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A Heart for Our Neighbors

Message for August 30, 2020

Texts: Luke 10:25-37 and Jeremiah 31:31-34

As I lay on the acupuncturist’s table one day this week, literally “leaning into discomfort,” my mind cast back to an experience I had in college, and compared my budding racial awareness during those years to my observations of that town when I revisited it for homecoming a couple years ago for my 30th college reunion.

The town in question is Galesburg, Illinois, a city of about 30,000 people in the northwestern part of the state, about 50 miles east of the Mississippi River, where, I used to say, two major train lines cross “in the middle of a cornfield.” Knox College is a small, private liberal arts institution of about 1000 students that occupies about four city blocks. I didn’t realize, as a student without a car, just how very small that space was — as it was my whole world for four years, and it seemed to me that the college had a considerable impact on the town in which it was located. Knox was founded in 1837 by a group of abolitionist Presbyterians and Congregationalists; the town which grew up around it was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the college is the only still-standing site of one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. (These occurred in 1858, when Abraham Lincoln was running for the U.S. Senate against a pro-slavery incumbent; the debates centered primarily on whether slavery should be extended into the Western territories of the U.S. Lincoln narrowly lost that senate race, but his eloquence as a speaker, and his moral fiber, shone during those debates, which were published into a book and used as a campaign document when Lincoln faced Douglas again two years later, this time in a presidential election — and I think you know who won that time.) 

As a student on the Knox College campus, I was steeped in these stories and proud of this “northern progressive” identity. With a student body that was ten percent international students and eight-to-ten percent African-American, I found myself exposed to more racial and cultural diversity than I had been aware of in my mostly white suburban childhood. I thought I was one of those “good” people. But I didn’t see everything. I took in the City of Galesburg mostly on foot, which pretty much limited me to the campus and the downtown area. Galesburg, in the mid-1980s, was facing a deep recession. The Gates Rubber plant in town had closed or laid off most of its workforce, and the downtown street where I shopped for essentials was dotted with old-looking and shuttered businesses. At the time, unemployment in the area was two-times the national average, or perhaps higher.  The train station was within easy walking distance from the campus, and Amtrak was my transport between college and home the first couple of years. What with the two train lines crossing in Galesburg, I wasn’t sure where “the other side of the tracks” was — and I maybe wasn’t familiar with that term back then. But when I came back in a rented car two years ago, I saw more. I saw evidence that unemployment is still significantly higher than average; the downtown area is still depressed. Albert and I drove past houses in desperate need of repair, just blocks away from the campus. I noticed the skin color of people we saw when we set out on a hunt for grocery items, and the poor food selection that was available in the store we found open in the area. We also drove past stately old homes on the blocks north of downtown, I believe it was, where some of my professors had lived…And this long introduction leads me to the experience I was remembering as I laid on the acupuncturist’s table.

I wasn’t into the “Greek scene” on campus, but I joined a non-residential service fraternity that was rather like a coed scouting group. We conducted fundraisers for various non-profit groups (I remember a runathon for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, for example), visited nursing homes and raked leaves for seniors … and once we organized a door-to-door canned food drive. I remember heading out on foot with a partner, setting our sights on the more-affluent looking blocks north of downtown. We walked and knocked on doors for a couple of hours, I think — which became a considerable task carrying grocery bags laden with canned goods. What we eventually discovered was that the more generous people were those inhabiting the houses that appeared to be more run-down. Whereas we might get one can from the person answering the door at a fancy house (or no response to our knock at all), we would receive three or four items from the mother with the care-worn face — the one, it seemed to us, who knew all too well what it meant to be hungry and in need of help. It was a lesson that impressed me greatly.

I don’t tell my story as some sort of justification or “proof” of nobility when it comes to antiracism or white privilege; quite the contrary. In many ways, I think my school experience, and pride of story, both opened my eyes and inoculated me against deeper awareness of the inequities that persisted right in front of me — and which still persist.

I think that it is when we lean into our own vulnerability that we gain a greater capacity for compassion. The Samaritan in Jesus’ story — a member of the distrusted and despised minority, one who was so beyond the label of “good” that the one with whom Jesus shared the story could not affirm his racial identity when Jesus asked, “who was the neighbor?” instead talking around him in his astonishment, replying “the one who showed mercy” — this Samaritan knew what it was to be abandoned on the side of the road, cast to the sidelines, unseen and unheard. That is why he was moved to act with compassion.

I have seen this story played out, over and over again, in acts of kindness, mercy, and hospitality: unhoused friends who look out for one another, and who want to help out with a ministry that targeted at feeding other hungry folks; heroes in times of disaster; people who express the desire to “give back;” open-hearted generosity and a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to be the host at a table.

One of the great mysteries and keys to happiness in this life is discovering that none of us has it all. Everyone carries brokenness, and everyone is granted opportunities to relieve the pain of others. We were made for each other. The degree to which we deny the reality of our interdependence and try to make it all on our own, to hold onto all we have and try to be perfect, is the degree to which we lose our humanity. When we can receive both comfort and correction from a Samaritan (i.e. someone we are inclined to label as “lesser”) we are granted a chance to reconnect with grace, and with our divine purpose.

I don’t know with whom you most identify in Jesus’ tale; I think it’s a helpful exercise to read it, multiple times, from many points of view: the man beaten and left for dead; the passersby who did not help; the one who showed mercy; the one to whom the story was first told; even the robbers (and we might pause to consider how often that might be the role we are playing in this world).

What I pray for is the kind of change of heart of which the prophet Jeremiah speaks: recognizing where we have fallen short of God’s covenant vision for us, allowing God to chastise us and offer us a second chance, living into transformation such that we know — we know, deeply and intimately, in our hearts, what God’s justice looks like, and we are compelled to act with compassion, self-sacrifice, and courage.

I imagine you well remember the classic Dr. Seuss story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!  Do you remember the description of the old Grinch at the beginning of the tale, and the narrator’s suggestion that perhaps the reason for his pride, greed, isolation, anger and stinginess — “grinchiness” — was that “his heart was two sizes too small”?  Do you remember what happened when he heard his neighbors still singing, in spite of the theft of all their Christmas trappings? Iit was said that his heart “grew three sizes that day” and then “the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!” 

My prayer is that we may find this same kind of strength — this same kind of transformation —  by doing the hard soul work of dismantling the power of white supremacy culture that has robbed us of our humanity and shrunk our hearts.  May we learn to be neighbors, vulnerable and compassionate. May we learn humility, generosity, and grace from the unlikely heroes in our midst.