Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Real Gem of a Story

Scripture for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost includes Amos 7:7-17; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a gem of a story, and like most gems that get worn this one has a setting, a context. Before we admire the diamond, notice how it’s set, the platinum prongs of the opening and closing verses.

A lawyer is testing Jesus. This isn’t unusual in the Gospels: Men with sharp minds trained in the arts of win/lose and in the science of either/or try, from time to time, to trap Jesus into making a public statement that could be used against him, branding him as either a traitor to Rome or unorthodox in his religion.

American poet Edwin Markham wrote the words, but Jesus could have said them himself, referring to his latest encounter with such a lawyer: “He drew a circle that shut me out-- Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in.”

Which is precisely what Jesus proceeds to do. I love these lawyer stories. The confronting legal expert tries to test Jesus; Jesus, expert in love, winds up testing the lawyer. What I admire about these stories is what they teach us about the Word of God. We all should expect to be tested, every time we hear the New Testament read. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, but not because it excuses us from having our preconceptions challenged or our responsibilities clarified. The Gospel fulfills the law and the prophets, so it draws us to a love that simultaneously rescues us and requires of us all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. The Good News positions us to both receive and give. And no story better illustrates that than the parable of the Good Samaritan.

We’re still considering the setting. You may be wondering when we’ll get into the story, but not until we settle another question of attitude. Already, we’ve seen that it isn’t just the lawyer who’s tested by this story: we will be, too. And I trust you’re okay with that, willing to agree that we all need to buff up our skills at neighborliness, to open our minds and hearts to a profound lesson Jesus is teaching—that being a neighbor isn’t about how many feet separate me from the occupant next door, or (with apology to Mr. Frost) how intact the fence is between us. Being a neighbor requires knowing when to cross that fence line, and what to do, once we have crossed it.

I’d like to rename this the parable of the good neighbor. I suggest that reasonable shift because I’m uneasy with the implication that this Samaritan fellow is called good in contrast to the typical Samaritan, who must have been bad, a real bounder. Somehow, a good Samaritan, a good Arab, a good Jew, a good Christian is a use of language that opens the door to a closet of scary goblins, like “the only good (fill in the blank) is a dead (fill in the blank). Given what we think we know about relations between Jews and Samaritans (dramatized for us one recent Sunday by the disciples proposing to Jesus that they call for lightning to strike a Samaritan village that didn’t roll out the welcome mat for them), racial hatred and violence are not far off in the wings. Yes, the story demands rethinking by any 1st-century Jew trained by culture to lump all Samaritans as a bad lot. But hello, the more important point is that everyone hearing this story is challenged by it.

And because racial prejudice poisons all neighboring wells, let’s avoid explaining the behavior of the priest and the Levite as evidence that Jews were deficient in compassion because of their religious purity laws. Yes, that has been suggested in some handlings of this parable, and sounds to me like a poor attempt to keep at bay the universal challenge the story poses.

One more thing about the setting, about the lawyer’s motives: first, we’re told that he’s testing Jesus, and second, that it is to justify himself that he asks his timeless question, “And who is my neighbor?”

What does that mean, to justify himself? That he had a narrow view of who his neighbors were, and wanted Jesus to confirm his assumption that a neighbor is a kinsman or kinswoman bound to him by obligation, a member of his own tribe? One commentator insists that this is how a first-century mind would have seen it, because people then didn’t think in abstractions like “all of humanity”. Neighbors lived in a certain neighborhood because they were all of one extended family, period. This lawyer asks Jesus to exonerate him from having to take seriously a radically subversive standard he thinks he might have heard in Jesus’s sermons: that even our nation’s rivals and occupiers are our neighbors.

So this is the old view, that neighbors are given to us by proximity. In the 1st century, the proximity of extended family. In the 21st century, the proximity of choosing to settle in a particular place you like and can afford to live in.

To both these old views, Jesus asserts his challenge: you become a neighbor to someone by choosing to behave in ways that respond to his or her needs. Proximity plays a role, but not just settled proximity: also mobile proximity in the momentary neighborhoods of fellow-travelers. I’d guess that was a truly modern idea for the 1st century, and from what we experience on highways and in airports today, it’s a concept that keeps its revolutionary edge.

If we aren’t into the story by now, we never will be! The road from Jerusalem to Jericho—everyone knew the reputation of that stretch of highway, rife with gangs of thieves. All four of the men in this story have good reason to be afraid, as they walk. Suddenly, one is down. Three travelers come upon him, one after another; two cross the road to avoid him. No bonds of relationship draw them to him, no stirring of compassion moves either towards him.

Until the third traveler notices the victim, and sees him differently than his predecessors have, and in this moment of perception there is born an alliance, a reconciliation between having and having not, a radical awareness that there are clearcut choices to be made, starting with whether to cross the fence line between his own freedom and this victim’s need, between his own good fortune and the unfortunate one before him.

Does he go to him because he cannot imagine living with himself if he does not? Has life bruised him enough to have shaped in him a practical wisdom that realizes how easily the shoe could be on the other foot? Is it possible that this third person simply recognized accurately what he was seeing—a live person, not a dead body; but also what he was seeing was an outcome to his journey every bit as important as whatever purpose had him on that road? Was he gripped by that spiritual awareness we sometimes catch, that the journey is just as important as the arrival at the journey’s end?

The commentator I mentioned uses an intriguing phrase to describe the Samaritan’s choices: he calls them dangerously irrational. Helping members of our own clan or ethnic group has its own logic, as we decide how to distribute scarce resources for instance, and to take care of cousin Charlie today is to increase the likelihood that Charlie will take care of you, one day. But to aim that compassion toward a stranger, that is dangerously irrational.

“Yet he invited his hearers,” says our commentator, “to imagine whether that movement of (compassion) might not open us to the humanity of the stranger, whether the powerful bond of love and obligation might also tie us together across ethnic lines, across family lines and across lines of safety.”

What a timely story to be heard in churches across the nation, as we call for Congress to frame immigration reform that is just, humane, and wise.

And what if we were to picture the victim on our roadside as being this fragile earth, our island home? Think of the excuses that keep us from seeing, and doing, what is needed.

Before we leave this parable, we must catch what it says about God. The actions of the Samaritan are the saving deeds of God in Jesus Christ, who, moved with compassion, bandages our wounds, pours on them the oil of healing and the wine of eucharist, sets us in the shelter of a compassionate community, and pays the price of care and recovery that we cannot have without the free movement of grace.

In the universe we inhabit, God is the good neighbor who shows us how to go and do likewise. It will require of us all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, to love neighbor as self. This is the very heartbeat of the universe.

(The commentator mentioned in this sermon is The Rev. Benjamin J. Dueholm, Associate Pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois, whose “Living the Word” article was published in the July 10 issues of “Christian Century”.)

It's Everything!

Scripture for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

There’s quite a turn-around in the personnel department of the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Last Sunday’s portion of Luke’s Gospel let us listen in on three interviews with would-be staff members, and not a one of them sounded promising. One wanted to know if the hotel rooms would be air conditioned. Another had to go home and help his parents with their estate planning. If these candidates represented a trend, it wasn’t a growth curve in expanding the outreach of Jesus’s public ministry.

There’s no such thing as a wasted interview, is there? Even when you don’t get the position, you learn about the marketplace you’re trying to enter, you sharpen your interview skills. You learn from the experience. And to make sure they do, Jesus sends these applicants home with a proverb to consider: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Watch where you’re going, or you’ll go where you’re watching. Each of these disciple wannabes claimed interest in Jesus and his ministry, but their hearts were fixed on going home.

Yet today, just verses later, Jesus appoints seventy others and sends them out in pairs to the towns and villages he’ll pass through on the way to his pivotal confrontation with the ecclesiastical-political-commercial complex seated in Jerusalem. I’m puzzled. There isn’t even a hint of an interval between those disappointing interviews and today’s announcement from HR. What has happened that there’s suddenly such a deep pool of potential?

I’ll bet he established an internship program! How else does he wind up gaining so many workers without paying them (“no purse, no bag, no sandals”)? Maybe he learned from that earlier interview process a fresh way to pitch the opportunity to spend a summer with him gaining excellent training and discovering ultimate fulfillment. I don’t know… but the way Luke tells this story (the other Gospel writers don’t), there’s a quantum leap from a team of twelve rivals to a team of “seventy others”, hence 82, reasonably coordinated and successful servant ministers.

They go out in pairs. That seems to be a new feature. I don’t know how you picture the twelve disciples before this moment, but one way to imagine them is as a gaggle of geese with its own pecking order and that’s just about all Jesus got out of them, a lot of pecking, as the team of rivals tags along with Jesus, like a flock of goslings clustered around the big bird.

Sometimes we hear that three or four of them got to go on special field trips with their master, and that must have gone over really well with the other eight or nine. Gosh, maybe those three wannabes had better interview skills than we thought: could it be that they got such an eyeful and earful of those twelve dickering disciples that they just politely sidled home?

Is that detail about pairing more than meets the eye? It’s surely a biblical model, from the manifest of that big old ship Noah piloted in the book of Genesis, to the apostolic strategy evident in the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul, in days when the Church kept to the paradigm of sending out apostles two by two. We don’t hear about Paul without John, or Barnabas, or Silas, or Timothy as his partner.

Does the approach of two by two advance the kingdom of God that Jesus names as his primary concern? Is two a more demanding number than twelve or seventy because with two there’s no hiding? When you’re two on a mission together, you come to know one another. You learn the moves to the dance. You read one another. And, since Jesus didn’t minimize the danger of the mission (“I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves…”) with two, the life of each is in the hands of the other. Pairs may develop a deep teamwork different from twelves and seventies.

The world of the 21st century, like the world of the first, is run too much on the principle of win-lose and either-or. While the individual person can be torn within, teams of twelve or seventy seem even likelier to get caught up in winning and losing, excluding the possibility of that because we’ve already decided this… and I’d guess that the larger the team, the greater the temptation.

Two, on the other hand, have the opportunity and the necessity to negotiate mutually good outcomes and to live with ambiguity long enough to discover what there is to like about alternatives that just may not be as contradictory as first thought.

Our other readings today show us what a black-and-white, either-or world it was in days of yore. The Syrian (and therefore non-Jewish) army general Naaman is offended that God should even think of healing him by sending him to wash in Israel’s River Jordan. He stubbornly resists, until one of his servants gently reminds him how willing he would have been if the proposed remedy required him to do something really difficult.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians speaks to people who saw their world in exclusive terms, in this instance the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Paul makes the revolutionary claim that these cultural-religious categories are irrelevant to God, whose passionate purpose is an entirely new creation built of peace and mercy. Jesus instructs his interns to work with anyone who shares in peace, with everyone with mercy in their hearts.

That is the mission on which Jesus’s 35—or should I say 41—pairs of servant ministers return from today, exuberant at their results, meeting the apostolic call expressed by St. Paul: “Work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

When Bishop Fisher visited our Vestry last month, he invited the leaders of this parish to keep up the good work of taking care of the members of St. John’s (he called that important function “chaplaincy”) while also taking risks reaching out beyond the membership to the neighbors we live among and the strangers who we have yet to come to know as friends (he called this important function “mission”).

Our collect today reminds us that the grace of the Holy Spirit makes us able to express full-hearted devotion to God by uniting with one another in pure affection; and that’s not just the members of a parish, but the far greater community that represents our mission, that new creation which Paul (seldom short on words) blurts out “is everything!”

Monday, July 1, 2013

Watch Where You're Going!

Scripture for the 6th Sunday of Pentecost includes II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1. 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Running through these readings today is a simple theme of paying attention. For that reason, there will be a quiz at the end of this sermon. Just kidding.

Oh, there will be a quiz, administered by life— because this theme of paying attention is central to everything: to our Christian formation as we learn to recognize God at work in the world in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit… central to our health as we learn how to read our physical, emotional, spiritual, social needs… central to the success of all our ventures, our marriages, our parenting, our careers, our communities, our churches, our cooperation nationally and globally.

This theme of attention is implied in the collect we prayed together. To join us together in unity as a holy temple, it will be required of us that we be set square and true on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ the chief cornerstone. The work of the Holy Spirit is to position each of us to be load-bearing, simultaneously supported mutually by the true leveling of all the living load-bearing stones around us. The metaphors abound, in some ways helpful, in others maybe not so much?

Two voices from the Hebrew Bible express this theme of paying attention. Young Elisha knows that if he is to inherit the prophet’s mantle from the ageing Elijah, he must not take his eyes off his master: he must actually see Elijah pass from earth to heaven.

This makes me think of the crowds keeping vigil outside that hospital in Pretoria where Nelson Mandela, founding father of South Africa’s multiracial democracy, lies in his final days. The essence of a vigil is to be part of the great transition underway, to be as close to it as opportunity allows, aware in some transcendent way that participation confers power.

And the psalmist sings the very reason why we spend such time and effort being attentive to holy scripture. “I will remember the works of the LORD, and call to mind your wonders of old time. I will meditate on all your acts and ponder your mighty deeds.” Why? So that this living memory of salvation in our past (the psalmist refers to the Exodus, when God led the people of Israel “like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron,”) may encourage us to expect and recognize God achieving freedom for his people in our own day. It is essential to the people of South Africa (and to the world) that they sing psalms of praise that will remind future generations to remember their own Moses, Nelson Mandela, and how he helped God deliver his people from bondage.

Two voices from the Christian testament make the case for paying attention. St. Paul exults over the freedom into which Jesus Christ has brought believers. Stand firm in that freedom, Paul urges us. We’ll do that firm standing by fixing our attention on the single commandment that sums up the whole law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This primary focus will keep us free to live by the Spirit, single-minded, single-hearted. To be guided by the Spirit of God is to freely attend to our opportunities to do good and be faithful (he lists many attractive examples), by contrast to being fixated on the flesh, which has a powerful tendency to capture our attention and not let go (he lists several unappealing examples of that).

Our second New Testament voice belongs to Jesus. He has set out on his final journey, heading to Jerusalem where the pivotal battle will occur between him and the forces of church and state that would destroy him—the ultimate battle between, in Paul’s terms, the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit. He has set his face to go to Jerusalem.

On the way, he and his disciples enter a village in Samaria. You’ll recall the story in John’s Gospel, when Jesus approaches a Samaritan woman and asks her to give him a drink. She is astonished, since she realizes he’s Jewish, and, John tells us, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” This is one more example of the human capacity for cousins to hate cousins and neighbors to despise neighbors. Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda… the list does not get shorter with the passing of time, does it?

The disciples pay attention to all the wrong things. When the Samaritans fail to offer basic hospitality, the disciples take offense and pathetically offer to command lightning to strike the village. Such petulant men, these disciples. Jesus tells them so.

Then come along three disciple wannabes, eager to sign up but not impressing Jesus as having much staying power. What are they paying attention to? In the first case, it’s where this fellow will sleep that night. In the other two, it’s family responsibilities, and it’s hard to fault them for that, isn’t it? But the net result is that all three of these people fail to recognize the opportunity given them in that moment of now. Their minds and hearts are preoccupied. These men are not free.

Jesus sums up these slim pickins with a wonderful figure of speech that seems timeless and universal. Last Sunday’s Gospel ended with some seriously disadvantaged pig farmers. Just verses later, Jesus turns to farm life for this sharp little proverb: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

It takes just a little imagination to figure out what he means. Take your eyes off your target, and you’ll miss the mark. Look back over your shoulder to see how you’re doing, and instantly you’ll veer off course. Watch where you’re going, or you’ll go where you’re watching.

It’s tempting to look and see if the guidance you need, the encouragement you lack, the satisfaction you long for, can be felt by checking out where you’ve already been, what you’ve already done. But in cultivating the Kingdom of God, there is no sitting on one’s laurels, and no room for being preoccupied with the past. What a lesson there is here for the Church! Aren’t we trained to look back, to be consistent with tradition, true to the past? Yes, but… it’s all to train us to recognize God’s presence now, to respond to God’s new work of creation in Jesus Christ in the present. To be vigilant, to participate, to be load-bearers and so to be free.

Catch all these images of attention. Elisha refusing to blink lest he miss the moment. The psalmist remembering to keep looking for the works of the LORD. St. Paul standing firm, guided by the Spirit. Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem, no turning back, no turning back.

“Keep your eye on the prize”, the phrase (it’s a song title, based on a spiritual) that captured the spirit of the civil rights movement, catches the theme of these readings.

In our national life, there has been gratifying cause, this past week, to rejoice at how freedom can be furthered when we do keep our eyes on the prize. And there has been sobering cause, this week, to recognize how vulnerable progress can be—and how so much depends on what people are paying attention to.

The prize may be that perfect unity that we mean by heaven. The prize may be a specific practical achievement of social justice on earth. We need clear vision of it to train our attention on the love that helps get us there, the grace that is given us, and the vigilant commitments required of us.