Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Sermon
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:25-37

You’ve heard it said that “familiarity breeds contempt”. Sometimes we know something – a story or a saying - that we’d actually prefer not to hear it again. The story we’re told by parents and grandparents that seems to be a truism – we roll our eyes when we hear it yet again, one more time. I suppose that the term “good Samaritan” provokes a bit of a yawn. So-and-so is a good Samaritan – meaning that he serves on all sorts of committees – a good Samaritan – a do-gooder – someone who might not be a lot of fun in a conversation at a houseparty. Someone like that would end up making everybody feel guilty.

And yes – it’s a story that suffers from overuse – but like many of the parables which Jesus told he is, in fact, answering a question in such a way as to change minds and to change people’s perceptions. To tell us something we didn’t already know and in a dramatic fashion. It’s a shame, then, that the story suffers so from over-use.

A lawyer – or a teacher of the law – depending on your translation asks him a question. There’s something in the tone of voice of the lawyer who addressed Jesus that gets the readers back up from the get-go. Luke tells us that the question was asked to “test Jesus” but we’d have known that from the question itself. The questioner is a lawyer, after all. It’s Jesus who appears to be in the witness booth. The lawyer asks what is necessary to inherit eternal life – a very general question. Jesus asks him what is written in the law and the lawyer comes back with the two great commandments – love of God and love of neighbour. A general answer to a general question but Jesus plays along and tells him that - yes - he has it. Do these two things and you will live. Ah, says the lawyer, thinking that Jesus is guilty of imprecision – “and who exactly is my neighbour”?

There we are – the world is filled with different people. Some are friends and some are not. Tall and short, familiar and unfamiliar, rich and poor. All of them have some sort of status based on their relgion and nationality, whether they pay taxes or don’t, whether they go to church or don’t. They’re thin or fat, black or white, pleasant or unpleasant. Neighbour is a huge category – who, amongst all these people in the world is “my neighbour”.

Because we all have enemies – we may have national enemies who live in the next country over and who have invaded us in living memory. We have people who are guilty of notable crimes and about whom the tabloid newspapers scream popular indignation in three inch high headlines. We have within our borders troublesome sub-communities who live in slums on the edge of town and who are accused of being a vector for crime and disease. And these are just the targets of community lovelessness. As individuals we can name off lists of people who have offended against us and who have never said sorry. There are, it seems, people who are not only difficult to love but who we would be forgiven for not loving.

This is the problem with sweeping laws and pronouncements. Love your neighbour. But who do we have permission “not to love”. To whom does the second part of the two Great Commandments “not” apply? How does this apply in the real world where we must practise discernment – we who have a finite pool of resources and who might end up squandering them on loving the wrong people. This seems to be the import of the question on the lawyer’s part. He is hoping that Jesus will prove himself hopelessly naïve or, even better, that he will name some popular and hated character as the proper object of a faithful Israelite’s love and will bring upon himself scorn and infamy.

Jesus answers this with a story:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead".
Ah, a victim, the lawyer thinks It will be important to know who this victim is. The victim, however, is just referred to as a man. The setup is not what the lawyer would have hoped. This is the one who must be loved – the neighbour. But is this anonymous person a neighbour? He is someone of my clan, my religion? Is he the person covered by the definition of “neighbour” in the Great Two Commandments? Is he a Roman or a tax collector or a thief or a traitor – a criminal or a foreigner?

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is a lonely downhill road which leads through sun-baked wilderness. I have driven it and cannot imagine walking through such a lonely place. The cliffs are peppered with caves. It is a place where men can hide and for centuries have done so. Being waylaid by bandits, beaten, robbed and left for dead is one of those things that can happen to any traveller. Neutral maloccurrence – something that could happen to anybody. It must have been frustrating that the victim of the story – the presumed object of neighbour love has not yet been named and is the victim of quite ordinary violence. We are still in the realm of the anonymous until Jesus goes on with the story.

As the anonymous man lies there helpless and bleeding - a man whose tribe and lineage doesn’t seem worthy of description – there is shuffle of footsteps down the trail and somebody enters the story. This time there is a name given or at least a title. This is a priest from Jerusalem walking down the long seventeen mile hill to Jericho. Without seeming to give it a second thought – the priest changes sides of the road and passes by. A Levite – one of those who assisted the priests with the sacrifices in the temple also shuffles down the path. He too switches sides and gives the injured man a wide berth. It is noteworthy that both the priest and the Levite cross to the other side. Within their communities they are the designated religious leaders. They are people who are held in awe and esteem and who presume to mediate between human beings and their creator. And it’s these men who choose not to see the suffering that is before them. They don’t want to see it. It’s not to be included in their snapshot of the Jericho road. They choose not to engage with the anonymous victim.

Finally a Samaritan – a national enemy – someone from the other side of the tracks – somebody that everyone could reasonably despise, even in polite company comes by and ministers to the man, binding his wounds, placing him on his donkey, provisioning him with a bed at an inn and paying for his keep.

The lawyer’s question is answered but not in the way the lawyer had hoped. He would have hoped that amongst all the needy people in the world some distinction could be made between those who “qualify” and those who do not so that the loving Israelite would be able to judge between those who are worthy of love and those who are not. If Jesus had told a parable about an injured Samaritan then he and the Lawyer could have disputed at great length about whether a Jew was obligated to help a Samaritan but Jesus has an entirely different instrument. It doesn’t measure the worthiness of the object of love. Jesus won’t even name and identify the victim in this story who remains anonymous throughout. The instrument Jesus uses in his story is one which measures the willingness of the subject to be loving and not the object who remains mute and unidentified. Jesus story makes a distinction between those who will love the victim and those who will not.

Because that, ultimately is the choice we need to make. In any time of disaster, in every struggle we have with another human being, in every case of family strife, in every case of blatant discrimination in our schools or workplaces, The meter on the wall is not measuring how loveable the object of love is – whether he or she fits the category of neighbour or, more properly, falls into the category of “neighbour” but how loving the person at the other end of the equation is – how loving the giver of love, care is – how willing he or she is to be and to become “neighbour”.

We can do nothing to choose or change the status of the person who needs help. We inherit situations that are beyond our control. We cannot control which side of a border a needy person falls, or how they speak or who their ancestors were.

What is in our control is not who they are but who we will become to them.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Let the Good Times Roll!

Holidays begin today. Down to London Gatwick this aft, thence to Vancouver tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

It's never been possible... begin one's holidays completely fresh with nothing hanging over one's head. There is always some burden of the heart or the schedule which gets in the way. At least that's the way it works with me. I'm working flat out to get the second of these - that which falls within my control - out of the way, completely and utterly.

As for the first, well...that's life.

My lady wife and I are going out to British Columbia and the end of the week with our young one and meeting up with our slightly older one at the other end. We'll spend some time with the truly old'uns on the other side and will spend a little over a week with them on Saltspring Island. I shall try to behave myself in the presence of my mother's magnificent cooked breakfasts and get up early enough to get some good pictures of the beach.

We're then heading off to the Sorrento Centre (between Kamloops and Salmon Arm - you know where I mean!) in British Columbia for the week of the 18th-24th. Caireen is going to be doing a creative journaling course there. The young man is going to be doing some drama and I'm going to be hiking around the Shuswap country during the day. We've time together as a family in the afternoon. Think Progressive Anglican Butlins with Mass in an outdoor chapel rather than the usual clown shows (although some of the chasubles one sees from time to time might qualify for the latter).

We then top things off with a drive through the Rocky Mountains before flying back to Glasgow from Calgary on the 28th.

So for the next day or two and the remaining tasks - Ora Pro Nobis!