Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable unto you, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Hear again these words from the gospel of Luke:
“But wanting to justify himself, a lawyer asks Jesus, “and who is my neighbor?”
Ah, self-justification. One of our favorite pastimes in our day and age. “I did it because….”, “It was important since…..” The reason that I couldn’t do that is….” I know I am right in thinking that….” He/she is not my neighbor because….” Amazing the stories we tell ourselves and then each other to justify ourselves and our behaviors.
And Jesus continues to tell us parables that would bring us back to life. Indeed, he is with us this very day, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, to remind us through our lectionary passage for the day that in God’s neighborhood the stories of justification we tell ourselves pale in comparison to the needs of others that we encounter on the way. In God’s neighborhood, this global village in which we are all people struggling to learn how to live together, to love one another, the focus is on doing what is needed, not so much on justifying why we aren’t doing it.
The gospel story is quite amazing, even these two thousand years later, as we see Jesus being put to the test. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asks the lawyer. And Jesus answers with a question, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Of course, the lawyer knows the law well. That’s his job. But he was hoping to trip up Jesus in some way, to justify himself. So the lawyer answers with the words from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “ 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 neighbor as yourself.”
There we have it. Clear as a bell. This is not about Christian love versus Jewish legalisms, but it is about Christianity’s debt to Judaism, which states that the most basic commands of our religions are the same. Human need takes priority over all other concerns. When the great Jewish teacher Hillel was asked: “Teach me the Torah,” he answered, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor.” “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor.”
The golden rule of life in community. And if we could but follow this, those who walk through the valley of the shadow would not have their pain compounded with rejection, exclusion, and abandonment.
And how do we love our neighbors as ourselves? Not more, not less, but balanced: you and me living on this one little planet trying to learn to be life reaching out to life, trying to learn to trust life itself as a gift from God.
We enter into the reality of the two poles of love that we walk between: support and challenge. Love consists of support and challenge. Support and challenge.
Either one of these polarities is not healthy by itself. We walk in the balance: support and challenge.
Is there such a thing as too much support? Yes, for without any challenge and only support, we become complacent. Easy living can make us placid, lost in a haze of material contentment, ignoring the questions of who we are and what we are doing in the world. In the listless world of too much support, we fall asleep.
Perhaps you have heard the story of the Church School teacher who asked her children on the way to the church service, “Now, why do we need to be quiet in church?” One bright little girl answered, “Because people are sleeping.”
“Wake up!”, Jesus tells us. Wake up to human need, our own and those around us. Have we fallen asleep to human need in our society and our world? The challenge of the parable is clear. Do you want to inherit eternal life? In God’s neighborhood, we wake up to the needs of others around us and stay awake to our own needs and desires.
This is the challenge. The other pole of love. But too much challenge without support can lead to being overwhelmed. Our anxiety and despair rise up and we need to know the support of others in the community who walk with us. We need to know that God is with us all as we move through the realities of our lives. Here our currency is to be love, and kindliness our law, as our food and faith are shared in our lives together. True relationship encourages both parties to take center stage from time to time and to shine in the spotlight of loving attention and concern. As our next hymn puts it so well: “Won’t you let me be your servant, and pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.”
Luke is the vigorous champion of the outcast. And let’s face it, most of us from time to time have felt like we just don’t belong, with no hope of entrance, our noses pressed longingly against the glass. But will we use this difficult experience to enliven our welcoming of others, or simply perpetuate the idea that identity and worth is based on exclusion. For such clubish behavior can be used like a club, ranging from formal to informal, political, social, cultural, economic, and religious.
Amazingly, Jesus blows open the doors and lets the wind move through this reduction of reality, the shrinkage of life that such exclusions create. For the tribal behaviors are powerful dividers of human life and the source of inhumane behavior at every turn. In the parable, Jesus would shock us into waking up into our own prejudices that bind us and leave us unavailable for a full life of compassion, hope, empathy, and love.
Let us look again at the parable Jesus shares with us. If we were living in ancient Israel, we would have known that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho descends 3200 feet in a very short number of miles, winding precariously through hills where bandits of all kinds can hide out ready to pounce upon us as we make our way down to Jericho, which lies on the edge of the Dead Sea, and is a favorite vacation spot for those of us weary of city life in Jerusalem. We would also know that the Levite is most likely a temple functionary from the priestly tribe of Judah and that both he and the priest would be bound by law to need to return to the temple up in Jerusalem for at least a two week cleansing ritual if they came in touch with a person who would die, certainly not something to look forward to if you were on your way to a hard-earned vacation down in Jericho. Such behavior of walking over to the other side could even be justified, we might think.
But the most shocking thing of all is that a Samaritan, a half-breed heretic worthy of nothing except being despised, ceremonially unclean, socially outcast, and religiously offensive would dare to be lifted up in the story as the one who understands compassion and care more than the priest, Levite, or lawyer. Are you outraged by Jesus yet? What if I tell you the Episcopal bishop of the diocese of Eastern Massachusetts, the Catholic archbishop of Boston, and other denominational leaders of many Protestant churches are walking by on the other side of the road as some of us waiting for our whole lives to be allowed to have our relationships sanctified by the church are broken yet again by their covert silence or overt condemnation, while others who have known the demoralization of exclusion are there with roses and congratulations. Are you outraged yet? Welcome to the way Jesus outraged those who were justifying their prejudices and sleeping through the pain and suffering of the neighbors around them. Challenging? Absolutely! Awakening? You had better believe it. Wake up. Values are being exposed and prejudices unveiled. The church is waking up as Bishop Gene Robinson has said to what some call a nightmare and others understand as God’s dream being realized.
Jesus turns the values of his day and ours upside down. No longer needing a victim to abuse in order to affirm one’s sense of self-worth, Jesus calls us to open the dark crevices of our souls where our prejudices hide, the places we have assigned the Samaritans of our day: those whose skin color is different, those who worship in ways we think is strange, those whose sexual orientation is not like the majority.
A great little joke appeared recently in the New Yorker. In it a woman was speaking to her friend, “I just spent an hour with my manicurist and pedicurist, after having done a ninety-minute work out with my personal trainer at the gym, a lunch with my low carb support group, and now I need to go for my botox injections and then yoga class. I just don’t have any time for myself any more!”
Such is life in the narcissistic culture many of us inhabit. It is easy to see this as a problem for others, but what about our collective narcissism that creates an ever-lonelier society in which it is shocking to see how few people are truly interested in others. If we can’t pull ourselves out of our narrow insular reality long enough to bring our full awareness to others, how will we ever acknowledge and honor the larger worlds of diverse cultures? If we can’t grow up and get outside of ourselves, how will we ever become a society stretching to become God’s neighborhood? Our concern only for ourselves has little compassion or care for the hardships expressed in other societies and by other peoples.
That is why cultivating a spiritual life involves not only scriptural study and practices of prayer and meditation, but also a discipline of service beyond ourselves—with forgiveness and kindness as our foundation.
Jesus challenges us to wake up, while supporting us in the great love, mercy, and forgiveness that is always available to us from God. For this is the good news, warnings are sounded and there is time, space, and opportunity to act now, to forswear our foolish ways. Indeed we show our love and gratitude to God by showing our love for those in need and for one another. To respond to the needs of our world is to set aside our distinctions and enter the richness of being fully human. Life reaching out to life. Love transcending barriers, uniting us as one family, calling us to be all we can be. Love enhancing life. As Jesus told us, “I came that you might have Life, and have it abundantly.”
May we ponder again the truth of Mother Teresa, who after a visit to America said she had never seen such a society of isolation, on the edge of spiritual bankruptcy? “The reason you have no peace,” she said, “is that you have forgotten that you belong to each other.”
Don’t burn out in isolation focused on our little selves, burn up with the fire of the Holy Spirit’s love and justice for all humanity!
O for a world that Jesus envisioned, a world of reversals, where we see the poor in things may be rich in spirit, in my weakness is my strength, and the foolish ones are wise. Where we tell all who mourn, outcasts belong, who perishes will rise!
Let us pray:
O God, hold us in your wide, loving ,merciful embrace. Offer us your eternal support as well as your enlivening challenge to be all that we can be as your children, neighbors one to another. Give us courage to love fiercely and fully, and to prepare for your glorious reign of peace where time and tears will be no more and all but love will cease. Amen.
Sending Forth and Benediction:
Go forth into the world in peace;
Be of good courage;
Hold fast to that which is good;
Render to no one evil for evil;
Strengthen the fainthearted;
Support the weak;
Help the afflicted;
Honor all people
Love and serve God
Rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
And the grace of God, deep than our imagination;
The strength of Christ, stronger than our need;
And the communion of the Holy Spirit, richer than our togetherness;
Guide and sustain us today and in all our tomorrows.
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