The Rev. Kim Turner Baker
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In our lesson today from the book of Amos, from the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear Amos telling us of an experience he had. Amos says that the LORD showed him that he was standing beside a wall with a plumb line, and the plumb line showed him the direction he was to go. Now, I imagine most of you are not builders; some of you might be home decorators, so you might know what a plumb line is, but I’m going to tell you anyhow. A plumb line is a long piece of string, and you take a heavy piece of metal and tie it on. And then hold that string up in the air, and of course the piece of metal pulls it down in a straight line. The piece of metal is pulled toward the center of Earth’s gravitational pull.
I believe that Amos had this understanding of the plumb line because he understood that God calls us to move in a direction: to move to the center of God’s heart and to the center of the truth of God that we all must follow. Now, that’s not always so easy. Amos heard a word from God and his first response was, “I’m not a prophet; I don’t want to say this.” But he found himself having to speak words that no one wanted to hear.
Now there was a priest, Amaziah, who said, “No, no, no don’t go there; this is not appropriate in the temple.” But Amos knew that it was. This pulpit has been the pulpit for many Amoses. This is the pulpit that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached from for his last Sunday service before he was killed by gun violence. I believe we owe it to him and all the other Amoses who have stood here to speak the truth as we see it.
In today’s gospel lesson, we’re shown a lawyer who asks Jesus some questions. In the ancient world a lawyer was not just a civil lawyer; a lawyer was someone who was learned in both religious and civil law. This lawyer asks Jesus a question to test him, that is, to trick him. He says to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus responds by saying, in essence, “You’re a lawyer; what does the law say?” And this lawyer says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your mind, and with all of your soul, and with all of your being, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now the first part of his answer is not particularly surprising, in that what he was repeating was part of the Shema, that prayer that faithful Jews to this day pray twice a day. What’s a little more surprising is that last tagline that comes from another part of the Scriptures, the line that said: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In my 56 years of life, I’ve moved a lot. I counted it up; it turns out that I have moved 22 times. That means about every 2 1/2 years I’ve moved. I became curious, so I checked to see how often Americans in general move. And it turns out that I’m not really that out of sync with many Americans. We move a around a lot. Because I’ve moved around so much, I’ve had many neighbors. One of the things I always had to be aware of as I became able to make those moves on my own was that I always had to take into consideration who my neighbors would be. See, as an African American it wasn’t always clear where I would be welcome. And as I had children, I wanted to make sure that they would live in places where they would be safe.
I was born in the heartland, in Iowa, and then moved to Detroit. I moved to Detroit two weeks before the Detroit riots broke out. And then I moved on to many places. At one point I moved to Chicago, on the day that the first black mayor of Chicago died suddenly of a heart attack. And then on to Brownsville, Texas; there weren’t a lot of African Americans there. Many, many conversations started with people speaking in English and then ending in Spanish. I had new neighbors.
It’s always, always a test in those moves to see whether those new neighbors will welcome.
As my children were growing up, I used to have to warn them about how they needed to be careful about where they were and how they appeared in the places they were in. Now my children, I will admit, have been very fortunate; they have always been able to live in the safest places that we could possibly find. So, initially, I think they didn’t really get what I was talking about, so I would have to explain to them some very simple truths, such as when I wanted to go shopping in one of the very exclusive malls in a suburb near where we live, I couldn’t just go there in old clothes. I had to dress up, I had to look as respectable as possible, because I knew that even dressed expensively if I doddled too long at the jewelry counter a store detective would show up. I can’t tell you how many times I was followed by store detectives sure that I did not belong in that place.
And it wasn’t just me. The suburb that we lived in was filled with African American doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers. Almost to a man, each of those African American men knew that if it were after dark, they had to drive around the neighboring suburb rather than through it, because it was much more affluent. And even if they were driving a Lexus or a Mercedes, they would be stopped because they couldn’t possibly belong in those places.
In our lesson today from the Gospel, the lawyer says to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus then tells a story of a man who is going from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the first century B.C. was very well travelled. It was a route that merchants would travel, and it was also travelled by the well-heeled because, apparently, it’s warmer in Jericho in the winter than it is in Jerusalem, so all of those well-fed, well-heeled people would have two homes: Jerusalem in the summer and Jericho in the winter, so they would go between those two. And because it was well-known that the affluent traveled that road, thieves and robbers lurked on all those winding paths going up the road between those two places. They knew that that road was a dangerous place. And when the hearers of Jesus’ story listened to the story saying that a man had been stripped and beaten and left for dead—even though Jesus doesn’t tell us who he is or give us any sense of his identity (he had been stripped of it)—those hearers would have known that that person could have been them. And so they would have listened to hear what happened to this person like them. And we all know the story: we know that the people you would have thought to help passed right by, and finally the most unlikely person, the Samaritan, the one who was not held in high esteem by the listeners, was the one who stopped to help.
As neighbors, living in neighborhoods, we want always to be the people who are the ones who stop to help, who come to each other’s aid. The question is: What do we do when someone appears in our neighborhood that we think doesn’t belong. By now you’ve all heard the story of Trayvon Martin. He was walking through a neighborhood; but it wasn’t a neighborhood that wasn’t his; it was just that he didn’t quite look like he should be there.
After the events that took his life, my son happened to be coming home from school—he’s in law school—at Christmas break, just after finals, and he stopped by the place where I used to work, and I overheard someone saying, “I saw this man who was wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants and hoodie, and I wondered but then I saw that the sweatshirt said Yale and the sweatpants said Harvard, so then I figured it must be Kim’s son; he’s alright.” He was alright because he had the right marks on him and because they knew who I was. Had he not, he would have been stopped. The irony in that is the place where I was working was right on the trail where lots and lots of people cut through in sweatpants and ratty old T-shirts, and no one ever bats an eye, no one questions, because they are white and therefore must belong.
We really need to think about how we engage the people around us. We need to think about how we decide who belongs and who doesn’t belong. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that we are to go out and help each and every person. Jesus tells us that we are all children of God. Each and every one of us is a child of God. And because we’re each children of God, guess what, that means we’re brothers and sisters. And you can’t be a closer neighbor to somebody than to be a brother or a sister.
I believe that we are called to understand that we are neighbors to each other, that we have to do all that we can to protect each other. But protecting each other does not mean rendering harm. One of the tragedies in what happened 17 months ago was that the man who shot Trayvon Martin had a gun. He was carrying that gun because he wanted to do the right thing: he wanted to protect his neighbors. But you have to wonder, would he have gotten out of the car if he hadn’t had the gun. I don’t know. But we have to take all those things into consideration, we need to think about how we can be neighbors.
God calls us into a great community, into a relationship. God says to us that we must show mercy, not just to those who fit in, but to those who are different because they, too, are our brothers and sisters. They are the neighbors we are called to love.