July 13, 2010

A Crummy Week to be a Priest - Sermon for Proper 10C

This is a rather crummy Sunday to be a priest for two very strong reasons. First of all, I am stuck preaching one of the best known parables in all of scripture. The story of the Good Samaritan is so well known, that I probably didn't even have to read it. I could have stood up, said, “The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke. The Good Samaritan. The Gospel of the Lord” and you would know the story almost exactly. Whatever I say now will lay upon years and years of Sunday School lessons and Vacation Bible School experiences and Bible Studies and sermon upon sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan. I seriously considered preaching the sermon that Karla is always suggesting. The sermon that Jesus himself preaches in the story, “You heard it, now go do it. Amen.” But I can't. The Rector is on Sabbatical and the Associate can't just mess around for three months while he's gone. I can't dress up like a silly sailor one week, heavily reference the Declaration of Independence the next, and then preach a 3 second sermon the third. You wouldn't stand for it. The Vestry meeting on Monday night would be my end for sure.

And that's just one reason why it is tough to be a priest this week. To top it all off, the most well known story of Jesus, second only maybe to the Prodigal Son, features a priest who sees a man, beaten and bleeding in a ditch, and then crosses the street to avoid him! I mean come on! What a terrible Sunday to be a priest. But we'll get to the priest in a minute.

An expert in the Torah, the Jewish Code of Law, stands up and challenges Jesus to a debate. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Really, the story should be over before it begins. Anyone who has paid any bit of attention in church knows by now the answer to the lawyer's question. There is nothing you can do to inherit eternal life. It is all grace. God's gift to you in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Open the gift and you will live.

But, for some reason this time Jesus doesn't head that direction. This time, Jesus engages the question and turns it back on him. “You are the expert. You tell me. What do you read?” Boom Deuteronomy 6:5 – “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 Boom Leviticus 19.18b “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Sounds right to me,” Jesus responds, “do that and you will live.”

Just to be clear though, the lawyer would like to know who exactly Jesus includes in the neighbor category. Fredrick Buechner imagines the response the lawyer is looking for, "Henceforth a neighbor (hereafter referred to as the party of the first part) shall be defined as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one's own legal residence, unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereafter referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as the neighbor to the party of the first part and one is then oneself relieved of all responsibility of any kind to the matters hereunto appertaining." But Jesus does not give him a legalistic answer. Instead, Jesus tells a story.

The story begins, “anthropos tis” which the NRSV translates at “A man” but we might hear it better as “Some guy.” So, some guy was headed down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and was jumped by a group of robbers. They stripped him, beat him, took his wallet and left him for dead on the side of the road. Some guy. Could be anyone really. Jew. Greek. Slave. Free. It doesn't really matter, just a guy who for some unknown reason decided to take the dangerous route from Jerusalem to Jericho by himself. Surprise, surprise, he got mugged, beaten and left for dead. It just so happens that the next person down the road, also traveling inexplicably by himself, was a priest. The priest saw the man, there is no doubt about it. He probably even heard him crying for help and heaving for breath. He saw the man, and he heard the man, and he passed by on the opposite side of the road.

Over the two-thousand years since Jesus first told this story, the vast majority of people who have taken to the task of making sense of it carried some variation of the title of priest. That being the case, many wonderfully rational arguments exist for the priest crossing the street to pass by on the other side. Maybe he was headed to the Temple for his rotation and so he couldn't risk becoming ritually unclean. Maybe he was headed to the home of founding member of his parish who was at death's door and so there was no time to stop. Maybe he was so lost in his prayers that he saw the man, but what was happening didn't compute. These possibilities seems awfully self-serving though. Maybe the priest was just a jerk. As you probably know, that is not beyond the realm of possibility. Whatever the reason, reasonable or not, the priest exerts the energy to cross the road and avoid the man.

So this guy continues to writhe in pain half-dead in the ditch. When, as it would happen, a Levite came upon the man. Now a Levite, for those who don't know, as a descendant of Levi would have been a man set apart to perform the duties of the Temple sanctuary; duties like reading the Torah, performing music, and preparing the sacrifices. The Levite, like the priest, was probably on his way to Jerusalem to take his turn in the service rotation of the Temple. He had the same reasons for seeing the man and promptly moving to the other side of the street; he was very busy, very important, and couldn't risk the ritual uncleanness that came from blood and guts. Or maybe, as some have suggested, the Priest and the Levite were both fearful of helping the man as it was the custom of bands of robbers to have one man fake injury while the rest hid in waiting for an unsuspecting passerby to stop and help. But again, my guess is that he was probably just a jerk.

But, OK, best case scenario, we give them the full benefit of the doubt and the Priest and the Levite were adhering strictly to the Torah. The Law, the very thing our lawyer friend was so learned in, had kept the priest and the Levite from showing mercy to the man in the ditch. Loving God had outweighed loving neighbor. But the lawyer himself just said that we were supposed to do both. Jesus just affirmed that, “do this and you will live.” So how do we accomplish both at the same time?

Jesus continues, “As luck would have it, a third man came down the road all by himself. This man, however, was different. This man was himself an outcast, a half-blood, a Samaritan. The Jews of Jesus' time hated the Samaritans, and for their part the Samaritans hated the Jews. So the guy, the random man in the ditch, who was more than likely a Jew, finds his very life now in the hands of a hated Samaritan. And this Samaritan, rather than see the man and move to the other side of the road, he sees the man and is moved to compassion. The same sort of gut-wrenching compassion Jesus felt for the Widow at Nain. The same all consuming compassion that the Prodigal Father would feel as he scanned the horizon and saw his youngest son, the one who told him to drop dead, coming back up the road having squandered his inheritance. The Samaritan is moved with compassion, which brings us back to the lawyers original question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Compassion, the kind that Luke writes about in the story of the widow at Nain and the Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan is a verb. Compassion does something. It moves. So the Samaritan man, moved to compassion, bandages the man's wounds, pours oil and wine on them to clean them out, and then, on his dime, pays for the man to recuperate in a nearby inn.

“Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. Be filled with compassion. Show mercy. Do. Not as a ticket into heaven, but because at one time or another you too were the man in the ditch, helpless and hurting. Jesus, an outcast himself, has saved you and the only logical response is to turn around and show mercy and compassion to your neighbors. And just who is your neighbor? Well it is quite obvious from this story that everyone is your neighbor; every some guy or some gal on the planet.

I ran across a variation on this story this week. Once upon a time some guy fell into a pit and could not get himself out. A therapeutic person came by and said, "I really feel your pain down there." A common sense person came by and said, "It was inevitable someone would fall in there eventually." A fundamentalist said, "Only bad people fall into pits" even as a Calvinist swung by and said, "We all deserve our pits." A mathematician came by and calculated the odds of falling into the pit, and a self-centered person exclaimed, "You haven't seen anything until you've seen my pit!" An optimist saw the man and said, "Could be worse" even as a pessimist rejoined, "It will get worse before it's over." Then Jesus came by, dropped down onto his belly in the slippery mud around the pit, reached out a pierced hand, and pulled the man free. And this Jesus says to us, "Go and do likewise."

I started out by telling you how crummy a week it was to be a priest, but that really isn't true. Any time that I get to tell you that God loves you so much that he risked his very self, his very nature, to move into the neighborhood, become your neighbor, and then pull you out of your ditch is a good week. God, moved with compassion, has saved your from the brink of death. Go and do likewise. Amen.

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