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Will the Ink of Our Prayers Ever Dry?

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (July 10, 2016)
Luke 10: 25-37
“Will the Ink of Our Prayers Ever Dry?”

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  You have wondered this or you probably would not be here this morning.  The lawyer-perhaps more appropriately called the “religious scholar”-asked the identical question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus’ responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  Every good Jewish person knows these words from Deuteronomy; they are placed in mezuzahs, those little cases on their homes’ doorposts.  Jewish parents pray these words with their children before going to bed, almost like “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

But note well: to inherit eternal life, Jesus didn’t just say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might;” he added these words from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

While we come here this morning because we care deeply about our relationship with God, Jesus presses us to care for our neighbors as well.  Could it be that in loving our neighbors, we catch a fuller vision of the Lord our God?

So, who is our neighbor?  Andrew Wright emailed me on Wednesday, asking that we remember Alton Sterling in our prayers, the African American man tragically murdered earlier this week in Andrew’s hometown of Baton Rouge.  The prayer ink was barely dry when I read a blurb on Facebook from my seminary classmate Patricia Lull, the bishop of St. Paul Area Synod, asking for prayers in the face of the horrific shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota.  And then, only forty-five minutes later, someone said in the church office, “We should also pray for the two homeless men, Angelo Denardo and Shawn Longley, savagely murdered in San Diego–I was shocked to hear this news having just moved from San Diego where I did extensive ministry with the homeless community.  We changed the prayers, yet again, and thought them ready for this morning only to awaken Friday and receive word that more horrific violence had occurred, this time five police officers shot dead: Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa.

Will the ink of our prayers ever dry?  Will our tears for the senselessly murdered ever cease to flow?

In these tragedies, we cannot help but wonder if our sense of who our neighbors are is far too small.  The human tendency in the face of mistrust, fear, and outrage is to shrink our neighborhood, lock our doors tighter, fortify our borders, and protect our congregation from all that scares us half to death.

Oddly, Jesus’ tendency was just the opposite: he flung the doors open and welcomed the neighborhood’s ostracized ones.  He did this by telling a parable, the one of the Good Samaritan that still causes us to lean forward in anticipation as Jesus begins, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”

Unless we domesticate the parable like a cute little puppy, it bursts our limited notions of who our neighbors are.  We too easily tend to be like the religious scholar in Jesus’ parable who was well versed in the biblical purity codes.  When we come upon the badly beaten, we wonder how we dare contradict the Bible by embracing the unclean.  Or we tend to be like the priest on his way to Jerusalem who had far more important matters to tend to than stooping down to castaways along the way.

It is the third person in Jesus’ parable, the detested outsider, we dare not miss.  He rounded out his relationship with God by erring on the side of mercy, scandalizing the holier ones.  He refused to let the suffering person remain on the side of the road even if that meant running afoul of sacred scripture by touching what might be a lifeless body and facing ritual defilement.

We know this beaten one, of course we do: he is the young African American man brutally murdered, the ridiculed police officer shot to death, the outcast Muslims spat upon, those in the LBGTQ community condemned from pulpits like this, he is even Jesus hanging on the cross enduring the most wretched of deaths.  Will we stoop down to bandage their wounds or will we cross over to the safe side?

There are always detractors who offer reasons why we should walk on the safe side and let the ostracized suffer.  History demonstrates repeatedly that biblical proof texts can always be found to support all manner of dastardly behavior toward our neighbors.  Jesus counseled a better way; he urged us to stay on the dangerous side of the neighborhood, trusting that we might catch a vision of eternal life as we stoop down and bind the wounds of our broken neighbors.

In Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Huck had to decide on which side of the road to walk.  He had to decide whether to return his friend, Jim, back to his “owner,” Miss Watson. Huck knew it was illegal to harbor an escaped slave.  He mulled over this decision and finally wrote a letter to Miss Watson, telling her where she could find Jim.  Before delivering the letter, Huck pondered the time he and Jim had spent together. He looked at the note and said: “It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I know it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘all right, then, I’ll go to hell-and tore it up.’”

Almost always, when it comes to loving our battered neighbors, we come to the moment, just like Huckleberry, of saying, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”   When we dare to say this, we trust that Jesus will never forsake us as we demonstrate such brave and brilliant love on the far side of the street.

The world desperately needs religious communities who err on the side of mercy.  I pray Holy Trinity will be such a people, flinging our doors wide open for all who come by here.  Amen.