25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 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. 35 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.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Lee Greenwood grew up on the chicken farm of his maternal grandparents just outside of Sacramento, California. He sang solos in his church as a kid and tried to make it in music as an adult by dealing at Black Jack tables in Vegas by day and singing by night. He wrote the country pop song, God Bless the U.S.A., in response to his feelings about the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 – a flight from New York City headed to Seoul, South Korea on September 1, 1983. Greenwood said, “I wanted to write [that song] my whole life. When I got to that point, we were doing 300 days a year on the road, and we were on our fourth or fifth album. I called my producer, and I said I have a need to do this. I’ve always wanted to write a song about America, and I said we just need to be more united [as a people].” He went on to say the song basically wrote itself, just flowing out of his pride in being American. Strangely, more than any other occasion, I remember that song most clearly while roller skating at the rink just at the edge of the little town where I grew up. The rink was owned by the County Coroner who firmly believed that the rock ‘n’ roll and popular music of the day, when played backwards on a record player, had subliminal satanic messages. He refused to play most every song. So – you could imagine the limits of the DJ’s repertoire. But “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free,” blared loudly from the rink’s tinny and less-than-ideal sound system. Other than the announcement that the once-a-night Couple’s Skate would take place during the next song – which made me more nervous than anything on skate night (should I ask someone to skate with me? Will she ask me to skate with her? Will we hold hands? Will my hands be sweaty?) And… placing my quarter on the foosball table indicating that I had next game rights, it was a memory of that song, skating shoulders up through the spinning red, white, and blue lights listening to Lee Greenwood sing, “And I gladly stand up… [dun, na, na] next to you and defend her still today. There ain’t no doubt, I love this land. God bless the USA.”
I am a proud American. I am thankful to be an American citizen. I am grateful to the many who have defended our country and created a space for me to grow up, pursue my dreams, and hold the beliefs of my own conviction. We have gotten some important things right as a country over time. And, like any group or system will, we’ve gotten some things wrong too. High ideals are often hard to uphold. George Washington, in his farewell address following his second term of office as our first President, published his address in newspapers instead of addressing the legislative body or even a large crowd of people. He wanted the word to go directly to the people and so it did on September 19th, 1796. Of the 6,000 words shared in his address, three of his most primary concerns? Hyper partisanship, foreign wars, and excessive debt. Fascinating. Some things are a continuous struggle. It is right for us to be proud of our citizenship in this nation even as we must not become so comfortable in it that we forget God’s kingdom calls us to an even higher allegiance. Scripture reminds us that we are foreigners on the earth (Hebrews 11:13). Even our founders end the Declaration of Independence with the words, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” A firm reliance on the Divine and a mutual care for one another. “And to the republic,” we pledge, “for which [our flag] stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” This is, in part, the struggle to which we don’t always rise to the occasion. My 7th grade Social Studies teacher would also stand with hand over heart at school assemblies but finish the pledge by saying, “With liberty, and justice, for some people.”
We have, in some measure, come to imagine that the Fourth of July is all about allowing every American to stand alone, as a rugged individual – forgetting that Independence Day is about the independence of a nation, not a bunch of people looking after their own interests. But what about our neighbors? What about the stranger? What about the other-siders who just make our lives so frustrating and difficult? This is not a unique issue we share in America, this is a human issue that is as old as time itself. And Jesus, as Jesus always does, calls us to something higher – even when it’s difficult, time consuming and uncomfortable.
Our story of focus today, The Good Samaritan, is a familiar one to many who have grown up around Christianity. Even many outside of the faith have heard of the Good Samaritan. Institutions in our country have put the name Samaritan on their buildings – hospitals in particular – including that same little town that raised me and taught me how to roller skate. Macon, Missouri, middle of nowhere middle America or middle of anywhere, Planet Earth, names its hospital after this Samaritan Jesus speaks about parabolically 2,000 years ago. The implication? This story matters. Its influence reaches far beyond national borders and across centuries. And… it has something to do with our responsibility for one another; even our dependence on each other.
The story is a good one. You heard it again in its entirety this morning. An expert of the law approaches Jesus and says, “Teacher – what is my personal task to ensure my own salvation.” Jesus knows this guy is sharp. He’s smart. Probably graduated with honors from an ivy league law school. Jesus looks at the man’s wrist to confirm his assumption. The lawyer is a strict orthodox Jew well versed in the law. He was wearing a phylactery which is a little leather box worn around the wrist that held in it certain passages of scripture. Deuteronomy 6:4 for sure among them: “You will love the Lord your God.” To that the scribes added Leviticus 19:18 which includes the bidding for one to love his neighbor as himself. Jesus says, “You know the law. It’s right there on your wrist. How do you interpret it?” The lawyer rattles off both of those texts: “Love God with everything and love my neighbor as myself.” “Ding, ding, ding!” Jesus says. “Do that and you’ll live.” But that wasn’t enough for the lawyer. You don’t rest your case that easily. He comes back at Jesus with, “But just how would you define neighbor.” The crowd ooo’d and ahhhh’d; the man a bit proud that he’s not blindly accepted the comeback of Jesus.
Jesus starts right in with this story – the one that we would later name Hospitals and organizations after. A guy was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This was a notoriously dangerous road. The kind everyone knew to avoid when possible, especially at night, and never traveling by yourself. Always reminds me of Anne Lamott saying, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. You never want to go in there by yourself.” The elevation dropped by 3,600 feet in less than twenty miles. It was narrow, rocky, and had many twists and turns which made it a popular place for thieves to lure. The road was historically nicknamed, “The Red Way” or “The Bloody Way.” So, this guy gets himself into his own mess by traveling a known road of trouble alone. He’s attacked, stripped of his possessions and his dignity, beaten and abandoned. This only sets the stage for the point of the story. The lawyer, standing out there in the heat, was probably regretting his follow-up question. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Is there a point to this story?”
Jesus continues. “Luckily, a priest was coming down the road and notices the accosted man.” The crowd imagines that the priest is going to stop and help. “But,” Jesus says, “The Priest pretended to be on an important phone call and crossed over to the other side of the road and kept going.” The priest knows the law – you touch a dead man and you’re ritually unclean for a week. Maybe some other week he’d consider helping – but not this week. He had important meetings, a wedding to officiate, and a Home Owner’s Association meeting to attend where he was to give a talk about the new ‘No Soliciting’ signs they were hoping to put at the entrance of the neighborhood. The crowd stirs a bit. “But,” Jesus continues, “not to worry. A Levite also was coming by on his moped – 70 miles per gallon on that beast – can you imagine?” That is pretty good, the crowd nodded. “The Levite also saw the injured man but the season premiere of Big Brother was coming on in just an hour and he forget to set his DVR. Not to mention he had heard on the news of late that bandits were in the habit of using decoys in this sort of situation. One would pretend to be hurt, you stop to help, and the others jump you. So no help from the Levite either.”
This story is getting way too long. Can we wrap it up, Jesus? Enter the Samaritan. Well, shoot. We know this can’t be the end of the story because he brought up this no-good Samaritan. [Please feel free to substitute your own label for Samaritan: no good ___________ (democrat, republican, Muslim, Rocky Mountain high, new age lovin’ hipster, habitual stop sign offender)]. You get the idea. Jesus thinks of the person in the moment that the lawyer, and perhaps the crowd, would most quickly despise and see as a worthless, class-A jerk. I know you can picture someone. And what does Jesus do with that Samaritan? By golly, he makes him the hero of the story. And don’t forget, just one single chapter before in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is rejected by the people of a Samaritan village. And still… Jesus, undeterred by a handful who rejected him, he places the villainized Samaritan as the hero of the story. Unbelievable. Some of the crowd surely already stormed off in disgust or held up a quick make shift protest sign, “Samaritans are Losers!” I don’t know. Probably something more creative than that. And as Jesus most always does, he lays out the scenario and then asks you to make the judgment. “Which of the three,” he says to the lawyer, “The priest, the Levite or the Samaritan, became the injured man’s neighbor?”
I’m sure the lawyer sorted through his mind quickly trying to come up with some reason why the answer could be A or B… but that darn Samaritan. That Samaritan carried the guy to safety, got him a burger from the newly branded iHOB, left his credit card with the clerk at the Holiday Inn Express saying, “Bill me for any room service the man needs.” The lawyer may have texted his professor real quick or polled the audience so that he wasn’t alone in this foolish moment. Ultimately, he looks at Jesus and though he can’t even say the word, ‘Samaritan,’ he utters, “The one who treated him kindly.” And if Jesus was holding a microphone, before dropping it then and there, he says, “Go and do likewise.” Yeah, boy! That’s such a sweet burn until you realize, “Oh, what does that mean for me?” I have to love my neighbor in that way too? But wait. And that question becomes our own. “But who is my neighbor, Jesus?” “I mean, I love the Samaritans!” we say. After all, the only Samaritans I know are, well, this one good one in this story that my hometown named our hospital after. But it’s not the Samaritan in Jesus’ version of the story for me. It’s not the Samaritan in the version of Jesus’ story for you. And we are not shortchanged these days to find people who might fall into the Samaritan category for us. Friends – this political divide isn’t going to get better on its own. The tensions are only going to escalate. And my hope, is that we, as Christians aligned with the highest calling of faith, will rise above the fray and set the tone for Samaritan-like servitude of neighbor. It may be the only way our country will survive the hatred. George Washington seemed to warn that hyper partisanship would lead to our downfall.
Many remember the assassination attempt made on the life of Ronald Reagan. He survived the shooting but needed surgery. As he was being wheeled into the operating room, he says to the surgeon who was walking alongside of the President’s gurney: “Doc, I hope you’re a republican.” And this doctor, a well-known, liberal democrat said, “Mr. President, today we are all republicans.” While still in recovery, the President not doing as well as the public was made to believe, he was visited in his hospital room by one of his greatest political adversaries, Tip O’Neill, democratic speaker of the house. O’Neill got on his knees, took the President’s hands, offered a prayer and then together they recited the 23rd Psalm: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.” Reagan whispered, “Thanks for coming, Tip. It’s good to see you.” O’Neill leaned in, kissed the President on the forehead and said, “I’ll let you rest.”
The Samaritan story and any story that rises above party lines are memorable for us – and we name hospitals and ministries after those people and those stories because there seems to be a citizenship of humanity, guided by the Divine, that values dignity, kindness, and care above difference or nationality. Those moments are what make me proud, not only to be American, but to be part of the human race. And it shouldn’t take tragedy for us to practice loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Loving God with everything we are – the greatest commandment – demands that we follow the second that Jesus says is just as important – neighboring well. Neighbor is to become less of a noun and more of a verb. To neighbor. To Samaritan-up no matter what. I heard this week that even at a showing of Mr. Roger’s “Won’t you be my neighbor” documentary, a politician was spit upon for basically showing up to theater. “Which one do you think neighbored well?” Jesus asks.
You know, our culture seems to have a thing for worn and tethered American flags. In May of last year, a 13-star American flag used in James Buchanan’s 1856 presidential candidacy run set an auction record when it sold to a Pennsylvania antique business for $275,000. Many historical flags often sell for more than twenty grand, particularly if they have fewer stars than the current version or are from before 1912 when the federal government standardized the design. When it comes to putting a value on old Old Glories, it’s better if the flag is showing its age, its usage, its ability to have survived the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air – a flag that was still there through the worst of times. It is to be a symbol of who we are at our best. I hope you celebrate well this week and share gratefully in a celebration of what it means to be a proud American neighbor.
But I also will remind you of another symbol that has also survived blood stains and sacrifice for the sake of freedom, liberty, equality, and Divine dependence; a symbol that we hang in this space as a reminder of our calling to carry its Way to our neighbors, no matter who are neighbors may be in any given moment; the cross of Christ, carrying love for you, for me, for the grocery store cashier, the roofer working on another home in your subdivision, a person who didn’t mark the same boxes you did at the polling site this past Tuesday. When you’re standing before those people, remember, you’re staring into the face of Christ. And if you listen closely enough, you may hear him ask you, “Have you neighbored well?” Our response hinges not on the symbol we may point to itself but in our living into the kingdom for which it stands.
 The piece on Washington and later Reagan were gleaned from Rev. Dr. Glen Miles work for a message entitled, “Let Freedom Ring.” Miles is the Senior Pastor at First Community Church in Columbus, Ohio. https://fcchurch.com/. More about Washington’s address can be discovered at https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/george-washingtons-farewell-address/, among other places.
 Exegetical support for this message found in William Barclay’s commentary, “The Gospel According to Luke.” Westminster Press. 1975.
 This motif about the American Flag was found in “The Republic for Which it Stands,” attributed to Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer of Homiletics Online and Senior Minister of the Park City United Methodist Church in Park City, Utah.