A story from my past; one which I love to tell… It was very late, and I was in the wrong place. I had been at a concert with some friends at the Spectrum in Philadelphia- then, the large indoor arena in the city- some band whose second album had just been released- Led Zeppelin was their name- only a few of us had ever heard of them… Pretty awesome…

But in the rush, as we left, I had been separated from my friends and was alone on the subway headed back into town. At City Hall, I left the first train and dashed for the second that would take me back to my neighborhood, and just caught it- I jumped into the last car just as the doors were closing, sat down and noticed I was all alone…

Some words of context: first, it was an interesting time, in terms of race relations in Philadelphia. African American kids knew that west of the Cobbs Creek Parkway, between Philadelphia and Upper Darby, they were in real trouble. White kids knew that the opposite was true. The subway I was on bridged the two- sort of an uneasy no- man’s land… And second, it was just a rule for safe subway travel- the forward cars were more crowded and therefore safer. NO ONE sat in the last car- it was reserved, as it were, for hoodlums… and there I sat… alone…

Sure enough, at 34th Street, the doors opened, two young African American men got on the train, saw me (I was doing my best to be invisible, but failed), smiled at each other and started to walk towards me… This is it, I thought; this isn’t going to be good.

We are here on the first Sunday in Lent- following our Savior’s path to the cross; preparing ourselves for Easter, as we continue with the Salvation Project. We’re discovering that “salvation” includes not only our eternal relationship with God, but also that it is God’s plan to redeem the world, not just in some future, but today- and we all have a part in that!

And our Gospel reading- perhaps one of the best-known stories in all the Bible- points us in exactly the right direction.

A lawyer stands up to “test” Jesus: “Teacher,” he says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, as he most often does, answers the question of his own- he really turns the tables on the lawyer…

The lawyer answers with words that those of us who have been around Bethlehem know pretty well- we call it the Great Commandment: (If you know it, say it with me) “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…”

Good, says Jesus! Do this, and you shall live… But the lawyer isn’t done- he presses (and the text says he wants to “justify himself,” or demonstrate his righteousness). I, for one, am reminded of the wonderful words of Mark Twain- that it is better to be thought an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt…

But still, I fear I am still connecting with the lawyer- he had a pretty good idea of who his neighbor was… I mean, who are your neighbors?

They’re the people who live near us- think of the word: “next door neighbor,” or “your neighborhood…” Neighbors are people with similar interests, income levels, often the same ethnic group. Neighbors look like us, share similar beliefs, values, and don’t ask for anything more than a cup of sugar…

The lawyer’s neighbors? Other lawyers and related groups- the scribes and the Pharisees: well educated, well to do, good citizens…

And Jesus turns it all on its head by launching into the story of the “Good Samaritan…”

First of all, this is an offensive story: the Samaritans were the descendants of the people who had been moved into the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians after they had conquered it. These people were not ethnic Jews, and they were hated by the locals- even centuries later, even though they did their best to practice the local religion, they were not allowed to worship in Jerusalem…

And for their part, they hated right back- there is a story of Samaritans throwing human bones into the temple right before Passover…

“Good Samaritan?” Try “good Taliban,” or “good Hamas…”

And yet in this story, it is the Samaritan who stopped to help the robbed and beaten man, NOT the pillars of society- the priest and the Levite. They, for whatever reason, fail to stop- indeed, they pass on the other side, and leave the man there.

The Samaritan- the one you would expect to say “Why should I help?” The one who would be expected to pass instead stops, cleanses and binds the wounds, places the man on his own donkey, takes him to an inn, and pays the innkeeper for an extended stay and care…

Can you see the lawyer start to squirm? This conversation was not going the way he had thought it would. And then the question from Jesus: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The one who showed him mercy said the lawyer- notice he can’t bring himself to say the word “Samaritan…”

It’s not as easy as the lawyer- or you- and I- had thought… Jesus teaches that neighbors are where you find them… Everyone is your neighbor… “To love your neighbor as yourself” is a much broader assignment than we could ever imagine…

Think about it: if everyone is your neighbor, and everyone is to be loved as you love yourself…

You wouldn’t let yourself go unclothed, or homeless, or hungry…

You wouldn’t oppress yourself- or hate yourself…

To love your neighbor changes the world! It turns it upside down…

Which is, of course, exactly what Jesus did. Jesus lived as he taught. He treated as neighbors those normally treated as dirt: prostitutes, tax collectors, and outcasts were among his closest friends. Jesus showed them how highly they were valued by God, and that changed them- they learned they had value; that they were important.

Jesus, as our Gospel shows, challenged the leaders of the day to expand their understanding of neighbor- of value in human beings- of what God expects…

Can we be surprised that Jesus was rejected- even killed by those same leaders? Who wants to hear that?

Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, showed you and me what it means to be a neighbor- what it means to love and serve…

Even when he was put to death on a cross… even when God was given the ultimate reason to hate us- the death of God’s only son,

God raised Jesus from the dead. God said, “You cannot kill my love- it is here, in the crucified and risen Jesus now and forever, for each and every one of you!”

You and I live, if you will, as God’s neighbors- in God’s neighborhood…

And your response- and mine? Love God back- and love our neighbors… Our charge is to become the Good Samaritan- each and every one of us.

This is something that Christians ARE… Look at the story again- the Good Samaritan behaves the way he does because it is part of who he is… He chooses to stop and help, he chooses to care for the man, brings him to the inn and pays for a prolonged stay, not to earn brownie points, or to show he’s morally superior, but because he knows compassion- he knows love… He sees a need that he can meet and he does it…

Sharing food, clothing and financial support for those in need is all about loving your neighbor, and serving them builds our community in marvelous ways- those who are helped are transformed- as are those who are serving, and it changes our community for the better- that’s being the Good Samaritan…

And to avoid being overwhelmed by the needs around us, take Mother Theresa’s example- she was asked: “how can you do what you do when so many thousands need help?” “I don’t help thousands, I help her,” she said, pointing to a little girl who had come to her convent and had received the food she needed…

And if I haven’t made it clear- the “other” is our neighbor, too- those people not like us- even those people who aren’t Christians- like Hindus- or Jews or Muslims… I take the time to say that because I am so disheartened by the violence we are seeing around our country aimed at these communities.

Clearly, those who call themselves Christians, and support a ban on immigration of “those people,” or are silent in the face of anti-semitic, or anti-foreigner violence need to pay more attention to the plain language Jesus speaks in our Gospel today…

And as the lawyer learned from Jesus’ story, we can learn a thing or two about being a neighbor from the very people we would least expect it from…

Those two young African American men came right up to me- there were just the three of us in the car- they could do what they wanted and leave at the next stop and no one would see…

They sat down, and one of them looked me in the eye and said: “Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” Oh, my gosh- they were Christians- out sharing their faith- not what I would do, but hey… And as I laughed and said “yes, but I thought…” they laughed, too- they knew what I had been thinking…

And so we started sharing. And when a street gang got on the train at the next stop, and spray painted and carved up the seats in front of us, we were left alone… I shudder to think about what might have happened had those two angels- neighbors not arrived…

They stayed with me until we reached the last stop- where it became dangerous for them- and then we all headed home, in opposite directions… It was an important lesson for me about who was a neighbor- my own prejudices- and how I could be a neighbor for someone else another time…

Our call as Christ-followers is to be a neighbor to the people around us- to a world that is often hurting or in pain. But like that first Good Samaritan, we know that we can make a difference for the better in our world- we can love our neighbor- and change the world, one neighbor at a time…

and it might not be all that easy for us as we build new relationships- discover new neighbors…

But whoever said it would be easy- or convenient to be a Christian? God has never promised us a life of ease! Our promise is the living presence of Jesus forever- salvation!

Our promise is that God will use you- use me- to make a difference in the lives of the people around us- our neighbors- to love and serve them as we have been loved!

Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

He answered, “The one who showed him mercy…”

Jesus said to him- and to you- and to me: Go and do likewise!