Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?

St. Christopher's, Grand Blanc, Michigan
October 16, 2010

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Is Tyler Clementi our neighbor? How about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who’s trying to build a Muslim cultural center in Manhattan, near Ground Zero? And while we’re at it, how about Pastor Terry Jones, of the Dove World Outreach Center, who thinks it’s a good idea to burn Qurans?


I think the fate of Mr. Clementi is probably the toughest for all of us. He committed suicide out of shame, after his roommates treated him like a zoo animal, rather than a human being with basic human dignity and rights. Several other young gay people have killed themselves in recent weeks – not in such public or appallingly cruel circumstances, but for similar reasons.


The fellow on the road to Jericho was also treated in an appalling way – as an exploitable substance, rather than a dignified human being. He was robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. We don’t know exactly what the robbers were after, but it was something valuable. Three guys in Brooklyn suffered something similar a few days ago – they were abducted, stripped, beaten, tortured, and dumped, because their tormentors thought they “had broken the rules.” Their rules apparently say that you have no dignity or expectation of life if you’re gay.

Exactly the same kind of attitude and behavior resulted in the lynching of several thousand African-Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, and whites in the century after the Civil War. The same kind of sin resulted in the rape and murder of countless women and men in the Congo and surrounding areas today. Similar mayhem went on in Rwanda and during the civil wars in Liberia and Sudan when millions of human beings were simply slaughtered.

Who is our neighbor? Who is being left for dead by the side of the road? Sometimes it’s our collective neglect, rather than active persecution, that causes the end of other people’s dignity. Think of all the people in this state whose ability to survive has been mortally threatened by the economic crisis of the last couple of years – and people whose job skills have been going stale for a long time. The city of Detroit has been dying a slow death for decades. Detroit may not be in this diocese, but are its residents your neighbors? Your votes certainly have an important effect on their lives. The other old industrial cities around here are filled with human beings also being left by the side of the road.


The Samaritan didn’t just take pity on the dying man in the ditch. He gave first aid, picked him up and carted him to a motel, nursed him through the night, and then paid the innkeeper to look after him until he was well enough to go on his way. Jesus and the lawyer call that mercy. Pity is kind of a distant and limited sorrow that doesn’t take any personal responsibility. Mercy recognizes a hurting human being and shares in that suffering enough to do something about it.


I had a remarkable conversation earlier this week with a couple of college students. One of them asked a very provocative question about how anyone could recognize the breadth of the world’s suffering and hold onto all of it. I don’t think anybody can, all the time. We have to focus on one part at a time, the suffering that’s most present to us or in which our attention is demanded. As individuals, we simply aren’t capable of holding it all. Even when we grow in our capacity for compassion, we have to keep traveling around, moving our attention from one situation to another. Yet together, the body of Christ can hold all that suffering. Together, we can focus deeply on all the half-dead along the side of the road.


The question isn’t just, ‘who is our neighbor?’ The question is also, ‘how do we become more neighborly, and able to respond?’ Again, together we have far more capacity to notice the one who needs mercy, and open our hearts to respond.


That’s a significant part of what your bishop is getting at when he talks about shared episcopal ministry. Shared awareness, particularly in the sense of seeing a bigger view, can lead all of us to act with greater mercy. The story is named after the Samaritan, but the innkeeper was a vital part of that merciful intervention. This whole Church is being asked to show mercy to Haiti in the very concrete form of at least $10 million to start reconstructing the dozens of buildings lost in the earthquake. Mercy for the Haitian people includes schools, churches, health clinics – the infrastructure of compassion, just like the inn where the beaten man made his recovery.

We repeatedly promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. It takes all of us to love all people – none of us can do it alone. The question of the cultural center in Manhattan – and the very fact that there is a question about it – can only be addressed by the larger community of compassion. As soon as voices are raised insisting that those people don’t deserve the same dignity as we enjoy, it’s become a large picture problem. No one of us can apply sufficient mercy to heal it. Together we can challenge our neighbors whose fear has begun to turn to hate, together we can insist that freedom of religion applies to all of us, together we can work to reverse the prejudice that says some people can’t have a place in this nation. That’s the kind of mercy that Tyler Clementi needed – the same dignity that we accord all other teenagers, and probably an extra dose of compassion for kids who are struggling to understand their own identity, responsibility, self-worth, and indeed, belovedness.


So what about those neighbors who seem so much harder to love, like Tyler’s two roommates, or the Quran-burning Pastor Jones? They deserve our compassion, too, along with accountability. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is about accountability, whether it’s a lack of self-respect or the arrogant sense that I am the only person who matters. Tyler Clementi was shamed to death, and that has something to do with the inability of people around him to assure him that he was loved and filled with dignity because he was a child of God. His roommates evidently didn’t have an adequate sense of self-love, either, if they had to look for it in shaming somebody else. Pastor Jones seems to need a similar level of community boundary-setting, a willingness to say that if we’re going to live together in a reasonably harmonious society, then certain kinds of disrespect are off limits.

Mercy takes many forms – and that’s probably what most distinguishes it from pity. Mercy recognizes and respects incarnate reality – that this suffering is different from that suffering over there – and mercy responds appropriately to each. What I’ve seen here in this diocese – at Trinity West Branch, at Transfiguration in Indian River, and at St. Francis Grayling – shows mercy becoming real. Children are being nurtured, the dead are given a final resting place, the hungry are fed – in body and soul, the wandering are helped back onto a fruitful path, and those who’ve been robbed by the larger economic system are being helped into productive work once again.

Loving our neighbors means recognizing the body by the side of the road as a dignified human being, in need of mercy. What sorts of bodies are especially hard to recognize? Pray that our own wounds may let us see others’. Instead of just praying, “Lord have mercy,” let our prayer be, “Lord let me be mercy; let us be mercy.”


Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
We will, with God’s help.


“You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” [Luke 10:28]

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