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Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Last to Help

Pentecost 7C, 2010

Amos 7:7-17

Luke 10:25-37

In twenty-five words or less . . . Do you know the phrase? Don’t give me some long-winded explanation, tell me in twenty-five words or less. What do you want to do when you grow up? Why do you want to marry each other? Why do you want us to hire you? What did the doctor say?

If I asked you what your life was all about in twenty-five words or less, what would your answer be? It’s a good exercise for all of us. Tony Forstall, a preacher friend of mine, put his life summation as well as I’ve ever heard: God called, I answered. He has twenty-one words left.

The author Kurt Vonnegut was asked by a young fan what was the essence of life. At the outside, Joe, Vonnegut replied, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of: . . . you’ve got to be kind.[1] Karl Barth, the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th Century, was asked to sum up his twelve-volume master work, Church Dogmatics. His answer was: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. The radical Southern Baptist preacher and civil rights leader Will Campbell, challenged to sum up the Christian gospel in twenty-five words or less, said, We’re all (jerks) but God loves us anyhow.

An expert on the Jewish law and Hebrew scriptures decides to test Jesus on the core of his belief. Tell me, in twenty-five words or less, how to inherit eternal life. Translated: how can I receive God’s blessing and be with God forever? It’s a legitimate question. The scribe’s motives might be questionable, but it’s a fair question. You and I are asked that question, by believers and unbelievers, every day, and what we do with our lives tells others what we really believe. For many folks, apparently the path to God’s blessing is to work like dogs for forty or more years, accumulate lots of stuff, and die of cancer and heart disease from all the stress.

Jesus turns the question back on the scribe: You’re an expert on the Bible: what does the good book say? Jesus knows the scribe knows the answer: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Eighteen words: seven left. Ding! responds Jesus, you got it. Now, just do it. You see, Jesus invented the Nike motto.

Trapped. Not what the scribe came for. By the way, I like to tell people to stop reading the Bible like the Bible. This is an hilarious scene: the hunter becomes the hunted, trapped in his own scheme. Can you hear the scribe babbling at this point? But . . .but . . .but . . . uh, well, who is my neighbor? Good question. Who do I have to love to get God’s approval? OK, the sweet old lady living by herself across the street. Maybe the lady who lives on the left side of our house who hasn’t paid back the loan I gave her a year ago. But how about the Vietnamese couple two doors down with the rooster who starts crowing at 4 a.m.? How about the four guys – I think it’s four, we can never tell how many people are living there – on the other side of our house who won’t fix the broken fence next to us? And, surely, you don’t mean the people in the next neighborhood, or the next county, or state, or nation? You don’t mean illegal immigrants, do you, or people with whom we are at war? You don’t mean people who voted for him in the last election, or people who believe we ought to allow that. You don’t mean those people who don’t look like us, believe like us, and act like us, do you?

Jesus, good rabbi that he is, tells a story. That’s a very rabbinical thing to do. Who is my neighbor, Jesus? What are the limits of my compassion?

So Jesus tells a story about a man traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, about the same distance from Mechanicsville to Quinton. It’s a long one day walk. Along the way the man is mugged and left bleeding in the ditch. Now, a United Methodist pastor passed by, but he was late for a Trustees meeting, so he exercised compassion and veered his truck to the other side of the road so he wouldn’t hit the man in the ditch. Now, that’s love. Then, the church Lay Leader came by, late for the same meeting. He slowed down, but realized that if he didn’t get to the Trustees meeting, the crazy new pastor might convince the Trustees to dig a canal from the Pamunkey to the church for his sailboat. So he passed by, asking God to bless that poor man in the ditch.

There are interpretations of this parable that suggest that the first two men pass by because they are worried about becoming ritually unclean by helping this bleeding and possibly dead man. According to these interpretations, this is why Jewish law is so ridiculous, and why we should be thankful as Christians we don’t have to worry about such things. I think, at best, that’s a caricature of Hebrew Bible and law and of first-century Judaism. At worst, it’s anti-semitic. And it’s unhelpful and irrelevant for you and for me. I pass people lying, literally and figuratively, in the ditch every day, and it’s not because I’m worried about my ritual purity. It’s because I don’t want to get involved. It’s because people in trouble inconvenience my schedule and agenda and bank account. So, I’ve developed an elaborate system to replace interrupting my life to care for people in trouble with a great public religious busyness. I work hard at my job, I take good care of my family, I keep my yard neat, and I make sure I engage in enviable forms of recreation, like watching sports and reading and sailing and going to the gym. It’s a wonderful temple I’ve built for everyone to see.

Seven hundred years before Jesus told the story about the mugging on the road to Jericho, a farmer named Amos was watching some stonemasons building a wall in Israel. The masons were using a plumb line to make sure the wall was straight. Another phrase for crooked is – think about it – out of true. The image hit Amos like – well, a ton of bricks: Israel had built great temples and palaces for everyone to see and marvel at, but underneath the impressive surface people were dying from poverty, they were being enslaved, and corruption among the leaders of the temple and kingdom was rampant. Israel was being measured, Amos could see, by how well it lined up with God’s love for his people, and no matter how impressive the outward appearance, the kingdom was so crooked it would soon fall. Now, I live in a crooked house: it’s old, and it was moved years ago. The doorframes are askew, and the floors aren’t level. We tell people the house has character. We live with that. But how true are the houses you and I have built with our lives?

The first two passers by on the road to Jericho have built walls so thick they can’t reach the man in the ditch. But those thick walls are out of true. So a third man come down the road. This story has now become such a part of the cultural wallpaper that it’s hard to realize how scandalous this part of the tale was to Jesus’ listeners. Now, a Samaritan means someone who helps. But, to get a handle on this story, fill in this blank: I’d rather die than accept help from ­­­­___________. Maybe you fill in a name there – someone you know. Or maybe it’s a category of person. When Clarence Jordan wrote his Cotton Patch Translation in the early days of the civil rights movement, the third traveler was a black truck driver. For you maybe it’s a Muslim, maybe even Osama bin Laden. Maybe it’s a politician or other famous person you despise. Maybe it’s someone who believes or lives something you oppose with every fiber of your being. Maybe it’s an ex-family member. Maybe it’s someone who has hurt you, really, really deeply. We all have someone to fill in that blank: I’d rather die than accept help from _______.

That’s who helps the man in the ditch: the last person you would expect. For the record, southern Jews and northern Samaritans had despised each other for hundreds of years for religious, ethnic, and political reasons. This morning, let’s figure out who our Samaritan is. It’s important, because that person is the plumb line in our life. If the grace of God does not extend to them, then we’re in the darkness. If our understanding of the Kingdom of God does not have room for them, then we’re the priest and the Levite who have missed the point. The real reason for us to figure out who’s the last person we would accept help from is because that’s the person we need to extend our love to. If the spiritual house or family house or national house we’ve built does not include them, then it’s we who are on the outside, not they.

You see, we’re all lying bleeding in the ditch. We’ve been robbed and beaten by a world that promises us happiness with things than cannot satisfy, by friends and family who have hurt us in ways we can hardly name, and by our own sinful and broken selves who keep returning to the same addictive and self-destructive behaviors and beliefs. We’re all in the ditch, friends. And the way out is to take the hand of the last one to help.

St. Francis of Assisi was walking down the road one day when, to his horror, he saw a leper approaching him from the other direction. The leper’s face was horribly disfigured by that disease – he had open sores, his nose and facial features were being eaten away. Francis veered wide to the other side of the road, fearing contamination. A few yards down the road, Francis was overcome with guilt for having treated one of God’s children so. He turned around, ran down the road, kissed the leper on his bleeding face, gave him what little money he had, and blessed him. Francis went back on his way, but turned around to look. The leper was gone. Francis realized the bleeding and disfigured leper was Christ.

The last one you would let help you is probably the last one you would help. His name is Jesus.

[1] Bartlett and Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On The Word, Year C, Vol. 3., Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2010, p. 240

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