My friend Carey says that loving our neighbor is not so different than a Sunday morning worship experience.
“Where else can all of God’s children show up, be fed and, as a result, be transformed?” she asks. “We don’t care what kind of car they drive, if there is money in the bank, what baggage they bring with them or if they can offer anything in return.”
Everyone comes to the church with hands out, she often continues, whether it is worship they attend or a need they hope to address. Some seek the spirit with their empty palms. For others, it is grace, forgiveness, hope or mercy. And yes, there are physical needs like food, shelter, medical care, income or housing, to which Christ’s body responds.
Whatever the reason that any of us come to the altar, there is a profound parallel in each of our stories. They all begin and end in the very same way, yet the space between can be a treacherous journey.
We all come to anticipate the joys, rewards and memories that any trip might bring. Hurts, sorrows and disappointments, however, should equally be anticipated. Through such experiences, we come to understand God’s wisdom in setting us on the path of life together.
Consider for a moment, the Samaritan story. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a twisted and rugged pass, labeled “the way of blood” because of robbers’ frequent attacks on travelers. It was a main thoroughfare journeyed for centuries by travelers, merchants, pilgrims and soldiers. Each person who set out to conquer this landscape began and ended their expedition at the same points of entry and exit. Not everyone, however, fared equally well along the way.
As Jesus explains in Luke 10: 25-37, a particular man was attacked by a band of robbers, left for dead, and ignored by at least two others traveling on the very same road. Another man, also on his way to Jericho for the very same reasons as hundreds before him, did not pass by the injured man. Instead, the man turned to see his fellow traveler, perhaps, even seeing himself.
As a Samaritan, the most unlikely hero in Jewish custom given a long-standing ethnic and racial divide, the man who turned to the injured traveler on the road knew the sting of indifference. Therefore, he chose to respond as he might have others do for his own struggles.
In the Samaritan’s eyes, the man on the side of the road is not just another unfortunate soul destined to succumb to inefficient infrastructure and lack of public safety on the ancient passageway. The injured man is another human who began and sought to end his journey at the very same place as others, including himself. Some difficulties along the way disrupted his journey and disordered his progress. Yet, he could continue on the road with the rest of the travelers in the caring company of another member of God’s creation.
All those who traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho had a destination in mind like each of one of us who comes to God in worship with our hopes, dreams, fears and needs. Just as trouble along the path disrupts the pursuits of the man in the biblical story, it is important to keep in mind that the person is not born broken. It is the struggles of the journey that can break a person. The journey of life is truly “the way of blood.”
Yet, when all seemed lost and the man on the roadside was hopelessly written off by two-thirds of those who encountered him, the Samaritan changed the story. He dressed the man’s wounds, hoisted him onto his donkey, carried him to an inn, and paid the innkeeper to care for him for as long as it would take.
While loving our neighbor isn’t always quite so simple, the Samaritan story suggests that the road may be hard, but our journeying together makes all the difference. The first step is seeing our fellow travelers as neighbors and friends of God. The next is seeing the divine creator’s image within each of God’s creations, including ourselves.
Beyond all external differences, we are one in the breath of God. That spark of goodness, love and spontaneous care that erupts from us, like the Samaritan’s actions, is the essence of our being like the God who has made us. When we pay attention to the life of God in us, we can do no other than care for the life of God in the neighbor before us.
Jesus, as a brother to the human race, noticed all humanity as neighbors in need and called them family. When those on the roadside are seen as sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters or even mirror images of ourselves, it is much easier to accompany them on their journey.
This is why my friend Carey has spent the better part of a month going to doctor’s appointments and sitting at the hospital bedside of a man who others might reject because of his past incarcerations.
It is why Bob, a volunteer, spends his free time teaching life skills and navigating the kidney transplant process for a young man whose parents kicked him out at 18.
It is why Peg, Micah’s housing leader, continues to support the housing independence of a man whose physical limitations could easily qualify him for assisted living.
It is why I start my day with a phone call or a text to two recovering alcoholics—one a sex offender and the other who is on her third apartment this year.
When you truly love your neighbor, no one is a lost cause. Everyone has a story as to how they got thus far on the journey. And when those stories are shared, we realize we are all en route to the same destination—the final home that God intends for each of his creations.
As we help each other get there, we are being transformed into friends of God and one another, a new family that cannot help but stop and see and lift and carry those who are bruised and bleeding along the way.