“Who is my neighbor?” Alton and Philando

July 7, 2016

Carolyn Browning Helsel

Two more black men dead at the hands of the police: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. If you are a preacher who is preaching this upcoming Sunday in a predominantly white church, the names of these two men should be part of your sermon. Let me tell you why, and then let me suggest how.

If you are preaching from the lectionary this upcoming Sunday, you will know that the gospel reading is from Luke, chapter 10, verses 25-27. The parable of the Good Samaritan. Lectionary texts are based on a three-year cycle, so if you preached on the Sunday three years ago (July 14, 2013), you would have preached on this text the morning after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Maybe that day you scrapped your sermon and preached about the Zimmerman verdict and connected it to the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Eerie, then, that three years later, and after many more deaths of black men and women have been made public, persons killed by vigilantes like Zimmerman or police officers, eerie that this text should come up again the week after not one but two deaths of black men at the hands of police.

These two men, Alton and Philando, need to be named in your sermon. Because they are the neighbors that have not only been left for dead, but have actually died on the side of the Jericho road. These men’s stories are part of the gospel story we need to hear on Sunday. We need to hear their names because we need to remember that they are our neighbors.

In preparing your sermons, here are three interpretive moves that can help you make these connections for your hearers:

  1. Identify the man left by the side of the road in the parable with these men who have died. They were beaten by robbers, robbed of life by those meant to protect it. Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask questions about the character of the man left for dead. It doesn’t matter. We cannot justify killing persons by digging up “dirt” on their past (this is often what takes place in the media or in the imaginations of persons who hear about these events—we want to know what they did to “deserve” the suspicions of the police). Be clear: they did not deserve to die. Help listeners identify the larger role that racism plays in our society. The term “racism” can become abstract—help listeners understand what this means from a historical perspective, what these stories echo from our past, and why this is so upsetting for so many people of color (talk about trauma and the role of these narratives in shaping persons’ fears and insecurities in living in a society that treats people who look like them in this way).
  1. Personalize our role in the story. Are we the passers-by? Are we the good religious people who try to stay away from the controversial subjects? Are we really good at pretending we don’t have a race problem? We need to be able to see ourselves as part of this narrative. We need help in recovering from our racist past and present as a country, and we are naïve to think that time alone will heal us, or that we will simply “evolve.” We need to be aware that we are part of a larger system, and that policy decisions need to be made, that checks and balances are needed for our justice system and those we pay to enforce the law. We need to pray that God will give us wisdom in how we respond, and pray that we can someone be part of a more peace- and just-filled world.
  1. Talk about the grace of God in this parable. Talk about Jesus as the one telling this story, who 4th-century theologian Augustine of Hippo interprets as being the one who puts curative ointments on our sin-sick souls (Augustine was a theologian from the African continent). The message of this parable in Luke’s gospel is not that we are called to be “good Samaritans.” The message is to turn upside down our idea of who is our “neighbor.” If we focus on the person of the good Samaritan, we are suggesting that we can do something about this larger problem by doing good deeds, as if we could be the “good white people,” showing charity along the way. We know God can make changes in us and in our relationships with one another; in gratitude for that grace we reach out in support and solidarity with those trying to make a difference for the families of the victims and for all people traumatized by these events.

Finally, pray for the families. Pray for the police officers involved. Pray for those trying to make sense of this. Pray for those trying to make a difference, trying to make their voices heard. Pray for your congregation, for your community, for your neighbors. Pray for Alton’s family and friends, pray for Philando’s girlfriend and her daughter, for the children at the Montessori school where Philando worked. Pray for the justice system, pray for those responding to the protests, pray for those protesting. In your prayers and in your sermon on Sunday, help your congregation lift up these concerns to the God who made all people in God’s image, and who loves each and every person as a beloved child. I will be praying for you who must preach.

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