Sermon for July 14th
Although it may be hard to do so, imagine a cold evening in February. Two college students, roommates, have decided to break from their studies and get something to eat at a favorite diner, a ‘dinky diner’ sort of place. As they are busy enjoying themselves, a young man, shivering with cold walks into the diner. He doesn’t ask for money or a free lunch. What he wants to know is there a place in town, open 24 hours, where he could find shelter from the cold. The two college students hear the question—it is a dinky diner after all. The cook behind the counter gave the man directions to the post office because the lobby is open 24 hours. The two college students, a priest and a Levite, do nothing. Now afterward their inaction troubled them. Their excuse was their shared dormitory room was big enough only for two, and there was just two beds. The excuse sounded reasonable and realistic. Still, why did their refusal to act bother them? This incident took place over forty years ago and I still remember it. As you can tell, I was the priest or Levite who did nothing to help.
The priest and the Levite are important characters in one of Jesus’ most well-known parables, commonly known as the “Good Samaritan”. The parable was prompted by an exchange between Jesus and a lawyer. A lawyer at the time meant a Scripture scholar, well versed in God’s word, God’s commandments for living. He addressed Jesus politely as “Rabbi” or “Teacher” asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He asked the question to test Jesus. This does not necessarily mean any hostile intent; the question could have been an opening for a discussion, a conversation. The lawyer wasn’t looking for chapter and verse, but a dialog, maybe even a debate. Any faithful Jew at the time would welcome such discussion of the Word of God. Jesus took the bait and wanted to know what the Lawyer thought: “What is written in the Law—or better ‘Torah’ meaning instruction—how do you interpret it? The lawyer gave a beautiful answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with your entire mind.” His answer was and is to this day part of the confession of faith recited by Jewish people twice a day. But just as important, the lawyer continued, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Law or Word of God is centered in love. Jesus was impressed: “Your answer is correct, do this and you will live.” Jesus made an important point: the law, the instruction, the commandments of God is not meant for the ivory tower of debate, they are to be lived through doing.
The lawyer responded, “If I am to do the commandments for life, well then, just who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered by inviting his listeners to imagine a tragedy. A man was ambushed by a gang of robbers. They robbed the man of more than any material wealth. They almost took his life. The man was left naked on the road, beaten to an inch of his life. He wasn’t hidden in a ditch but in plain sight on the road. The first two to happen on the scene of the crime are ones who work in Jerusalem at the Temple. One is a priest. The other, called a Levite, would be an assistant to the priest. They pass by on the other side. Some have felt they would have their excuses: at the time there were laws about purity for those who served in the Temple. Touching what looked like a dead body would mess up their purity and cause complication and inconvenience. But New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine, who is also Jewish, said bluntly “No, they were without excuse. In the Jewish faith mercy takes precedence. In the gospel of Luke Jesus at one time said “Be merciful”, and he did not say “if and when you feel like it.” Jesus said “as your Father in heaven is merciful”. As with the Jewish faith, the Christian faith has the highest standard for mercy. But as I have admitted with just one example, I have been the Priest or Levite, and maybe you have too.
People hearing Jesus tell this parable would have smiled: they liked it when he exposed the hypocrisy of the clergy of the day. Now they expected Jesus to introduce the hero of the story: a layperson just like them. But Jesus caused a major earthquake, with after-shocks, surely, when the hero is a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans had their issues, a history of bad blood that went back for centuries. To get to the surprise Jesus caused, think of this modern equivalent. On the Southern border there are vigilantes who call themselves “Minutemen”—people who have a deep dislike of Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. illegally. They patrol the border seeking to apprehend immigrants. They are the type that would spew racist invectives and fly the Confederate flag. Imagine one of these “minute-men” suffering heat stroke at the border. A Mexican man, an illegal, trying to cross the border comes across this man in distress. He gives him water, and does what he can to provide medical attention. You could say the Minuteman in distress was saved by his enemy.
The Samaritan was moved to pity when he saw the wounded man left to die unattended and abandoned. The word rendered ‘pity’ in English actually means ‘intestines’—a strange way to translate. What is meant is an ‘intestinal fortitude’ kind of compassion, nothing half-way or hesitant about it. He went to work with first –aid; cleansing the man’s wounds and bandaging them. He used his own animal—donkey or horse—as an ambulance to transport the man to an inn—and stayed with him throughout the night. He then provided money that could pay up to two-weeks for the man’s stay at the inn. He promised more when he returned. Jesus then asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer answered “the one who showed him mercy”. Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
Recently I attended a conference on Washington Island and listened to guest presenter, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. He told the story of him and his wife, and others, part of a peace-making team that visited Iraq in 2003, during an intense bombing campaign by the U.S. forces. Their friends were nearly killed when traveling on a desert road, the vehicle hit a piece of shrapnel and crashed. Their friends were critically injured on side of the road. Some locals stopped by and took the wounded people to a town named Rutba where there was a doctor. The doctor who could speak English said to them: three days ago your country bombed our hospital. But we will take care of you. Jonathan Hartgrove wrote about this, saying, “Literally by accident, we lived a modern day Good Samaritan story. The good Iraqi, the good Muslim, showed us what God’s love is like. When we heard Jesus say “Go and do likewise’ at the end of that gospel story, we knew it was an invitation to practice love we have received.” So Jonathan, his wife, and others, opened a place to welcome and house people often at the receiving end of society’s disgust: homeless, drug addicts, alcoholics, people who have been incarcerated. They call their shelter or house “Rutba”, after the Iraqi village where their friends were helped. Over the house they put a sign with Jesus’ words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Jonathan, and others who work at Rutba house, believe they are meeting Jesus in the stranger.
Martin Luther said something remarkable about Holy Communion. There Jesus is present with compassion, mercy, and steadfast love. This mercy does not run out for we heard in the Psalm such compassion is from everlasting. We can be like the stranger left on the road. Have you ever felt abandoned as the world seemed to pass you by? But Jesus carried the cross for our salvation. Jesus does not pass by. He has compassion on each one of us. He gives us his body and blood, his sacrifice, his life given for us, as healing for our spirits and souls. Jesus takes us to the innkeeper, the Holy Spirit, who ever ministers the healing grace to our spirits, reminding us that we are the beloved of God. Jesus has paid for our healing. Jesus has paid for our eternal life. Jesus has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness, and now we are members of the kingdom of God, where we receive as gifts forgiveness of sins and redemption. Luther said as recipients of such love, we are changed. Did he mean changed into better people? When we truly comprehend the grace of God we are changed into one another and made into a community of love. Just think of it: if and when we truly comprehend the grace of God, what healing we could bring into the world. Only the love of God enacted through Jesus can bring this about. Changed into one another: no longer would we see only the usual cruel stereotypes, but we would see our common humanity and the call to “do likewise”, with mercy.