By Rev. Ashley Harness
Good morning beloveds. This is our Sabbath summer time of year. But even Jesus paused his Sabbath to tend to the wounds of his community. Like last year when we paused our Sabbath summer to grieve the deaths of Mother Emmanuel church, where a white man killed black church members in a bible study, we pause again this summer to grieve today. This has been another week of aching grief, of anger, of death. This week we lost another two black lives to police brutality, bringing the national total for the year to 123, according to the Washington Post. And we lost 5 police officers protecting peaceful protestors, to a lone gunman. I feel sick to my stomach, sick in my soul. This is a far cry from mercy.
As I stood at the Governor’s mansion this week with the scores of Minnesotans grieving, raging and grappling with the death of Philando Castile (or Mr. Phil as the kids at JJ Hill Montessori School called this man who knew their names, their food restrictions and what it took to get an early morning smile out of each of them) I kept thinking about our scripture story for today. “Who am I in this story?” I wondered to myself. Because it was painfully obvious who Jesus would tell me my neighbor was:
This week, my neighbor is:
- A Black beloved elementary school cafeteria worker, driving with his girlfriend, her four-year old daughter, and allegedly a taillight out on his car, in Minnesota.
- A Black father of five selling CDs out of his trunk to support his family in Louisiana.
- The 121 other Black fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, sisters, mothers, daughters, aunts killed by police just this year.
- 5 police officers from a force in Dallas working to reform, working with #BlackLivesMatter organizers at Friday night’s protest, shot down by a lone gunman.
Let me be clear. Each of those people in their glorious and complicated humanity is my neighbor. But I’m going to focus on my Black neighbor today, specifically those dying in the streets at the hands of police. The lives of police officers matter just as much as the lives of those being killed by police. Of course. Every killing is a tragedy we must condemn. And at the same time, we do not live in a country with an unchecked epidemic of police being killed. I spoke to a Black, retired police officer last Thursday morning during the protests at the Governor’s mansion. His face was pained as he told me about a book he had written for Black kids, trying to teach them how to avoid being hurt or killed by police. He wrote the book because he had seen police brutality up close and is now trying to find a way to end it. He is my neighbor. The police are my neighbors. And today, I’m going to focus on the people that retired police officer is also focusing on these days – those being killed by police.
Back to our scripture story. The priest saw the bleeding, beaten – or in today’s world, shot – body and crossed the street, away from it. So did the Levite. The priests Jesus is talking about here were people of tremendous status, holy in the sense of being set a part, considered morally pure. They were supposed to represent God and performed very specific duties in relation to temple ritual life. Levites were a subset of these high priests, with specific military duties. They were armed guards of the temple. Those who transgressed their authority could be literally slain (Num 1:53; x 32:25-28). Yet these priests abandoned the pain of the dying body in front of them.
When I imagine a high priest of today, I see a white, evangelical, straight man preaching the supposed gospel of loving the sinner while hating the sin, of colorblind kindness, of riches in response to God’s favor, of no women let alone queer women in the pulpit, of gun rights as God-given rights. In other words, I see the kind of religious leadership that has left me feeling like I was lying in a proverbial ditch at times.
This is a part of my truth. But it also let’s me off the hook way too easily. We all have some of this priest and this Levite in us. Let me tell you about mine:
I grew up in a white, class-privileged slice of Minnesota. It wasn’t until I was sitting in a classroom at college on the east coast, learning about race in the United States, that I first woke up to my own racial identity. We had just finished watching a clip from the movie The Lion King. We were watching the scene with the evil hyenas who taunt Simba, the young hero. And our professor, a white woman, pointed out that the voices of all those hyenas were Black voices, using African American Vernacular English. Then she walked us through Disney movie enemy after enemy and how they were almost all racialized cartoon characters. And then she gave us all a quiz on African American Vernacular English grammatical rules. All the white kids failed, of course. The script flipped.
That was fifteen years ago. I’ve been working on my whiteness since then, trying to understand it so I can find ways to put its power in service of those whom it is designed to hurt and oppress. But I’m still a teenager in my conscious relationship to my whiteness, really. Do you remember being a teenager? Do you remember the anxiety, the trying to fit in, the constant comparison to others to figure out how you stack up? The insecurity in your own perspective, your own voice, the proving yourself, the obsessive mirror-time? That’s the stage of development my whiteness is in. It’s got pimples and anxieties and inconsistencies and a flaring temper. It’s an exhausting stage of emotional development, being 15.
It is from this well-intentioned, but still very much learning place that I can become like the priest and the Levite, walking across the street to avoid the Black body struggling to stay alive. This is what it looks like:
Sometimes, in conversations with my fellow white folks, I walk across the street from the dying black life by smiling in silence when somebody says something racist that they might not even know is racist. It’s not that I want to ‘fit in’ in that classic teen way and stay cool with my fellow white folks, but that I don’t know my own voice well enough to know what to say. So I mentally walk away because I can.
Sometimes, in racially mixed company, I walk across the street from the dying black life with the silent paralysis of my embarrassment at the well-intentioned but still painful comment by a fellow white person. It’s as though I’m afraid their white obliviousness will somehow rub off on me and I will no longer be seen as one of the “good white people” by my friends who are Black. In reality, I’ve not only walked away in those moments from the dying Black life by leaving my Black friend to address the issue, but I’ve walked away from the white person’s potential to learn and grow.
Sometimes I walk across the street from the dying black life when I turn off the news, shut down Facebook, tune out the noise of the radio. Because in my corner of the white world, I’m not missing anyone at my dinner table because they were shot by police. I can pretend it’s all not happening.
Sometimes I walk across the street from the dying black life because it just hurts to look, to see, to feel the pain of centuries of racism and white supremacy. I cross the street with my coping strategies of defensiveness or emotional shutdown because I so desperately want to believe that this horror is from another time, that there weren’t as many police murders of black people last year as there were lynchings at the height of Jim Crow. But there were, according to Alabama’s Tuskegee University.
There are so many reasons and ways I cross the street from dying Black bodies as a white person. There are so many times I am the priest or the Levite in our story. We all are sometimes. But the Good News is that this is not where the story ends, either in our scripture story for today or, I believe, in the story of my life or our lives today.
Enter the Samaritan. What’s a Samaritan? The Samaritans were a sect of Jews who were of rather low esteem in the eyes of the most Jews in Jesus’ day. They were essentially Jewish outcasts. And yet, these are the people on whom Jesus focuses on in this famous scripture we know as the Good Samaritan story.
As the story goes: “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”
When I try to imagine the Samaritan today, I struggle. It’s not because I can’t imagine anyone. It’s because there are so many ways I see the Samaritan’s spirit alive and well – in the vigils and protests across the country this weekend, in the strategy meetings of organizers – black, people of color and white – to end police brutality, in the social media posts of friends holding other friends accountable to their truths, in the racial justice taskforce here at Lyndale UCC working on finding our own way forward together that embraces all of us in all our complexity and on all kinds of racial justice issues beyond #BlackLivesMatter too.
There are too many ways to be a Samaritan in our world right now to name. But what I see in myself in my good moments and in common with all these folks is this. The Samaritan was an outcast. I think it was that he was faithful to his own pain as an outcast and that allowed him to be faithful to the pain of the man lying dying in the street, to tend his wounds gently and lovingly, to hold him close, to stay with him and make sure he was cared for even when he had to go. That is faithfulness, that is staying in relationship even when it’s messy and bleeding on you and challenges your very soul. Faithfulness to pain – our own, and each others – is the key I see this morning to this story.
I don’t think we should call this story the Good Samaritan anymore. I think that misses the mark. You don’t have to be good, or have the right tactics or strategies or words. You just have to stay in it. Stay present. Stay humble. Keep listening. Keep learning. Stay in relationship with the pain, with the love, with the sacredness of your neighbor. I think we should call this story instead the Faithful Samaritan.
Jesus says, “You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Put another way, to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, Jesus says we must love the Divine that dwells within ourselves and our neighbors. We must be faithful to the holy pain within ourselves from our own unique life stories so that we can be faithful to the different and particular pain the dwells in the bodies of each other, so that we can be the Faithful Samaritan to each other.
We are all the priest and the Levite in this world. And we can all be the Samaritan too. Who will you choose to be in this moment? Will you be faithful to the pain inside you that can also teach you to be faithful to the particular pain inside Black bodies? I believe we can. As Jesus said of the Faithful Samaritan, “Go and do likewise.”
 Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 662-663.