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July 11, 2004 (Pentecost 6)—“Seeing Ourselves in the Heart of Mercy”
Pastor David Barber
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Our bulletin board outside the nave reminds us that during the summer months many of us get scattered to the uttermost parts of the earth--to Tibet, Japan, Northern Europe, Tahiti, and to various parts of the mainland. Perhaps the most creative trip will be taken by Robert Ahlstrom who's going from Makiki to Manoa and back.
Some are going to conferences and seminars. Some are traveling to see new territory. Some will visit families and loved ones, and some will experience a combination of these various reasons for travel.
Wherever our summer takes us, most of the time it presents us with the opportunity to get away from it all and just "to be" for a little while. We have the chance to relax and do nothing of any great importance, and if we're lucky, our batteries will get recharged for the challenges that will face us in the coming year.
Isn't it interesting that at the same time when we're getting on our airplanes to get away from it all, Jesus is traveling in the opposite direction? Jesus is moving toward it all. He's moving toward the greatest challenge of his life--toward Jerusalem and toward resistance, pain, crucifixion, and death.
On the way toward Jerusalem, Jesus is met by a lawyer who asks a question to test Jesus. The only other time that the word "test" is used in the Gospel of Luke is in a quote from Jesus to the Devil: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." What does that tell us about this particular confrontation?
After finding out how to inherit eternal life, Jesus encouraged the lawyer to get on with it. "If you love God with all your being and if you love your neighbor as yourself--if you do this--you will live," says Jesus.
But instead of getting on with it, he asks still another question. Do you think that he's trying to avoid something here? Wanting to justify himself, he asks, "And who is my neighbor?"
The antics of this lawyer would be more humorous, of course, if we didn't play the same game from time to time. By asking the question the way he does, the interrogator gets the discussion back onto safe territory.
Instead of being a neighbor, we can get stuck in defining the word neighbor. We can stall for time and complicate the situation in such a way that we never actually have to do anything. And that's the game we often play while the homeless in Honolulu or our neighbors in Sudan and other parts of the world continue to live in the ditches of life.
But Jesus refuses to play this game. Instead of answering the lawyer's question directly, he tells a story--a very, very familiar story. It's so familiar that you might wonder if you're going to learn anything new this morning, and if not, it might be more beneficial to take a short power nap for about ten minutes or so. Unfortunately, you'll have to stay awake to find out.
I've never been to the Holy Land, but I've been told that the distance from Jerusalem to Jericho is only 16 miles, but in that short distance, it descends over 3600 feet. It's also a twisting, dark, and treacherous path, which can be inhabited by thieves. No one in their right mind would take this journey alone at night even today.
So we can ask, given this information, was the man in Jesus' story, who was robbed and beaten and left for dead along the side of the road, simply a fool? After all, he should have known better.
That's what we sometimes say today about the victims of poverty, or AIDS, or addiction. They're just reaping the consequences of their own irresponsible behavior. And sometimes that's true, and sometimes it's not. But all too often, those who make such a claim don't hold themselves to the same standard.
You know the rest of the story. Two religious men--a priest and a Levite--saw this victim and passed him by. Maybe that's what they thought as well--how could this man be so stupid? Or perhaps they had more pressing business at the temple, and they were thinking that someone else might come along to help this poor fellow.
After all, the man might be dead, and if they assisted him or even touched him, they also would be unclean and unable to fulfill their religious duties. So let someone else worry about him.
And so we have our Samaritan--our hero in the story. He has to be our hero, doesn't he? If he's not, then all of our hospitals and nursing homes with the name Good Samaritan would need to be changed, and ordinances that we refer to as "Good Samaritan" laws would need another title.
And no longer could we call someone a Good Samaritan. So if nothing else, just for the sake of tradition, he has to be our hero. Otherwise it would just be to unsettling to consider someone else and face such a major change.
Robert Capon, writing on this parable, tells us that the central figure or the defining character is not the Samaritan but the man who fell among thieves.
He doesn't refer to him as a hero, but a "Christ-figure" who is "yet another loser, another down-and-outer, who by just lying there in his lostness and proximity to death, is in fact the closest thing to Jesus in the parable."
He tells us that the Good Samaritan Hospitals have been likewise misnamed. It's not the doctors with their stethoscopes around their necks who look most like Jesus in his redeeming work, but the suffering, dying patients. He suggests a name change--"Man-Who-Fell-Among-Thieves Hospitals," but then the medical profession might sense libel in such a move.
Jesus does tell us at the end of this story, "Go and do likewise," but what is it exactly that we are to imitate? Like the Samaritan, is it not a sharing of the passion and the near-death of the man who fell among thieves? Is it not an identification with this dying man who is lost and an outcast, and taking him into our own outcast and losing life?
If that's what we're asked to imitate, then perhaps a name change won't be necessary. But all too often this story becomes a "nice person" tale about morality. It's not about morality but about mercy--the openness to receive mercy from others--especially our enemies--and the willingness to extend mercy to those in need.
When we lived in Colorado, we were located about ten miles south of Fort Collins and home to Colorado State University. CSU became somewhat better known during the mid-80s and early 90s because of an agronomy professor by the name of Thomas Sutherland.
You may remember that Thomas Sutherland was an American hostage and held captive in Lebanon for over 6 years. I can still remember the great homecoming and the outpouring of joy and celebration when he returned to Fort Collins.
During his captivity he had no fresh air and saw no sunshine. Three-fourths of the time he was chained and shackled. For most of his captivity he was allowed to use the bathroom only once a day--for only seven minutes.
When he was first captured he was put in a sack and tossed into a trunk. Thereafter, whenever he was moved, he would be wrapped like a mummy, and tucked into the well of a car, so he wouldn't be discovered if the car was searched.
Over the course of his imprisonment, Sutherland was watched by a total of 45 guards. These were young men whom at first he despised. But as the years rolled by, he saw them as just as scared and imprisoned as he was.
This led to a transformation, for when he looked at his guards what he saw was himself. Once he felt empathy for his captors and once he could sense that they shared the brokenness and vulnerability of being human, he was also able to express compassion. He replaced his hatred with affection and friendship, and offered his own knowledge and love by teaching them to read and by teaching them to understand health and nutrition.
Captive and captor discovered a common intimacy with despair--and out of this identification and a shared suffering, mercy was born. As still another commentator has said: "To enter the kingdom one must get into the ditch and be served by one's mortal enemy." (Scott, Jesus, Symbol Maker for the Kingdom, p.29).
I remember a vignette from a comedy from many years ago called The Jeffersons--a spin-off from All in the Family. George Jefferson was an African-American who happened to have the same blood type as a white bigot in need of a transfusion.
When the blood recipient learned that his new blood came from an African-American, his response was: "You should have let me die." Obviously, in the ditch of his life, he wasn't willing to be served by his own mortal enemy.
This story is about mercy--the openness to receive mercy from others--especially our enemies - and the willingness to extend mercy to those in need. This means that there is not only an identification with those in the ditches of life, but that we also see ourselves in need of grace and mercy in the ditches of our own lostness and imprisonment.
Can we do that? Can we identify with the deprivation of those who are homeless, or the grief of moms and dads wherever they might be who have lost their children to war and violence? Can we identify with folks in this congregation who are reeling from failure and loss, and can we see ourselves within the pain, the suffering, and the despair of others?
Mercy is like a mirror, for when we look deep into the heart of mercy, we see ourselves. (Susan Andrews, Sermon - "The Mirror of Mercy) That's the grace and the good news of this story.
For in every occasion where mercy is given and received we have the opportunity to see ourselves, and in doing this, says Jesus, we will live. Amen.
Copyright © 2004 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org