Sermon offered today at Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield.
The story of the Good Samaritan – how many have heard this story ten times? 20 times? 30 times? We can be tempted to write this off and say “thanks, I got it.” But I believe in light of the recent violent events in our country – Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas – this parable offers us a way to New Life. After the murders in Dallas, reporters and commentators often referred to the United States as a country “on the edge.” The lesson taught by Jesus 2000 years ago might move us away from the edge and into abundant life.
I’m going to set the stage for my sermon by referring to another sermon on this same parable by the outstanding theologian, Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann says the lawyer began with a question about Eternal Life. He gets an answer that is about mercy.
“The question and the answer do not fit together. Eternal life smacks of transcendentalism… future… untroubled…secure. Mercy is by contrast freighted with risk and hurt and involvement.”
By telling the story that he does, about a man beaten, robbed and left to die in a ditch, Jesus changes our question about Eternal Life by “plugging us into a world of violence.” Following Jesus will not mean escaping violence – it will mean engaging it. Sound like 2016 yet?
Now that Brueggemann has set the stage, let’s do 800 years of the history of Israel in two minutes and 500 years of American history in two more minutes and then look at Jesus’ plan for creating a different future. I promise not to talk too fast.
Before 800 B.C. Israel was one nation. But it was split among Solomon’s sons and became the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. The Southern Kingdom was often called Judah and the Northern Kingdom was sometimes called Samaria. Although they all practiced the religion of Israel and relied on the Torah, there was one big difference. The Temple in Jerusalem belonged to the territory of Judah. The Samaritans had to worship at a different Temple and each nation claimed to have the “true” Temple. Other economic and social tensions led to real hatred between the two groups.
To make matters worse, geography made it necessary for some people living in Judah to go through a section of Samaria to get to their Temple. Sometimes when people of Judah on pilgrimage to the Temple crossed through Samaritan territory, they were attacked, robbed and sometimes killed. This went on for hundreds of years. One time shortly before the time of Jesus, a large group from Judah were ambushed and massacred on this trip. In retaliation people from Jerusalem went out and killed Samaritans. Now at this time both sides were ruled by Rome, so Rome sent troops to slaughter people on both sides. Do you get a sense of the tension between the Jews of Judah and the Samaritans after 800 years of history?
Now let’s look at our history. Honestly. The first African slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619 – the beginning of a long wave of human bondage and oppression. New England was a big part of the slave trade. America became prosperous and we built our economy on slave labor. When we had a chance to do something about that after the American Revolution, we did not. Slavery continues until 1865. And that is followed by the Jim Crow laws that oppressed African Americans for another 100 years. Between 1868 and 1968, over four thousand African Americans were lynched. Now we have what many call the New Jim Crow laws leading to over one million black men in our jails – right now. And there are many other political and cultural realities that continue the oppression of our history. This did not get all resolved by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Racism is a huge part of our history and it obviously impacts us to this day. Let’s see how Jesus gave the Jews and the Samaritans a path to a new life and how that could be true for us now.
Jesus is telling this story to Jews and it could be a nice story about compassion. And it is about compassion but it is also about something more than compassion. If Jesus wanted to tell a story about compassion, he could have said a Samaritan was lying beaten in a ditch and a person from Judah came along and took care of him. That would work. His listeners would say “Yes, we have to stop hating the Samaritans so much. We should be compassionate.” But Jesus did not tell the story in this way. Jesus made the Samaritan the hero of the story. And that changes everything. Remember some people of Judah thought they had the only true religion. Salvation was meant for them. By making the Samaritan the hero of the story, Jesus is saying “You are not saved by belonging to a particular tribe or race or religion. You are saved by joining my mission of mercy, compassion and hope. The Kingdom of God is not a religion. The Kingdom of God is a mission and the Samaritan is part of that mission.” This would have stunned the people of Jesus’ time. There is no “us” and “them”. There is only “us.” We are all needed, equally, to move towards the Beloved Community that Jesus intends.
Byron Rushing has served for many years in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He is an Episcopalian and he is black. Recently he reflected on The Book of Common Prayer collect for July 4th. It reads in part “Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us.” Rushing writes,
“This phrase is only possible because slavery was forgotten – or the ‘us’ was not meant to include me.”
Jesus took the history of the Jews and the Samaritans seriously and he offered another way. Americans need to take our history seriously and find another way. I will leave you with one last “new idea” from Jesus that helped in finding that way 2000 years ago and can help us find it today.
The lawyer asks “who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the story and then he reframes the question to the lawyer. In the original Greek wording Jesus says “Who became a neighbor to that man?”
To become a neighbor to another doesn’t just happen. It demands a new way of thinking. It demands imagination, creativity, effort. The rushing priest and the hurried Levite in the story will not let their lives be interrupted. The Samaritan does let his life be interrupted. He does not run from the brutality. He engages it and the outcome is a new identity. He is now really a neighbor.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians we are told that in Jesus Christ “all things hold together.” In Jesus, there is no “us” and “them.” There is only us. Amen.