lives matter to you. Be our vision so we might see the world through your eyes. Grant us the courage to speak the truth in love and proclaim: “Black lives matter! LGBT lives matter! Homeless lives matter! Muslim lives matter!” When we honor the less privileged people among us, we do not diminish other lives but affirm that all lives matter. When others light a candle, it in no way diminishes the brightness of my own. Let us continue standing in solidarity with the least of these until every candle is lit, our broken systems are healed, and your image is honored in every life.
Thank you, Holy One, for being with us our whole lives and for continually pushing for balance and dignity for all people. Our voices are joined in solidarity now as we pray the words Christ taught us: [Lord’s Prayer]
One day a teacher of an adult Bible class got up and tested [Jesus] with this question: “Doctor, what does one do to be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What does the Bible say? How do you interpret it?”
The teacher answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your physical strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
“That is correct,” answered Jesus. “Make a habit of this and you’ll be saved.”
But the Sunday school teacher, trying to save face, asked, “But … er … but … just who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus laid into him and said, “A man was going from Atlanta to Albany and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand-new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway.
“Now it just so happened that a white preacher was going down that same highway. ‘When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by.
“Shortly afterwards a white Gospel song leader came down the road, and when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas.
“Then a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow, and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped and bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water-jug to wipe away the blood and then laid him on the back seat. He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital and said to the nurse, ‘You all take good care of this white man I found on the highway. Here’s the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can’t pay it, I’ll settle up with you when I make a pay-day.’
“Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three-the white preacher, the white song leader, or the black man – would you consider to have been your neighbor?”
The teacher of the adult Bible class said, “Why, of course, the nig – I mean, er … well, er … the one who treated me kindly.”
Jesus said, “Well, then, you get going and start living like that!”
This depiction of the Good Samaritan is found in the Cotton Patch Gospel. Its author Clarence Jordan was a white southerner who, in the 1950s, believed that the radical nature of the Gospel was getting lost in translation for his fellow white southerners. He placed Jesus’ ministry in a new context: the Deep South. The Samaritan in the “Cotton Patch” version is a black man who helps a white person left for dead on the side of a highway.
I love this re-imagining of the Good Samaritan. A narrative that imagines the Samaritan as a black man in the Deep South reminds us that this is not a simple, feel-good, moralistic tale, but a story of radical neighborliness. It’s a powerful message. No wonder this story transcended the walls of the church; it’s practically become part of popular culture. There are laws and charities named after this parable. It’s even a colloquial term for an ordinary do-gooder who sees a need and responds. The story of the Good Samaritan is almost too familiar. We know the story so well it doesn’t make us uncomfortable anymore.
One scholar has said, “The purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” If we hear this story and don’t feel uncomfortable, we aren’t listening closely enough. When we treat this story as a simple, heartwarming lesson about kindness, we become desensitized to the transformative message at its heart.
To understand the truly radical nature of this parable, we also need to understand the story of the Samaritans. They were not simply outcasts; they were the hated and despised enemies of the Jews. They were the unclean, foreign and strange Others. They became a despised people over the course of several centuries. In the 6th century BCE, when Assyrians destroyed the temple in Israel, they also exiled the most educated Jews, or the upper crust of society in order to deprive the Jewish people of its leadership. Only the poorly educated and impoverished Jews remained. The Assyrian king then sent foreigners into the country to intermarry with the remaining Israelite population. They attempted to carry on their Jewish customs, but after a few generations their worship evolved into practices that more closely resembled paganism than Judaism. These descendants are who became known as the Samaritans. They were considered “half-breeds” and “impure,” a “mongrel abomination.” (sound familiar?) Later, Samaria became a place of refuge for Jewish outcasts; Jews who were excommunicated, criminals, and refugees found safety in Samaria, thus increasing the hatred. Even though they had a shared genetic and religious ancestry, they considered their differences irreconcilable.
This is why the very phrase “Good Samaritan” is radical in and of itself. Those two words were an apparent contradiction, yet Jesus unapologetically chooses a Samaritan, an Other, to be the hero of the story. This is why the Cotton Patch’s Good Samaritan, a black man in the role of the hero, is a good and faithful retelling of the parable. This is the interpretation that was needed in this particular cultural and historical moment.
Scripture is a living text. To live faithfully in the world as a follower of Jesus, we must have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. So now, I invite you to imagine the story of the Good Samaritan rewritten once again, but in our current context, the year 2016. I invite you to recall the news from this past week and imagine whom you would cast in each role in the parable. Who is the person left for dead on the side of the road? Who are the robbers, responsible for violence with no apparent consequence? Who is the priest and who is the Levite, distancing themselves as much as possible from the man left for dead in the street? Who is the Samaritan?
Which character are you?
With Jesus’ parables, I believe it’s natural to read ourselves into the text. We search for the spaces we fit into the story. I also believe it’s natural and tempting to read ourselves as the heroes. No one wants to be the robbers. No one wants to be the priest or the Levite. We want to be the Samaritan. We want to believe that we would show mercy to the person left for dead in the street. As much as I know I want this, I also know it’s not true. I know I’m not the Samaritan. Honestly, I think it’s really difficult for anyone with white skin to be the Samaritan. Difficult, but not impossible.
I’ve spent most of my life oscillating between being the priest, the Levite, and the lawyer. In the past, I have seen the suffering of the Other and promptly distanced myself, both physically and emotionally. I become the Levite and priest anytime I willfully separate myself from the pain of the black community. Any time I deny the ways I have benefited from white privilege and systems that were designed to protect me and not others. If the priest and Levite had drawn closer to the man left for dead instead of further away, they would have to face some truths about themselves I suspect they’d rather not admit. Perhaps they’ve spent a lifetime hiding under the veil of willful ignorance. They would rather look away and keep scooting by than admit they could do something about their neighbors’ suffering.
I’m also the lawyer because I’ve searched for justification in creating that distance. The lawyer asks Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?…Who is my neighbor?” The law in Leviticus he’s referencing defines neighbor as his fellow Israelites. The lawyer is really asking Jesus, “Whom don’t I have to love? Surely you don’t mean I have to love non-Israelites?” I’ve been the lawyer every time I’ve thought or said that black people were “naturally more violent,” or that black community needs to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work for what they want,” or anytime I’ve used the phrase “black on black crime,” or any other time I’ve dismissed the suffering and the reality of what black lives live through. Anytime I buy the cultural narratives that somehow blame the black community for their own suffering, I become the lawyer justifying my ever-expanding distance.
This is why being the Samaritan is so difficult and exactly what I believe makes the Samaritan good. When there was a choice to either draw nearer to the pain or to create more distance, the Samaritan chose to draw near. To draw nearer to someone else’s grief instead of running away. To run toward what might be uncomfortable, scary, and eye-opening, instead of intentionally ignoring that pain.
For churches that follow the lectionary (the set of Scripture readings that follows a three-year cycle), the last time the Good Samaritan was read in churches was during the summer of 2013. The night before, George Zimmerman was declared “not guilty” of the murder of Trayvon Martin. That means that the morning after a man was acquitted of the murder of an unarmed black teenager, churches across the country heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was also after this acquittal that Alicia Garza first penned the words “black lives matter” as part of a love letter to the black community, thus creating a hashtag and beginning a movement. This morning we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan a few days after the murder of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Today also marks a year to the day when Sandra Bland was pulled over and subsequently incarcerated and eventually killed. This is significant. We can look back over the last three years and mark progress, or lack thereof. What has changed? Anything?
My personal story of discovering how my whiteness impacts the way I move through the world follows a similar trajectory as the birth of Black Lives Matter. In the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death and his murderer’s acquittal, I began the process of lifting my veil of white privilege.
I grew up in the segregated town of Beaufort, South Carolina. I attended what I later learned was a “white flight” school, a private school founded in the 60’s so white parents wouldn’t have to send their children to the newly-integrated public school. I could probably count on one hand the number of people of color I interacted with in my whitewashed childhood. My framework for understanding the world was through an exceptionally privileged lens. In college I became a sociology major before I even totally understood what sociology even meant. Happiest accident of my life. I slowly began deconstructing what it means to have white skin in this country and how much of a privilege it was to not have to think about race. During the summer of 2013, I was working at the Urban Ministry Center, a day center for people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte, NC. More specifically, I was a soccer coach for a homeless women’s street soccer team. My job was to reach out to women, invite them to soccer practices, foster a trusting community among the team, and then coach at the Street Soccer Homeless US Cup held in New York City. A week after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, six women experiencing homelessness, nearly all black, and I piled into a minivan for a thirteen-hour road trip from Charlotte to New York City. They of course were in charge of choosing music and we found a black radio station, playing music exclusively by black artists and with black radio hosts. It still remains a mystery to me how we managed to play this supposedly “local” station nearly the entire way to New York, but we listened to it nearly for many hours. And I just had my hands on the wheel, eyes fixed on the horizon ahead of me, laughing and shaking my head at the music, the conversations, the dancing, and other shenanigans in the seats behind me.
We were nearly there. The hosts of the radio station were about to begin the next song when they asked a question to be discussed after the break: “Did black people care more about the Trayvon Martin trial than white people?” For a split second I was completely taken aback. I was afraid of the answer to that question. But women I was with knew the answer. The atmosphere had transformed in an instant. There was shouting. A resounding “YES.” There was anger, which quickly became tears. Then wailing. Grieving. I did nothing but listen. I listened to black women cry about Trayvon Martin’s death, but quickly realized they were not mourning one life. They were mourning injustice. They were mourning a broken system. A system that was built for and does nothing but benefit me, but brought this van full of black women to wailing tears. And I listened. I listened and bore witness to a pain that I have never felt and will never experience. I had never been in a space like that before, nor had I ever sat with the despair of a grieving community in this way. I gripped the steering wheel, my now tear-filled eyes fixed on the horizon ahead.
There are bodies lying in the street. Who will be their neighbor?
I said earlier that it’s difficult for white people to be the Samaritan. But it’s not impossible. Our roles in the story aren’t fixed. Just because I’ve been acted the part the Levite, the priest, and the lawyer in the past, that doesn’t mean it’s who I am today. But I have to actively decide to draw near. Practically speaking, this means I educate myself. I read articles and books written by people of color. I use the Root magazine as a news source because it provides black perspectives on current events. This past Friday, my housemates and I attended a protest on the steps of the Little Rock Capital building. I joined hands with my black brothers and sisters. We sang together. We cried together. We prayed together.
What if the Samaritan is good because of the simple decision to draw nearer to the pain instead of backing away? I’m the Samaritan only in my best moments. Our roles in the story are fluid. They aren’t fixed. And some roles in the story are closer to the kingdom of God than others. What if eternal life, what the lawyer was so concerned about and started this whole conversation, might also be known here and now? In this place? In nearness, not remoteness? In deciding to be closer, and not searching for ways to push away?
Make a decision. The kingdom of God is near. Pray for the courage to approach it. Be the Samaritan.