“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” Remember that song?! It is, a beautiful day in God’s neighborhood. On this Sabbath, it’s good to be here as God’s people and sing God’s praises. Jesus is teaching us. Jesus is healing. And, a half-dead man in the neighborhood is cared for, and brought back to life by a Samaritan. And Jesus tells us, “go and do likewise.” Go, and help to create your beautiful neighborhood!
Praise to God for the commandments that teach us what to do: “You shall love the Lord 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.” “Do this and live!” says Jesus.
But, who is my neighbor? Is she the one that lives next door? Is he the one who I meet on the streets? The one I work with? The one that just moved in on my block, from across town, or, from across the ocean? Who is my neighbor, that I may love him or her?
How many remember this story of the Merciful Samaritan, or, as we used to call it, the Good Samaritan? Traditionally, the Lutheran church has been very good at teaching this. We’ve had good church education programs: Sunday school, for the younger kids; Confirmation classes, during middle school, and various high school programs and adult classes, studies and retreats. Probably the most memorable is the way we’ve taught catechism. Years ago, you had to memorize Luther’s Small Catechism and recite it back. Be tested on it! So, you may have had to actually go up in front of the whole congregation on your confirmation day for this. If you were lucky, you knew in advance what the pastor was going to ask you. Name, or shame! Later, it became the practice to have a written test in class. This isn’t so much different from what the lawyer and Jesus were doing, testing each other about the catechism of the day. “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” the lawyer asked? Learning the basics is important. But depending on them for salvation is not what Jesus had in mind. Jesus came as God’s son to fulfill the law, by who he was, and how he lived with us. He en-fleshed God’s realm and kingdom for us, here on earth.
Jesus asks the lawyer what he thinks, and commends him for reciting from the Book of Moses: “Do this,” says Jesus – love God and your neighbor – and you will live!” Jesus Sends him out to live it. But the lawyer is stuck on debating. Are we sometimes more like this – stuck on what we believe and debating about it? How do we change our love of doctrine and catechism, into love of “going and doing?”
Jesus tries a new tack with him. He tells the story of the Merciful Samaritan, the story about the third person who stopped to help a man beaten and left for dead on the side of the road.
Something like this happened in our neighborhood recently. A woman was walking down Catalpa in the middle of the day, in broad daylight, when a car passing by stopped, and the passenger snuck up from behind, surprising her and hitting the woman over the head! He stole her purse, leaving her bleeding, as he jumped in the get-a-way car. I’m not sure if others passed by on the other side without helping, but a neighbor witnessed it from inside his house and came out to her rescue, calling an ambulance and the police and getting her the help she needed. That was not a good day in the neighborhood, except for, this neighbor who reached out and showed mercy. Jesus’ question about who is the neighbor, is very clear here.
But the remarkable thing about the Merciful Samaritan in Jesus story is that he was an avowed enemy. Not like an enemy in war, but more like an estranged cousin, one we know well, who was related and part of us, but something terrible happened to break relationship with him or her. Or, in this case, a whole class of people, more like a split in the Lutheran church, or another denomination, and now worship separately, across the tracks, in a different neighborhood, we try to avoid.
Who do you think was a neighbor to the man left for dead on the side of the road? If we can just get this question right, we will have our prize, eternal life! Right? It’s not that difficult a question! But I want to know if I have it right, that I may pass ahead to the next class, and all will be well! I can go back to my private life and “pursuit of happiness!”
When the lawyer answers Jesus, he doesn’t pick one of the three persons. He uses a descriptive action word, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” “Go,” and “do!” These are action words too. Perhaps the lawyer has now caught the Vision?! We know our neighbor by his/her actions: not by where they live or what country they come from, or what religion they are. But we know our neighbor by what they do: a neighbor shows mercy.
We pass the test – not in memorizing the words, nor in believing correct doctrine – but when we “go, and do,” like the Samaritan. We pass the test in living out what we believe, in connecting our belief in God with our life in the world. It’s relatively easy to share the peace here inside these walls, but it really counts in the world outside of here, Monday thru Friday, where, when our faith comes alive, we make it, “a good day in the neighborhood.”
Finally, imagine yourself – not as the Merciful Samaritan – but as the beaten up one that needs help, and is dependent on the kindness of a stranger! If you were in that position, do you think you would worry who it was that reached out to pick you up, dress your wounds, and pay for a room in the inn?
When we are, acting as neighbors, our differences and doctrines don’t matter, and can’t save us. Only our, beliefs put into practice, the way we contribute to making our neighborhood beautiful, can connect us to the realm of God. It’s no secret: “the word of God is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to [live out, and] do.” That’s what makes it a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Amen.