There goes the neighborhood

Dr. Dorothee Benz

May 10, 2009

First and Summerfield UMC, New Haven, CT

Luke 10: 25-37

Good morning, neighbors!

I am delighted and honored to be here today, worshipping with all of you. Thank you for inviting me. Thank you for this opportunity to share some of my reflections on the story of the Good Samaritan.

My title of my sermon today, which I didn’t come up with in time to include in the bulletin, is “There goes the neighborhood.”  

It can be a little intimidating coming into a new place, not sure of how welcome you’re going to be, always wondering if people will accept you if they know who you really are. So I need to get this off my chest, put it out there right up front, and I know there are some of you who may not approve, some who may be affiliated with the local college, but I need you to know I am…a Harvard graduate.

I was told I could include one joke about Yale in my sermon, so I wanted to make it a good one. I started by googling around and ended up wasting entirely too much time reading about Harvard-Yale rivalry lore. But I did find out something interesting along the way: it turns out that all the jokes about Harvard are written by Harvard people, and all the jokes about Yale are written by…Harvard people.

OK, in all seriousness, I do feel welcome here. And I don’t feel the need to hide anything about myself.

That’s not always the case. When I go to dinner at my parents’ house sometimes, if they have guests, they let me know they’d rather I not talk about…that. No, not the Harvard stuff (because, really, outside New Haven, that’s not actually a liability). No, I mean the fact that I’m a lesbian. So I can’t talk about my partner Carol, our kids, all the work I do in MIND or how excited I am that gay marriage is finally being legalized in some states. (And by the way, I hope New York catches up to Connecticut soon.)

There’s one couple that my parents are friends with that they’ve always been particularly concerned about. I’ll call them the Joneses. The Joneses are generally rather conservative, they can be quite judgmental. I’ve heard them say some things over the years that are pretty prejudiced, usually without them realizing they’re being prejudiced. They are old school, old world in terms of “traditional morality.”

And then one day when I was over for dinner I heard all about the Joneses’ new next-door neighbors. This very nice young professional couple, successful, respectable, friendly. They helped the Joneses with things like snow shoveling (they’re in their 80s) and all manner of nice neighborly things. The next thing you know the new neighbors have invited the Joneses to their big expensive wedding…a lesbian wedding. And guess what? The Joneses were thrilled! It wasn’t long before the newlywed lesbians had a baby, and now the Joneses dote on the baby with grandmotherly and grandfatherly affection.

Which brings me to today’s scripture. Like the story about the Joneses’ lesbian neighbors, the story of the Good Samaritan makes the point that it’s not who you are that makes you a good neighbor, but rather what you do. And just as the Joneses have had a change of heart about lesbian and gay people and about who counts as a neighbor because of the neighborly behavior of a lesbian couple, so too the people gathered listening to Jesus were supposed to have a change of heart about Samaritans and again, about who counts as a neighbor.

I say “supposed to” because Luke doesn’t say what the reaction was, and because it was a highly provocative story for Jesus to tell. We all know the story well, perhaps too well to appreciate the significance of its details. A man is mugged and left for dead by the side of the road. The respectable people, the religious official and lay leader, refuse to help; they cross to the other side of the street and avoid the injured man altogether.

And then, as if that indictment of religious and supposedly righteous, upstanding people weren’t provocative enough, Jesus throws in the zinger: the guy that does the right thing and does stop and help the injured stranger is a Samaritan. Samaritans were foreigners. That means in the ethics of Jesus’s day, they had no obligation to stop and help Jews. Indeed, that is obviously part of the point of the story: Jesus is saying that the prevailing understanding that we only have to help our own people, our own clan, our own kind, is wrong. It is not enough.

But there’s more to it than that. Samaritans weren’t just foreigners. They were generally despised by Jews, actively avoided by them. Looked down upon as less than (more than other foreigners were). For Jesus to hold up a Samaritan – of all the choices of people outside the Jewish community – as the one whose behavior exemplifies his teaching, had real shock value. And for him to say that it was this despised foreigner who better fulfilled the commandment of God than the religious authority figure, whoa, that was more than a little edgy. It is the Samaritan who is the hero of this story, the good guy.

By assigning the “correct response” to the situation in his story to the Samaritan character, Jesus is taking an outcast of his society and welcoming him in, saying he is as good as, as worthy as, as righteous as, the most respectable members of society.

And that is something Jesus does over and over again throughout the Gospel. Indeed, someone once it explained it to me this way: Jesus says “love your neighbor as yourself” and then spends his entire ministry blowing up people’s ideas of who qualifies as a “neighbor.”

He touched and healed lepers. He ministered to the poor. He talked to women, he welcomed women into his ministry. He invited children in. He talked to Samaritans. He ate with tax collectors. He helped Roman soldiers. Again and again, Jesus broke every social convention in the book, challenging the prejudices of his day, erasing the boundaries beyond which his contemporaries thought they didn’t have to go to invite people in.

And he makes it unmistakably clear that our job as his followers is to do the same. The story in Luke starts by affirming the great commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” It then goes on to expand (one might even say explode) the idea of “who is my neighbor” and ends with Jesus saying, “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise.” So what does that mean for us as a church? Who are our neighbors? What does this story teach us about how we should live our lives? There are three lessons here I think we can take away from this story.

The first is the most obvious: that if someone is beat up on the side of the road, we should stop and help, no matter who they are or who we are. There is no excuse and no exception because the person is not “one of our own,” whichever “own” we’re talking about. We are called to minister to everybody. I think because of the way Jesus tells this story – having the priest and the Levite, the religious officials, cross the road and leave the stranger for dead – we need to  take special note that those we are called to minister to include the people that the church is ignoring and leaving as roadkill on the side of the road.

The second lesson I take away from this story comes from the way Jesus places the focus in it on the Samaritan (rather than the injured man) and the way he returns at the end to the question “who is your neighbor?” He doesn’t point to the injured stranger and say something like “it doesn’t matter who it is and whether they are from your clan or country or country club, they are your neighbor and you are obligated to help” although that point, as I just said, is clearly there. But it’s not the way he closes the story. Instead, he says, “which of these three [the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan]…was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” And the answer, of course, is the Samaritan. And the significance of saying “the Samaritan is the neighbor,” “the Samaritan is your neighbor” can hardly be overstated.

That’s the point that underscores the Gospel message calling us to welcome and defend the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the oppressed. In today’s world, that might not be lepers and Samaritans, but rather people with AIDS, people of color, immigrants, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, the poor, the homeless, those who have lost their jobs or their homes in the current economic crisis, among others. There is no shortage of people on the margins in our society and our world, and we are commanded to welcome them all in and welcome them as our neighbors.

I want to assert that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT people) are in that category, too. While gay rights have come a long way in the last 40 years, we have a long way to go. In most places we can still be fired just for being gay, and while we can legally get married in a handful of states, many more have passed constitutional amendments barring us from getting married. Gay people are still beaten and murdered every year, and I am still threatened on the streets in my own neighborhood as a “dyke.” Will and Grace may be piped into millions of living rooms, but that does not make home a safe place for queer kids: one in four teenagers who come out to their families is forced to leave home. 25-40% of the homeless youth in our cities are LGBT kids. The suicide rate among gay teenagers is sky high.

So when Jesus calls us to welcome and defend the outcast, in 2009 he is calling us to welcome and defend lesbian and gay people.

There’s a third thing I think we can learn from this story and that has to do with Jesus’s boldness in telling it. He does not shy away from controversy, to put it mildly. There is no hesitation or half-heartedness in his embrace of people deemed beyond the pale by the social standards of his time. He not only refuses to pander to prevailing prejudice, he also refuses to hide behind general platitudes that try not to offend the defenders of the status quo. He is straightforward and explicit in his welcome of all, regardless of the cost.

I’m sorry to say that the institutional church, including the United Methodist denomination, has failed in significant ways to pick up on these lessons. In this particular moment, it has particularly failed to welcome LGBT people and has instead piled on to the prevailing prejudice of the society around it by declaring in its Book of Discipline (the rule book of our denomination) that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” But as you’re just heard, what’s incompatible with Christian teaching is the refusal to recognize the outcast as our neighbors. The Methodist Church goes further, unfortunately, by barring gays and lesbians from being becoming ministers, by prohibiting us from getting married in the church and by allowing pastors to deny membership to us based solely on the fact that we are gay.

So what do we do in response? Surely, if we’ve learned anything in this text we know we can’t just let the church leave LGBT people as roadkill and step over them and keep walking. How do we respond to our gay and lesbian neighbors? What does it mean to love our neighbors here, our LGBT neighbors?

Mahatma Gandhi famously said that you should “be the change you want to see in the world” and to paraphrase, what we need to do is “be the church we want to see in the world.” That means working to change the anti-gay doctrine and the institutional discrimination of the United Methodist Church. There are many, many different ways we can do that work, and I don’t want to say exactly how we should go about it, I just need to assert that we can’t walk away from it. It is work we must do, we must actively take on.

But being the change, being the church we want to see in the world also means simply living the welcoming Gospel right here and right now, making our churches truly inviting and welcoming on Sunday; and on Monday through Saturday, too. Again, I don’t have a set prescription for you on how to do that, but what I think is clear is that it has to be explicit. Unless we explicitly welcome LGBT people in our churches, they will very understandably assume that they are not welcome – after all, we live in a homophobic society and we are part of a denomination that has cast out lesbian and gay people. So if we want a queer person walking through our church doors to feel welcome, we have to say to them “you are welcome here, as a gay person, as a whole person.”

If Jesus could stand up and say “the Samaritan is your neighbor,” then surely if he were here today he would say “gay and lesbian people are your neighbors.” But as the hymn says, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours,” so that task falls to you and me.