(a sermon for October 23, 2016, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 10:25-37 and 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17)
“Don’t pass your neighbor by, my friend; don’t pass your neighbor by! Love your neighbor as yourself; don’t pass your neighbor by!” (from “The Good Samaritan” by Mary Lu Walker)
That, in a musical nutshell, is what I – and a whole lot of us, I suspect – take away from the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ve all heard this story since Sunday School, and we know it by heart: a man gets robbed along a dangerous road and is left for dead; a priest and a Levite, seeking to avoid having to actually deal with the injured man, pass by on the other side, but a Samaritan stopped and helped. The Samaritan, who showed mercy, exemplified neighborliness; and we, says Jesus, should “go and do likewise.”
Nothing wrong with that message; after all, as followers of Christ, we are also to be imitators of Christ, and as such, you and I are called to show concern and to offer compassionate care to those in need. No matter where each of us happens to be on life’s journey, this story offers up a beautiful example of what it takes to be a good neighbor, and we’d do well to pay attention!
So… fine and good; time for the final hymn and an early spot at the fellowship table! Except… as it turns out, there happens to be a lot more going on in this particular parable than just that! Amy-Jill Levine, in her book entitled Stories by Jesus, lifts up the familiar maxim that faith and religion is meant “to comfort the afflicted… and to afflict the comfortable;” but then goes on to say that many of the parables of Jesus serve to do the afflicting! “If we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge [that parable offers], we are not listening well enough.” And so it is with this parable of the Good Samaritan: this is one story that has become so familiar, so beloved, so re-told and re-interpreted in song and story that it has long since ceased to be any kind of “affliction” at all! In other words, rather than being the sweet and inspirational tale that we’ve come to know this is one story that ought to be shaking us and our pre-conceived notions of what constitutes proper love and care to our very core!
For instance, consider that the very context of this story comes in a lawyer, “wanting to justify himself” asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Or more to the point, writes Debie Thomas, “Who is not my neighbor?” After all, it’s one thing to know that there’s a commandment that says we’re supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves, but “how much love are we talking here, Jesus? Can you be specific? Where can I draw the line? Outside my front door? At the edges of my neighborhood? Along the cultural and racial boundaries I was raised with? I mean,” asks Thomas, “there are lines… aren’t there?”
See what I mean about how this parable is meant to immediately put us in an awkward position? And then… consider that as Jesus tells the story, it’s the Samaritan who ends up being the good neighbor! Not the compassionate clergy-type; not the good and proper Levite, but the Samaritan – someone who, in Jesus’ time was considered to be not only to be racially impure and politically dangerous, but also a walking heresy as far as their faith was concerned – it’s the Samaritan of all people whose “heart went out” [The Message] to the injured man. Friends, this is no small distinction; understand, this would be akin, if Jesus were telling this story today, to a young black teenager lying by the side of the road and a “good” white supremacist coming to care for him and bind his wounds; a wounded Israeli soldier’s life being saved by a Palestinian member of Hamas; or, for that matter, an ultra-right-wing conservative Christian fundamentalist type being left for dead, only to have an avowed church-hating atheist come to show him such overwhelming compassion! The point here is that Jesus wanted to lift up the least likely person that most people listening would ever consider to be any kind of “good neighbor,” and then turn to that calculating lawyer and all the rest of us to say, “you see what that guy did? You… go and do the same!”
So needless to say, there’s a whole lot more going on in Jesus’ parable than simply a gentle nudge to us to be doing “good things” for people. But wait… there’s even more! Did you happen to notice that when this Samaritan does stop to help this injured man, he does so in a way that’s not only compassionate, but also kind of… extravagant? Not only does he give him “first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds, [The Message] pouring oil and his own wine on him, he then lifts up the wounded man on his own donkey, takes him to a nearby inn so he can be made comfortable and be taken care of, and the next day when it’s time for the Samaritan to move on, he gives money to the innkeeper and says, “Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill – I’ll pay you on my way back.” It’s not just a little help, you see, that’s demonstrated by the Samaritan; it’s not the minimum daily requirement of loving action required to be an official “good neighbor;” it’s way more than that; it’s an utter abundance of extravagant, costly and dare I say, risky compassion for the sake of the one in need!
And it’s this Samaritan, the one who shows mercy in such great abundance, who proves to be the good neighbor… and again, what does Jesus say to this? “Go… and do the same.”
Of course, we’re not told what the lawyer’s response was to Jesus’ parable; we don’t know whether he walked away feeling enlightened as to the true meaning of loving one’s neighbor, or wandered away looking for a loophole. Luke doesn’t let us in on that, but I suspect that he was left with the same questions that you and I are left with: how? How do we do the same, Jesus? Could we, really, do as the Samaritan did? And, if actually given the chance, would we?
And that’s where we come to stewardship.
As you’ve heard over the past couple of weeks, it’s our response to Jesus’ call to us to “Go… and do the same” that constitutes the theme of this year’s stewardship campaign at East Church, that time each year when we come to you and ask for your prayerful and yes, financial support of our church’s work in 2017. I’ll be honest with you; when I found out that this particular verse was going to be this year’s shared stewardship theme in the United Church of Christ, I wondered with some skepticism how our retelling of the Good Samaritan story could possibly translate to all the nuts and bolts of keeping our church up and running for another year: things like paying for heat and lights; doing the necessary repairs as they come along; providing for curriculum and materials for Sunday School and for morning worship; and yes, making sure there’s compensation for the minister, and organist, and whoever else might need to be paid for their services over the course of the coming year. I think we all know that like a great many other congregations we’re facing a lot of unique challenges moving into the future; so understand me when I say that I’m not sure I want any of that to be compared to that man in the parable who was stripped and beaten by a band of robbers and left by the side of the road to die! I don’t think we need to be thinking of stewardship as a way of “binding up our wounds!”
But I’ll tell you what… as I’ve been delving deeper into this intentionally “uncomfortable” story that Jesus is telling us, I’m realizing something: that perhaps our best example of our stewardship of this shared ministry we have in this place comes in that unexpected and surprisingly over-the-top extravagant care of that “good” Samaritan!
And don’t misunderstand me, friends; I am certainly not suggesting that any of us here represent the “least likely” people to ever support the church! But I would suggest to you that within each one of us there are quite possibly some resources and very special gifts for ministry that no one else – maybe not even we ourselves – are aware of, and which, if willingly and lovingly shared, can be put to good and amazing use, all for the sake of mercy, and caring, and love in the name of Jesus Christ.
Truth be told, there have been a great many times that I’ve seen those gifts come to light over the course of the many fundraisers we’ve done here in the past couple years to supplement our church’s income; when the members of this church family, both long-time and new, have shown up to make a contribution, lend a hand and maybe in the process, offer a warm greeting of welcome to someone else who’s walked into this place for the first time. I’ve seen it in the many ways this year that this pastor has spoken aloud of a particular need we have here at the church – or even the first mention of some kind of a dream and vision for us as we move from our 175th anniversary year to 176 and beyond – and what do you know… suddenly there’s something happening to move that task, that dream, that vision forward! And I’ve seen it in a sheer determination to have this wonderfully “small” church maintain a full-time ministry and program. What I’ve seen in you, beloved, is the kind of full-on, over-the-top, extravagant care that was exemplified in the Samaritan, and as your pastor and as a proud member of this congregation, I want to thank you for that.
But at the same time, I want to remind us all that in these days of confused and challenging situations, when all of us are struggling to know and do the good and right and faithful thing in this world, we are being challenged – now more than ever before, I think – to go… and do the same as Jesus would have us. It will truly be in our uniquely Christian extravagance of love, care and life that this church will be grown into its third century; that our children and grandchildren will be given an undiminished and indestructible legacy of faith in our ever living, ever loving God; and that our world will somehow, by the grace of that same God, be pulled out of its self-involved chaos and into a center of whole peace – of shalom – and divine love.
I believe this with all my heart, beloved. And yes, I think our commitment to this, yours and mine, begins in how we answer Jesus’ call to go and do the same as he would have us. And ultimately, it does have to do with the “three T’s,” our time given to God’s purposes; our talents nurtured for the sake of Christ; and our treasure to maintain and grow the mission of Christ’s Church.
And since you’ve known for a long time now that I’m not a pastor reluctant to talk about these things from the pulpit from time to time, let me be up front: is it my hope and my prayer that each one of us here might be able and see fit to increase our level of support for this church in 2017? Yes! Do I believe though we’ve had a pretty strong season of giving this year that as a whole we could be doing a little better? Hmmm… yes, I do. And do I envision that together we can continue moving in the direction we’ve been going over the past couple of years, so that we can decrease and eventually eliminate our need for drawing from our church’s invested funds? Absolutely… please! And do I think that involves more than just money, but also in how each one of us increases our willingness to step up and be a part of the larger mission and outreach of this congregation? Oh, yes… it’s more than just doing fundraisers, you know!
But most of all, do I believe in our capacity, yours and mine together in tandem with the Holy Spirit, to live out the vision of loving our neighbor as ourselves in the ways we are the church together here?
With all my heart.
In fact, that reading we shared earlier from 2 Thessalonians says it far better than I can: “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth… so then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught…” and “may our Lord Jesus Christ himself… comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”
My dear friends; my church family, once again I thank you for every good work and word of which you have long been a part; and I pray that together, we might continue to go and do the same.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry