A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached on the Sterling, MA Town Common
July 9, 2017
POEM Gate A4 by Naomi Shihab Nye
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”
Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,"
said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend--
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
GOSPEL READING “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37)
The Most Important Commandment
25 One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
27 The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[a]
28 “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
29 The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Parable of the Good Samaritan
30 Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.
31 “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. 32 A Temple assistant[b]walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.
33 “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins,[c] telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’
36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”
Last week, we had a barbeque for our new Syrian refugee friends from Worcester who we met some time ago when we were looking for a way to give out our money from the reverse offering. You may remember that they were expedited to America after two years of vetting so that their 10 year old daughter, Sidra, could get better health care for the burns that cover 60% of her body after a bomb went off in their kitchen, destroying their home and killing their cousins.
We were nervous to host them at our house. We didn’t know what to cook. I attempted hummus and tabouli. We made barbeque chicken and burgers and brownies. My mom came because she wanted to meet them.
They came early because of a miscommunication, the whole family of eight in a van. And there were no translators from the Worcester Islamic Center until 45 minutes later. So we stumbled around trying to think of things to talk about, and trying to communicate in what little English they know. We found out the dad just got a job at Fedex. The kids are loving school. Their English is improving. Sometimes there was uncomfortable silence.
The family has 6 wonderful, genuine, polite, helpful, loving children ages 7-20, living in a small apartment in Worcester. In Syria, they lived in a house with four generations of family, with aunts and uncles and cousins. 20 people lived in the house. They feel so lonely here in America with only 8 of them in an apartment. They haven’t heard from their grandparents in 4 months. They had to leave them behind in Syria because they were too old to travel. The mama assumes that they are dead, but she may not find out for a long time. They told us only about 30% of the citizenry is left in Syria, and most of the people left are old and infirm.
It was the mama’s birthday, so my mom and I sang to her the Birthday song. She had never heard it before.
The translators came, and our conversation was far-reaching. We talked about poetry, and death and dying, and the differences in our religions and cultures. We talked about feminism and Islamaphobia. The Koran and the Bible. We talked about the refugee crisis, and the choice to wear a hijab despite the violence it could invoke for Muslim women here. The kids eventually started playing with each other—including Sidra, who cannot use one of her arms, but the other one works fine. Whiffle ball and tag. Laughing. Everybody loved the burgers.
This is the world I want to live in—the shared world. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
Who is my neighbor?
This is the simple question the lawyer asks Jesus. He is expecting Jesus to say, “the person who lives next door. Your fellow Jew. Someone who is like you. Another Sterling resident. Another Christian. Another middle class white person. Another person who shares your love of barbeque chicken and hamburgers.”
But instead Jesus tells the lawyer a story. He tells a story about a priest and a Levite who leave a Jewish man lying bloody in the street. Touching him would make them unclean; would break the law of the Sabbath. So they leave him on the side of the road, cross the street, and walk past.
Finally, a Samaritan comes along and helps the man. Binds up his wounds, puts him on a donkey, takes him to an inn, where he takes care of him. He then gives money to the innkeeper to continue to care for him before he leaves.
The Samaritan does not share the race or religion of the Jews. The Samaritan is not a member of their tribe. In fact, Jews and Samaritans hated each other.
Who is my neighbor? The lawyer asked.
Jesus answers with a story about mercy. Jesus answers with a story about crossing religious boundaries by refusing to cross the street. Jesus answers with a story about saving lives.
And then he asks the lawyer a question.
“Who was the neighbor to the man who was being attacked by bandits?”
“The one who showed mercy,” the lawyer answers.
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. “Go and do the same. Be a neighbor to the ones who need mercy. Cross religious and tribal boundaries to do so.”
This is the savior we follow…the one who encourages us to see all of humanity as children of God. The one who tells us that we are all in the same tribe. He tells us through story and example that our job is not to ask “who is my neighbor,” but to BE a neighbor.
There has been a lot of research that suggests that evolutionarily, we humans are prone toward tribalism so that we might survive as a species. We are biologically programmed to fear the stranger as a survival instinct.
Because we are prone toward avoiding danger, we make decisions based more on feeling than fact. We form opinions based on what validates our feelings of safety in our group, rather than take in new factual information that might change our minds. We are more apt to seek out other members of our tribe who high five us when we parrot what we have heard on our news station of choice, or from our political pundit of choice. When the fear zone in our brain is triggered, we are apt to get angry at those we perceive to be enemies. We are sometimes apt even to be violent. Rather than choosing curiosity, or listening for understanding, we dig in and stay entrenched in our positions.
This goes for liberals and conservatives, atheists and agnostics, Christians, Muslims and Jews, black people, white people. None of us are more evolved. We are biologically programmed to fear people who aren’t like us. It isn’t our fault.
But there is something we can do about it.
We can look for what connects us, in order to slip the trigger on the fear response. We can listen for commonalties. Oh, you have kids, too? You love re-runs of the Brady Bunch, too? You like BBQ chicken, too? You like to sing, too? Anything. It’s harder to cross the street when there is something concrete and deep that connects us. It’s harder to see an enemy when we see ourselves in another person.
And then, we can train ourselves in humility: we can go into every conversation we have with the belief that we might be wrong. We can be willing to be changed.
This is what a life of faith calls us to: crossing boundaries, cultivating humility, and the willingness to be transformed.
We need those skills now more than ever before.
Rev. Dr. William Barber says:
Jesus, a brown skinned Palestinian Jew, called us to preach good news to the poor, the broken, and the bruised, and all those who are made to feel unaccepted.
Our constitution calls us to commit our government to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, to provide for the common defense and to ensure domestic tranquility.
Now, to be true, we've never lived this vision perfectly. But this ought to be the goal at the heart of our democracy. And when religion is used to camouflage meanness, we know that we have a heart problem in America.
There have always been forces that want to harden and even stop the heart of democracy. There have also always been people who stood together to stir what sister Dorothy has called “the revolution of the heart” and what Dr. King called a “radical revolution of values.”
[M]y friends, they tell me that when the heart is in danger, somebody has to call an emergency code. And somebody with a good heart will bring a defibrillator to work on the bad heart, because it is possible to shock a bad heart and revive the pulse.
In this season, when someone tries to harden and stop the heart of our democracy, we are being called like our foremothers and forefathers to be the moral defibrillator of our time.
The watchword of this democracy, the watchword of faith is “WE.”
We must shock this nation with the power of love.
We must shock this nation with the power of mercy.
We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.
We can’t give up on the heart of our democracy, not now, not ever!
Beloved, we are called to be the moral defibrillators of our time. We are called to see all people as part of our tribe—all people as our neighbors. This is the world I want to live in—the shared world.
This can still happen anywhere. Even in Sterling. Even in the airport. Even in our own backyards.
Not everything is lost.
I end with a prayer based on the Koran.
In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful.
Praise be to the Lord of the Universe who has created us and made us into tribes and nations, that we may know each other, not that we may despise each other. If the enemy incline towards peace, do thou also incline towards peace, and trust in God, for the Lord is the one that heareth and knoweth all things. And the servants of God, Most Gracious are those who walk on the Earth in humility, and when we address them, we say “PEACE.”
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org