“What About the Road?”

Luke 10: 25 – 37 – Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN – Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In our scripture passage this morning, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” That is, who is the one I have to love? Who is the one I can forgo loving? Whom may I legitimately set outside my concern?

Today we conclude our sermon series entitled, “Who is My Neighbor?” That is, who is that we are called to love? Over the last two months, we explored different possibilities of neighborly love. The children and youth kicked off this series with their creative, funny Jonah drama. Jonah discovered that the awful Ninevites were his neighbors For Jonah to say that the Ninevites are his neighbors is like us declaring that the Taliban, Al Quaida, and Isis are our neighbors. That is, even those we would consider our enemies are our neighbors. The following week, on World Communion Sunday, we lifted up children around the world as our neighbors. On Pet Blessing Sunday, we lifted up animals as neighbors – and not just the cute, cuddly ones but skunks, spiders, snakes, and even the lowly worm as neighbors. On Art Show Sunday, we celebrated the artists as neighbors – even those artists who defy conventionality, buck tradition, reject the status quo, and offend our sensibilities. On All Saints’ Day, we honored our ancestors as neighbors. In the Celtic tradition, our ancestors are our closet neighbors because we find them everywhere – not only in cemeteries, but in sunsets, trees, hummingbirds, the sound of a grandchild’s laughter. Last week on Mental Health Sunday, we affirmed that those living with Mental Health challenges are our neighbors. Val McGlasson shared a courageous, informative, inspiring and meaningful personal message about the struggles of mental health. Thank you, Val, for that insightful sermon.  During this sermon series, we have lifted up many different kinds of neighbors and quite honestly, we could continue this sermon series for an entire year. There are infinite possibilities… the outcasts as neighbors, Muslim as neighbors, Jews as neighbors, the LGBTQ as neighbors, the immigrants as neighbors, people of color as neighbors, the elderly as neighbors, the physically disabled as neighbors, even trees as neighbors, ourselves as neighbors (after all, Jesus does say, “Love your neighbor as yourself”). Indeed, the entire cosmos is our neighborhood.

The question is an important one, “Who is my neighbor?” There is, however, another pertinent question. In our hurried attempt to reach the destination of Jesus’ parable, we miss the lessons of the journey along the way. What about the road? What can the road teach us? The road to Jericho 17-mile road that connects Jerusalem to Jericho and in those 17 miles the road drops 3600 feet descending rapidly from a Mediterranean climate above sea level to a desert depth below sea level. It is filled with rocky terrain. In Jesus’ time it was well known and frequently traveled and because it was the shortest path between Jerusalem and Jericho it was an opportune time for people to be taken advantage of.  It was an exhausting journey and robbers often hid behind big boulders. The difficult terrain made both surprise, attack and escape plausible. Violence was so common that it was called the red or bloody way until the 5th century. Until the 19th century people still paid safety money to local sheiks before they traveled there. Jericho road was not anyone’s chosen destination. It was known as a way to go through not a place to go to. There were no family restaurants on Jericho road. No rest stops or enticing activities. Jericho road was not anyone’s chosen destination (Tracy Blackmon, “What About the Road?” sermon, preached in May 2019 at the Festival of Homiletics).

Jericho road had a similar reputation to some of the roads in our major cities today. You know the ones…typically located in the urban or inner-city parts of town. Roads where we automatically lock our doors and roll our windows up no matter what the temperature is outside. Roads we will travel miles out of the way to avoid. Roads that run through the neglected neighborhoods and run-down schools. Roads were nothing seems to grow, not even the church. Reading a parable is about as close to Jericho road as many of us want to come in our everyday lives.

A 2017 U.S. Census data reveals that 20% of our children are living at or below the poverty threshold in this country. There are 33,000 zip codes in the United States. Of those 33,000 zip codes, 20% of them or 6600 are home to 80 % of those children living in poverty. Those same zip codes are homes to failing to school systems, higher health disparities, and less healthcare coverage. These are the zip codes where our Jericho roads are found. We know where these Jericho roads are. Ironically, in many cities Jericho road has been renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. Real estate agents steer certain potential buyers away from Jericho road. Social services are less common on Jericho Road. The life expectancy of those with no other place to go is shorter on Jericho Road. We know these roads (statistics provided by Tracy Blackmon in her sermon, 5/2019).

One commentary described the Jericho road as the 17 miles of violence and oppression. The Jericho Road is a symbol of suffering in the world. 

The Jericho Road is the 17 rooms in the corridors of the nursing homes where Alzheimer’s disease has claimed so many victims.  

The Jericho Road is the 17 blocks where gangs live by guns and drugs are passed out like candy.

The Jericho Road is the 17 blocks in every major city that serve as home to the mentally ill or those without access to safe shelter.

The Jericho Road is the 17-mile border between warring nations, between Nicaragua and El Salvador, Israel and Palestine, Turkey and Syria where thousands of people have been killed. 

The Jericho Road is the symbolic 17-mile southern border where children are pulled from their families; where water, food, and blankets are non-existent, where some hope a wall will be built.

The Jericho Road is any place where there is violence or oppression. The Jericho Road is any place where people are robbed of their dignity, robbed of love, robbed of their food, and robbed of their freedom. The Jericho Road is anywhere where people are robbed of their value as human beings.   

Much more than charity is needed on the Jericho Road. Charity is about rescue, but justice is about restructure. The Jericho Road is God’s call to transformation.

 Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will only be an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, it comes to see the edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”

There are many ways to enter this text. Some will see themselves as the lawyer and some will see themselves as the Levite and some will seem themselves as the priest and some will see themselves as the Good Samaritan, but the only one who can answer Jesus’ question is the one who has no identity except life-threatening wounds. It is not the lawyer who gets to determine the good neighbor, not the priest, the Levite or even the Good Samaritan who gets to define mercy – it’s the one who is naked, battered and left for dead. Are you able to see the Divine in the other? And even more urgently, can the other see the Divine in you? That is where transformation begins.

I had often assumed that Jesus was the Good Samaritan in this parable. The one who extends the hand, the one who comes to save the hurting. But I have come to learn that Jesus is found in the image of the one who is battered, naked and left for dead on the side of the road; the one who is at risk. The one who is in pain. For until we can see Jesus in the wounded ones, in the ones who are left to die…until we can see Jesus in the black bodies and in the brown bodies and the poor bodies and the immigrant bodies and the disabled bodies and elderly bodies then we really haven’t seen Jesus at all. Love that does not liberate is not really love at all. To see Jesus in every living body this is the path we must pursue, and it is the path that will lead us from charity to justice.  Not only a rescued victim, but a transformed road will be within our reach. And there will no more victims. There will be no more robbers on the Jericho road. Amen.

*Thank you to Tracy Blackmon who provided the inspiration of this sermon.