Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging the hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray.
Lord, we keep looking for the rule book, for the set procedures, to check off so that we will know we have done what is asked of us. It seems to us that if we could find this checklist, we could fulfill the requirements and then move on to new adventures, having carefully put you in your place, all tucked up and quiet. But you will not allow us the checklist – instead, you ask us to do the messy hard work of actually loving each other. Of daring to get dirty, to complicate our lives, to disrupt our routines, to get involved – and we would so much rather not cross that road. Send us today your Holy Spirit to help us to meet the world around us in the mess, and no matter how dirty we get in the process, love them.
Alright – let me start this sermon time by stating forcefully, and without reservation, that I am a born and bred Lutheran, the product of a long line of pastors. So it is perhaps in my DNA to see grace as the only way to participate in my relationship with God. God does what God will – and I am blessed that God has always decided that I am part of that will. It has never occurred to me that I could manipulate the Almighty into loving me by anything that I could do, or that I could satisfy God by following a certain path or jumping through enough legal loopholes that God would give me what I wanted, and then leave me alone. But I have had fundamentalist friends who are very clear that God only loves folks who believe a certain way, act a certain way, speak a certain way or even dress a certain way. Equally, I have Catholic friends who have been raised to believe that saying enough rosaries, novenas, or going to confession or receiving daily communion would somehow punch their ticket with God. And I’ll be honest – I have a little envied them. Luther gave us no set path, no attainable number of acts of contrition, no style of dress or manner that would save us. Nope, just that pesky grace.
Now I am also aware that most folks have not been raised in a home where new theologies were discussed like baseball scores. And so when we come to text like the story of the Good Samaritan, I was reminded that many people might be reading this as a “how to” story. See a hurting person – go help. That will get you in good with God. And while it certainly doesn’t hurt – our involvement with the broken man by the side of the road is not about winning points. Its focus is much more concerned with the heart response of the Samaritan, and with showing us how that response is bound up with being part of the heart of God. So let’s try and leave the “winning points” idea to the side and look at what Jesus is trying to tell the young lawyer so worried with the law, that it has blinded him to his own heart.
First of all, let’s remember that the lawyer is not being disrespectful. In Jewish culture, asking questions and then wrangling over the answers is part of the faith. It is never presumed that there is a once and for all end to the argument because the story isn’t yet done being told. The technical term for this faith debate is “midrash”; each generation takes the bones of faith that they have been given and arranges them to meet the needs of their own time. The bones remain the same – but our understanding of those bones and application of those bones shift in response to human history, so that the story that spoke to shepherds in the field remain fresh to meet the needs of the IT expert in the city high-rise.
So the lawyer is looking at the story the Jews received by the Jews in Deuteronomy in the 7th century BCE, when God first commanded the Israelites “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” and asking how it applies to the present moment in Roman-occupied Israel. In many ways, we Lutherans can say “Hurray for the lawyer!” cuz he is NOT sticking with the letter of the law, but asking “hang on now; how do I LIVE this law?” And in good Jewish tradition, Jesus doesn’t give him another lawful checklist – instead he tells him a story and asks him to look at the bones of the law and put flesh on them so that they will speak to the living of the law.
So what do we hear in this story? How are we going to take the bones, and array them in living flesh so that we might walk the faith for ourselves? Now some words may no longer trigger in us the response they would have triggered 2000 years ago for Jesus’ listeners. A Samaritan would have been the epitome of the unexpected bearer of grace. The definition found in Wikipedia says “The Samaritans claimed descent from northern Israelite tribes who were not deported by the Neo-Assyrian Empire after the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel. They believe that Samaritanism is the true religion of the ancient Israelites, preserved by those who remained in the Land of Israel during the Babylonian captivity; this belief is held in opposition to Judaism, the ethnic religion of the Jewish people, which Samaritans see as a closely related but altered and amended religion brought back by Judeans returning from captivity in Babylon. Samaritans consider Mount Gerizim near Nablus (biblical Shechem), and not the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, to be the holiest place on Earth.” Now put whatever word that for you is just the one person you cannot imagine doing anything remotely good or unselfish or kind in place of Samaritan. And yes, it will be an ugly, prejudiced word, full of meanness and judgment. A word you will not be proud of, a word that should give you pause to claim. And that’s the idea. Of course, we don’t actually say it out loud, but we all know what we’re talking about… That’s what “Samaritan” would have conjured up for the first hearers of the story.
And yet it is this shady character who puts flesh on the story. The priest and the Levite follow the law – any good Jew knows you can’t touch blood without inviting a whole host of trouble; there are laws upon laws of how to get yourself clean after such a defilement. Hear this loud and clear; in the eyes of the law, the priest and the Levite did the right thing! There would be no law to fault them, no boundary they would have trespassed. It totally sucks for the poor victim, but these men of God cannot risk the contamination that caring for him would bring under the law. Yet the one who stands outside that law – in their nasty prejudiced opinion – IS the one who breaks that law. He touches the blood, he enters the mess. He gets up close and personal in such a way that he cannot hope to get clean without a lot of fuss and bother. Helping the man will cost him more than just money and time; he has now entered into the man’s story in such a way that their lives are now entwined. You will never be able to tell either of their stories without involving the other. If the wounded man were a Jew, and we might presume he was, his worldview is going to be forever changed. Never again will he be able to spit out “Samaritan” as a curse; his heart has been changed.
And that right there is the point of the parable. We place the flesh that makes the story ours on to those bones – but the bones are strong – like the words of Deuteronomy that the lawyer quotes. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” Do you hear what the law-abiding lawyer missed? The active verb? LOVE! Nowhere is there a formula or a checklist for salvation and justification – there is just the action of love!
And the love question is what comes to us. Not WHAT are you willing to do to fulfill the law – but WHO are you willing to love enough to make the law irrelevant? Loving someone the way that Jesus asks us to love, the way that God has asked us to love, means we are going to get dirty, inconvenienced and broken. It means our story will never be the same – we will always be getting caught up and entwined with people who don’t quite meet our definition of perfect. In her book, “Accidental Saints”, the prophet Nadia Bolz-Weber writes her story of church planting in Denver, CO. She is, for many, the most unconventional of pastors – a tattooed from here to there recovering addict with a deep fondness for swear words. So it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn her congregation was pretty unconventional too. Yet the Spirit will work as she will, and Pastor Nadia noticed many regular folks showing up for service. She was worried, she wrote, that this would alienate those who were not “regular” and she felt very protective of them. So much so that she voiced her concerns only to have one parishioner tell her – No! This is great! It means they too are in need of the same word as I! Bolz-Weber laughed at herself in telling the story, realising she had made “the regular folk” her version of a Samaritan, only to find her life was of course – in God’s grace and love – entwined and entangled with theirs!
This morning, we are each called to ask ourselves where our hearts are. We are called to love our neighbour and if we are counting points, collecting prizes and notching belts – we have already missed the boat. But if we are asking, where can we help? Who needs to be fed, clothed, healed – without being worried about the inconvenience of dirty hands and stinky toes, or bloody messes and icky bandages, or the cost and trouble it will put us to – then we are walking the path of loving grace. Then we are walking with God in love and truly modelling that the word is very near to us; it is in our mouths and in our hearts for us to observe. For us to go and do likewise.