A sermon preached at the Celebration of Ministry service at the General Meeting of BC Conference of The United Church of Canada in Nanaimo, BC on May 25, 2014. Video of the service is online here (The sermon begins at minute forty-two).
Here we are, back where we began on Thursday evening, in Luke's gospel asking Jesus:“Who is my neighbour?” It seems right to once again host this beloved text as we prepare to be sent, scattered as disciples. For you who are about to be commissioned, recognized, admitted and ordained I pray that this text will hold a providential place in your ministry. When you hear it, read it, pray it, preach it may you be reminded of this Celebration of Ministry - this festival of servanthood - where today you are set apart as ministers - servants - of Christ for God to use.
The first thing to notice in this text are the questions. We like questions. Questions are welcome in the United Church. Live the questions, we say. The good news is that this passage includes not one, not two but, count them, five questions. The bad news is that when you ask questions of Jesus he tends to answer. You know how it is. You tell others that it is the teachings of Jesus you admire. Then you pay attention to what he actually teaches and you quickly find yourself among his bewildered disciples. Questions. Teachings. With Jesus be careful what you ask for.
The text begins innocently enough. An expert in Mosaic Law - a Bible scholar - tests Jesus, the itinerant rabbi with a standard question for ordinands and commissionands: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, the wise teacher, answers the question with two of his own: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” To which the lawyer responds by quoting by memory from his Bible: “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” (Deut. 6:5 & Lev. 19:18). It is the very answer that Jesus himself gives when he is asked to name the most important commandment (Mk. 1:28-34 & Matt. 22:35-40). It is a good answer, a very Jewish answer. In fact, according to Jesus this lawyer has “given the right answer. Do this,” he says, “and you will live.” Jesus says that doing the commandments, obeying the ancient rule of life - loving God completely and loving neighbour as self - makes eternal life a reality here, now. It is the same thing he says when a rich ruler asks how to inherit eternal life. Obey the commandments, says Jesus and you will have life in all its fullness. The rich ruler says he has been keeping God’s commands from his youth. In that case, says Jesus, there is just one more thing - sell it all (Lk. 18:18-23). Be careful when you select Jesus as your spiritual director. First he insists on a life of radical obedience to God. Then he calls for liquidating all your assets.
Like the rich ruler, the lawyer presses Jesus for more. He asks Jesus a dangerous question: “And who is my neighbour?” It is a dangerous question because it invites an answer in the form of a parable. Parables are trouble. We portray parables as object lessons, children’s stories, the gospel for dummies. This is a mistake. Parables are explosive devices, timed to go off when Jesus is well down the road to the next village. The ninety-eighth Psalm calls parables “dark sayings from of old” (Ps. 98:2). Just two chapters earlier in Luke’s gospel the confused disciples ask Jesus about the meaning of a parable. In reply Jesus says: “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand’” (Lk. 8:10). Jesus’ parables intend to confuse, to confound, to function more like riddles than solutions. Once parables have lost their capacity to upset and to invert the “real world” it is as if they have been unplugged. Their high voltage is reduced to a gentle buzz. They are no longer wild and dangerous but are now tamed and domesticated. To borrow a phrase from the poet W. H. Auden, when a parable is working:“The Real is what will strike you as really absurd ... Unless you exclaim - ‘There must be some mistake’ - you must be mistaken” (from ‘For the Time Being’- A Christmas Oratorio’).
Not one of Jesus’ parables has become more domesticated, has lost more of its voltage, than ‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan.’ Everyone knows that a Good Samaritan is a stranger who stops to offer help. That’s the accepted definition of a Good Samaritan. Yet in the words of one commentator: “Neither Jesus nor Luke permits cheap identification with the Samaritan” (Bernard Brandon Scott). The Samaritan is the third of three travellers who come upon a groaning, beaten-up victim on the roadside. It is a standard formula. You know how it works: “One day a priest, a minister and a rabbi came into a bar.” In this instance there is first a priest and then a Levite. First a United Church minister and then a member of the Conference staff. Both are helping professionals in the religion business who are expected to stop and give assistance. This according to Amy-Jill Levine, the Orthodox Jew who is Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University Divinity School ("The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus"). She notes that Christians regularly misread this parable by assuming that Jewish law prevents the priest and Levite from stopping to help. She says that in Jesus’ Jewish world the parable is a set-up for the expected third traveller - an Israelite. This is who Jesus’ audience expect to provide the surprising punch line. The Israelite is not ordained or commissioned. The audience is waiting for Jesus to give it to the holier than thou ministers when the third traveller turns out to be a regular lay person who lends this poor stranger a helping hand.
Watch out. Take cover. Jesus is now lighting the fuse in the stick of dynamite that is this explosive parable. It is not an Israelite who arrives on the scene. It is a Samaritan. The Samaritan is not simply an outsider, not simply of a different ethnic background, not simply a total stranger. Samaritans and Jews have history. It is bitter. There are painful memories. There are deep wounds, old scars. They are rivals immersed in a long-running feud. Both claim to be the true descendants of Abraham. Just a few verses earlier in Luke’s gospel James and John are eager to call down fire on a Samaritan village (Lk. 9:51-55). On another occasion when Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well the narrator notes matter-of-factly: “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (Jn. 4:9). And when Jesus’ critics want to call him names what do they say? “You are a Samaritan and have a demon” (Jn. 8:48). So now when Jesus says the “S” word the congregation has a visceral reaction - faces turn red, heart rates increase, stomachs churn. One commentator puts it this way: The parable “demands that one say what cannot be said, what is a contradiction in terms: Good + Samaritan” (Crossan, “In Parables”). If the moral of the story is simply to help the stranger in need then it will tell of a wounded Samaritan in the ditch and a Jewish lay person coming to the rescue. Instead the parable requires us to entertain the impossible and, in so doing, to witness the kingdom of God breaking open the world we thought was real to reveal the new world where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Imagine that it is no longer known as ‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan.’ Instead, call it ‘The Mystery of the Merciful Foe.’ It goes like this. There is a congregation of the United Church travelling from a thriving past to an uncertain future and on this pilgrimage it is attacked by robbers who beat it up and leave it nearly dead. You can fill in the identity of the muggers - demographic changes or massive cultural shifts or the loss of transcendence in a secular age. As this once mainline congregation lies dying on the sideline, the congregation catches the attention of a General Council task force working to revitalize local congregations but learns that it does not have the resources to assist. Then the congregation, now on life-support, seeks help from the Conference’s Pro-vision grants but finds that it does not meet the criteria. Then, just as it has given up all hope of survival a neighbouring congregation hears its cry. But it is not a neighbour in the Presbytery. Instead, it is a fundamentalist congregation known for its loud claims that the United Church of Canada is heretical. The feeling is mutual. The two congregations have long avoided each other like the plague. Yet inexplicably the fundamentalists are now extravagant in their assistance. They offer the United Church congregation the use of their own building, free of charge, while they pay to put a new roof on the United Church. They cover the deficit in the failing congregation’s budget and offer to do the same again next year. I know. It is hard to believe.
But Jesus doesn’t ask: “Do you believe this could happen?” He asks: “Who proved neighbour to the one who fell into the hands of robbers?” The dynamite explodes the moment we blurt out: “The one who showed mercy.” Now Jesus answers our answer with a new commandment: “Go and do likewise.” With that we are no longer living the questions. Now we are faced with living Jesus’ next to impossible answer. Luke does not tell us about the congregation’s reaction to this parable. We do not know what the lawyer or the disciples or the crowd say or do in response. They are likely so dumbfounded that they are left utterly speechless. Yet the parable cannot come as a total surprise. Twice already in Luke’s gospel Jesus has commanded his apprentices to “love your enemy.” Jesus turns the category of enemy on its head. ‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan’ - I mean ‘The Mystery of the Merciful Foe’ - is enemy love in action. The problem is we do not want to love our enemies. So we reduce ‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan’ to a cliché, turning it into an uplifting good neighbour vignette, no longer an explosive challenge to the world we have long labelled real.
“Go and do likewise” says Jesus, adopt this Samaritan’s way of thinking. Imagine a church - imagine a world - in which we treat our theological, political, ideological foes with extravagant mercy. They are still foes, you understand. But foes who are on the receiving end of abundant grace rather than of snide remarks. Foes not bad-mouthed or shunned or derided but loved generously, overwhelmingly to well-being. In truth, the church largely ignores Jesus’ admonition to love with abundant generosity across enemy lines. For, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.”
Difficult. But not impossible. This is how Jesus puts it later when the disciples, shocked by the cost of discipleship, ask: “Then who can be saved?” His answer: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (Lk. 18:26-27). That’s it, isn’t it. Extravagant mercy - amazing grace - is possible for God. This is the consistent message of a gospel people. In the Bible the Hebrew word most often associated with God is “hesed.” It means “steadfast love.” In Greek it becomes the word "eleos", “eleison” - mercy. As in “kyrie eleison” - “Lord, have mercy.”In Latin this divine love is called “com-passion,” literally “suffering with.” When this word - hesed, eleison, compassion - becomes incarnate in Jesus remember what it comes to do. Those who recite the New Creed know that it comes “in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new.” God’s mission in creation is a ministry of reconciliation, a ministry of extravagant mercy that crosses enemy lines to make new. This gospel is an extraordinary and precious message in a world riven with battle lines - battle lines between nations, battle lines between religions, battle lines within families, battle lines within the church. It is an awesome thing to say ‘yes’ to this message, to this ministry, to this God we meet in Jesus Christ. For there is a cost to saying yes to a life in the service of Jesus. Putting the love of enemies into practice is guaranteed to cost you dearly.
But here is the thing. At some point in your life - perhaps it has already occurred or perhaps it is waiting for you somewhere down the line - you find yourself beaten up and left for dead. Some will say that it was your own damn fault for walking down such a dangerous road and putting yourself in harms way, and they may well be right. Ask anyone in a Twelve Step program and they’ll tell you that they bear plenty of responsibility for the trouble they are in and have caused. All I know is that to be in that lonely, painful place is to find yourself crying “Lord, have mercy” - “kyrie eleison” - as the people, the programs, the churches you hoped would stop to help pass by on the other side. It is then that he comes to you and to me, "this despised Samaritan-like saviour who, though he was God, emptied himself, stooped down, washed feet, healed, died" (Will Willimon) - the incarnation of an extravagantly merciful God who gives everything, body and blood, to take away the sin of the world, to reconcile and make new, to redeem your life, my life, the world’s life from the pit. Once you have been graced into new life, born again into a living hope through a transforming experience of the good news of God’s great mercy, saved from the powers of death and despair well, then, you will always and everywhere recognize the sound of the cry for mercy and it will not matter who it is that calls. You will go and do likewise, for with God all things are possible.