Sermon inspired by:
This past week, Forrest and I had to take our beloved dog, Betty, whom some of you know, to the vet’s office in Plainview for a post-surgery visit. While at the vets we ran into car trouble and had to call for a tow. Andrew was in the midst of a final and could not be reached. While we were sorting out our options, a couple of people expressed sympathy, but when on their way. Then a couple, a husband with a scruffy beard and loaded with tattoos, cuddling their pouch, Rambo, came over and offered us a lift. They lived in Shirley, so Freeport was not exactly on the way. We didn’t want to put them out, so we initially declined. After another ½ hr., with their offer still in place, we gratefully accepted. They refused any gas money, and we had a wonderful conversation about dogs and life.
We live in a day and age where the need is great yet it’s hard to accept help. We are raised to be rugged individualists, not reach out for help, and not put anyone out of the way. It’s hard enough to accept help from someone we know well. Imagine accepting help from a stranger, or worse, someone we dislike intensely, perhaps even consider an archnemesis, or an enemy. Imagine being at the giving end of things. We can probably be persuaded to give to someone we know and like. But to someone we despise or feel negatively towards?
Our gospel lesson places such an issue before us. Jesus tells a parable about an injured man who is helped not by a fellow Jew, but by a hated Samaritan. Jesus is clear: we too are to help. We too are to give. Even if it’s an enemy. Jesus is clear and tells us pointedly: 27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:25). Paul in Romans 12:20 reinforces this teaching aby admonishing us: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” Helping our neighbor, even if an enemy is the plumb line of faith, the gold standard, as the prophet Amos would put it. A neighbor isn’t just someone who lives near to us on our block. Neighbors aren’t, as the people of Jesus’ day thought, just fellow Jews. A neighbor is anyone in our proximity with whom we can share God’s love. Even if an enemy.
This gospel lesson is one of the most well-known stories of the gospel-- we famously call it “parable of the good Samaritan.” Jesus is posed a hypothetical question by a lawyer or an expert of the law, about how to gain eternal life. When Jesus responds, “Love your neighbor as yourself” the lawyer presses him further: “who is my neighbor?”
So, Jesus describes a man, supposedly a regular Jew, taking an ordinary trip to Jericho, but falls into a gang of robbers who beats him into an inch of his life.
The first person to come by the crime scene was a Priest. He faced an enormous moral dilemma. His office required him to remain ritually pure. If a priest came in contact with a Samaritan, a Gentile, or a dead person, he would be considered ritually defiled. As a result, he would have to go through an extensive purification ritual to be restored so that he could perform priestly duties again. Not wanting to risk defilement, he doesn’t even investigate if the man is alive or not. So, the priest plays it safe, crosses the road and passes by. His conduct was acceptable, following the law.
The next person on the scene is a Levite. The Levite was of the tribe of Levi, the tribe from which the priests came, but this Levite was not a priest. Levites would follow the same ritual law of not touching a dead body. He looked at the man lying there and he too, walks on by. His conduct was acceptable, according to the law.
If we were in Jesus’ audience listening to this story, we would be anticipating the next character. Jesus started with the priest, and the the Levite, and next in line will be an ordinary Israelite.
Jesus, however, introduces a radical twist to the story. The next character is not an Israelite but a despised Samaritan! The Jews considered the Samaritans as half-breeds, dogs, and the lowest of the low. If anyone were expected to avoid an injured Jew, it would be a Samaritan. But not so in Jesus’ story.
The Samaritan came upon this injured man and is filled with pity, or compassion, a feeling usually reserved to describe Jesus in the gospels. The Samaritan stops. He draws near. He kneels and takes wine and oil and applies it to the injured man’s wounds. He then places the man on his own donkey, inconveniencing himself. He takes him to an inn to recover. He pays the bill and promises more on his return. The Samaritan goes up and beyond the call of duty, breaking the taboos that surround the interactions between Jews and Samaritans.
As Jesus comes to the end of this story, he asks the lawyer, "Which person proved himself to be a neighbor?" The lawyer has to conclude, "The one who showed mercy." Jesus commands, "Go and do likewise.”
It is easy to be good, to be a Christian, to be a neighbor, when times are going well, and the people who need help tick off the boxes as deserving. Down through the centuries the church and larger society made distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor; people who are not lazy or shiftless, they are old, infirm, or disabled. Jesus, who teaches us not to judge, asks us in this parable: Who will stop and see? Who will bandage and pour oil and wine on the wounds? Who will carry the victims? Who will find the Inn? Who will pay the price? Who will show compassion? A neighbor is someone near us. Period. Even if we consider them an enemy. If we are to follow Jesus, we must be willing to turn the law on its head and be willing to help and get involved. Even if it puts us out of our way and demands our resources, our time and effort.
As a congregation, we are beginning a process of discerning what it means to be a vital congregation. This parable today is the most appropriate example of what we need to do to turn our church around. It is easy to be trapped like the Priest and Levite, who are by the way, good people, but stuck in the box of thinking what is the right way to be and do. Our very religious conditioning traps us and keeps us from transformation. It is only when we are willing to stop, be moved by compassion, help outside the box, even if its somebody who is a stranger, someone we are opposed to. Jesus tells us that is what being a neighbor is all about. That is what we as Christ followers are called to do. Being a neighbor is the key to turning our lives, our churches around. We have to follow the example of the Samaritan in the story. To become a vital Christ follower, to become a vital congregation, we got to think and act in new ways, foreign ways, perhaps in ways we think are religiously unacceptable. If we want our church to survive, if we want to thrive, we need to become neighbors. Not just to those we like or approve of, but to all that cross our path. Jesus says, we need to learn to act like Samaritans – the people who didn’t follow the law properly, the people considered impure, half-breeds. Even undeserving, using the terms of church and society.
We need to challenge ourselves to stop and see the wounded laying at the roadside. And not cross over. We need to challenge ourselves to have compassion.
We need to challenge ourselves to be in the business of binding up the wounds, of pouring out the wine and oil of care and concern. We need to challenge ourselves to get the wounded to a safe place, to pay the price. To make a difference. Because Jesus says Love our neighbor. Because while we were sinners, Christ loved us and he died for us, so we too should love our neighbor. No matter who they are.
Let us love our neighbor. No matter the color of their skin. No matter if they are immigrant and speak a different language. No matter if they are disabled. No matter if they are religiously different, if they are LGBTQ, if they are of a different political party or social class. Love that neighbor.
Love will turn everything around. It will make us vital Christians, a vital congregation. It’s as simple as that. Go, and do likewise Jesus commanded us. So let us love and thrive. Amen.