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Sermon, "Summer Days: Road Trip," Luke 10:25-37

Sermon 8/2/15
Luke 10:25-37

Summer Days: Road Trip

            Generally speaking, I love to drive. Lately, my commutes to Rochester have tested the boundaries of my love. But it’s more the length of my work day that’s the challenge, and not really the driving itself. I inherited a love from my grandfather of just going for a drive in the area to no place in particular – just taking a random turn and seeing where the road leads. I didn’t always appreciate these drives as much as a child, finding them boring, but my grandfather loved to look for dear, or pussy willows, or the highest, windiest road. But eventually, I came to enjoy this too. When I have the time – and the gas to spare – I like to take a drive on a sunny day over some country roads. This area is pretty good for drives like that, isn’t it? Seeing where the road might take you? Driving down a road that you’ve never been on before?
            Of course, sometimes going on roads we’ve never been on before turns things from a nice drive to being lost really fast. Sky Lake, the conference camp of ours where I was chaplain at Music Camp a couple of weeks ago, is a little bit out of the way, and when I first started going there, I would frequently take a wrong turn. A couple of those roads, late at night, make you feel like you’ve just entered the plot of a horror flick. There are places, roads we might travel where our senses tell us: unsafe. Sections of town, neighborhoods, places where you just don’t want to go.
That’s the kind of road we encounter in our text today: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. As the text says, the road, about 15 miles long, literally went down, a hilly, dangerous descent into Jericho. It was a road where many people experienced violence and crime – being robbed on the road to Jericho wouldn’t have been uncommon. The road to Jericho wasn’t unlike the places today where we know to be on high alert if we have to travel there. Our passage is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible, which I think always puts us in danger of not being able to learn anything from it, because we come convinced we already know what it is all about. We’ll try hard today to work against that! It’s a parable – and remember, Jesus usually tells parables to tell us about what the kingdom of God is like – what things are like when God’s reign gets to take full hold – it’s a parable Jesus tells in response to a question from a lawyer. Lawyers were experts in the law of Moses – religious scholars who knew the facts of the law inside and out. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As he often does, Jesus turns the question back to the man: “You tell me! What does the law say?” The lawyer quotes the laws that are the center of the Hebrew scriptures: “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 neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says, “Yep, you’ve got it. Go do just that, and you’ll really live.” But the lawyer wants to “justify himself,” we read. He wants an answer from Jesus he can debate, or he wants to get affirmation on his behavior, perhaps permission of sorts from Jesus to interpret the law in whatever way he’s been applying it in his life. “And who is my neighbor asks the man?” Who exactly am I supposed to love?  
            Jesus responds by telling the story of a man who was robbed and left for dead on the roadside on the way to Jericho. A priest and Levite pass by, but they don’t stop. The law would have discouraged them from doing so, actually. They’d become ritually unclean, and unable, temporarily, to perform their religious duties. But a third man comes by – a Samaritan. Now, Jesus’s hearers would have been expecting him to say that the third person was an Israelite. Because “priests, Levites, and Israelites” were the three groups in society. (1) It would be like saying “Larry, Curly, and” – and you all know the next thing is Moe! But instead, Jesus says the third man is a Samaritan. Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews. They had a common heritage, but over the centuries, came to disagree on matters of culture and religion in deep ways. Jesus says the third person to come along is someone that the crowds would have identified not just as an outsider, but as someone they actively disliked. A Samaritan. And Jesus tells us that when the Samaritan saw the man, he was “moved with pity.” And that phrase, moved with pity, is from a Greek word that might sound familiar in its strangeness if you were here last week: It’s splagnizomai. Compassion. His intestines twisted in knots in deep concern for what he saw. As I mentioned last week, this rare word is usually applied to Jesus, and how he looks at the crowds. And here, a Samaritan, an enemy, is looking at a Jewish man with gut-twisting compassion. He treats and bandages the man’s wounds, brings him to an inn, cares for him, pays all his expenses, and plans to come back and check on him again later. “Which of these,” Jesus asks, “do you think was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” And the lawyer answers - not even saying Samaritan – “the one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says simply, “Go, and do likewise.”
            Are we merciful people? The dictionary defines mercy as “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.” Mercy is when we choose compassion and forgiveness over punishment or harm. Are we merciful? Are we good neighbors? To our enemies? Who are our enemies, anyway? My first appointment as a pastor was to Oneida. Like Apple Valley, that church, too, was near a Native Reservation. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Turning Stone, and SavOn gas stations, and many of the businesses of the Oneida Nation. Because of the casino, and because of the ongoing land claim issues related to the Oneida Nation, there was significant tension between the Oneidas and the neighboring communities. It was taboo, to some, to even be seen buying gas at a SavOn. One of my dear parishioners there said to me once that she would never “hurt her neighbor” by buying gas at a Nation-owned gas station. I was too timid in those first years to say “and who is your neighbor?”  
            Immigrants to this country – documented and undocumented – are they our neighbors? People of others faiths – Muslim men and women – are they our neighbors? Or atheists? Are they our neighbors? The person you can’t believe is crazy enough to vote Republican – or Democrat – are they our neighbors? Or what about prisoners? Addicts? Are they our neighbors? Homeless people? Teen moms? What about the leaders of North Korea? Or ISIS? Or white men who gun down black people in churches? Or who shoot school children? Are they our neighbors? Are we neighbors to them? I can keep going. Jesus just doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question. He cuts to the chase, to the quick, and says: perhaps your worst enemy is, in fact, your neighbor. What does it mean, friends, to be a neighbor? Jesus says the one who is merciful is the neighbor, even if we have called them enemy. Are we good neighbors?
            Remember, back when we were talking about forgiveness, and Simon Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive someone who wrongs us? Boldly, Peter had said, “Seven times?” I think expecting Jesus to be impressed with his mercy. But instead, Jesus said seventy-seven times, pushing Peter to understand that as long as he was concerned with the rules of how little he could do and still get away with it, he was missing the point entirely. This passage of the Good Samaritan is similar, as are so many of the passages where someone asks Jesus a question. Again and again we come before God asking, is this enough? Is this enough? Have we done enough? And we doubly miss this point! Because, first of all, what we really seem to be asking, implied in our question, in the lawyer’s question is: Is this enough for you to still love me God? Is this enough for me to get the reward? Is this enough for me to still get into heaven? I think these questions that we ask - and we all do ask them – break God’s heart, because it means we don’t understand that God loves us, already, completely, unchangingly, freely. So our question is wrong because we don’t need to do anything to earn God’s love. But our question is also wrong because if we want to know what’s the minimum God wants from us, then the answer is also everything. God requires nothing to give us the free gift of love. But God asks us for everything as we seek to respond in discipleship. How much mercy does God want you to show others? Do you honestly think God is going to reach a point and say: enough! You’ve been too forgiving! You’ve loved enough! You’ve reached your quota of neighbors! It sounds pretty unlikely, doesn’t it? How much does God demand in exchange for unconditional love? Not a thing. How much of your heart does God want? Every last nook and cranny.
            If we’re wondering about the minimum we can do, we’re saying our heart isn’t in it. We’re not moved with pity, twisted up with compassion, if we are asking what’s the minimum that will suffice. Maybe there are situations in life when the minimum is ok – when our heart is truly not in something, and doesn’t need to be, when something doesn’t need our energy. But minimum requirements are for things you don’t care about. Minimum requirements never work for our relationships with other people, and it never works in our relationship with God. For anything that matters to us, we can’t ask the question of “how little can I do and still be ok” and be even in the right ballpark. What might happen to our world, our communities, our own lives and hearts if we reordered everything to put merciful, compassionate, loving action for one another at the center of how we live? Do we want eternal life? Jesus says living a life of compassion is real life right now.
One of my personal pet peeves is when someone says “that’s between me and God.” Americans tend to prize individuality and privacy, and our heritage of religious freedom has also resulted in religious isolation – we don’t like to talk to others about what we believe or why, and we tend not to ask others about their beliefs. And so when it comes to many questions of faith – how much we give, how we pray, what sins we have to confess, what we believe about controversial issues – we tend to plead, “that’s between me and God.” I would argue that there’s no such thing. No such thing as “just between me and God.” Jesus and the lawyer alike both knew that the greatest commandments were love of God and love of one another. One without the other isn’t complete. It’s never just me and God – it’s always me and God and my neighbor. This was a key argument of John Wesley’s, the founder of the Methodist movement. Hew wrote: “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness . . . This commandment have we from Christ, that [the one] who loves God, love [neighbor] also." (2) It is never just between us and God. It is what – and who – lies between God and us that tells us about our faith. What lies between you and God? Jesus’ parable tells us that what lies between God and us is the Jericho Road, and who we find there. The lawyer asked “who is my neighbor?” And Jesus prompted him to answer his own question: “The one who showed mercy.” Friends, let us go and do likewise. Amen.

(1) Scholar Amy-Jill Levine transformed my understanding of this text at the Festival of Homiletics one year with this imagery.


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