"But a Samaritan"-Sermon for Proper 10, Luke 10:25-37
So we are well into the season of summer blockbusters in our local cinemas…many, many of which have story lines that revolve around various heroes...some are, of course, more likable than others…some more anti-hero…some more traditional good-guy or gal…some with super powers and some with more ordinary powers. One way or another, we all tend to root for them to win in the end…hoping for some sort of glorious victory…good winning out over evil…the hero overcoming long odds to stand as victor…often over the smoldering bodies of their enemies. And I am a total sucker for this sort of film…I take some sort of comfort in the fact that in the movies the good guy or gal always wins…usually. I like finding myself distracted in the twists and turns and in the lives of characters that usually bear little to no resemblance of any real person…or the real life that I or we actually live. And thus this is indeed a diversion…a diversion from the demands of day to day life…diversion from the real stories that dominate our headlines, as we have experienced again just this week, and that so often are filled with pain or loss or conflict with real consequences…the real stories in which the good folk seem to almost never end up on top. And I want to say that I think our love affair with film, television and even fiction, including the action packed super hero variety, are not all bad. The stories can be encouraging, even hopeful…fiction can be as good a tool for teaching and getting one to think about real things that matter and have substance, as non-fiction can. Further as Brené Brown says…we all numb…we all numb ourselves from time to time…stepping away from the pain and exhaustion caused by the challenges and travails that bombard us in real life, and it’s not always bad to do so…to step away for a moment at least…to be entertained and recharge the old batteries. It is just also important to have the maturity to know the difference between a time of well-deserved, mindless recreation and true avoidance…which only allows problems to exacerbate and diminishes our own emotional and spiritual growth…a sort of numbing that looks something more akin to compulsion or even addiction. Brené Brown says something like…and this is not a direct quote, “A piece of dark chocolate can be a holy wafer of comfort…three bars of dark chocolate might indicate there is something else going on.” But setting this conversation aside, though it is indeed, worth our consideration…I want to think about the place I began…with heroes.
And I think we are drawn to them in a positive sense…from Captain America to Atticus Finch…because of their willingness to sacrifice, sometimes even life and limb, for what they believe is right, their courage to act even when experiencing real fear, and their resiliency…getting back up even when knocked down until what needs to be done is done…as Winston Churchill so famously said to, “Never give up, never give up.” And speaking in generalities, I believe these are all more or less good qualities…being sacrificial, being courageous, being resilient. It is no wonder we are attracted to these characters when we see them on the big screen…and on some level want to be more like them in our own lives. But there are, of course, quite a few problems as well with the concept of hero, at least, through the lens of Hollywood. Though images of the hero are thankfully evolving, if too slowly, they tend to be white, male, beautiful, a genius, have a great sense of humor…even with a gun to the head, incredibly resourceful, and, of course, super strong…which is also, again, of course, not what most of the world looks like. And I think the problem this then can cause is around identification…that is causing confusion when it comes to recognizing who the heroes in the real life world really are…and what the lives they really live look like.
Today we encounter in our Gospel lesson, Jesus’ familiar parable of the Good Samaritan. And indeed there is a hero in Jesus’ story. But unlike the Hollywood blockbuster…our hero is perhaps not who we might have been expecting…and certainly not who the lawyer who Jesus is speaking with is expecting. As you recall, the question that prompts the parable is around who is our neighbor...which launches Jesus into his own story telling moment. He begins his story with the victim, the person in distress, who goes unnamed. I think this last bit is really important…we don’t know who this person is…who has been attacked by robbers, beat up, stripped of all he had, left half dead on the side of the road. And I think Jesus’ point is that it doesn’t matter who he is…what religion he practices, who his parents are, what his nationality is, whether he is rich or poor, the color of his skin…this is all entirely irrelevant. What matters is that he is a human being in desperate need…need of help…his life literally hangs in the balance…and the very fact that he is a person, a fellow human being, in great peril and great need…makes him entirely worthy of being saved…he deserves a hero…a savior. And thankfully a potential and perhaps expected hero approaches just in the nick of time…a priest…surely a hero in the making…aren’t all priest really heroes…says the priest! But alas his courage fails, he is unwilling to sacrifice, he doesn’t test his resiliency…instead he passes by on the other side of the road…but wait…before our confidence in the clergy is utterly destroyed…perhaps he is just a bad apple in the bunch…another member of the clergy, a Levite, approaches…surely he will be the hero this suffering, half-dead man needs…surely he will save the day…but alas it is not to be. He too lacks what being a true hero requires and also passes on the other side of the road. Perhaps clergy are not all they are cracked up to be…and this should be no surprise to anyone…for clergy are just as broken and human as the next person…but it is still a shame. We may want to let the two off the hook…maybe the robbers are still lurking in the shadows…what good is it for two people to be half-dead on the side of the road…unable to offer assistance to the other. And they do indeed have important religions duties to attend to wherever it is they are headed…and to touch a dead body, for Jesus says himself that he might be dead…a 50/50 chance, would make them ritually impure, in their first century thinking, and thus unable to function in their religious duties for a time…unable to offer much needed appointed sacrifices at God’s altar…absolving folk of sin and offering blessings for God’s provision in people’s lives. But surely we all know to let them off the hook would be entirely wrong. I don’t think Jesus was or would. They saw the man on the road with their own eyes…and to not offer assistance is nothing short of wrong…it is beyond being a poor neighbor…it is beyond being anti-heroic…it is just plain cruel…wrong in every sense of the word. Their blindness to the suffering of the other convicts them of heartlessness…they are a disappointment all the way down to their toes…no excuses. And make no mistakes…this would be just as true if any one of us passed by this man in great need…in great peril…lying half dead on the side of the road…no exceptions.
But wait…the good news is the story is not yet finished…the credits have not yet rolled…the story has not even reached its climax. A third person approaches…but again not the one the listener anticipates. I image this lawyer questioning Jesus expected for the third person to indeed arrive…and further to be an Israelite…a good and honest, ordinary, everyday Israelite…that looks and lives an awful lot like the lawyer who asks the question. For we so often cast the hero in our own image, or our imagined image, the Hollywood heroic image. I imagine the lawyer is thinking Jesus is heading down the anti-clerical route…pointing out the corruption and self-centeredness of the clergy…the self-serving privilege of the religious elite…while lifting up the heroicness of the ordinary Israelite…who knows God, who knows right from wrong…and acts on it courageously, sacrificially, resiliently. But the lawyer could not be more wrong…for Jesus’ hero approaching the half-dead man in great peril is not an Israelite, unlike both Jesus and the lawyer, the third man is a Samaritan. Growing up and hearing this parable in Sunday School, I had no idea what this meant...a Samaritan as I understood it was synonymous with what it meant to be a good person, a good neighbor, even a hero of sorts. I suppose I thought a Samaritan was just a type of really good Israelite…just a title for a good person…or maybe just a way of describing what city the man was from…like saying along came an Austinite. But this was not so in the mind of a first century Jewish person…a Samaritan was a half-breed, a religious outcast, one whose blood was mingled with infidels, living outside of God’s grace and blessing…incapable of being and thus doing anything good or of value. A hero…never…not ever. But actions always speak louder than words…and the Samaritan does the unthinkable…he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work…courageously approaching the dying man…risking being attacked himself…if indeed the robbers still lurk close. He sacrifices his own provisions of oil and wine to tend the man’s life-threatening wounds. He carries the man to help at an inn, perhaps a long way off, and he pays for his care…you could say, in the spirit of true resilience, he even promises he will come back and repay the innkeeper whatever additional cost he takes on to see the man back to health…being sure the task is completed…all the way to the end…whatever it takes. If not a hero, in the true Hollywood sense, this Samaritan was a very, very good neighbor.
And I suppose the point I want to make in my own story telling is that heroes don’t always look like the people we think they should look like. They often don’t look like us…and beauty, strength, genius, humor, and a particular gender, race or religion is not required to be a hero…or just even to be a good neighbor. My own heroes include my 4 and 6-year-old daughters…who always tell me the truth…name it when my words and actions don’t line up. They include the clergy and lay leaders of the Diocese of Navajoland that do incredible ministry among the addicted and brokenhearted and underserved with little pay and less in the way of resources. They include members of our hospitality committee that remain after church on Sunday and after our evening events, often long into the night, to clean up after us and be sure our church reflects something of God’s own beauty. They include a homeless man on a corner near my house who after I tried to ignore him, pretend like I didn’t see him, with my car window rolled firmly up…all the while trying desperately to hide the fact that I was wearing a clergy collar because I did not have cash or a manna bag with me, who then taped on my window…and once I rolled it down feeling downright embarrassed, he said simply, “I don’t want your money, I just want you to pray for me”. And I could go on and on. Heroes come in every shape and size…from every background and lifestyle. Heroes certainly don’t want that title…and they often show courage, sacrifice and resiliency in the simplest, ordinary and most everyday sorts of ways…they are, simply said, good neighbors. And I want to be one to…and Jesus indeed says, “Go and do likewise.” In other words, go and be courageous, be sacrificial, be resilient…in the care of those in need…who are all around us.
For this we were made…and to this we are called…to recognize with gratitude all those un-sung folk living heroically in our midst, perhaps where we aren’t even looking and among those who we certainly don’t expect…and then…and then inspired by their true heroicness, their neighborliness…to go and do likewise.
And a final thought…since I have been away for our annual pilgrimage to Navajoland and a week of vacation, we as a nation, as a people, as God’s own beloved…we have been, or perhaps I should say, we continue to suffer tremendous, unspeakable tragedies…from Florida, to Minnesota, to Louisiana and now to our neighbors just to our north in Dallas. Gun violence, hatred, terror, mental illness, bigotry and painful divisions around race, sexuality, and socio economics have led to a profound loss of life…wounds that will indeed have lasting consequences…certainly even on those not directly impacted by these individual events. So what are we to do as the people of God in response? Though these systemic problems are huge and hard to wrap one’s head around…I am reminded of a quote I once read that said the line between good and evil runs not through states, nations, political parties, institutions or religions but right through the middle of each and every human heart. And the one heart we have most control over is, of course, our own…the one beating and pumping blood through our own bodies…and this is the very place the kingdom of God, God’s peaceable kingdom, is begun to be built in our very midst…and to this end Jesus’ story of the unexpected hero…the good neighbor…has immense value for us today…for the way we as Christ followers respond to sin in all the varied forms it is manifest…from hatred and violence to all sorts of suffering, racism, and bigotry is by living a life that looks something like neighborliness…to go and do likewise…to care for the wounded…to be courageous, sacrificial, even resilient in our willingness to care for those in need, to build relationships with those who look, believe and live differently than we do, to speak words of life and love through both the ballot box and other means of organizing ourselves into God’s agents of compassion and peace and healing…and this is all work that I hope we can and will intentionally enter into together.
And we pray…for peace…for sure…but even more so prayer to be transformed ourselves into Christ like neighbors whose words and actions affirm our own Easter proclamation…what the very empty tomb of Easter promises…that love is indeed stronger than hate and life is indeed stronger than death. And we do so confidently…knowing we already have the hero we need…Jesus Christ…the Son of God…the Prince of Peace…the Wise Counselor…the Everlasting Arms of Love…whose own glorious resurrection promises that at the end of all that is…love stands eternal. And bolstered by this truth…we move forward giving voice to and caring for those suffering on the side of the road…the road we travel…the people whose paths cross our own.
This may seem a little thing…but all that is good, lovely and gracious…starts as a little thing…one neighbor genuinely loving another neighbor…going and doing likewise…with courage and sacrifice and resilience that bears witness to the love of God which is indeed present…manifestly present…most especially when things feel unsettled and the darkness seeks to overwhelm. Being good neighbors…for this we were made…and to this we are called…to be courageous, to be sacrificial, to be resilient. Amen.