Sunday, July 15, 2007

Will We Do It? A Sermon

July 15, 2007

Text: Luke 10: 25 - 37 (NRSV)
(textual changes: “Torah” rather than “law” at v. 26; “wanting to show himself to be righteous” rather than “wanting to justify himself” at v. 29; “compassion” rather than “pity” at v. 33. Changes at v. 29 and 33 based on Sharon Ringe’s commentary on Luke, Westminster Bible Commentary, WJK Press, 1995).

“And who is my neighbor?”

That’s not really the question Jesus answers, is it?

The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and you get the sense he’s not looking for a vast universal answer here – not hoping for “well, everyone!” – but an answer that will put some limits on the reaches of his responsibility...or affirm the limits of his responsibility as he already understands them.

But that’s not the question Jesus answers.

The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with the now-famous story of the Good Samaritan, a story which has rightfully inspired hospitals and clinics and humanitarian projects and even laws to protect strangers who help those in need.

But it’s a story which doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. But Jesus flips the question and turns it back to the lawyer: “Which of these was a neighbor?” Who was the neighbor to the man left for dead?

This is the question of essence for Jesus: Who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? The command to love your neighbor as yourself should provoke in us not the attempt to define the other, but rather, the attempt to define ourselves. The question is about us, and who we are to be, and how we are to live in relationship with those around us, particularly those who are wounded, who have been left by the side of the road to die. How are we to love? How are we to tend to the wounded around us?

The lawyer responds that the neighbor is the one who had mercy, who had compassion on the wounded man, and Jesus sends him off to do the same. You know what to do, now go and do likewise. Go and have mercy. Go and show compassion. Go and be like the Samaritan in the story, who does not allow even age-old ethnic hatred and fear between Samaritans and Jews to get in the way of allowing his heart to be moved, of feeling empathy for the man left for dead by the side of the road.

To love your neighbor as yourself, it would seem from this story, is to allow nothing – not even the strongest and deepest of human-imposed barriers – to get in the way of that love, that empathy, that compassion and mercy; in other words, that willingness to allow your heart to be moved, and to be able to see the other as a human being, who suffers, who hurts, who bleeds.

Love this way. Without limits. Go, and do likewise, Jesus says.

Who are the people in our lives who are lying half-dead in a ditch? Who are we being called to love in the way this parable describes...setting aside fears and barriers and all those things which the culture says should keep us at arm’s length from the other?

I want to tell you a story, about a woman and her family, that will ask us to think a little bit differently, perhaps, about who the wounded in our lives are.

I met Rafaela on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week in 2005. She was sitting in the central plaza of Altar, Mexico, with her husband and three young sons. They had just gotten off the bus from Guerrero, a state far to the south, a short time before.

You see, Altar is only about a 30 minute drive from the US/Mexico border. In the last few years Altar has become the “jumping off place” for Mexicans and others who want to cross the border into the US. Migrants gather in the plaza where they can get a bite to eat, buy supplies such as shoes and hats and water, and contract a “coyote,” a guide who will hopefully help them get across the border and across the desert to a pick–up spot.

I was in Altar with a group from my home church in Portland. We had been studying the reality of life on the border, and one of our immersion experiences was to visit with migrants in the plaza in Altar. And so it was it was that I met Rafaela, early in the morning with a desert sun, already warm, breaking in through the trees.

As we approached the woman and her family, before they even saw us, we noted the fear coursing through them in their darting eyes, hunched-over backs, and wringing hands. We could see that they were poor, that they were probably campesinos, that is, peasant farmers from rural Mexico. We introduced ourselves and asked if we could hear some of their story. They regarded us with no less fear, answering our questions quietly, eyes still darting.

Where are you going? we asked.
We don’t know. To the States. After that, we don’t know. We have no plan.
Where are you from?
Why did you leave?
There is no work. We had a little farm, but we could not sell what we grew. We could not survive. We sold our land and now we are here. We arrived on the bus this morning, we have been traveling all night.
Is there anything you’d like to ask us? Is there something you’d like us to know?

Rafaela looked up from her anxious hands, looked into our eyes for the first time, her own eyes red with tears:
I just want there to be a safe place. A safe place for us and our children.

It was a story we heard over and over when we met people who were about to cross the border – or who had just been deported. They could not survive on their farms, or in the cities, they could not feed their children. They just wanted a better life for their families. We heard the story over and over.

In the heated debates these days you don’t hear stories like Rafaela’s. You hear a lot, though, about “the immigration problem.” But I have to tell you, I don’t think we have an immigration problem. Now, I know that may sound like a crazy thing to say in today’s political climate. And the truth is, I’m a little nervous standing up here and saying it. But...I hope you’ll hear me out.

I don’t think we have an immigration problem. I think we have an economic problem. Let me tell you a little bit more of Rafaela’s story.

Rafaela and her husband Felix owned a little farm in rural Guerrero, where they could grow a few things to sell at the local market and make enough money to support the family. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, along with other free trade policies, however, ruined small farmers in Mexico like Rafaela and Felix. Staples of the Mexican farmers, such as corn, poured in from giant corporations in the US at much cheaper prices than what the Mexicans could sell. 2 million Mexican corn farmers lost their jobs and their farms in the aftermath of NAFTA

In the case of Rafaela and Felix, it was coffee. The land around their farm had been bought by a multi-national coffee company, putting them out of business. They couldn’t survive on the pittance wages paid by the coffee plantation. And so they sold their land and all that they had, and headed north.

Some farmers go the larger Mexican cities to try to find work in the factories – US-owned companies like Motorola, Glaxo-Smith-Kline, Levi’s. They are lucky to make the minimum wage of 42 pesos a day – around 4 bucks. How far can 42 pesos a day go, especially if you have children, when a gallon of milk costs 32 pesos? A cheap package of diapers costs 49?

Is it any wonder, then, that these economic refugees head north, where even the hardest jobs – cleaning rooms at Motel 6, putting up houseframes for the newest subdivision, picking tomatoes for Chipotle – pay more in a day than most workers in Mexico see in a month, if they’re lucky?

What we have is an economic problem. We have an economic system which leaves people wounded, left by the side of the road. If we were to put it in terms of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the robbers of today are the economic policies which destroy small farmers. The policies which practically enslave people in the US-owned factories. Policies which force families to choose whether or not to leave everything behind on land they can no longer afford to farm. Policies which force husbands to leave their families, mothers to leave their children, to try to make enough money to feed them.

I have given you a very compact overview here of a complex and devastating economic reality. I could go on for a long time about the impact of NAFTA and policies like it, on families, communities, and the environment – not just in Mexico, but in the US as well. What I want you to hear – what needs to be heard – is that these are economic policies which ultimately care nothing for the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable among us, all in the name of higher profits and cheaper goods. The people are stripped of their land and their possibilities, and left on the side of the road to die.

Last week, there was another immigration raid in Greeley, which is still reeling from the raid last December. On Thursday I went to a march downtown to protest the raids and the general anti-immigrant climate both here in Colorado and in the country. As I carried my sign and walked and joined in the chants, I thought about Jesus, and the lawyer, and their questions to each other, and this parable of a man who ignored society’s condemnation of the person in front of him and simply tended to his wounds.

We can debate the fine points of what’s legal or what reform should look like but those – those are the lawyer’s questions, questions about the limits of our responsibility.

But Jesus flips the question on us. Who is the neighbor to the one left for dead? The one who had mercy, who had compassion on the wounded man, the one who allowed his heart to be moved to empathy for the stripped and beaten, barely living man. To love your neighbor as yourself is to allow nothing – not even the strongest and deepest of human-imposed fears and barriers – to get in the way of compassion and mercy for the human being in front of you.

The question of essence for Jesus is the one which, as Christians, must be the question of essence for us.

Who is the neighbor to Rafaela? To Felix?
Who is the neighbor to María? To Juan?
Who is the neighbor to América? To Miguel?

Who is the neighbor, Jesus asks. The one who showed mercy.

Then, Jesus says, go and do likewise.

Go and do likewise.

Will we do it?

Will we? And if

I hope you will prayerfully consider the question of essence for Jesus, and for thus for his followers.