Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore or the speaker for that day.
This sermon is the first after a 5 week sabbatical for Rev. Moore
Deuteronomy 30:9-14 & Luke 10:25-37
Let me begin by expressing my deep appreciation for the people who filled the pulpit and for this congregation for not only granting me a sabbatical, but for holding down the fort as well, and during power failures and storms and broken air conditioners, no less…and that’s probably just the stuff I heard about. Thank you all.
It does feel kind of like it is the first day of school and I’m supposed to read my essay – “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” I have been gone for 5 weeks, though not really gone. I’ve made a couple of drop-ins, attended a TMM function that I promised I’d attend, made a few meetings as I skirted the line between what was my ministerial duty (which I was taking a break from) and what was my social obligation as a citizen of Tulsa. The family did get away, a trip to Kansas City and on to Minnesota with some good time visiting college campuses, being tourists and seeing a thriving theatre scene in Minneapolis. We had a good break, and rested well. I also built a shed in my backyard, with much help from my father, brother and uncle, one of whom is a professional contractor and the others who are, like me, novices…very well equipped novices. We have all the tools and gadgets, but little of the actual know-how. So while the Moore boys got things “square-ish,” my uncle measured again and again, brought out the industrial level, took out some screws we already put in and, in fact, reworked the entire back wall of the structure because the roof wasn’t going to be level if he didn’t. In our defense, our attitude was always that we were building a shed, not the Taj Mahal.
So I guess you could say that I learned that working hard isn’t always better than working smart, that taking some time to breathe, or to measure again, is a good thing. And I learned that a shift in perspective can be more than revealing, it can be downright enlightening. But you all were never far from my thoughts and I did wonder how things were going with little way to check in, for I had made the smart decision early on to go on a social media fast during the sabbatical, which was as restful and rejuvenating as anything…so much so that you might notice a change in my social media presence. I’ll still post and make comments, but I plan on checking it a lot less. In fact, I plan on less “screen time” in general, and more time spent with people, actually engaging in real conversations…you know, the ones that don’t involve typing on a keyboard.
But mostly the time away let me shift my point-of-view away from the sometimes oppressive day-to-day to see with a longer vision. That gardening metaphor really does fit here, for tending to the plants and the garden, seeing the tomatoes actually ripen a little each day, taking the time to appreciate the flow from sunrise to sunset, and adjusting my daily routine, it all made me think about the concerns of this church, the weight of our plans and our struggles, differently. A change of perspective can be very good.
Fitting then that we find ourselves this morning with the parable of the Good Samaritan, perhaps the most famous of Jesus’ parable, with the possible exception of the Prodigal. We have probably all heard this more than once, or we have at least heard what is common vernacular now – the use of “good samaritan” to describe someone who helps a person on the side of the road. And we all know how the moral of the story – don’t be like the arrogant or hypocritical priest and levite, be like the Samaritan and help someone lying in a ditch for crying out loud.
Perhaps another perspective on this familiar tale is good for our enlightenment, too.
So what if we were see the story from the perspective of the priest or the levite? It’s not like it’s that hard to imagine someone from a church walking past another person suffering. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the church isn’t exactly earning a lot of moral capital these days. So maybe it’s good for us to own up to the ways that we leave people in ditches, literally and figuratively. And maybe we’re too hard on the priest and the levite. We all make moral choices in life, and they often seem complicated. What if we’re headed to the hospital to visit a sick friend and we see someone broken down on the side of the road? I mean, visiting hours are almost up…sometimes it’s not as simple as it seems. What if we’re trying to be faithful, only what we thinkmakes for faithfulness isn’t on target at all? There’s a parable for that, you know?
Then again, maybe we’re actually supposed to see ourselves as the person in the ditch? Then the lesson is that we must be willing to see humanity in all other people…after all, we don’t know what the injured man thought about this Samaritan helping him. We can’t hear his inner monologue, knowing that his rescuer is someone who is supposed to be afraid of, someone who is supposed to be reported to the authorities, not lifting him out of the ditch. Perhaps he was hurting so badly that he didn’t care who it was, he was grateful. Or perhaps he was wounded so badly he couldn’t even protest, like he was yelling, “Go away,” in his mind, but the words couldn’t get out. Somewhere in those unspoken words is the directive to us that we ought to be careful about who we think we need and who we think is untouchable or expendable. After all, we might be in a ditch sometime and need help. There’s a parable for that, you know?
But I’d like to actually suggest another perspective this morning – one that I think Luke intends for us to take. It’s not identifying with anyone inthe parable, but rather the one for whom the parable is spoken – namely, the lawyer, or the “scholar of the Hebrew scriptures, as the text says. We are told that he comes to trap Jesus, but I’m not so sure. He refers to him respectfully as rabbi, or teacher, and he asks genuine questions with what seems like a real desire to hear the answers. And Jesus responds to him as if he thinks this is a genuine question. It is, in fact, a genuine question, one that we allask in one way or another – “what must I do to inherit, or to experience, the eternal life?” Now, maybe we don’t ask it like that. Maybe some of us have moved on from worrying about the whole heaven-versus-hell debate, but there is a deeper, more existential question here, for this is really a question about our ultimate sense of identity, even our sense of whether or not we matter. And there’s a parable for that, you know?
The first answer is produced not by Jesus but by the prompting of Jesus to have the scholar reveal what he already knows….“love the Eternal One your God with everything you have: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind —and love your neighbor as yourself.” That seems simple enough, yet we all know that it might be the most difficult thing to do because we, like the priest and the levite and the man in the ditch, we harbor grudges and hold prejudices and bear bias. I’m not even sure the Samaritan in the parable to come was free of all that, we don’t know what he thought, how he might have debated the scene in front of him. After all, he was the one truly exposed there. That was not Samaritan country, he was the stranger. Lending aid might cost him more than a few days’ wages.
There are some scholars who think that Luke invented this story, or more likely he took a well known moral fable and adjusted it – like it was a priest, a levite and a person from outside of Jerusalem…edgy, but not shocking. Luke took the edge and sharpened it to a razor, cutting right through the cultural norms of his time and having Jesus lay it out right in front of us – our salvation, this thing that concerns us all, including this lawyer, this legitimate question to be asked of a rabbi like Jesus is what does it take? It’s not really a ticket to heaven that the lawyer is asking about, that’s our cultural lens not his. A Jew of that day and age would have not given a thought to an afterlife the way we think about it. No, his question is really about wholeness. How do I see life that is bigger than just my own 50, 60, 70, 80 years? How can I be connected to something beyond my own mortality?
Jesus’ answer? Well, first it’s to ask the lawyer what he thinks, and then, in true Jesus fashion, it’s to tell him a parable pointing out how he was wrong. Do the work, Jesus will tell us. Tend the garden. Living that “eternal life,” that life beyond our own, a life of love and trust…it isn’t something there is a six point cheat sheet for, it isn’t cut and dry. It is messy and uncomfortable and hard to pin down. There’s a reason Jesus tell us truth via parable, even more intriguing if Jesus is repurposing an existing story. If a Samaritan will help a foreigner in those circumstances, if a foreign, unclean, less-than-human reject can be moral, then all bets are off. All our assumptions are wrong. God doesn’t work the way we think God works. It’s almost as if our morality begins with the most moral foundation of all – God is everywhere, and our distinctions, our biases, our limited ways of seeing things aren’t moral. And while we’re at it, just because something is legal, that doesn’t make it moral. When we’re locking up people in cages again it seems a good time to remember that.
Jesus, in this parable, sets aside all of our excuses, he thwarts all of our loopholes, setting aside our resistance to the work asking us to just do, for “doing” outweighs all the titles and degrees, the positions of honor and the measurements of success. He reminds us that it’s not wealth nor privilege, not fame nor glory, not tradition nor legal authority that makes us righteous – it is compassion, mercy, kindness, justice. Luke gives us a Jesus who is not worried about our perfection, but our participation; hoping that we will see that we are not being asked to right all wrongs or fix a broken world, but rather to participate in it’s healing, and to be open to the ways that compassion will heal and change, but not without making us vulnerable, and exposing our narrow vision.
If we learn something from Luke’s parable, I hope that it is not how much smarter Jesus is than the scholars of his time, or how we’re supposed to help anyone we see on the side of the road, or that Jesus was trying to break down the barriers of his time, lifting up a Samaritan as the hero of the story. I hop we’ll go deeper to understand what word is there for us today, a word about what care looks like and how we can place so many things in between us, especially these days, instead of beginning and ending with a vision of “the other” as a child of God, created in God’s image just like you and me.
This isn’t a parable about being “good.” Nowhere in this parable does the word “good” appear, despite how much we make it about being good, for we all want desperately to see ourselves as good. It is a lesson about making our faith lives simpler, it is about the humility that always accompanies grace. This parable shows us that, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and then love your neighbor as yourself,” which can seem hopelessly naïve and trite, is actually the foundation of our souls. The lesson becomes, rely on mercy.This is the messy work of living our faith, like the gardener, who cannot produce the fruit on her own, who misses weeds and forgets to prune and relies on the rain to replace her inconsistency in watering, but hopes for the harvest anyway. It is not, as our lesson from Deuteronomy tells us, some magical incantation only available to the really spiritually advanced. This practice of loving God and neighbor is not an instruction that is out of reach….
It isn’t up in heaven somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will go up for us to heaven and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?” Nor is it across the ocean somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the ocean for us and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?” Not at all! The word is very close to you. It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it.
May God’s Peace be with us all. Amen.