Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Question By The Side Of The Road

(versión en español aquí)

Sermon preached 2/14/2010, at Parkview UCC, Aurora, CO.

Text: Luke 10: 25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Torah? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to show himself to be righteous, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied,

“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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”


“And who is my neighbor?”

That’s not really the question Jesus answers, is it?

The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and you get the sense he’s not looking for a vast universal answer here – not hoping for “well, everyone!” – but an answer that will put some limits on the reaches of his responsibility...or affirm the limits of his responsibility as he already understands them.

But that’s not the question Jesus answers.

The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with the now-famous story of the Good Samaritan, a story which has rightfully inspired hospitals and clinics and humanitarian projects and even laws to protect strangers who help those in need.

But it’s a story which doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. But Jesus flips the question and turns it back to the lawyer: “Which of these was a neighbor?” Who was the neighbor to the man left for dead?

This is the question of essence for Jesus: Who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? The command to love your neighbor as yourself should provoke in us not the attempt to define the other, but rather, the attempt to define ourselves. The question is about us, and who we are to be, and how we are to live in relationship with those around us, particularly those who are wounded, who have been left by the side of the road to die. How are we to love? How are we to tend to the wounded around us?

The lawyer responds that the neighbor is the one who had mercy, who had compassion on the wounded man, and Jesus sends him off to do the same. You know what to do, now go and do likewise. Go and have mercy. Go and show compassion. Go and be like the Samaritan in the story, who does not permit even age-old ethnic hatred and fear between Samaritans and Jews to get in the way of allowing his heart to be moved, of feeling empathy for the man left for dead by the side of the road.

To love your neighbor as yourself, it would seem from this story, is to allow nothing – not even the strongest and deepest of human-imposed barriers – to get in the way of that love, that empathy, that compassion and mercy; in other words, that willingness to allow your heart to be moved, and to be able to see the other as a human being, who suffers, who hurts, who bleeds.

Love this way. Without limits. Go, and do likewise, Jesus says.

Who are the people in our lives who are lying half-dead in a ditch? Who are we being called to love in the way this parable describes...setting aside fears and barriers and all those things which the culture says should keep us at arm’s length from the other?

There are many ways to answer that question. I want to tell you a story, about a woman and her family, that will ask us to consider one way to think about who the wounded in our lives are.

I met Rafaela on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week in 2005. She was sitting in the central plaza of Altar, Mexico, with her husband and three young sons. They had just gotten off the bus from Guerrero, a state far to the south, a short time before.

You see, Altar is only about a bumpy 30 minute drive from the US/Mexico border. In the last several years Altar has become the “jumping off place” for Mexicans and others who want to cross the border into the US. Migrants gather in the plaza where they can get a bite to eat, buy supplies such as shoes and hats and water, and contract a “coyote,” a guide who will hopefully help them get across the border and across the deadly desert to a pick–up spot.

I was in Altar with a group from my former church in Portland, Oregon. We had been studying the roots of migration and the reality of life on the border, and one of our immersion experiences was to visit with migrants in the plaza in Altar. And so it was it was that I met Rafaela, early in the morning with a desert sun, already warm, breaking in through the trees.

As we approached the woman and her family, before they even saw us, we noted the fear coursing through them in their darting eyes, hunched-over backs, and wringing hands. We could see that they were poor, that they were probably campesinos, that is, peasant farmers from rural Mexico. We introduced ourselves and asked if we could hear some of their story. They regarded us with no less fear, answering our questions quietly, eyes still darting.

Where are you going? we asked.
We don’t know. To the States. After that, we don’t know. We have no plan.
Where are you from?
Why did you leave?
There is no work. We had a little farm, but we could not sell what we grew. We could not survive. We sold our land and now we are here. We arrived on the bus this morning, we have been traveling all night.
Is there anything you’d like to ask us? Is there something you’d like us to know?

Rafaela looked up from her anxious hands, looked into our eyes for the first time, her own eyes red with tears:
I just want there to be a safe place. A safe place for us and our children.

It was a story we heard over and over when we met people who were about to cross the border – or who had just been deported. They could not survive on their farms, or in the cities, they could not feed their children. They just wanted a better life for their families. We heard the story over and over.

In the heated debates these days you don’t hear stories like Rafaela’s. You hear a lot, though, about “the immigration problem.” But I have to tell you, I don’t think we have an immigration problem. Now, I know that may sound like a crazy thing to say in today’s political climate. But...I hope you’ll hear me out.

I don’t think we have an immigration problem. I think we have an economic problem. Let me tell you a little bit more of Rafaela’s story.

Rafaela and her husband Felix owned a little farm in rural Guerrero, where they could grow a few things to sell at the local market and make enough money to support the family. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, along with other free trade policies, however, ruined small farmers in Mexico like Rafaela and Felix. Staples of the Mexican farmers, such as corn, poured in from giant corporations in the US at much cheaper prices than what the Mexicans could sell. At least 2 million Mexican corn farmers lost their jobs and their farms in the aftermath of NAFTA

In the case of Rafaela and Felix, it was coffee. The land around their farm had been bought by a multi-national coffee company, putting them out of business. They couldn’t survive on the pittance wages paid by the coffee plantation. And so they sold their land and all that they had, and headed north.

Some farmers go to work on corporate owned-farms that grow the avocados and tomatoes and lettuce that wind up in our grocery stores. Others go to the larger Mexican cities to try to find work in the factories – US-owned companies like Motorola, Glaxo-Smith-Kline, Levi’s. Whether on the farm or in the factory, they are lucky to make the minimum wage of 42 pesos a day – around 4 bucks. How far can 42 pesos a day go, especially if you have children, when a gallon of milk costs 32 pesos? A cheap package of diapers costs 49?

Is it any wonder, then, that these economic refugees head north, where even the hardest jobs – cleaning rooms at Motel 6 and Aspen ski resorts, putting up houseframes for the newest subdivisions, cleaning the new Purina warehouse, tending sheep on the Western Slope, picking tomatoes for Chipotle – even the hardest jobs pay more in a day than most workers in Mexico and most of Latin America see in a month, if they’re lucky?

What we have is an economic problem. We have an economic system which leaves people wounded, left by the side of the road. If we were to put it in terms of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the robbers of today are the economic policies which destroy small farmers. The policies which practically enslave people in the US-owned factories. Policies which force families to choose whether or not to leave everything behind on land they can no longer afford to farm. Policies which force parents to leave their children, partners to leave their beloveds, to try to make enough money to feed them.

I have given you a very compact overview here of a complex and devastating economic reality. I could go on for a long time about the impact of NAFTA and policies like it, on families, communities, and the environment – not just in Latin America, but in the US as well. What I want you to hear – what needs to be heard – is that these are economic policies which ultimately care nothing for the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable among us, all in the name of higher profits and cheaper goods. The people are stripped of their land and their possibilities, and left on the side of the road to die.

That road runs into the heart of the United States. And it runs right through Aurora. That road runs along Colfax and into the Original Aurora neighborhood.

That road runs by the street corners where immigrant workers gather every day to wait for work, and pray that they will be paid for it, pray that their wages will not be stolen by employers who would rather exploit them for cheap labor than treat them with dignity.

That road runs by homes of immigrant women who are afraid to report domestic violence to the police for fear they will be arrested instead, and be deported and their children left here alone.

That road runs by apartments where immigrant families are hungry because they’re afraid to access services they have a right to, for fear of deportation breaking apart their families.

That road runs by 30th and Peoria, by the immigrant detention facility, where immigrants, and residents, and even citizens are disappeared into after workplace and neighborhood raids, or after being stopped for the curious traffic offense of driving too slowly down a residential street.

If our unjust economic policies leave people broken and beaten by the side of the road, our immigration policy is the equivalent of the priests and Levites turning away from the man left for dead – in other words, it is the opposite of the Good Samaritan’s response. Rather than tend to people’s wounds, our policies make them worse – first by making a quote “legal path” for migrating nearly impossible, and then by seeding fear, encouraging exploitation of labor, breaking apart families and partners, and in general punishing the wounded in their attempt to seek economic healing.

When it comes to immigration, we can debate the fine points of what’s legal or what reform should look like but to a certain extent those are the lawyer’s questions, questions about the limits of our responsibility.

But Jesus flips the question on us. Who is the neighbor to the one left for dead? The one who had mercy, who had compassion on the wounded man, the one who allowed his heart to be moved to empathy for the stripped and beaten, barely living man. To love your neighbor as yourself is to allow nothing – not even the strongest and deepest of human-imposed fears and barriers – to get in the way of compassion and mercy for the human being in front of you.

The question of essence for Jesus is the one which, as Christians, must be the question of essence for us. It is the question by the side of the road: Who is the neighbor to the one left for dead?

Who is the neighbor to Rafaela? To Mario?
Who is the neighbor to Marta? To Santos?
Who is the neighbor to Patricia? To Jorge?

Who is the neighbor, Jesus asks. The one who showed mercy. The one who ignored society’s condemnation of the person in front of him and simply tended to his wounds.

Then, Jesus says, go and do likewise.

Go and do likewise.

Here by the side of the road, may we all find a way to do the same.



Fatboy said...

Amazing reminder of the radical call that Jesus impells all of us to.

A love the moves beyond economic systems, and political borders, a love that calls for justice and equity.

may it one day be so

Dawn Riley Duval said...

Thank you God.
Pastor Anne, these are the most tender yet powerful words that I've ever read concerning immigration. Thank you so much for sharing truth with us Pastor Anne. Thank you for calling us to do justice on behalf of and with our brothers and sisters.
Peace and love to you,
Rev. Dawn

Comunidad Liberación/Liberation Community said...

Thank you, Rev. Dawn!