We cannot define who we are by who we exclude.

The Wizard of Oz. The Grapes of Wrath. The Gunslinger. The Fellowship of the Ring. Pilgrim’s Progress. On the Road. Red Barchetta.

In my years as a high school English teacher, I discovered a book that helped target the literary components of the story. How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster says, “The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason….The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge.”

The stories I mentioned, and the one song by the greatest band of all time Rush, have the characters on a journey. A quest. Perhaps they travel in a dream or for better opportunities or to run away from something. Whatever the impetus for the journey, these characters perhaps received more than they bargained for. And, like all brilliant literature, we are always the un-named character of the story.

Our gospel passage this morning, the beloved parable of The Good Samaritan, involves a journey. In truth, it involves two separate journeys. Jesus, as we were told in last week’s gospel, was traveling to Jerusalem. His was a journey with a definitive purpose — his face was set towards the destination. When we re-enter the story this morning, Jesus encounters a man who needs clarification on a particular question: Who is my neighbor?

I remember when I was younger, maybe about 9 years old, watching news unfold around that time. At least I believe I was about 9 because we still had the red shag carpet and black Naugahyde furniture. You know, the fabric that in our 100+ degree temps here in the South, you really needed to be careful shifting or getting up because it would rip at the skin on the backs of your legs! I remember watching news reports break through on the television talking about an illness that had never been seen before. An illness that caused many different complications, one of them including blister-like lesions on the skin. An illness that seemed to be in more of the male population than the female. An illness that occurred in men within the homosexual community. And I remember hearing conversations and being told as the news reports gained momentum regarding the fear of this deadly disease, the ways it could be transmitted. But most importantly I remember one main unifying thread of all conversations, one phrase that came from family, from the schools, from the pulpit: AIDS was the curse from God for a deviant and sinful lifestyle. And, I grew up believing what I was told. I grew up believing and speaking that HIV and AIDS was a curse from God, that the reason this disgusting disease was “created” was for punishment.

You see, the reason for a quest is always self-knowledge.” And now I am so ashamed of my beliefs and words and actions. I am so sorry. I understand that those precious souls are my neighbor. I see now, and I feel now. I am aware now of what I could not know before. My heart has been transformed, and as a result my beliefs and words and actions are different as well.

Our gospel this morning calls us to look within, to question who we are in the story: the lawyer asking the question? the robbers who beat up the man? the priest who couldn’t be bothered to help? the Levite who didn’t dare defile himself with what looked like a dead man? the Samaritan man who offered his time, his money, and his efforts? the actual wounded man lying bloodied and broken in the gutter?

And we must ask ourselves: Who is my neighbor?

Oklahoma, as adjustments have been made in the chemical formulations of the mixture, will once again will resume lethal injections for those on death row. And McAlester, being the main prison facility, will engage that process beginning next month. The process will execute almost one person on death row each month until 2025.

Are they, the wounded and lost and broken and ill, not our neighbors? Did Jesus, His precious face set towards Jerusalem, not have them in mind as He walked that dusty path?

I went to a conference, or rather a gathering, on June 22 called Breaking the Silence. It was a gathering of the tribes of Oklahoma in remembrance of the residential and boarding schools. A gathering for the survivors and descendants of those institutions, begun by the governments of Canada and the US as well as both the Catholic and Episcopal Churches, to strip Native North American Indians of their heritage, their language, their essence of humanity. And, if those things could not be stripped away, then the easiest alternative was death. “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Sounds hauntingly like what I’ve heard so much of in my time: “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” The rage. The grief. The horror. The despair. I was gifted with the grace of bearing witness on that day.

Are they, the wounded and lost and broken and traumatized, not our neighbors? Do we not live alongside them in our groceries and neighborhoods and schools and hairdressers right now? Did Jesus, His precious face set towards Jerusalem, not have them in mind as He walked that dusty path?

We can hide. We can avoid. We can avert our eyes. We can participate in the gossip. We can do all the things.

Maya Angelou said, “When a person who speaks their truth is silenced, that act is genocide.” When we bear witness to the pain, the grief, the shame, the fear, the brutalization, the anger of one who is not us and we fail to acknowledge that truth, we participate in genocide. Make no mistake, that act of terrorism is as vile as the one who struck the first blow.

Brene Brown said, “My mom taught us never to look away from people’s pain. The lesson was simple: Don’t look away. Don’t look down. Don’t pretend not to see hurt. Look people in the eye. Even when their pain is overwhelming. And when you are in pain, find the people who can look you in the eye. We need to know we are not alone, especially when we are hurting.”

Will there be those who still turn away? Who deny? Who blame or shame? Who gossip?

Sadly, yes. And I will remind us again of last week’s gospel passage. When we go to a town in which we are not welcomed, even in our grief, shake the dust off our feet, leave those people to their own situations, and move forward.

We cannot define who we are by who we exclude.

Be the one who battles the darkness. Be the one who fights alongside the lone warrior.

The purpose of the journey is self-knowledge. And again in the words of Maya Angelou, “When you know better, do better.”

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