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In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
The Sunday readings always present a challenge and an opportunity. Sometimes they’re very closely related, and you can easily see a theme emerging. Other times it’s harder to find a connection among them. So for a preacher, it’s easiest just to pick one reading (usually the Gospel) to focus on, which is what I, in the interests of efficiency, usually do.
But this morning I’d like to see how we might draw on all three of the readings to try to make sense of our current predicament.
The parable that Jesus tells provides the framework for the predicament: God has planted the world – our world, God’s creation – with good seeds, but somehow the fields are full of weeds.
This will not surprise any gardener, and it must have touched a nerve with his peasant audience. You plant a vegetable garden in carefully prepared soil, and before you know it, the weeds are outcompeting what you planted. Then it becomes a constant chore to dig up and eradicate the weeds before they take over the garden and you lose what you planted. If you’re careless and allow the weeds to grow they take from the soil valuable nutrients that your vegetables need, so any self-respecting gardener works hard to control the weeds.
But this is not how God’s garden works, according to Jesus. Instead, God lets the weeds grow, until the final harvest, when weed and wheat will be separated. As with many of Jesus’ parables, this must have left his listeners scratching their heads. It doesn’t seem to be good cultivation technique. In fact, it seems almost irresponsible.
But Jesus is addressing the world as it is. The world, our world, is a messy place, which all his listeners also understood. God created the world and everything in it, in beauty and goodness, but it seems to us to be filled with wickedness and sorrow. Paul acknowledges this in Romans: all of creation is in “bondage to decay” and is “groaning in labor pains,” waiting for God to redeem it.
We can relate. Disease, violence, bigotry and hatred, poverty and economic anxiety. The sufferings of our present time seem almost overwhelming, and the evils of the world seem to come from many sources – from the outright wickedness of some, from the indifference of others, from willful ignorance of yet others, and from our own failing to do what we know is right. We find ourselves uncertain what to do, and we are afraid.
But Paul counsels his followers not to fall back into slavery to fear. It seems to me that much of what makes me angry about the world today is people – all of us – acting out of fear. We fear disease and harm so we act selfishly. We fear the loss of our familiar ways so we refuse to adapt to necessary changes. We fear those who are different from us – by ethnic background, religion, politics, class, ability – so we attribute to them evil motives, when they, too, are acting out of fear of the unknown. And so fear causes all of us to spiral downward together into hopelessness and inaction.
Jesus has a different take on our situation. Don’t worry about the weeds and focus instead on the coming harvest, Jesus suggests. It is in hope that we are saved, Paul says. Hope IS our salvation. Not a blind hope that ignores the continual stream of bad news but a hope for the full revelation of God’s rule. A hope that even in an age of anxiety looks for signs that God is present and working among us.
Our ancestor Jacob spends much of his time in Genesis fleeing from one place to another out of fear of what may happen to him. At one point he finds himself in the middle of nowhere and has a visionary encounter with God. He receives a promise of God’s future blessing on him and his family, a promise of God’s presence and protection, a promise so expansive and without limit that it might have seemed absurd. But Jacob finds hope in it. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” he says in wonder. That’s a good mantra for us to repeat at this moment: Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.
If I pay attention to the signs of hope around me, I may just be able to perceive the reality of God’s kingdom. Even in the midst of a life-crushing pandemic.
I live in a suburban neighborhood where we don’t really know our neighbors. But that has changed since the shutdowns of the last several months, as people are more at home and we’ve struck up conversations outside. On the Fourth of July something took place that we had never experienced before on our block, in our 30+ years here. We gathered in the street, from small children to old folks, pooled our fireworks and put on a display for the enjoyment of those sitting on lawn chairs on the sidewalk.
Not really a big deal, but I found in that evening of blazing light and explosive noise and laughter, and children screaming, and applause, a sign of the presence of God’s new community of life and peace and joy. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”
Hope, Paul says, is the assurance of things not seen. And currently we don’t see much in this world to make us confident that God is in charge, or that the groaning of all creation will soon end, or that we will all soon be able to join together to solve our mutual dilemmas.
But we, people of faith, are called to search out and find hope in the world, even when it seems outlandish. We are called to find it even in the smallest moments and in unlikely places, and to proclaim it to others. We are called to act as if we had confidence that God’s fields of wheat will soon come to maturity and be harvested, and that the bounty of God’s creation will be shared with everyone.
My suspicion is that Jesus was not always fun at parties.
I mean I know that Jesus could be fun, a lot of fun. There is no question that he could tell amazing stories and that he knew something about making fine wine. And there is no question either that, even more than fun, he could be awesomely, almost impossibly kind and generous, inviting the loneliest and most lost and most hurting person to know that they were safe and they were home, that this was a party at which they belonged.
He could say to you: This is your table. You belong here.
And you would know in your bones that it was true.
But there is no question either that Jesus could turn on you and turn on you hard. You would be in the middle of telling or asking Jesus something that seemed kind of normal and everyday and fair and those eyes of his would suddenly be looking at you and looking through you. Abruptly he would say to you, Let the dead bury their own dead or Get behind me, Satan or It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
Something like that happens today. This man comes up to Jesus and he says to him:
Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.
And I want to emphasise how thoroughly reasonable this guy’s request is. Inheritances, the reading of wills, these questions after a death about what is fair and about what is just and about which possessions appropriately go to which family member and about what all of that means about how the deceased loved or didn’t love those who remain: well, when they go wrong they go really, really wrong. This is a moment in the life of a family that can leave you with resentments, with scars, that will last forever. Getting an inheritance right is super important for the long-term health of a family. Asking a teacher to help you with that makes a lot of sense.
Let’s add to the reasonableness of this request the element of grief. If this man says to Jesus, Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me, then what he is also telling Jesus is that his parents have died, that he is in mourning. And let me digress a little here to say for the record that it is hugely unfair that in our seasons of deepest loss we also have to navigate our seasons of deepest paperwork. There you are in the vortex of grief, unable to focus on much of anything, and the world says to you: your grief is not enough, here is probate. Please plan on spending the next several months fighting with forms and listening to hold music and writing cheques.
This is what the man brings to Jesus. This really reasonable, possibly family-saving request. And this grief. Together. He says to Jesus:
Please tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.
Maybe there are tears in his eyes as he speaks.
And what does Jesus say in response? He says:
Or, more accurately, he says:
Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?
Which, if you think about it, is not only a harsh response but also kind of an odd one. Because if the man knows who Jesus is, if he knows that Jesus is the son of God, then his reply to Jesus might well be:
Well, Jesus, God the Father set you to be a judge or arbitrator over me. There is literally no one more qualified than you. You, Jesus, are going to judge the living and the dead – I think I heard that somewhere in the creeds. So please start judging right now.
Here’s what I’d like to wonder about along with you this morning. Actually, that’s not strong enough language. Here’s what I’d to struggle with along with you this morning. As Jesus responds to this man’s reasonable question with what sure looks like an unreasonable and angry answer, is it possible for us to understand why Jesus speaks this way? And more than that – and this might be asking too much – through even these staggeringly harsh words, can we permit Jesus to teach us?
One reason that Jesus might respond to the man with the anger that he does is because, well, Jesus and his friends are poor. If the scholars are right who say that the job title in the Bible that we often translate as carpenter is better rendered as day labourer, if Jesus’ disciples are living cheque to cheque doing subsistence jobs, then neither Jesus nor anyone else in his posse is going to be receiving an inheritance from anyone. And so asking Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance is a bit like you or me approaching someone who is sleeping on the pavement and asking them for advice with our stock portfolio. Maybe it’s not deliberately cruel – let’s assume good intentions. But it is totally clueless. No wonder Jesus snaps at him.
A second reason that Jesus maybe responds with such harshness – and this is where I would like to spend a little more time this morning – is that the man is asking a question that seems mistaken or just wildly unimportant to someone like Jesus, someone who knows that, in a matter of months or maybe even weeks, the cross is waiting for him.
In all four of the Gospels, Jesus talks with this startling clarity about his death. The Son of Man, he says, must suffer and must die. Death is not an abstraction for him, it is not years away or decades away. He is not like the person – I don’t know if you do this, I do sometimes – who is calculating what percentage of his life is likely left, who is saying to himself, maybe 20 or 50 or 70 percent of my life remains. No. By the time of this conversation, Jesus may well be counting in weeks until his dying.
And I wonder, therefore – and forgive me if this is an odd idea, but it’s one that I have been sitting with this week and in which I have been finding insight – if we could listen to Jesus in conversations such as this one and understand his words as being spoken by someone who is terminally ill.
By terminally ill I don’t mean that Jesus is in any way sickly. To the contrary, he is just past the prime of his life, he is delighting in friends and food and wine and stories and walking across God’s good earth. By that I mean that he is like the one who has the test results in hand, the piece of paper that says that people don’t get better from what he has. Jesus knows that, this time next year, he will no longer number among the living, that one day soon the sun will rise and it will not shine upon him.
In Jesus’ case, his terminal illness is called Empire.
There is a difficult gift in this kind of knowledge. Those who are terminally ill, those who know that death is neither far away nor an avoidable misfortune that happens to other people, can, if they allow themselves, find clarity in this knowledge. I don’t want to be glib about this – and let’s be clear, there is a huge danger of glibness any time that we suggest that there are gifts to be found in suffering and grief and loss. I do want to name the reality that knowing that you will die soon can sometimes make it beyond clear what does and does not matter in life. There is a reason that the spiritual masters invite us to imagine our deaths, to write our own obituaries.
We all of us have two storehouses in our lives. This is implied in the parable that Jesus tells us today and he makes it explicit in a similar saying in the sixth chapter of Matthew, the one where he contrasts storing up your treasure on earth versus storing it up in heaven. The first storehouse is named something like success. It holds money – credit cards and 401(k)s and, yes, inheritances – it holds degrees and awards and other accomplishments, it holds property, it holds status, it holds all of the stuff that you put on your resume. And this storehouse is important. I love The Beatles, but I am kind of suspicious of people who say that they don’t care too much for money, especially when, like the Beatles, they have enough money to live comfortably for 100 lifetimes.
While there are lots of things that money can’t do, there are also totally ways in which it can buy you happiness. To have enough money to live indoors is almost always to be way happier than to live under an overpass beside the I-84. To have enough money to never wonder where your next meal is coming from is almost always to be way happier than to me walking in broken shoes from one soup kitchen to another. Similarly, your resume matters. If you can find a vocation in which you find stuff like meaning, belonging, and joy, then you have got a whole lot of life figured out.
As important as it is, the storehouse of success has its limitations. It turns out that private yachts or jets don’t necessarily make you happy. And most of us – all of us? – have had the experience of achieving a goal and saying: Is this all? I thought that I would be happy once this happened. These limitations become more and more apparent as you remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, as you realise that you have the terminal illness that is called having a body. Any moment, God may demand our lives of us.
Because of these limitations, we need the second storehouse. Let’s call this storehouse love. This is the storehouse that holds acts of kindness, what the Jewish tradition calls Mitzvahs, a word that means something like both service and blessing. This is the storehouse that holds friendship, that holds joy, that holds love of God and love of neighbour. This is the storehouse that holds the stories that, you hope, will go into your obituary and be spoken at your funeral, the storehouse that you hope will be spoken of when we step into heaven.
Here’s the hard news. Or maybe it is the good news. I haven’t decided yet. The first storehouse, the one called success: we don’t get to keep it when we die. All of the grain in it either gets forgotten or goes to someone else or gets eaten by rust and moths. The second storehouse, however, the one called love: we get to keep the stuff in there forever.
Maybe that is why Jesus speaks so harshly at this man, why Jesus is no fun at this particular party. Jesus, our terminally ill saviour, recognises that, reasonable though this man’s request for arbitration may be, his fixation on money and stuff is keeping him from seeing his all but empty storehouse of love. And that emptiness isn’t what Jesus wants for this man, it isn’t what he wants for you or me. Both now and at the end of our days, Jesus wants all of our storehouses to be overflowing with the love of God.
Today I want to address the subject of memories and reflections. We are a people with many stories to tell and we always need to be able to tell our stories and listen to the stories of others. First of all, I want to hold up the memory of Herod who was the king when Jesus was born. The Herod we are hearing about today in the Gospel story was his son. But, he had inherited all the traits of his father. His father, Herod the Great, was a great builder but people feared him because of his cruelty. He was very ambious and was a vassal to the Roman Empire for over 40 years, doing their bidding and holding on to his power. He married 9 times and during his reign he executed his first wife and later on he executed 3 of his sons. He was paranoid and unstable……so our memory of Herod is of someone who rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, built Masada, built the Herodian and Caesarea along with many palaces and fortresses. His tomb was discovered 20 years ago in the Herodian, which is a mountain fortress he built that today looks like a volcano, outside of Bethlehem and his history is being rewritten in the Israeli Museum. His tomb was violated and destroyed apparently by those who were angry with him during his lifetime. He had 2000 personal guards to protect him while he was King of Judea. Herod was and remains a person who changed history by his building program. But, his cruelty is the main memory that remains.
Secondly, I would like to address you today with my own memories and reflections on my beginning of ministry here at Grace Memorial in the years 1967 – 1970. I have alluded to those years in past sermons and several have asked me to speak to them.
I was in seminary at the Church Divinity of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, from 1964 – 1967. Each senior class would visit parishes throughout the Northwest in January of their senior year to promote and raise money for the seminary. I was assigned to come to Grace Memorial in January of 1967. I came and met people and told about the seminary on Sunday morning from this pulpit. Bud Hewitt was the Senior Warden and Duane Alvord was the Rector. I returned home to Berkeley and received a call that Grace wanted me to come back and bring my wife, Elaine, for a job interview. I was scheduled to go to my diocese in New Mexico and Southwest Texas to take care of three missions 100 miles apart from each other. I wanted to begin my ministry as an assistant to learn what to do before I got out on my own….so I said “yes” and came back to Portland to interview. So, I moved to Portland….I did not know a soul. It was exciting. I did feel that God had given me the right place to begin my ministry. We moved here after seminary concluded and I started work in July, 1967. We moved into the corner house on Halsey as the Parish had purchased it recently. We lived there for 3 years and both David and Sondi were born and baptized here at Grace Memorial. I was ordained a Deacon at my home parish in Pecos, Texas, on June 29, 1967 and ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Carmen on January 10, 1968, here at Grace Memorial.
My job included 4 days a week at Grace Memorial working with young people, church school, and acolytes. My Diocesan job was to spend two days a week working with setting up services in retirement homes, nursing homes and hospitals for Episcopalians, visit local jails, take tasks assigned by the Bishop with things he did not want to address, work with the Portland Council of Churches on minority issues, work with civil rights issues, etc, etc, etc. My salary was $3,600 each year, plus housing. By the end of two years, I realized I had two full time jobs.
The 1967 Convention of the Episcopal Church was in Seattle, WA and it was that convention that voted to allow women to be on church vestries and to allow women to be deputies to conventions. Women’s ordination was beginning to be talked about. Janet Graue was the first women on the Vestry at Grace Memorial and became treasurer. Janet signed my first paycheck. She attended my parish at St. John’s in Milwaukie and would come up on her birthday every year until she died at 105. She would always tell the people she had signed my first paycheck.
It was also the 1967 Convention that started the process of changing the 1928 Prayer Book. We began to have trial services of what became our new prayer book.
We started using the trial services at Grace Memorial and discussing the reasons for changes.
It was in April of 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I remember joining a silent procession with candles what was then Williams Avenue near Emanuel Hospital. It is now Martin Luther King Street. The country was in turmoil. Grace Memorial was right on the edge of the intercity. We were a congregation without anyone of color belonging to the parish. Then one Sunday, a Black family by the name of Baugh showed up in the congregation. The name, Ted Baugh, may ring a bell with some of you because he kept coming with his family and remained a member of St. Philips. When I asked him about his choice to come to Grace Memorial he informed me that he felt called as a missionary to help white people to understand what was happening in the civil rights movement…..and so he did. We had living room dialogs on the subject of racial discrimination, civil rights, and the differences of our various church beliefs. We entered into this dialog with Augustana Lutheran, Central Lutheran, West Minister Presbyterian and Freemont Methodist that brought us together with youth programs as well.
Robert Kennedy came to Portland in 1968 on his journey to run for President. I along with 25 other clergy had breakfast with him at West Minister Presbyterian Church the day before he left for California. He was assassinated during his visit in California. The country was coming apart at the seams. The Vietnam War was happening and getting worse. Young people were fleeing to Canada to escape the draft and were sleeping in the parks and churches along their way. I became the Chair of the Alienated Youth Program for the Portland Council of Churches. My committee included Tom Walsh, from the now Walsh Construction Company and Neil Goldsmidt who had just graduated from law school and would become Mayor of Portland 6 years later. My baptism by fire continued.
When I left to go for a year of chaplaincy training at Emanuel Hospital, I felt that I had really gotten a full dose of learning from the parish. I was not sure about my calling to parish ministry and thought I was being called to hospital chaplaincy. Bishop Spofford in Eastern Oregon asked me to come to Baker in 1971 and it was clear my calling was to parish ministry. I served as a parish priest for 37 years before my retirement 15 years ago. I give credit to Grace Memorial for launching me as a parish priest.
And now for my third memory and reflection. The Episcopal Church finished its’ convention this past Friday. I planned to attend and made plans months ago to attend. I put off knowing where I would stay and then out of the blue I was contacted by a childhood friend who asked me to stay with him and his wife in Austin, Texas, where the convention was held.
I had not talked with Sam Williams for 60 years. We grew up next door to each other, we played together, got in trouble together, our sisters were friends with each other, the relationship had been there all the time we were growing up. Sam is 2 years younger and so I became something of a model for him as he told me last week. His dad was always putting him down with, “Why can’t you be more like Dick Toll?”
And so last week was a week not only filled with memories and reflections from the church convention but with memories and reflections of growing up. Sam became a helicopter pilot for the Navy at the same time I was ordained. I did not know this but he often had to refuel in Pecos, my hometown, and would stay over with his family. During that time, he would help with my mother in taking care of my dad who had had a serious stroke and was home in bed. He would come over and help my mother put him in bed. Memories like that in our knowing the same people and listening to memories of things I had forgotten, it was a wonderful time for both of us.
And so I want to leave you today with the memory and reflection of the Bible story and the cruelty of Herod and his son.
The memories and reflections of Grace Memorial, 1967 – 1970.
The memories and my reflections of last week with a friend I have not seen or spoken with in 60 years.
And, to remind you that whenever we worship together we are in a moment in time of memory and reflection of salvation history. We listen to the Bible, sing songs written by people who often tell us of their faith through songs, and we remind ourselves of Jesus and the Last Supper as we enter into a moment of memory and reflection in the Holy Eucharist. We remind ourselves where we come from and to whom we belong, to God and to each other. Amen.
Gospel Matthew 31 – 33, 44 – 52
Today Jesus speaks to us about the kingdom of God.
It is like a mustard seed that grows into a large tree.
It is like a yeast that adds to flour and makes a large amount of bread.
It is like a treasure hidden but when it is found, provides for the future.
It is like a merchant in search of fine pearls who finds the ultimate pearl and gives up all to purchase it.
It is like a net catching many fish good and bad recognizing our choices as to how people choose good or evil.
In the Gospels the most important theme for the ministry of Jesus relates to the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God in the past? What is it in the present? What is it in the future?
The word “kingdom” usually makes us think of a physical place…a palace, a country, or a king or queen. That is how we know history. Kingdoms have come and gone over many centuries. We have watched the histories of countries and how kings and queens have been chosen. Kingdoms usually relate to a physical space with borders and armies and all the attachments of power.
But as followers of Jesus took on the role of being disciples, they went out into the world in the early centuries and they believed that the kingdom Jesus spoke of was very different and people were called to be in a relationship with the creator of the world and the universe and to live in community together. The kingdom of God was all encompassing. The kingdom was seen as here and now and included all of what the future would unfold for the purpose of God. And the early followers of Jesus discovered that worship was a part of that relationship and over the centuries huge churches and cathedrals were built to express that relationship of being within the kingdom of God.
An interesting person in history around the issues of relationships to the kingdom of God was St. Francis. Francis was a crusader in the 12th century. He answered the call of the Pope to rescue the holy sites in Jerusalem. At that point in time he was young and brash. He went to war for the purposes of God. He learned from his experiences that the crusades were not good for him or the church and went through a personal crisis. He came back from the crusades, took all of his clothes off and became naked, gave his horse away, placed all of his personal items on the altar of the church in Assisi and became a solitary person wandering from place to place. He would preach, teach, and speak about the love of God, the kingdom of God, and the person of Jesus. Before long, others joined him and the movement began. It was a movement within and speaking to the kingdom of God. It later became an order of the Catholic Church that we know today as the Franciscans.
We have often confused our understanding of the kingdom of God with the temporal kingdoms of this world. As history unfolded the Roman empire became Christian under Constantine, the Moslem world after Mohammed in the 7th century took on a powerful image of what became the Ottoman Empire between the 14th & 20th century. We watch history unfold in Catholic Spain, Protestant Germany, Protestant England…. all the Catholic and Protestant battles that occurred after the Reformation. The battle lines of history reflect an understanding of Christianity that is empire based, land based and border based. Colonialism expressed these same issues as slavery was promoted and western countries colonized South America, America, Africa and other places throughout the world. This colonial system helped destroy existing cultures and religious systems. Something was found to be wrong in the way the church was establishing it’s relationship with new cultures and today we are trying to reflect a better way of presenting Christ to the world. We are recovering an image of the kingdom of God without borders and once again finding relationships with others as the building block of our common humanity. Human rights have become a rallying cry for those seeking a way forward to the issues of nationalism and war.
I believe that the kingdom of God is not just a Christian understanding. All religions play their part in furthering the kingdom of God. Jewish, Moslem, and many other major religions are relating to a God of creation and bring their own stories and relationships with them. Often secular humanists are more further advances in the understanding of human rights than many Christian fundamentalists are able to understand.
Somehow we in our ignorance fail to recognize the work of God in others.
I see this happening in the old city of Jerusalem today. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site for Islam. It is also on the site of the first temple of Solomon in the 10th century BC. The Dome of the Rock was built in the early 600. Religious settler’s in the West Bank and in Israel are convinced that they must build a new temple to reestablish Jewish sacrificial worship at the site of the present day Dome of the Rock. In other words, to build a new temple would involve the destruction of the Dome of the Rock that has been there since the 7th century. A model of that new temple can be seen in the old city within the Jewish quarter. The volatility of the situation has been of display for the past two weeks in Jerusalem. This particular issue is probably as dangerous as any issue in the world.
If it continues to explode, it will cause great issues for Israel, Palestinians and Moslems throughout the world.
Where is the kingdom of God in this? Violence is not a part of the image of the kingdom of God. Violence is what our humanity does to one another. We often chose violence as our answers. How do we share our lives, our differences, our own uniqueness rather than take part in Holy Wars? We are far from the image of the kingdom of God.
Can we return to the mustard seed and what comes from it, the pearl of great value, the yeast that yields more bread, the kingdom that is life giving and not death dealing?
If we could only have eyes to see. If we could only have ears to hear. If we could only speak as Francis did to share our humanity and share our gifts to allow God’s kingdom to flourish in our present day.
And the future of the kingdom of God? That becomes the definition of the kingdom. All of the future belongs to God. What it will be and how it will flourish depends on our allowing God to work through us to make the kingdom available for those who come after us. God is the future. The scary thing about that is that God has trusted us with the gift to choose. We can choose life or death, good or evil. So our commitment to the future is that we have the ways and means to destroy ourselves, our planet, our future. We can also choose God’s purposes as discovered in the New Testament.
So here we are today. Our hope has always been the future which is our understanding of God but how do we respond today in order for that future to unfold. I would submit that God has given us the person of Jesus to help us fully integrate our humanity with the kingdom of God…..now. So as the future unfolds so does the kingdom of God.
The here and now was with our friend Francis in the 12th century. The following prayer is attributed to St. Francis even though he may not have written it, it expresses all of who he was. I would like to ask all of you to turn to page 833 in the prayer book and offer the prayer together. It is certainly an expression of who Francis was and expresses the past, present and future of the kingdom of God.
“Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen”
We have just witnessed a play in three acts. In each act, a new character takes his turn upon the stage. None of the characters has a name; each of them is known only by the category to which he belongs. In Act One, we meet a man – this morning, I am going to call him The Stranger – who is beaten by robbers and left for dead. In Act Two, we meet the Priest and the Levite – strictly speaking, two characters, but because of the uniformity of their actions and the brevity of the appearance on the stage, I am going to treat them as one. In Act Three, we meet the Samaritan.
There is then an Epilogue to the play, in which Jesus himself – the playwright, if you like – comes out before the footlights and asks us a question.
I’d like to watch Jesus’ play a second time with you. But this time, I would like to encounter it in a slightly different way. I would like to reverse the order of the Acts, so that we watch Act Three, Act Two, then Act One. The Epilogue will still be last.
Act Three: The Samaritan
Intermission has just ended. The lights dim, the curtain rises, and a man steps onto the parable’s stage. This is the Samaritan.
This Samaritan sees the stranger lying on the ground. And Jesus immediately tells us how the Samaritan feels: the Samaritan is moved with pity. Or, as some translations have it, he is moved with compassion. The trick is that the Greek word used to describe what happens inside of the Samaritan doesn’t really translate into English. Scholars tell us that, in its earliest use, this word that our translation renders as “Pity” – Splagchna – referred to a blood sacrifice in which the inner parts of a victim were ritually ripped out. [i]
By the time that Jesus tells this parable, Splahchna had evolved to mean something like, “To be merciful.” It appears twelve times in the Gospels, and the Gospel writers use this word exclusively to describe the emotions of Jesus or the emotions f a character in one of Jesus’ parables. For instance, in both Mark and Matthew, just before the miracle that we call The Feeding of the 5000, Splagchna is what Jesus feels for the crowd. In today’s story from Luke, it is the Samaritan who feels this gut-ripping compassion. Five Chapters from now, in the story that we call the Prodigal Son, it will be the Father who feels the same.
Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible entitled The Message, translates what happens when the Samaritan sees the stranger on the side of the road by using the expression “his heart went out to him.” That might be the closest phrase we have in English that captures Splagchna. Here is an experience of empathy that is like being gutted, that is like having your heart pulled outside of your body.
Seeing his heart lying on the ground before him, the Samaritan renders first aid to the man. He places him on his horse and he takes him to an inn. And there, in one of the most recklessly generous offers to be found anywhere in scripture, he agrees to be personally responsible for all of the stranger’s hospital bills. (Stop and think about that for a second. Even if you have a huge credit limit on your Mastercard, that is a staggering offer, possibly even a terrifying offer.)
And then, after promising the innkeeper that he will come back, the Samaritan returns to the road.
The curtain falls.
Act Two: The Passers By
Two men appear from the wings, one after the other. And they leave just as quickly. They get one sentence of stage directions each. And then they vanish from scripture forever, never to be seen again. (Although, in fairness to them both, their respective sentences show up in one of the most famous passages in the Bible). Here is the Priest. And here is the Levite.
The Priest and the Levite are high-ranking members of Israel’s religious authority. And they hold these jobs during a time when the separation of church and state isn’t so much as a pipe dream in the mind of an idealistic college student. Brian McLaren argues, therefore, that if were to transpose this story to the United States in 2016, we could defensibly render “Priest” as “Chief Executive Officer” and “Levite” as “Wall Street Broker.”
But I’m not sure that we actually need to look as far afield as McLaren suggests. Indeed, I want to suggest that the Priest and the Levites actions – or their inactions – are something that most or all of us know from our own lives.
The Priest and the Levite see the stranger lying on the side of the road. The Stranger has been beaten so badly that his eyes are swollen shut, his bloodied face reduced to a grotesque mask. At first it looks as though he must be dead, that the crows and the jackals and the flies can’t be far away. But then he takes a gasping breath.
And the Priest and the Levite have a choice.
The Priest and the Levite glance over our shoulders. Maybe they are checking to see if the people who beat the stranger are still around, if there is a second ambush to come, if their lives are in danger. Or maybe they are checking to see if they are observed, if anyone will bear witness to what they do next. As they stare at this stranger lying in the mud, a mud that is mixed with the stranger’s blood and tears, what do they feel?
Jesus doesn’t say. Jesus is amazingly economical in his storytelling, deliberately economical in his storytelling. doesn’t tell us about the Priest and the Samaritan’s Splagchna or anything else. He leaves you and me to decide what the Priest and the Levite feel. Is it fear? Do their consciences tug at them? Do they feel a surge of compassion or revulsion or both?
What Jesus does say that they cross the road and keep on walking.
Well, that answer is also is up to you and me. Here is the answer that I am going to venture today. The Priest and the Levite keep on going not out of fear or hostility or bigotry but for the same reason that most of us keep on going past men lying in the street: plain old exhausted despair and apathy. Helping the beaten man: well, it just feels like too much. I already have a lot of responsibilities, I am already stretched thin trying to pay my bills and raise my kids and deal with my aging parents. I can’t save someone else. I can’t let my heart be pulled out of my body.
It’s terrible that the man is lying on the roadside. I wish he wasn’t hurt, I wish he was safe, I really do.
But I can’t help. Someone else will have to do it.
And so the Priest and the Levite cross the road and keep walking.
Act One: The Stranger in the Dust
It is 8.05 and the play is about to begin. The last few audience members, late from dinner or let down by a tardy babysitter, come rushing in. A disembodied voice tells us to turn off our mobile phones and not to take photos. And then the story begins.
The stranger has barely stepped onstage – again, here is Jesus’ economy of words – before the robbers set upon him. The violence is abrupt and intense and brutal. The violence leaves the stranger down on the ground. He lies where he will remain until Act Three.
Nothing happens for a while. Jesus – who is both the playwright and the show’s director – lets us watch our fellow human being, a wounded animal out in the beating sun. The moment goes on a long time, too long. The stranger does not call for help, he does not stagger to his feet, he does not to find his way to safety. None of that is possible, for the robbers have left him, as Jesus tells us, half dead.
Watching him lying on the stage, however, it is hard not to wonder if the stranger is, at least in part, aware of what is going on around him. Does he hear the wind and the call of birds? With his ear involuntarily pressed to the earth, does he notice sounds that he has never heard before? Does everything suddenly sound like opportunity or danger? As he swims in and out of consciousness, does he wonder if he will remain by the side of the road until nightfall, at which time the burning of the sun will end and he will freeze instead? What does he feel when, through his swollen eyes, he see the Priest and the Levite, people of his tribe, people of authority, people whom he has been taught to respect and trust? Is there a surge of hope at their approach, a surge of despair as they cross the road and go on their way?
And what does he experience when he sees the Samaritan? I’m not sure that we have a contemporary analogy for the way that the people of Israel felt about the people of Samaria – some combination of fear and loathing. Maybe we could come close if, when Jesus comes to the part of the story that says, “But a Samaritan while travelling came near him” we were to substitute “But a member of the Taliban while travelling came near him” or “But a member of ISIS while travelling came near him” or “Bit an ex-con covered in gang tattoos while travelling came neat him.” As the Samaritan approaches, the stranger feels a new wave of fear jolt through his already battered body. Perhaps he wonders what indignity or violence is coming next.
But no violence comes. It is the Samaritan who carries the stranger to safety.
This too is a moment of Splagchna, a moment in which the stranger’s heart leaves his body. For as the Samaritan binds the stranger’s wounds and places him on his horse and takes him to safety and promises to pay to see him made well – as the stranger is saved by his enemy – the stranger is broken open, he is transformed. Impossibly, he finds himself experiencing healing and love in the last place that he expected it, through the last person from whom he expected it.
The Epilogue: The Question
It is G.K. Chesterton who said famously said:
Christianity has not been tried and found wanting;
it has been found difficult and not tried.
Here is the playwright’s difficult question for us:
Who was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
The answer is inescapable, it is almost absurdly easy. But if you’ve spent your whole life figuring that Samaritans are the enemy, admitting to it is almost impossibly hard.
The one who showed him mercy.
Today we attend Jesus’ play after a week of staggering violence in our country. A week in which still more black men were gunned down by the police. Philando Castille. Alton Sterling. A week in which five police officers were murdered in the coldest of blood. Patrick Zamarripa, Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith and Michael Krol.
The temptation for me – maybe the temptation for you – is to give into despair and apathy, to keep distant and safe like the Priest and the Levite. But I know that isn’t what Jesus is calling me to do. It isn’t what Jesus is calling us to do. Jesus proclaims the simple and hard news that, if there is going to be justice and reconciliation in this broken world, we have to engage in Splagchna, we have to risk letting our hearts out of our bodies, outside where they may well be battered by robbers. We have to go towards grief and anger and hardship and injustice and loss, we have to stand in solidarity with those who endure these things, much as Jesus goes towards these things and stands in solidarity with those who endure these things when he hangs from the cross.
Letting our hearts out means joining with those who are doing the hard and vital work of building justice, the hard and work of healing. And maybe even more difficult than that, it means doing something as vulnerable as naming out loud own need to be healed, it means accepting healing, even from a Samaritan, from someone whom we don’t like or don’t understand or don’t respect.
Jesus gives us a choice – there is always a choice, following him is always something that he wants us to do in total freedom. The choice is so simple. And it is so difficult.
Do we cross the street and keep on walking? Or do we join in the work of giving and receiving God’s grace, a grace than changes everything?
[i] This word study is taken from Paul Nuechterlein’s marvelous website, “Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.” http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/proper10c/