Monday, July 19, 2010

Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, "Be Thou My Vision"

Sermon 7/11/10, Luke 10:25-37

Be Thou My Vision

            This week we’re turning our attention to the hymn tied for eighth place in our congregation’s list: Be Thou My Vision. It also happens to be my favorite hymn, and so I’m particularly glad to be able to share a bit about this beautiful song with you this morning. Be Thou My Vision, the text, is very, very old, from the sixth century. It was written in Old Irish, and used in the monastic tradition for many centuries before it was put to the music we know today. It is sometimes attributed to Saint Dallan Forchella, an early Irish Christian poet. Dallan is a nickname he was given, meaning, “little blind one,” because he is said to have studied so intensely that he lost his eyesight. He was a scholar of the scriptures and the chief poet of Ireland. The Old Irish text of Be Thou My Vision (stop to listen to it) is called Rop thu mo wall-eh (at least that’s the best pronunciation my non-existent Old Irish allows) and is several verses longer than the short, three-verse hymn we sing today. Each verse, as you can see in your bulletin insert, follows the pattern of the first, which asks that God be our vision. In the following verses, we hear: God, be my vision, my meditation, my speech, my parent, my shield, my dignity, my shelter, my every good, my kingdom, my chief love, my noble estate, and heart of my own heart.       Aside from the beautiful melody with which this text is tied, which I think can in itself make this hymn so moving, I love the message of this hymn. God, be our vision. Let us see with God’s eyes. God, be the heart of our own heart – let your heart be in our heart, be our heart. We think often about trying to be like Jesus, trying to imitate, in our small, faulty ways, the things he did, the way he lived. The scriptures talk about us having the mind of Christ. But what if our heart could be God’s heart? Our sight, God’s vision? If God was our every good, our chief love? Imagine, if we let God be those things for us, how our lives, and our world, could be transformed.
            Let’s keep that question in mind as we look at our gospel lesson for today. It’s a parable you have probably known since you were a child: the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our scene opens when a lawyer stands up after Jesus has been teaching to 'test' him. He wants to know what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Any student of Mosaic law would already know this answer, as Jesus indicates. The man replies appropriately: Love God and love neighbor. Right, Jesus says, so just do it, and you will live. The man seems unsatisfied. "But who is my neighbor?" Jesus responds by describing a man who is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the roadside. Two religious men - a priest and a Levite - see the men but pass him by on the other side of the road. Finally, a third, a Samaritan, sees the injured man, helps him, provides him shelter, rearranges plans for him, and generally goes out of his way to help this stranger. "Who is the neighbor?" Jesus asks. "The one who showed mercy," the lawyer admits. "Go and do!" Jesus repeats.
You might remember that in May I attended a preaching conference in Nashville called The Festival of Homiletics, where pastors gather to hear preaching and lectures on preaching. It’s really a wonderful event. This year, one speaker was Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt. Levine is Jewish, and one of her aims in teaching is to help Christians better understand and interpret the scriptures without misconstruing Jews and Judaism in the process. This is the second time I’ve heard her lecture, and she simply transformed the way I think about a couple scripture texts. One of them is the story of The Good Samaritan.
            Typically, you might hear pastors say two things about this story – two things I have said myself when I’ve preached before about this text. First, I’ve always thought of the Samaritans as representing the oppressed people, the underdogs, the ones the Jews viewed as less than themselves. Second, I’ve always understood that the priest and the Levite wouldn’t touch the injured man because it would make them ritually unclean because of Jewish purity laws. So, then, one of the lessons of the story would be about living by the letter of the law, like the priest and the Levite, versus living by the spirit of the law, and truly loving your neighbor, like the poor downtrodden Samaritan shows us. But Dr. Levine cleared up some misconceptions we have about this story.
First, she said, the priest and the Levite would have been able to help the man without breaking the law. The law would have allowed for them to help an injured person. They just didn’t follow the law, didn’t do what they knew they should, like many of us don’t do what we know we should. Martin Luther King once said that the difference between the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan in this story is that while the first two think, “If I stop and help, what happens to me?” the Samaritan thinks, “If I don’t stop, what happens to them?”
Second, Dr. Levine tried to help us understand the significance, the weight it would have had when Jesus said that it was a Samaritan who was the good neighbor in this story. If I said to you “Larry, Curly, and _____,” you would finish the sentence with “Moe,” right? Dr. Levine told us that to Jesus’ hearers, when they heard someone say, “a priest, a Levite, and” the crowds would normally assume that “an Israelite” would come next. Priests, Levites, Israelites – those were the groups, those were the categories to which everyone could find where they belonged. So they would hear Jesus’ story, this parable, and be waiting for the third person to walk by the crime victim to be an Israelite, as most of them would be. But instead, Jesus says: Samaritan. Samaritans weren’t the downtrodden oppressed, the underdog saving the day; Samaritans were enemies. Consider the countries where we’ve been at war, or with whom we’ve been at war: Samaritans were that to Israelites. So for Jesus to call out a Samaritan as the hero, the true neighbor, the one who showed mercy, who the lawyer can’t even name at the end of this story: Dr. Levine said it would be the unexpected equivalent of saying, “Larry, Curly, and Osama bin Laden.” It’s not just that one of these doesn’t belong. It’s that this third category is someone you don’t want to even think about. And Jesus has just shown them in the role of loving neighbor, truly following God’s law. After hearing Dr. Levine open up this text, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think about this parable in the same way again.
And that’s exactly what Jesus hoped would happen to those who heard his words. What if we didn’t figure out who was good and bad by the labels they carry but instead by the actions of their lives? What if we asked not “If I stop and help, what happens to me?” but, “If I don’t stop, what happens to them?” The story of the Good Samaritan asks us to rethink the labels that we've put on who is good, and who is bad, who is friend, and who is enemy, who is neighbor, and who is stranger. Rev. Richard Fairchild writes, "It has been suggested - and I think rightly so given some of the teachings of the time and the reality of human nature at all times, that the lawyer is really asking Jesus: 'Who is NOT my neighbor? Who is that I am allowed to ignore or to neglect? Perhaps even to hate? What is the minimal thing that I need to do to keep God's law of love - and what can I safely get away with not doing... 'That is a horrifying approach to keeping the law of God isn't it? Who must I love - and who can I get away with not loving..."
I think sometimes we are perhaps guilty of taking this approach with God. Who do we want to get away with not loving? What if, like monks in the sixth century, we made the words of “Be Thou My Vision” our prayer, our meditation. The Samaritan in this parable saw the beaten man with God’s eyes, God’s vision, even though the worldview would have made them enemies. Jesus was trying to show the lawyer how to love with God’s love. Do we seek to be like Jesus? If we do, that will mean loving in the radical way Jesus loved, seeing with his eyes, feeling with his heart. God, be our vision, our meditation, our speech, our parent, our shield, our dignity, our shelter, our every good, our kingdom, our chief love, our noble estate, and heart of our own heart. “Which of these,” Jesus asks, “was a neighbor?” The lawyer answered, “the one who showed mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Amen.

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