Sermon – July 14, 2019 – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace and Peace to you, this day and every day, from God our Father, Christ our Savior, and from the Holy Spirit. Amen.

During my first year at Luther Seminary, up north in Minnesota among the frozen chosen, Sarah and I attended the seminary’s annual talent show. We didn’t know what to expect, but were eager to encounter this new community. I recognized Laurie, one of the campus’ Administrative Assistants as she got on stage to play the harmonica. We listened as Laurie played through one verse of the beloved hymn, Children of the Heavenly Father. She paused and invited the audience to sing the next verse with her as she continued. So we did. Laurie paused again and encouraged us once more saying, “This time in Swedish!” I chuckled because I thought it was a little joke referencing the hymn’s compositional history. My chuckle was soon silenced however, as from the back pews, some of the more seasoned members of the campus community lifted their voices in Swedish and in song. … It was stunning to witness their memory and passion as they sang enthusiastically along with the harmonica. They love that hymn. They love its tune. They love its lyrics. They know it by heart.

Perhaps you feel the same way about our Gospel text this evening/morning. Perhaps you too, know it by heart. The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of scripture’s readings that we cherish. We cherish how it speaks to the loving nature of God, how it illustrates grace in action, and how it prompts us to continue God’s life-giving work in the world. *pause*

“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” – Right off the bat, I think it’s important here to emphasize the differences between a lawyer in our time and one from 1st century Judea. Aside from their sensationalist portrayal in popular culture, lawyers operate in our society using rhetoric and logic in order to prosecute or defend people according to our laws. There are instances when secular laws and religious commandments are aligned with one another; murder or theft, for example. Nevertheless, our contemporary reality with its emphasis on Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’ between church and state, keeps us from appreciating the unified nature of religious law and one’s lived daily life in Jesus’ time. For the Jewish people of that era, the Law is not a burdensome list of codes one needs to keep in order to appease an angry God. The Law, for Jewish people then and now, functions as a gift. It is given unto them, and to us as well, by God as a means of grace. It characterizes their community in such a way that distinguishes them from other nationalities or religions. It places them in relationship with God and gives them an identity. It is, in a sense, Gospel to the Jewish people. The lawyer in this evening’s/morning’s reading is one who interprets the Law of Moses for his community and he’s asking Jesus to name the chief characteristic in the Law of Moses that identifies Israel as the people of God.

Jesus isn’t falling for this ‘litmus test.’ He bounces the question right back, seeking to know from the lawyer’s perspective, what is the will of God that he has encountered in the law. The lawyer answers with a combination of Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”  The lawyer’s answer brings together the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Law. The vertical dimension concerns humanity’s relationship with God; think of the 10 commandments, for example. ‘You shall have no other Gods, not take the Lord’s name in vain, and keep the Sabbath day holy.’ The horizontal dimension concerns humanity’s relationship with itself; how we are to live in community with one another and the rest of God’s creation. ‘Honor your Mom and Dad, don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet your neighbor’s home, and don’t covet your neighbor’s spouse or property.’ This horizontal dimension is particularly significant insofar as it testifies to the importance of the vertical. By loving our neighbor as ourselves, we testify to our relationship with the divine.  The lawyer is definitely onto something in his understanding of how we are to live in relationship with God and with one another. He recognizes that love is utter directive. It cannot exist in a vacuum; it exists for the other, for the neighbor.

Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.” … As I’ve shared before, I have a 6 year old nephew named David. He encounters the world with fear and wonder, with reckless abandon and joy. Earlier this summer, I was attempting to teach David how to catch lightning bugs. David was having a difficult time and was sitting with Aunt Sarah on a bench as I brought back another couple of fireflies in my cupped hands to put in the jar. David looks up at Aunt Sarah and says, “Aunt Sarah, Uncle Tom is good at everything!” It doesn’t get any better than that. … I share this because you’d think the lawyer would have the same sort of feeling. He came to a teacher for instruction. The teacher has asked him a question, he has answered, and the teacher (the Messiah, the Living God) has replied “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.” Good work. You’ve concluded that existing in relationship with God involves quality relationships with your neighbor as well. It doesn’t get any better than that. Carry on. Have a nice day. But nooooo this chucklehead “wanting to justify himself” asks another question. “And who is my neighbor?”

The lawyer’s question seeks qualification. He wants to know demographic data, what qualities certain people must possess in order to be loved in the same manner that he loves himself. But his question isn’t answered by Jesus with a list of other lawyers, Hebrew people, legitimate citizens, or members of a social class. Jesus’ answer is behavioristic; He describes how neighborly behavior is wrapped up in the quality of relationship with the other. Jesus answers his question with the parable we know by heart.

A traveller, identified only by his gender, is making the approximately 18 mile journey from Jerusalem to Jericho on foot, when he gets jumped by robbers. They beat him senseless. They steal his stuff. They strip him, and they abandon him by the side of the road. They leave him for dead. This poor chap is completely indistinguishable. There’s no way a passerby could tell his social distinction, creed, or financial status. He’s just an innocent victim. Naked, beaten, mistreated, and left in a state of despair. He is left there, half-dead. Without assistance he will suffer from his untended wounds, live in poverty, and possibly die of hunger or worse. Later two different people walk by, a priest (a religious leader for the Hebrew people) and a Levite (one who assists the priest in the temple duties). There’s no tangent in the parable about temple obligations or ritual cleanliness to provide an excuse or explanation for these two. We just hear that they saw him and they walked past. … Finally a Samaritan walks up the road. To those listening to Jesus’ parable, this would not be a person from whom to expect great things. Samaritans were half-breeds; the product of intermarriage between Israelites and other peoples after Israel’s exile from the northern kingdom. They were regarded with disdain and contempt. The Samaritan, moved with pity, gets off his animal and bandages the guy up. He puts the victim upon his own animal, gives him the better method of transportation, offers him his luxury. The man is brought to the inn and taken care of; he’s given an environment of safety and provision. The Samaritan gives the innkeeper the equivalent of two day’s pay and charges him to take care of the man, promising repayment for the innkeeper’s services upon his return. Jesus tells the lawyer to live in the manner of mercy, love, and neighborly behavior illustrated by the Samaritan. Go and do likewise. *pause*

Now I’m not an overly big fan of allegorizing parables. There’s a danger in doing so, because as we assign people or God ‘parts to play’ in the parable, we may be seeking scriptural backing for a non-scriptural message. But I think as long as we’re aware of this danger when we connect the roles in this parable with our lived experiences, we can also come away with a devotional, humbling, and inspiring way to understand our relationship with the divine and with one another.

So what of our world do we see in this parable and what lessons can we learn? *pause*

It seems we can’t go ten minutes lately without another heart-breaking story surrounding the current social and political climate concerning immigration. We’ve seen and heard about the people seeking to come to America. Seeking to leave places of systemic violence, poverty, and dehumanization; only to find themselves ‘welcomed’ with the same. We’ve seen the photos of families torn apart, of father and daughter drowned as they journey, of huge numbers of people crowded together in cages. We’ve seen and heard examples of a world that seems neither to know, nor care, what happens to particular individuals. Although we may not be the ones personally facilitating the dehumanization of others, we are also guilty of passively allowing atmospheres that seek to trample and destroy rather than embrace and encourage. I’m not saying that we’re personally responsible for despicable circumstances that victimize other people, but maybe we remain quiet in instances of disregard, neglect, or slander that happen in our personal lives.  In our world today, it would not be a large stretch to say that sometimes we are the Priest and the Levite, those who see and walk on by. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out to paint us in a horrible light. I think more often than not, we see ourselves idealistically as the Samaritan. We know the good we must do, and can relate to a story where we see the injured or needy in our midst and do everything we can to help them. One where we are selfless healers who provide for those in our midst regardless of any limiting demographic to which they belong. Luther, in his book “Freedom of a Christian” writes, “Just as our neighbor is in want, and has need of our abundance, so we too in the sight of God were in want, and bad need of His mercy. And as our heavenly Father has freely helped us in Christ, so ought we freely to help our neighbor by our body and works, and each should become to [another] a sort of Christ.” We are a close knit community that gives love and gives hope. In the name of Christ, we offer the fruit of our soil to the hungry in our midst. In His service, we donate our time to others to help rebuild after tragedy. In our hugs, our conversations, and our prayers, we lift up those who feel downtrodden. 

But I find myself coming back to the confession of sins in the LBW (the good ol’ green hymnal), “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, [not just by what we have done, but] by what we have left undone.” Toward the end of the parable, the Samaritan gives the inn-keeper two denari, equal to about 2 days’ wages. Minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 an hour. I can safely say that I have not helped a stranger on the street with their physical or spiritual needs and then bought them $132.00 worth of room and board along with a blank check for the running tab. That may be overly fastidious, but it’s not difficult to enumerate the times when I have failed to live up to my call and obligation as a follower of Christ.

But it is in these conceptual ditches, when I find myself encouraged by the interpretation of this parable that understands Christ as the Samaritan. Jesus Christ the Samaritan, doesn’t have the right ring to it, but it works. Christ finds us on the road. Finds us when we fail in our calling, finds us broken, without help, without sustenance. It is then that Christ sees us. Christ sees our wounds. We know of all those things that weigh us down or keep us away from the commitments we have made to God, our families, and our neighbors; sickness, fear, betrayal, unemployment, economic uncertainty, broken relationships, poverty, the list goes on and on. We know of those things that whisper doubt, fear, and isolation into our hearts when we should listen to the promises of Christ.  Christ sees you, child of God. Christ sees these wounds, sees you and sees me, and recognizes that we are created in the image of the triune God, created to exist in a dynamic mutuality of creative healing and self-sacrificing love. He sees our wounds, that we have failed to love the Lord our God will all our hearts, that we have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves. He sees these things, but He pays them no respect. 

Where we have failed, Christ has gone to the cross in our place. He has fulfilled the law, uniting its vertical and horizontal dimensions at the cross. He has suffered the death that was to be ours and has risen from the grave to conquer all those things which would deal death and destruction unto us. Christ has taken the garments of human sin; the difficulties of life, hardships, and fear, and has given us the garments of His Glory; His righteousness, His holiness, and His blessing from God the Father. Where we see only destruction, despair, and death, Christ goes in and says ‘Life.’ Christ sees us and does not pass us by. He sets us free. He makes us whole. He sees you and sees me, beloved and precious. Christ has set us free that we might do the same for others; that we might see all people as beloved and precious and live in service for them. He lifts us up, forgives us our sins, binds our wounds, and calls us to continue His work of healing and love. Christ has lifted us up that we might continue to be His loving heart and caring hands in the world, bearing fruit and growing in faith, enduring with patience and joyfully giving thanks. We are called to His Table and Word, that we might know His love on our lips and in our hearts. That, we who know Him by heart, might share how we have been lifted, forgiven, and fed. That we might go and do likewise.

Thanks be to God. Amen.