Scripture: Luke 10: 25-37, The Good Samaritan
Sermon: “Fried Green Tomatoes”
Anzette Thomas. I still remember her name. She was our very first neighbor when Candace and I got married and moved into family housing at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, my seminary. She was from Jackson, Mississippi and had the sweet southern spirit of a Methodist from the Deep South. One day, as Anzette was walking by our makeshift garden in front of our little seminary apartment, she noticed some tomatoes starting to pop up. She quickly asked if she could nab them before they turned bright red in the heat of the summer and make some, you can guess it, she was from Mississippi, yep, fried green tomatoes. We agreed, especially when she offered to share them with us.
On the agreed upon day of our sharing in a southern treat, we walked across the yard to Miss Anzette’s, knocked on her apartment door, walked in, and immediately noticed the scents of the south and enough food to feed a football team. We realized that she decided not just to cook up those green tomatoes, but she cooked us a full southern meal- fried chicken, beans, grits, cornbread, and yes, fried green tomatoes. It was a delightful meal! Such good food and joyful company!
During the meal, she asked us questions about how we met, my call to ministry, and just inquired about life and I tried my best to follow her lead. As we studied together during our last year of seminary, I realized that she was teaching me how to be a neighbor. She knew my name, my story, my life, offered us some amazing food, and I confess, that I didn’t take the time to learn enough about her.
We can make faith so complicated sometimes. I realize that studying the Bible, reading theology, or even considering how we live out our faith in Christ individually and collectively can be challenging and we should wrestle with things and ask questions, for that is how we grow, but I also think that we can make faith so complicated and hard for ourselves. When I was in seminary, I got to meet so many different people with different backgrounds and journeys. And together we studied so many topics and discussed so many different books and authors,
but there were times when I just wanted to get out of the books and live it out. I wanted to move from orthodoxy (right belief) into orthopraxy (right action). As people of faith we need both and what I didn’t realize is that the seminary educational experience doesn’t end with books and classes; the seminary experiment is about living together, eating together, praying together, and learning to live out our beliefs together.
Our faith becomes clear when we begin to live it out. We might say we love God, but do we love our neighbors? It’s a clear movement from one into the other and you have to have both. It was clear to this lawyer in the Gospel of Luke. He enters into a conversation with Jesus with his own agenda, his own understanding of faith, so he asks the Rabbi a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He’s not asking about the afterlife, that’s not what people in Jesus’ time were concerned about, he’s asking, “How do I have the best and fullest life now, a blessed and peaceful life?” Sounds like a familiar question that we might ask today.
The conversation continues into Jesus asking the lawyer a question. I can’t imagine a debate like this in Jesus’ day, I’m sure they could have discussed for hours, maybe even days. Ask question and get another question. “How do you read the Law (the Torah, the main books for the Jewish people)?” The lawyer was an expert of the law, so of course he easily quotes the Shema from Deuteronomy, which every Jewish child knows by heart. It is the prayer that this lawyer would have recited twice a day as an adult Jewish man. “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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer easily quotes from Deuteronomy and adds from Leviticus 19 that’s clear, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It was absolutely clear, right? Love God, love neighbor. Jesus and the lawyer agree. Case settled. The argument is over. Nothing else to debate, because the Scripture & the Torah are clear. Not so fast! Now the lawyer has a question of his own as he wanted to justify himself and the agenda he came with was revealed.
He disagreed with Jesus’ understanding of neighbor. The lawyer believed that he was living that out already; he was already being a good neighbor to his fellow Jews. So, Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. We ask similar questions trying to justify how we act or react to others, don’t we?
Jesus then shares a parable, a story with a strong meaning, to speak to his understanding of neighbor. It’s a story we’re all familiar with. It’s a parable of a man going down Jericho Road out of the City of Jerusalem. This road is a dangerous one, conducive for an ambush, just like in the story Jesus told. You start in Jerusalem at around 1,200 feet above sea level and by the time you make it to Jericho you’re around 22 feet below sea level. It became known as “Bloody Pass”. It’s a dangerous story down a dangerous road. A first century audience would have known about that dangerous road and how plausible it would have been for people to be attacked by robbers. They would have known that the road was narrow, just a few feet wide. They would have known that a cliff was on one side and a wall of rock was on the other.
They would have expected that the professional religious would have stopped, but the priest saw the robbed and beaten man and passed by. They would have assumed that the pious religious leader, the Levite would have paused to help, but the Levite saw the man and passed by too. In the book that we began studying last Monday, What is the Bible? by author and speaker Rob Bell, he points out in this story that “the logical thing for Jesus to do in the story here is make the third person who does stop a lawyer. Then Jesus could have made his point to the lawyer about how your neighbor is anyone you’re passing by who is in need.” Instead, Jesus shares the very last person they would have expected, the despised, the hated, the outcasts, the Samaritans. A good Samaritan? To this lawyer those don’t exist. Samaritans are not good! Did you notice the lawyer’s response to Jesus’ question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?” The correct answer is the Samaritan. Yet the lawyer answers, “The one who had mercy on him.” As Rob Bell points out in his book,
“You realize what’s going on here? The lawyer can’t even say the word Samaritan. He can’t even say the word.” That’s how much he hates this Samaritan.
We like to think faith is easy, but in reality it’s not. We like to think that the commandments to love God and love neighbor are clear, but is it? I recently saw a statement by a Disciples of Christ Church that reads:
“The Bible is clear: Moabites are bad. They were not to be allowed to dwell among God’s people (which is from Deuteronomy 23). But then comes the story of “Ruth the Moabite,” which challenges the prejudice against Moabites.
The Bible is clear: People from Uz are evil (from Jerimiah 25). But then comes the story of Job, a man from Uz who was the “most blameless man on earth.”
The Bible is clear: No foreigners or eunuchs allowed (from Deut 23). But then comes the story of an African eunuch welcomed into the church in Acts 8.”
We like to accept the teachings that already line up with our way of life, our beliefs, and our common knowledge. We come to Scripture and even faith with our own agendas, while Jesus was one who turned all of that upside down. That Disciples of Christ statement closes with:
“The Bible is clear: God’s people hated Samaritans. But then Jesus tells a story that shows not all Samaritans were bad. The story may begin with prejudice, discrimination, and animosity, but the Spirit moves God’s people toward openness, welcome, inclusion, acceptance, and affirmation.” (this ends the quote)
The lawyer and Jesus agreed on the greatest commandments, love God and love neighbor. And just like the lawyer, we ask “Who is my neighbor?” We attempt to justify our lives and faith by asking more questions, by trying to shy away from the heart of the matter, by claiming we focus on orthodoxy (right belief) that has little to no effect on our orthopraxy (right action). Jesus is challenging all of our labels, assumptions, and judgments we place on others.
Picture the person for a moment who just really, really ticks you off, makes you so angry, maybe even hate. Now can you picture them in the pew next to you? Can you? Now can you picture that person as a beloved child of God? That’s what Jesus was saying here to the lawyer. That’s the one you are to love. They are your neighbors.
In a way, being a neighbor is really quite simple and completely clear. It’s not just those who live next to you, or in your own church, or even in your town, your neighbor is even the one you absolutely despise. This parable is one of being neighborly, yes, but it’s also about checking our own biases and labels and judgments in a way where we become able to learn a person’s name, take time to hear their stories, show a genuine interest and care for them, and respect their unique dignity as a child of God. That’s being a neighbor. That’s eternal life.
At the end of The Book of Joy that is a compilation of an interview between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, each religious giant is asked to close the interview by addressing the reader. Archbishop Tutu closes by saying, “Dear Child of God, you are loved with a love that nothing can shake, a love that loved you long before you were created, a love that will be there long after everything has disappeared. You are precious, with a preciousness that is totally quite immeasurable. And God wants you to be like God. Filled with life and goodness and laughter – and joy. God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity wants you to flourish. God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring, the sharing. And God says, Please, my child, help me. Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion. An you know what, my child? As you do this, you discover joy. Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift, as almost the reward for this non-self-regarding caring for others.”
This is what it means to be a neighbor. It’s to live out these words and to make sure others hear this message as well.
Now, let me ask you- who is your neighbor? The person who lives next to you? Yes. The person sitting next to you in the pew? Yes. The families who live in this neighborhood? Yes. The one you don’t understand. Yes! Those you call your enemies and those you hate? Yes and yes! Now, show mercy. Learn some names, hear some stories, show some love and care. Have mercy. Be a neighbor.
Anzette Thomas, my friend from seminary is now Rev. Anzette and serves as a Hospital Chaplain in Jackson, showed me how to be a neighbor. She took the time to learn my name, hear my story, and show genuine interest and care. Eternal life might just include fried green tomatoes.
Rob Bell, What Is the Bible?
Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, The Book of Joy
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