07/14/13 Sermon (July 14, 2013)

posted Sep 3, 2013, 11:36 AM by David Hawkins   [ updated Sep 3, 2013, 11:36 AM ]

07/14/13 Sermon (July 14, 2013)

Scripture: Luke 10:25-37 (Liturgist)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?"
He answered, "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."
And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"
He said, "The one who showed him mercy."
Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Sermon: Expanding the Neighborhood

Last week, our Liturgist, Sue Lewellen, prefaced her reading of the scripture with some off-handed remarks that seemed to indicate that I took some delight in choosing obscure, challenging, difficult texts upon which to preach. Well, not this week.

We all know this story by heart, don’t we? The story of the good Samaritan. And we all know the moral, as well. Do good things, get eternal life. Is there anything more to learn from such an familiar text? Or have we grown bored with it?

In other words, are there splinters in this text that get under our skin, and make us think, make us examine our assumptions, or has the story been worn smooth by too many tellings?

We begin with a reunion. The seventy evangelists that Jesus has sent out have returned from their mission to spread the Gospel. They have seen and been a part of miraculous healings. They have cast out demons. They have proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God.

But their mission hasn’t been met with complete acceptance. As Jesus had warned them, folks weren’t always receptive to their message. Some houses barred their doors. Some town closed their gates. Some people hardened their hearts. It was disappointing for the disciples that so many refused to hear their message of peace, gentleness, kindness, welcome, and forgiveness. It was though the message was too simple.

But now they were back with their Rabbi, telling him everything they had seen. And they weren’t the only ones. A crowd had gathered, to hear about the seventy evangelists and their adventures.

A Biblical scholar is in the crowd, someone who labors over the scriptures, line by line, trying to figure out their meanings. Our translation calls him a lawyer, but I wonder if he’s more of a scriptural literalist than our modern understanding of a lawyer. He likes things to be done decently and in order, if you know what I mean. Maybe our questioner is the first Presbyterian.

At any rate, this man is asking Jesus a question. The man wants to know exactly, precisely what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life

But, rather than answering the question, Jesus asks him, “What is written in that law that you care so much about?”

And the man replies that we need to love God with all we have, and love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. And Jesus says that this is the correct answer. But I want you to pay extra close attention to this next part, especially since Jesus is talking to someone who is very particular about the details of his scriptures. Listen to this tiny thing that caught my eye as I was looking at this text, this small detail that made me realize that I didn’t know this scripture as well as I thought I did. Jesus doesn’t say to the man, “if you do this, you will inherit eternal life.”  No, instead, he says, “Now, go and do this, and you will live.”

Do you see what Jesus did there? The man asks what he needed to do in order to get something, to get eternal life, a thing, a noun. And Jesus answers him with what he needs to do in order to live. Not in order to get something. Not in order to gain an inheritance. Instead of a noun,  Jesus gave him a verb. A big verb. The biggest verb.

Jesus answers a question, all right, but it’s not the exactly question the man was asking.

To say it another way, the man’s question has to do with salvation after death. But Jesus’ answer is all about    shalom during life.

If you want to live, Jesus says, really live, then love God with all your being, and love your neighbor with all your being. Then you will live. You won’t have to wait for death in order to experience life. You can experience life right now, if you like. It’s up to you.

Of course, this nuanced answer goes right over our friend’s head, which isn’t really a surprise. After all, the disciples have just got done telling Jesus how difficult it has been to get people to understand what they’ve been trying to say. This legalist seems to be more concerned about the fine print of the scripture. “Yes of course,” he says, “But, tell me, who, really, is my neighbor? Who do I have to love?  Make it simple for me.”

And so Jesus does. In a roundabout way. He tells a story.

A certain man, is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. This road connects the former northern and southern kingdoms of Israel, and is famous for the dangers one might encounter on it. First of all, it’s rugged. It’s a steep road, with a change in elevation of over 3,000 feet in just 17 miles. For those of you familiar with Colorado driving, that’s comparable the change in elevation and distance from Ouray to the top of Red Mountain Pass, on the Million Dollar Highway. Or, if you are Robbie Edwards traveling by Jeep, from the top of Engineer Pass down into Silverton. It’s quite a road.

And believe me, this isn’t the Million Dollar highway. It’s more of a 50 dollar goat track, and it’s notorious for the thieves who use the nooks and caves and turns in the road to ambush travelers. One had better mind their business on this road. It’s best not to linger.

And as it turns out, this certain man was attacked by thieves, robbed, beaten, thrown in the ditch, and left for dead.

But fortunately for him, there were other travelers on the road. A priest was making his way through the rocks and potholes. He saw the body in the ditch, and was immediately confronted by several ethical dilemmas. Should he stop and investigate? What if the man is already dead? There’s nothing he could do at the point, except for bury him. And if he touched a corpse, then he would be ritually unclean.

But, if he was dead, then the law required him to be buried. He couldn’t be left out in the open like that. The priest would be able, if he wanted, to reconcile his uncleanness by acting on one part of the law over the other. It would mean extensive rituals in the temple of course. He would have to turn around and go back to Jerusalem. There would be sacrifices to make, prayers to be said. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but it would be incredibly time consuming, and people might wonder what he had done in order that he needed to be ritually cleansed. They might talk. Who knows what they might say?

So, it was really best if he didn’t stop. All in all, it seemed to make more sense to just walk away. He discretely stepped over to the other side of the path, and continued his journey.

Shortly behind the priest, a Levite was also making his way on the road to Jericho. The priest was younger, had more energy. The levite had to stop from time to time to catch his breath.

But he was always careful where he stopped. He knew there were bandits on this road, thieves who would kill a traveler just for a couple of shekels. And so the Levite would look for wide open areas to rest, in order to avoid an ambush.

His fears were renewed when he came upon the body of the man who had been beaten. There was no movement, and it looked as though the man was dead. The Levite considered his options. Obviously the Priest had already seen the man, and had done nothing, so that meant the religious obligations must have been nullified somehow.

And as he looked around, he could tell that this would be a perfect place for an ambush. If he took the time to bury this man, or even stop to see if he was simply unconscious, then his own life would be in danger. It could even be a trap, a ploy to get him to relax his guard, and then be set upon by bandits. And besides, if the man was dead, there was no place to bury him. The path was rocky and barren, and he was in no shape to be carrying rocks, not at his age, and he still had a long way to go before nightfall, which is when it really got dangerous. It would the smart thing to just walk away.

And so, he, too, crossed over to the other side, and continued his journey to Jericho.

It looked hopeless for the victim lying in the ditch. If the very best of society, the upper crust, the most respected, religious, and powerful members of the community refused to help, even those who had sworn their allegiance to the law and to their God, then what chance did he have?

But there was another traveler on the path. And he was not a priest or a Levite.  In fact, he wasn’t even Jewish. He was one of those heretics, who didn’t recognize the authority of the temple. He was a foreigner, unclean, and enemy of the people, and of the state. His people were terrorists, immigrants, religious and social outcasts. It’s no wonder that there were so many crimes being committed on this road to the north. Samaritans represented everything the Israelites hated and feared.

In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, we heard the disciples asking Jesus if it would be OK if they called down heavenly fire to destroy a Samaritan city that had refused them hospitality. The northern and southern kingdoms had been in conflict with one another for over 1000 years. There was no love lost between these two peoples.

And so of course it was a northern Samaritan who stopped to help the beaten man. A Samaritan who bandaged his wounds. A Samaritan who gave him shelter, who paid the innkeeper well over $150 of his own money to take care of the victim until he could return.

It was a Samaritan who was a neighbor, part of the community of the beaten man on the rocky path through the mountains. Not the preacher, not the pious church member. Not the politician, not the rich man, not the friend next door.

The Samaritan was a person who represented everything the Jews hated and feared. There was nothing neighborly about their relationship.

And yet, the Samaritan stopped and was compassionate. It was his kindness that made him a neighbor. Not his nationality. Not his legal status. Not his religion, or lack of it. Not his purity, his job, his education, his political leanings, or his family history. It was how he responded to a person who was hurting that made him a neighbor. Pure and simple. Not kinship, not culture, not language, not law, not obligation, not duty, not tradition, not societal expectation, but rather simple kindness defines for Jesus what a neighbor looks like.

This answer may have made the Bible Scholar think for while. I know it gives me pause. What if I had been the one in the ditch? Are there some people in this world that I would hope or expect to take the time to see if I’m OK? Are there some folks that I might be surprised that would take take the time to put me back together, who would make themselves vulnerable in order to see me back on my feet?

And are there some people who I wouldn’t want to come alongside me? That I would rather just lie there in the ditch before accepting help from them?

And even harder that that, am I really ready to be a neighbor? Am I willing to put aside the feelings I have about the religiously unclean, the impure, the foriegn, the immigrant, the enemy of my people. Am I ready to become their neighbor, to claim a relationship with those I hate and despise?

Am I willing to take risks, to take time, and energy, and put my efforts into helping someone who represents everything that I can’t stand? Can it be that this is what Jesus means that we need to do, if we want to live?

The reality is, I’m not sure how I would answer some of these questions. But I do know this: Some of us have been in that ditch. Emotionally, spiritually, financially, we have found ourselves beaten up, and tossed aside. There are times that we might have wished we were dead. But we are here today because a neighbor took the time to pick us up, and dust us off. For some of us, that neighbor was a family member, or a friend. For others, it was a colleague, or maybe even a complete stranger.

For all of us, there will be times in our lives that we will need the compassion of someone else in order to make it. It’s not a matter of following the law, or of earning a place in heaven. It’s simply the fact that in order for us to live, we will have to figure out how to be each other’s neighbor, even when we can’t possibly imagine how that might work.  

And the greatest example of that is that Jesus Christ himself, who when he came to this hard and rocky world, and found humanity lying in a ditch, did not cross over to the other side of road and walk, but rather stopped, and gave every part of himself in order that we might truly live.

Thanks be to God. Amen.