The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Eighty Sunday after Pentecost
July 10, 2016
Receive the Gift
If you have ever wandered into my office here at church, you’ll know that I have books. Lots of books. I have books on everything from ancient poetry, to histories of the crusades; books on leadership, on church buildings, books I love and love to hate; I have books about other books. Perhaps all this reading is why my eyes are finally giving out and I’ve surrendered to reading glasses. You all are watching me age.
Now when I prepare sermons, there are two things that I have to read. The first is the bible and the readings for the upcoming Sunday. The other thing I have to read is the news. I know that when we walk into the doors of this church on Sunday morning, we don’t come as blank slates. We come with what we’ve heard, what we’ve read, with all of our emotions and anxieties brewing and swirling. We’re probably more aware of what the newspapers are saying than what the bible is saying.
We gather today with all that has happened this week. The videos we’ve seen. The articles we’ve read. The hundreds and hundreds of news stories that have berated us.
And then we hear this story from Jesus that we’ve probably heard before. The story of the Good Samaritan. Or, at least we think we’ve heard it. See, the truth is that every time we read something from the bible, we read it differently. This is why I don’t think we can ever have one “literal” interpretation of the bible. Depending on the news we’ve heard, the conversations we’ve had during the week, and how well our digestive system is working will all influence our reading of the bible.
The story of the Good Samaritan pivots upon a crucial question, “who is my neighbor?” Hmm. Who is my neighbor? When we hear this story from Jesus, we jump to the quick conclusion and easily say who is not a neighbor. We want to say that the priest who walked by the beaten man was a bum. That Levite who walked by was a bum. Yeah, all those holy religious people, they’re all bums because they couldn’t see their neighbor and they didn’t help. Maybe I’m a little squeamish about that because, well, I’m one of those “religious” people.
And then we say how great that Samaritan was. You know, he’s a really good guy because he took care of that other guy who was beaten up. We take the quick, easy, moralizing tale from the story. We should do more to help people who are beaten up. We should notice our neighbors. That way Jesus will love us and, as the lawyer asks, we’ll inherit eternal life. Be nice to each other. Amen. That’s it, end of sermon. But we’re only two minutes in, and you know I’ve got more to say.
Now, the point of loving our neighbors as ourselves is well taken. Clearly, as the news will show us time and time again, there are millions of people in our society who have been beaten up, robbed, stripped naked, and left for the dead; whether they be police officers who are ambushed, or anybody else caught up in a system that is far more entangled than we can imagine. And yes, we need to be their neighbor, to draw near those who are hurting. But this interpretation conveniently ignores some important characters in the story.
One of our first questions when hearing this story ought to be, “who were these robbers? Why was this man beaten up in the first place?” As I think about this week, I wonder, “how is it that society has come to expect these things to happen?” Because, I will tell you, that throughout this week I was not surprised. Horrified? Yes. Surprised? No. The mean and dangerous road between Jericho and Jerusalem is now our entire society, wherein people are all too often brutalized and quite literally left for dead. The simply terrifying fact in the Good Samaritan story is that at some point in our lives, we have all been the robbers. We have exploited, manipulated, and participated in systems that prey off the weakest in our society. We say a confession of sin every Sunday because even centuries ago, the framers of the Book of Common Prayer knew this disturbing reality. Or as we confess on Ash Wednesday, “we succumb to our self-indulgent appetites and ways.” We are all too quick to blame some other element in society as the problem. But the truth of the matter is that all too often, we are the robbers. We are the sinners.
This is not to say that we have never been the one beaten up, robbed, and left for dead. Because we all have been. You were fired unjustly. You were not given equal pay. You were not afforded the same opportunities or welcomed in the same fashion as somebody else. You were used. Violence was done unto you.
And to make matters worse, our society teaches us that when we have been hurt, somebody needs to pay. Our world is built upon an evil system of vengeance and retribution. This my friends, is idolatry. It is the worship of ourselves. We worship our power. We worship our pain. We worship our wounds. And when our little gods are threatened, that’s when we lash out. We blame, we strike back, our old prejudices are enshrined.
Part of the story of the Good Samaritan, is that when we are wounded, we have to be picked up, carried away, and taken care of. We have to put down our weapons of anger and distrust, and we have to accept the gift that is given to us. That being said, it is usually easier to give grace than to receive it. I am much more comfortable giving away gifts than I am receiving them. I am willing to ask somebody when they might need help, but I rarely ask anyone to help me. That’s because we worship our own power. We don’t want to show weakness. We don’t want anybody to know that we are actually crying and hurting and broken. Because if we did, some nasty Samaritan might come along and help us. And that would mean acknowledging that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.
Ah, there’s the rub. We don’t have that power. Only Jesus does. And Jesus is telling us that our wholeness comes from our neighbors. That’s the sticky part of the Good Samaritan story. We need each other, even if we don’t like each other. Think of this story. Jews and Samaritans hated each other. The radical nature of this story is not that the Samaritan sees a Jew and helps him out. Rather, it’s that the Jew realizes that even a Samaritan, even a nasty old Samaritan, is his neighbor. The miracle is that he swallows his pride and allows himself to receive a gift. The gift of mercy from someone that he cannot bear. What Jesus wants to give our society today is the grace and the vulnerability to receive each other’s mercy.
And this brings us to the unsung hero of the Good Samaritan story; the truly merciful one. It’s the innkeeper. If Jesus is a character in this story at all, I think he’s the innkeeper. See, the innkeeper has what we don’t have. The innkeeper has trust. The innkeeper trusts that the Samaritan will keep his word. This is why Jesus is so radically different from us. What the news from this week tells us, is that we don’t trust each other. But here is a man, here is an image of God, who is trusting.
In times like this, I believe that Jesus is calling the church to be the inn and to act like the innkeeper. To be like Jesus. You and I are called to trust each other and to trust people we don’t know. This church is called to open its doors to strangers, to welcome anybody and everybody, and show the world that there is a place where peace, love, and hope still happen. We welcome Jews, Samaritans, outsiders, insiders, power brokers, and the innocent. Sure, we might be burned every once in a while. Because we will trust people who might not look like the neighbors we want, we might get used. But that risk is worth it. Remember, Jesus knows what it’s like to be turned away from an inn. On the night he was born, his own parents were told that there was no room. I pray that we always find room for whoever wanders into our midst. And at the end, I would rather stand before the judgment seat of God and be told that I was too merciful than too stingy.
Finally, we must return to the events of this week. There have been many calls for me, and for the church, to condemn some of the violence. To pick a specific moment, a cause, a group, or their weapon of choice, and brand their violence as evil. But I tell you this, for the church to condemn specific violence is an oxymoron, because the church stands against every type of violence. Our Lord himself gave us a high standard: Jesus says, ’You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Finally, I must warn you, weeks like this past week will come again. There will be violence, there will be protests, there will be more violence. You and I will stand against all of that; we will not worship ourselves. The one we worship hangs high above on the cross, his arms stretched out – not in hate, or violence, or power – but in peace.