Sermon July 14 2019
This coming Saturday, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first man landing on the moon. The various documentaries on the early space program reminded me of how perilous and dangerous it was. I recently read an autobiography about astronaut Eugene Cernan. He was almost killed twice as he trained. I remember the story of Apollo 13. The three astronauts on that mission survived the loss of an oxygen tank and other problems. They only survived because of the dedicated work of people on earth. Similar to the story of the Good Samaritan, friends and coworkers cared for the astronauts even though they were many miles away. They devised a plan and provided instructions so the astronauts could deal with the situation and safely pilot the spacecraft back to earth. Our journeys through life often require the help of other people, Good Samaritans.
Today, we imagine walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was a perilous journey during the time of Jesus. It was only 18 miles but you descended some 3300 feet in elevation. Thieves preyed on the unsuspecting travelers as they walked. It was known as the Way of Blood because of the number of people who were attacked. As you take this imaginary journey, you already have an opinion of the meaning of this parable. Let’s revisit it once more and see if we find fresh meaning, some new understanding. I was encouraged by the writings of scriptural commentators Eleanore Stump and Dennis Hamm.
The term the Good Samaritan has become synonymous with a person who cares for another. Good Samaritan has been used as the name of many hospitals in the United States. There was a hospital named Good Samaritan in Phoenix until its name was changed in 2015. There is a nursing home in Mesa called Good Samaritan. We have come to believe that the Good Samaritan is a positive message. But Samaritans were not considered good by the Jewish people of Jesus’s time, in fact they were enemies. You may remember just two weeks ago we read about Jesus traveling through the territory of the Samaritans and they refused to let him stay in their village. James and John were so angry that they wanted to have God reign fire down upon those terrible people. Just a few verses away, the Samaritan is used as an indication of a caring, loving neighbor.
We can easily imagine a Samaritan as the hero of the story, but the people listening to Jesus may have understood the issues faced by the Priest and the Levite better than we do. If Jesus were telling the story to us today, instead of calling him a Samaritan, he might have referred to the person as a member of the Taliban, a member of the Iranian revolutionary guard or perhaps a member of a Mexican drug cartel. Only when we put it into our current day situation do we understand how radical the parable was. It is actually amazing that the lawyer responded with such a calm answer stating the one who cared for the man was his neighbor. How would you have responded if you were a faithful Jewish person back then?
It is interesting to note that the lawyer asked the questioned, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was only interested in the minimum amount of work that he could do to reach heaven. He didn’t ask the question, “what should I do to live my life with God’s love and grace”? The lawyer wanted to join God in heaven but lost sight of the fact that we want to be in heaven so as to live in God’s grace and love. We should want to do that here on earth as well as in heaven. Let’s all strive to live life at its fullest, not its least.
When the lawyer thought back to his question and Jesus’ answer, he learned that the minimum is actually the maximum. He may have thought that only a few people fill the role of neighbor but he learned he was wrong. Everyone is our neighbor and we must love and care for everyone. It is no simple task and I for one fail on a regular basis.Sometimes I think there is value in trying to place ourselves into a story. Is it possible that today we can imagine ourselves in the very different roles found in this story?
Have you ever felt as if you were the one who was injured and need the support of other people? Have you found people who have loved and cared for you? Has a stranger ever been the person who stopped to help?Have you ever been in the situation of the priest or Levite? Is it possible to imagine that you felt you were following the laws of your religious belief and felt that you could not help because helping would be a sin? Or have you ever thought that helping would put you in some danger or that you would be taken advantage of? I believe that people have tried to take advantage of the assistance that I have provided. I think people have tried to trick me into believing that their problem was worse than what it really was. It has caused me to question the motives of the people who ask for help. I have become skeptical, not always trusting that people who come here for my help will tell the true story of their situation.
I am sure that sometime in your life, you were the person who stopped and helped a stranger, you were the one who cared for someone you did not know. I am certain that you felt better for what you did. This week, I heard a story about a lady who was down on her luck. She had taken out a payday loan and because she was unable to pay off the loan, she lost her car. She was trying to make ends meet but was struggling. I am uncertain how it happened but she ended up telling her story to a policeman. He asked her how much she needed to get back on track and she told him six hundred dollars. He went to his police car and came back with six hundred dollars. She was overwhelmed. She said she wished she could do something for him but the only thing she said she could offer him was prayer. Given the difficult job that the police face in today’s world, I am sure that he could use the prayers. I wonder if you might search for a story of how someone helped a stranger in need. I think it would make you feel better about the world this week.
As I said, it can be difficult to help people knowing that some are just trying to take advantage of your good will. That is why we turn to God and ask for God’s guidance. The letter to the Colossians gives us some good advice. First, Paul is thankful that the word of truth, the gospel, is bearing fruit among the faithful. Then, Paul offers this prayer, "that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.”
Our collect offers a similar prayer, “grant, O Lord, that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them”. I plan to take that prayer with me wherever I go this week and I hope you will do the same.
Dag Hammarskjold was Secretary General of the United Nations. He rephrased the commandment this way, “Goodness is something simple, always to live for others, never to seek one’s own advantage”. That’s so easy to say, so hard to live. The famous poet John Donne spoke of Jesus as our inspiration. He wrote this, “Love is strong as death, but nothing else is as strong as either, and both, love and death, met in Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps the best guidance in our Scripture today, comes from the Psalm. It may not be readily apparent. The Psalm is based on the beliefs of ancient times for it suggests that there are many gods in heaven but the Lord our God rules over all and brings judgment, saying that the other gods have been unjust, they have favored the wicked. It asks that never ending question, why does God allow bad things to happen? But the ending is the core of the message and the place I bring you back to today,
“Arise, O God, and rule the earth, for you shall take all nations for your own”. Let us seek the guidance and grace of God, for without God’s help, we cannot keep this commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.
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