Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Jack-In-A-Box God

In a photo by Mark Brunner,
Thomas is shown shielding an unnamed man believed
to be a white supremacist
In June 1996 a branch of the Ku Klux Klan announced planned to hold a rally in Ann Arbour, Michigan. A counter protest was planned. Keisha Thomas was one of several people that attended and protested from an area that had been fenced and set aside for the protesters. The protest proceeded until one protester announced over a megaphone that there was "a Klansman in the crowd".  The unnamed man was a middle-aged white male wearing a T-shirt depicting the Confederate flag and an "SS tattoo". The man began to run but was knocked down, kicked, and beaten with placards. Thomas, who was at that time 18 years old, instead of joining in the beating, found herself moved with compassion motivated by her Christian faith, shielded the man from the crowd and shouted for the attackers to stop and that you "can't beat goodness into a person". She said later that she had acted as she had also because she know what it was like to be hurt. A few months later, she was thanked personally by the son of the unamed man she helped that day.

This story of Keisha Thomas, powerfully demonstrates what we try to teach our children - do to others as you would have them do to you, or something similar. Talk of being a 'Good Samaritan' is common parlance - we know what the expression means from doing an unexpected good deed to someone else through to manning an emergency phone line. But if we reduce this extremely well known parable of Jesus to a morality tale - we lose it's power to shake us awake into living the values of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is approached by a lawyer and asked a question to test him. Lawyers then as now are trained to know their subject - in this case the Scriptures - and to be able to get at the truth. The lawyer knew the answer to the question that he asked Jesus about inheriting eternal life - it's a classic example of religious legal exchange - a checking out of your opponent - and we know this by Jesus' two questions back: what does scripture say and how do you read or interpret it? And if a strict legal interpretation of Deuteronomy and Leviticus from which the lawyer quotes were what was required then today's Gospel reading would have stopped with Jesus' response - do this and you will live. But as is so often the case with Jesus' teaching, there is so much more.

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Back in the days of unrest in Egypt in 2011, you may recall photos emerging of a group of Christians gathered hand in hand arm in arm around a group of Muslims as they prayed. This wasn't a one off as we also saw photos of Muslims repaying the gesture of recognition and kindness. This has spread. In Nigeria, Boko Haram the Islamic terrorist group is an equal opportunities destroyer - levelling Mosque and Church alike, so in just over the border in northern Cameroon on Friday's Christians protect local Mosques and on Sunday's Muslims reciprocate in the same way recognising each other's freedom to worship but also their shared humanity.

The lawyer's question isn't a bad one. The word neighbour used by the Lawyer is plesios - the one who is near. A next door neighbour. But we have a natural inclination to love those with whom we have a connection to by blood or friendship. And we would love it is Scripture could pat us on the head and tell us that. When the lawyer quotes from Leviticus (Love your neighbour as yourself...) the word there is re'a - my compatriot. Not whoever is near to me, but one with whom I have something to do - someone I am connected to. Phew! So imagine the shock in the crowd when Jesus opens the definitions of neighbourliness in Greek and Hebrew to include those far away from me and my family - religiously, ethnically and socially. A Jewish man is set upon by thieves and his kinsmen give him a wide berth whilst his ethnic enemy reaches out in compassion.
Rev'd Andy Griffiths

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man... He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.' A couple of weeks ago, my friend Andy Griffiths who is a Vicar in Essex, was on his way home from a meeting when he stopped off at a shop.  The person behind the desk (British Asian, mid-20s, has never lived outside Essex) told him he had just been racially abused.  A man had told him "We voted leave, now you have to leave" and "I'll come back every day until you leave this country or I glass you".  When he tried to point out he was British and that isn't what the word "leave" meant on posters, the assailant just kept saying "We voted leave, now you have to leave, we voted leave now you have to leave".   Clearly the assailant was the worse for wear, but that doesn't change the fact that a crime was committed. Andy stayed until the victim was feeling calmer, and had called the police.

The Samaritan, outside the Jewish law and not welcome socially or ethnically, is described as showing pity and mercy - two attributes of the God of Israel. The Samaritan acts as the Compassionate God in human form and therefore Jesus is identifying himself with this Samaritan - and suddenly not only is this a morality tale about being nice to people, but again Jesus blows open our tightly bound who's in and who's out view of our safe little worlds but also of the remit and extent of God's love - because God is clearly acting in a loving way not to the Samaritan (oh isn't that lovely) but through the Samaritan (sharp intake of breath.)

God has a habit of operating outside our expectations and leaping out of the box we put him in. This jack in a box God in Jesus: came as a vulnerable baby; taught a wild inclusive love; dared to die the death of a bandit; and is risen. All unexpected. Here the jack in a box God in Jesus, challenges us not just to see God in others, which is harder than ever it seems in post Brexit Britain, but to receive God in and from others - from those not like us, those whom we oppose, those whose lifestyles challenge our nice tightly bound morals or politics. So don't just reach out the hand of friendship to a next door neighbour - as good as that may be - but we need to go out of our way, across the road, and seek God out in places and amongst people outside your comfort zone - perhaps particularly amongst the refugees locally, amongst those who have the UK their home from Europe and further afield for work in recent years and amongst the gay community locally - not just because they need our love right now and by God they do - but because there we will find Jesus, the Samaritan, showing mercy and pity to us.