Sunday, July 10, 2016

Forty Doors

Who is my neighbor?  Did you know every religious tradition explores this question?  What does that tell you?  It says to me we sense deeply the importance of our connection to one another.  It says we are trying to figure out what we owe to each other (when do I give too much of myself and when do I give too little?).  And it says we believe God has a stake in all of this – that God cares about how we treat one another.

The Quran has much to say about one’s relationship with one’s neighbor. 

“Do good: to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer” that you meet.  (Quran 4:36)

Years ago I heard an Iman speak and remember him saying the Quran teaches your neighbor is anyone who lives within forty doors of your house in any direction.  A Muslim’s duty to a neighbor includes the following:

§ You must help him if he asks for your help.

§ Give him relief if he seeks your relief.

§ Lend to him if he needs a loan.

§ Do not block his air by raising your building high without his permission.

§ Do not harass him.

§ Give him a share when you buy fruits; if you do not, quietly bring inside what you buy and do not let your children take them out to excite the jealousy of his children.

§ You must visit (and take care of) him when he is ill.

§ You must attend his funeral when he dies (and take part in burial arrangements).

§ If he commits a sin, prevent it from being known.

§ Congratulate him if he meets with good fortune.

§ Grieve in sympathy if a calamity befalls him.

A part of me warms to the specificity of these teachings and it certainly would be a challenge to treat everyone within forty doors of my house in the manner put forward by the Quran, but at least I would have a prescribed area on which to focus.

It fascinates me that Jesus took a much more nebulous approach with his answer to the question “Who is my neighbor” – especially given he was responding to a lawyer (and we all know how lawyers like language that buttons down the details of every possibility).  I think the lawyer would have loved it if Jesus’ answer was every person within forty doors.  The teaching method of the parable doesn’t do that.  It is fluid, even shocking.  It cannot be contained to one single instruction.  Parables have the remarkable ability to speak in a new way to every new situation.  We are not left simply to count doors, but rather must always ask what the Parable of the Good Samaritan might say to a specific event in our lives.

We gather this morning as the names Philando Castile and Alton Sterling have been added to a list that includes Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Darrius Stewart.   And we gather today remembering…

§ Brent Thompson, age 43.  He was a grandfather, of whom one teacher at middle school where he worked said “he was simply one of the best human beings I have ever known.” 

§ Patrick Zamarripa, age 32.  He was a veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq.  One person described him as “a ‘gentleman’ who loved America.”

§ Michael Krol, age 40.  A family member said he was “a wonderful son, brother, uncle, nephew and friend.”

§ Michael Smith, age 55.  He was a husband and father of two young girls.  A member of the church he attended said Michael “exemplified Christ in the way he loved, cared for, engaged with and ultimately laid down his life for others.”

§ Lorne Ahrens, age 48.  He was a husband and father of 8 & 10 year old children.  Some time back a person posted this about him on the police review website RateMyCop: “You are doing a great job dectective Ahrens, keep up the good work and stay safe!!!!”

We hold in our prayers each of these Dallas police officers ambushed in the line of duty and we pray for those who were injured, including Omar Cannon, Misty McBride, Jesus Retana, and Shetamia Taylor.  And we pray for their loved ones who have experienced an unthinkable loss.

I suppose there are a number of ways to examine the events of this past week through the lens of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but my focus is on priest and the Levite who saw what had happened and passed on by.  What does it look like to pass by the events of this past week?  Jesus’ parable suggests we have a neighborly obligation to engage these shootings, but how? 

Last month Suffolk Clergy United invited Thomas Bennett, Suffolk’s Chief of Police, to speak at our meeting.  We wanted to learn more about policing protocols in our own community and what the department is doing in the wake of Ferguson and other police shootings.  Chief Bennett talked with us about the department’s evaluation system, how it reviews questionable police work, discipline officers, and trains for appropriate behavior.  He told us the single best new “tool” they have is the individual police officer’s body camera.  Each officer knows he or she is being recorded and this helps with accountability.  It also moderates the behavior of citizens engaged by the officer.  They know they are being recorded and as a result are both more likely to behave appropriately and less likely to fabricate a complaint against the officer.  I came away from the conversation better educated and feeling comfortable with how Suffolk’s police department functions in our community. 

I now have a second question about policing, perhaps some of you know the answer.  What, if anything, is being done to educate citizens about the proper way to respond to a police officer, especially when you have been pulled over for a traffic stop?  Every citizen ought to know how to behave and this education needs to begin at a young age.  A mother in Suffolk – regardless of her race – ought to feel confident her child will be safe if he or she simply responds to a police officer in a courteous and cooperative manner. 

Here is another question: does the Suffolk Police Department promote culture of accountability?  By this I mean, are good police officers able to report on the actions of a bad police officer or are they encouraged to turn a blind eye?  Now, more than ever, the safety of good police officers depends on it. 

Many people are saying now more than ever we need to come together as a nation.  I share in this sentiment, but have little ability to affect what happens in cities and communities across our country.  The wisdom of the Muslim teaching suggests each of us can do much to influence what happens within forty doors of where we live. 

The characters Jesus chose for his parable had startling differences.  The priest and the Levite had much in common with the victim, but decided not to get involved.  The Samaritan was a shocking choice to be the hero of Jesus’ story.  Samaritans where hated half-breeds looked down upon by the Jews.  Their religion taught them to avoid Samaritans at all costs.  The lawyer asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor” and what Jesus gave him was not a teaching that says “him, him, her, and her, but not them”, but rather a timeless, instructive, vivid portrait of what it looks like to be a neighbor.

Karoline Lewis, a Lutheran biblical scholar, wrote a very thoughtful reflection on today’s reading.  Here is a part of what she posted:

What if the Samaritan was good because he simply made the choice to come near the [wounded man] in the ditch?  To approach him?  To decrease the distance between him and the man clearly in need of help?

What if eternal life might also be known, here and now and in this place, in nearness, not remoteness?  In proximity, not reserve?  In deciding to be closer, and not looking for ways to push away?

We expend a lot of energy in our lives toward decided detachment, disengagement, and disenfranchisement…

In the end, the Good Samaritan comes near as one who knows the Kingdom is near.  And the Kingdom of God comes near when we do the same.

What might it look like to come near to every person who lives within forty doors of your house?  What might it look like to create deeper, more meaningful experiences with churches within forty doors of our red doors?  As violence more and more permeates our society, what does it look like to choose to be not just a neighbor, but a ‘good’ neighbor in our community?  Isn’t this what we feel is slipping away in our country?  Isn’t this what our faith calls us to explore?  Isn’t this what Jesus calls us to do?