Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 10th Jul 2016 11:15am
Description

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Who is my neighbour? The lawyer may have been seeking to justify himself, in other words aiming to put Jesus on the back foot in an argument. But the question is a good one. Good at any time. But particularly sharp at the moment.

In the United States, eight years after the election of the first African American president, racial tensions have not evaporated. On Tuesday, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton Sterling was shot dead in an altercation with the police, apparently when he was lying under their control on the ground. On Wednesday, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis, Philando Castile was pulled over by the police for having an unlit tail-light and shot dead in the driver's seat of his car.

Then in Dallas, Texas on Thursday night, five police officers were shot dead and seven others wounded when sniper fire from what turned out to be a lone gunman turned a peaceful protest over recent police shootings into a scene of chaos and terror. The attacker, who was later killed when police detonated a bomb-equipped robot, told authorities that he was upset about the recent police shootings and wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.

President Obama has been by no means alone in condemning the attacks. He has said, 'I believe I speak for every single American when I say we are horrified over these events, and we stand united with the people and the police department in Dallas.' Horrific they have been. But we must also put them into perspective. The use of firearms against fellow citizens in the US is only rarely motivated by racial division. And relations in the US between ethnic groups are far improved by comparison with the days of racial segregation outlawed fifty years ago.

And it's by no means only in the United States. The recent referendum in the United Kingdom that decided to revoke our country's membership of the European Union was followed by a five-fold increase in hate crime, largely against immigrants from Eastern Europe and British Muslims: the firebombing of a halal butchers in Walsall, graffiti on a Polish community centre in London and cards with anti-Polish messages posted through letterboxes in a Midlands town. These are exceptions in a country which generally celebrates its 21st century rich diversity.

Even so, the question 'Who is my neighbour?' continues to be one with which we must struggle.

The easy answer for the vast majority of the people who live in the cities, towns and villages of this country is that our neighbour is the person who lives next door. Even there, relations are often difficult. There is a website called problemneighbours.co.uk which identifies noise and boundary disputes and issues about trees and hedges and trespassing children as the most likely reasons for tensions. There is a whole raft of steps identified as to how you can have recourse against a problem neighbour. There are said to be at least 17,000 unresolved disputes between neighbours in Britain caused by hedges and trees. Leyland cypresses, leylandii, are the main culprit.

But our Lord's answer to the lawyer's challenge Who is my neighbour? transcended questions of domestic border disputes. Jesus told a story. It seems his preferred method of teaching was to tell a story. And the stories he told, his parables, will often resonate for a long time and allow deeper reflection than simple instruction. On the other hand, some of these stories have become so familiar to us that we scarcely listen to them and therefore interpret them as we did when we were very young. So what of the neighbour in the parable?

The neighbour, the Good Samaritan, is not a decent, friendly local who happens to have come across a neighbour in distress. The people we might think should be the decent, friendly locals are precisely the ones who pass by on the other side. We will think more of them anon. The Good Samaritan should in the normal way of things hate the man who has been left half dead. Jews hated Samaritans. Samaritans hated Jews.

In St John's Gospel we hear more about the relations between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus is travelling from Judea to Galilee and passes through Samaria. He is tired and stops at a well and asks a Samaritan woman to draw water for him. The Samaritan woman said to him, 'How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?' St John goes on to explain that Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans. In fact they had had no warm contact for hundreds of years, despite their living so close together and the similarities that had grown up in belief and life-style. And they knew who they were. A Samaritan would not normally do anything for a Jew and vice versa.

This Good Samaritan binds up the wounds of the attacked man and takes him to an inn and pays for his keep until he has recovered. His is the example of neighbourliness: across ethnic divides, across centuries of separated history, across the normal lines that keep people not only apart but despising one another. He shows us how we should react and behave to those from whom we are divided by whatever divides us: ethnicity, religion, class, sexuality. We are to bridge the divide, to leap over the wall.

So, what of the priest and the Levite? The man who was attacked by robbers was going from Jerusalem to Jericho. The priest and the Levite in the story are also going down from Jerusalem. They have no doubt been in Jerusalem to perform the rituals of the Jewish law to do with the sacrifice of animals. The Levitical law required both priests and Levites to retain ritual purity if they were to perform the proper rituals. If they lost ritual purity a lengthy process was required to regain it. One means by which they could lose ritual purity was touching a dead body. In some interpretations of the law, they would lose purity even by allowing their shadow to pass over a dead body. The half dead man, from all they could see, might actually have been dead. Neither the priest nor the Levite would take the risk. Jesus condemns them for putting ritual purity ahead of the duty to a neighbour, a person in distress.

Here we find ourselves in familiar territory. Jesus constantly criticises the upholders of the law for their hard-heartedness. He heals on the Sabbath, when Jews are required to do no work. Some of the scribes and Pharisees interpret that as work and condemn him. Jesus is more directly critical of Pharisees in particular who praise themselves for keeping the law and despise others. Think of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus sets a new standard, a different standard. Compassion trumps religious law. In any case, the sacrifices of the Old Covenant must give way to the New Covenant in his Sacrifice on the Cross, which reconciles us with God and with one another. In the power of that reconciliation, all human barriers must tumble.

In Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can love our neighbour, however distant he or she is from us, however strange and unfamiliar, however challenging: in Christ we can leap over the walls that divide us, breach the barriers that are so easily erected between different groups in society, different ethnicities in the world, in order to re-create a global ecology in which people live together in peace and harmony. The advances have been great in the years since the Second World War as have been the setbacks. So we shall fight on; we shall never surrender.

Today eight thirteen year-old young men, who have sung as choristers here at the Abbey for the past five years, leave us to go to new schools, to become adults and to exercise their influence for good in the world. They have witnessed many occasions here at the Abbey that have brought together people of different faiths and diverse backgrounds to worship God and to celebrate together. They will never forget these experiences. May what they have received and contributed here inspire them and their generation constantly to work to achieve a world in harmony. And may almighty God continue to bless and direct us all in this mighty work.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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