The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, New York City]

One of my earliest pop culture memories is that of a friendly faced, slender man taking off his suit coat, hanging it in the closet, and putting on a cardigan. He’d change out of his outside shoes to slippers, and, all the while, sing gently an invitation:

“Would you be mine, could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood was a safe place, a place where angry voices were reconciled, where divisions were healed by empathy, where everyone was a neighbor, with a place in the neighborhood. All were welcome.

Race, religion, gender didn't matter, and everyone, person or puppet—everyone was welcome to Mr. Rogers.

That’s what we all called him. In fact, he was the Reverend Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister of the Gospel, who from 1968—when I was two—to August 31, 2001 told children throughout the world that they were special, that there's only one person in the whole world that's like you, and that's you. And people can like you just the way you are.”

Nearly two weeks after Mr. Rogers went off the air, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 began what will soon be 18 years of endless war. In this war-forged America, neighborliness is a trait that seems to be harder and harder to find.

Today, the New York Times warns us that ICE is mounting a major operation to seize those who it believes are not lawfully within our borders. On the same page, the President of the United States has told four Congresswomen—all women of color—to go back to the countries they came from. Three of them, of course, were born here, and the fourth came as a refugee, rising to represent her district, and thus her state in the U.S. Congress.

At our southern border, we are caging asylum seekers and their children in facilities that have been described by observers as “concentration camps.” Rather than impel our government to improve the conditions, the a highly technical debate over the name has ensued, over whether the term “concentration camp” can be applied to anything outside of the Third Reich.

Not that it is relevant, but the British created concentration camps, overcrowded, crude facilities that held prisoners without trial, during the Boer War of 1898-1902. We called them internment camps when the United States imprisoned Japanese-American citizens en masse, because their ethnic origin made the government distrust their loyalty (unlike German-Americans, who remained free unless there was evidence that they took action against the United States).

So never mind the nomenclature, look at the reality on the ground. As Judge William Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals described our modern-day camps, the children are “cold all night long, lights on all night long, sleeping on concrete and you’ve got an aluminum foil blanket” against the cold. In response to Judge Fletcher, the United States argued that its legal obligation to provide “safe and sanitary conditions” to migrants who are children do not include soap and toothpaste.

Not all those children are held in camps. But the number that have been separated from their families is itself a daunting figure. Something like 3,500 children have been separated from their parents by our Government, with no plan to keep track of the children in place.

The war at home has other casualties beyond those who seek asylum here, though.

Racist and antisemitic violence continued to plague the country, increasing by 30 percent from 2014 to 2017.

The Anti-Defamation League and the SLPC have recently issued reports warning of a new kind of hate group: men who express violent anger toward and loathing for women.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has also documented a rise in hate groups focusing on women as the primary target. Describing misogyny as the “gateway drug” into the world of hate groups, the SLPC has cautioned that violence against women, always rife in abusive relationships, is becoming a cause of its own.

In 2018, a Florida yoga studio was the scene of a mass shooting by an avowed male supremacist. As the Washington Post described his beliefs, “The term encompasses a worrying new array of assaults by men who view women as genetically inferior, inherently treacherous or unwilling to provide them with the sex and submission they see as their birthright."

How far we have fallen from the gentle request of Mr. Rogers to his viewers, “won’t you be my neighbor.”

Jesus would have recognized our world, though. And the familiarity of today’s gospel reading should not blur how radical it was when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and, sadly, how radical it still is in our time.

The original auditors would have been shocked at the events of the parable. That of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, the one who would show mercy would be the hated Samaritan would appall the listeners. That it would be the Samaritan—the hereditary enemy, and not the most holy of the People of God—who would cross over and take care of the injured man, pay for his stay at the inn, and promise more money if it was needed turns the moral order of those listening to Jesus completely upside down. The shocked lawyer—as always, my other profession doesn’t come out well in the Gospel—can’t even simply say “the Samaritan.” He can only answer “the one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus’s truth, even in a parable, is so subversive of the moral order which informs this lawyer’s life, that it is literally unspeakable.

But always, this unspeakable truth has a way of mirroring life. Mercy wells up in the human heart, in the volunteers who offer sanctuary, the lawyers who provide free representation in immigration hearings. The shooter in the yoga studio was stopped by a brave young man who struggled to stope the senseless violence. The families of his victims forgive the racist shooter who in 2015 killed 9 Christians in prayer the American Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina. Heather Heyer’s father forgives her murderer, yet another white supremacist.

So the parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a moral lesson about mercy over righteousness. It’s a reflection of the deepest wellspring of human nature. It is hope, when our hope fades.

So shines a good deed in a weary world.

Let me tell you a story.
One day, 22 years ago, I was shocked to wake up in a hospital. I was even more shocked when I was discharged later that day. I was newly unemployed, I still had insurance, and, apparently, my blacking out the night before was not going to kill me. The emergency was past, and I could go home.

The sun was beginning to set, and the hospital was not in a good part of town. I couldn’t find a cab, and it was a long walk to my apartment.
I headed downhill, and after a few blocks, I began to get that uneasy sensation that you can get when someone is following you. I sped up, but I was still tired. I heard footsteps behind me, and a man passed me, and turned to face me.

He was African-American, about my age—early thirties, at the time. Taller than I am, and bigger than I was then. An athlete by the look of him.

And I was a tired, washed-out white guy in a neighborhood that wasn’t familiar. So he says to me, and this was just the cap to a perfect weekend, “I just got out of prison today.”

I nodded. Really, what did I have to say to that?

Then he goes on: “I haven’t done anything good for anyone else in a long time. A really long time.”

He paused. Then he said, “You look like you’re having a tough day. Let me walk you home.”

I didn’t want him to. I didn’t trust him. I didn’t want anyone, even if I had trusted him. I just wanted to slip away, alone, get home and forget all about being in that hospital, of having lost consciousness. But I didn’t know any way out. So I said yes.

We didn’t talk much that I remember. We just trailed through the City until we reached my door. I fished out my keys, ready to disappear into my safe bright little box. And the man turned around to face me again.

Here it comes, I thought, expecting—what? Him to ask for money? A mugging? I honestly don’t know that I had any expectation. Just that something was going to happen.

And then it did.

“Thank you,” he said, clearly meaning it, and he took my hand.

“Thank you,” I heard myself say, not really having planned to. And he disappeared from my life.

Who was my neighbor that day? The ex-con, the other. The man who wanted to turn his life around, and wasn't sure if he could.

And was my friend, even though I never knew his name, on the day when I needed one most.

We are all each other’s neighbors, as Mr. Rogers taught us as children, as Jesus taught the young lawyer. Sometimes you’ll be the injured man in the road. Sometimes you have the choice—to be the Samaritan. To pass by on the other side, or to show mercy. To love.

Seize that moment. Trust your kindness. It’s the best of you. And it’s of God.