Pentecost 7 July 11, 2010

Deuteronomy 30:9-14                                                       

Luke 10:25-37                                                                     

I think this may be a troubling sermon for you. At least it is for me. There’s a good guy and a bad guy in the gospel today. The good guy is the Samaritan of course, who stops by the side of the road and cares for the man who’s been left there for dead. We know this Samaritan well; this is one of Jesus’s most familiar parables. The bad guy is – not the priest or the Levite who pass the injured man by – no, the real bad guy is the lawyer whose question prompts Jesus to tell the parable.

Why is the lawyer bad? Because, Luke tells us, he “wanted to justify himself.” That is, he put himself forward, tried to assert his own cleverness, sought to cross-examine or test Jesus. He should simply have done what the good Samaritan did, which was to obey what he knew to be God’s law: “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.”

So, what’s troubling about this? What’s troubling, I think, is that you and I are the lawyer, not the Samaritan. Putting ourself at the center, making ourselves the test of life – do I like such-and-such, does it make sense to me, does it withstand my test of self-interest – this is our default stance towards life. Maybe, if something meets our test, we go ahead and do what we should be doing according to God’s law. But often, I think, we’re just more interested in testing for ourselves and never get around to doing. And sometimes, of course, God fails our test and we don’t do his law at all.

We need an example here. Let’s take Mother Mary, the priest from Uganda who preached here three weeks ago. We learned all about her background in Uganda, the work of her husband here as a priest, trying to keep AIDS orphans together in families, off the streets, working the little farms their dead parents left them. We learned of Mother Mary’s dream, to buy a bicycle for every priest in her diocese back home, as a memorial to her father, a lay preacher, so these priests could travel around their parishes. We learned all of that, and of course we already knew what Uganda was like, the poverty and the orphans and AIDS and all. We did not really need Mother Mary to tell us. But here she was, embodying all of what we knew here in our very midst. She was, I suggest, like the beaten man lying by the side of the road. (Though just one of many along our road of life.)

So, how many of us “passed by on the other side”? Well, every one of us. Every one. Not a single person has come to me and said, “Let’s raise some money to help buy those bicycles for Mother Mary.” Nor have I suggested to the Vestry that we raise money to buy those bicycles. I have not even suggested to my wife that she and I write a check to buy a bicycle.

Oh, I have an excuse. Someone knowledgeable about Africa advised me before Mother Mary even came that it was not a good idea to just give money to Africans for projects. Such donations are often misappropriated or the project isn’t really feasible or what is most needed. Best to work through established channels like Episcopal Relief and Development. And that advice is not wrong. There are risks. But there were risks to the Samaritan in helping the man lying there on the road.

Risks – they’re what held the lawyer and his like back from following Jesus. This whole middle section of Luke’s gospel is about the risks of discipleship, the risks of taking Jesus seriously, of taking God seriously – and how these risks hold us back. The Gospel of God is a risky business indeed. Just look how many people it’s led to their deaths! “Go and do likewise,” Jesus tells us. And he’s been telling us that for 2000 years.

You know, the lawyer did not think of himself as a bad man. Quite to the contrary, those called “lawyers” in the gospels were scholars and teachers of the religious laws – God’s revelation – who sought to figure out what was right and what wrong. He took himself seriously, as did others take him no doubt. And we do not think of ourselves as bad. We’re interested in following the good and avoiding the bad.

But I think we’re so locked into a culture – going all the way back through the Enlightenment and probably beyond – that makes us the judges of good and bad, that in effect puts God to the test, that we don’t even realize that there may be a problem with this in terms of the Gospel. That in the Gospel of Jesus, God tests us, not the other way around.

Our churches, of instance, which should be the last places that fall victim to self-orientation, have in fact become market-driven consumer-oriented service providers just like everything else. I was looking at the brochure put out by another parish in our diocese (I could have been looking at our own, but it’s easier to see these things in someone else’s product). These brochures are, of course, essentially marketing tools. The Church spends a huge amount of time and energy on marketing these days.

This brochure included such phrases as “a place where people can worship and feel comfortable”; “youth and family ministries abound”; “come in and be a part”; “all are welcome without exception.” All oriented around the consumer, don’t you see. Not a single suggestion of the angular demands of the Gospel, of the risks Jesus might be calling us to, of the possibility that “feeling comfortable” isn’t the point of worship, that quite the opposite might be the point. That we should come to church to be radically reoriented around God.

What must we do to inherit eternal life, you and I? Do what Jesus tells us. No matter what the cost.

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