Hancock Church Sermon – Pam Cochrane – July 14, 2013 – Luke 10:25-37

http://youtu.be/VqwOGSbHH1M

Exceeding the Limits of Necessity!

            In June, I had the chance to participate to the United Church of Christ History, Theology, and Polity Institute, a class for individuals seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ.  It’s a requirement.  It’s also a necessity if ministers are to be prepared for the task of preaching and teaching the covenant shared by all those who enter in relationship with our denomination.  Twelve of us gathered for the two week session at Camp Calumet in Freedom NH. Sitting around a conference table we represented a diverse body. Our individual faith journeys cross here and there but our coming together  clearly illustrated the variety of life experiences and paths that define our times and also comprise the United Church of Christ.  After introducing ourselves and sharing pieces of our own faith stories, we spent our opening session listing the words or phrases we use to describe the United Church of Christ.

Here are a few:  United & Uniting, Vision & Mission, Social Justice, A New Church with an Old Soul, Radical Hospitality, Diversity, Extravagant Welcome.  We found quickly that there are many core values that unite us.  As the constitution states, we acknowledges as its sole Head, Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Savior, acknowledging as kindred in Christ all who share in this confession, looking to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence  and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world.

Exercising our muscles as teachers and preachers during this intense time of study, I imagine we were a lot like Jesus followers and the lawyer in our scripture passage today, pushing questions and clarifications in regard to the nature of the Kingdom of God, eternal life and Christ’s role in the world.  Philosophical and theological debate calls us to indeed listen for where God is still speaking in our lives. We return time and time again to Jesus’ teachings where story captures meaning and mystery.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar and certainly most read parables. And, as witnessed with our children this morning, when we ask who is the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers, we most certainly name the Samaritan; who pulled the dying man from the ditch, secured his safety and protection. At an early age we learn from this parable the importance of showing compassion to others, to our neighbors.

In fact, that’s where our story begins, the lawyer, who in Jesus’ day is the one who knows the law, asks the question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?  And, Jesus quickly puts the question back to the all knowing lawyer, as to say, what is the law?  The confident lawyer repeats the first and great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10: 3). Clear enough, I suppose, this is a promise we all want to make. But if living in God’s Kingdom is that easy, I could end the sermon now.  But, no!  It’s when the lawyer pushes Jesus by rephrasing his question in the hopes of justifying himself, asking “and, who is my neighbor?” that we enter into a parable that turns the tables on who is giving and who is receiving love.

In many ways the story is asking us to consider what is necessary?  What is required of us?  That is certainly what the lawyer and the student is asking.

So we find ourselves on a road, and it’s known as a dangerous road, and on the road we hear of three who pass by the one, who has been robbed, beaten, and left for dead.  Passing by is a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan.  Two do not take notice, but the third, the Samaritan, stops, takes pity, and rescues the one in the ditch.

Rev. Martin Luther King spoke of this parable and this particular road between Jerusalem and Jericho in his speech,  “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”  He recasts this parable, connecting it to modern attitudes. Why, King asks, didn’t the priest and the Levite—both devout religious men—stop to help the seriously injured man? Listen to his words as he addressed a crowd of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, his last speech, delivered the day before he was killed.

“Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony. And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather, to organize a Jericho Road Improvement Association. That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.”

            “But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me,” King writes.   “It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about twelve hundred miles, or rather, twelve hundred feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about twenty-two feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”

“But then the Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”     Powerful words from one of our great preachers and teachers, they describe just how the tables are turned.

There is no doubt in scholars and theologians minds that Jesus was intentional in naming this dangerous passage between the two cities and also deliberate in naming the characters in our story; a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan.   Artists and Theologian Charles  McCollough,  well known for his clay sculptures of Jesus’ parables, creates another image for us.  His work of art depicts a dramatic shift in perspective as the one who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead, emerges equally engaged in the story, rising in shock to the one who rescues.  His art is provocative and dramatic as McCollough describes,

“ Jesus’ original Jewish peasant audience would more likely have identified with the beaten down victim than with the Samaritan enemy.  If we turn around the perspective of the traditional interpretation, he writes, it is the receiver of care, not the giver of care, who is the focus. That is rather than seeing the parable from the Samaritan’s point of view, which would be almost impossible for a Jewish peasant to do, we see it from the victim’s point of view, which would be more natural to Jesus’ listeners. For first century Jews, Samaritans were despised enemies, who deserved no respect from Jews, let alone the honour of giving aid to a Jew.

McCollough’s  imagery helps move Jesus’ story beyond just a moral example to a challenge; how can we love our enemies (or, those we deem to be our enemies)?   Or, more importantly, how can we receive aid from our enemies?  Jesus is pointing us to the Kingdom of God that requires a radical transformation; that we are called not simply to help the helpless, but to open ourselves to the possibility of receiving help from the most disliked rivals in our lives.

I surmise that Jesus is calling us to exceed the limits of necessity, a call to look beyond our own needs, and reach for a more extravagant welcome to all those we meet on the road, wherever that road may be.  The United Church of Christ has a central covenant of extravagant welcome that calls us into community, that we strive to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and that we love our neighbor.  We look to Jesus’ teachings for this understanding and clarity.  Indeed the Samaritan exceeded the limits of necessity. The Samaritan aided the one in need well beyond the expectations for one deemed an outcast.   Indeed, the victim exceeded the limits of necessity, accepting the aid from another was a humble act.  Whether we are examining this story at a conference table or a kitchen table or here in worship, we are asked to see the extravagant welcome offered in the parable of the Good Samaritan as it relates to us. And ultimately, are asked by Jesus to go and do likewise.

I imagine that both the one who was robbed, beaten, and left behind and the Samaritan,  each traveling alone on the Jericho Road, may well have understood pain and suffering much more deeply than the privileged priest and Levite who passed by. I imagine both knew what it was like to be alone, vulnerable, abused, and cut off.  Perhaps as the Samaritan passed by, he suddenly saw himself in the ditch, beaten and bleeding, a victim of racist rage, attacked not for what he owned but simply for what he was. In that instant he and the one half-dead in the ditch, had but one face, a face recognized as the common face of all human persons, the blessed image of God.  How, then, could one not stop to help? How could one not love the other, this neighbor?   They were one, the same flesh, suffering the same pain, made in the same image, by the same God.

Are we willing to embrace this kind of extravagant welcome?  Are we willing to receive this kind of welcome, compassion and love from others?    How might we turn this around and see that perhaps our actions might reflect not what is required but what truly exceeds the limits of necessity.

Amen.

Let us pray.

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor. Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart and united to one another with pure affection through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, Amen.