Sermon for March 5, 2017

Luke 10:25-42New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.[a] “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus Visits Martha and Mary

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.[c] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Sermon for March 5, 2017                          

Pastor Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Text: Luke 10:25-42

Recipe for Mercy

         It’s hard to preach in York, Maine at this time of year. We try not to get too jealous of those folks who send us pictures from Florida or South Carolina or the Caribbean with cheery messages, “Wish you were here.” When they get home all suntanned and smiling we don’t know whether to hug them or kill them.

         We want some kind of reward for being tough Mainers. I’m headed out tomorrow morning for a week of continuing education followed by some time with extended family. Clergy typically meet off season somewhere no one wants to go because it’s so cheap. My colleagues are cheaper still, so we’re staying in a house on one of the San Juan Islands northwest of Seattle where no one wants to travel in March, as if we were meeting up at Acadia National Park.

         Winter has its rewards for those of us who tough it out: Homemade soup, wood fires, hot tea with friends. Fishermen repair their gear, gardeners study seed catalogues, families put jig saw puzzles together, and in the quiet hours of this fallow season we contemplate the big questions of life.

         You’d almost think the lawyer in today’s story lived in Maine in winter. He approached Jesus with the kind of question that only winter hours afford. In winter we contemplate our mortality. We have time to think. We ponder questions like that of that lawyer who asked Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Since he’s a lawyer, we can only assume that he thinks he knows the answer to the question. If he’s an honest and faithful keeper of the law, and we have no reason from the story to think otherwise, he expects Jesus to respond that he’s good to go. He’s already done all that’s required of him.  

         Jesus would have been a good Mainer. He knows how to play jigsaw too, but the missing piece is never quite what people think. After he asks the lawyer how the law answers the question, the lawyer replies, “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 said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

         The lawyer finds this unsettling. Still wanting Jesus to tell him he’s already got this, he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor”, assuming Jesus will tell him that he’s already doing all that God requires.

         I hope they weren’t trying to resolve this in the parking lot. It’s cold out there, and Jesus didn’t give a short answer. Jesus didn’t reassure him, either, but rather told him a story that’s as surprising as it is familiar. When the lawyer heard the story about a Samaritan, he would have expected to hear that some poor, down and out Samaritan had been beaten up and lay bleeding at the side of the road. He would have imagined that some of the people in his town would pass by the bleeding man, but because he was righteous as a lawyer, he expects to be the hero of the story. He rightly expects that because he’s a faithful Jew and knows what’s required of him and is committed to doing it, he would of course get help for this poor slob, all the while unchanged in his prejudices towards the Samaritan people against whom there was great judgment and prejudice. They didn’t worship like the Jews, dress like the Jews or treat one another like the Jews. He would not have thought that the Samaritan was the neighbor whom God required him to love, and if he did, he would have found the notion that the Samaritan was the hero of the story inconceivable.

         And just in case the lawyer didn’t get it, Jesus told a second story about Mary and Martha that also put together the jigsaw puzzle only to reveal an unrecognizable picture at the end. In the second story, we expect Martha to be the hero because she extends hospitality to her guests, a frequent theme in Jesus’ teachings. Once again, the poor lawyer must be indignant. The hero of the Mary and Martha story is the one who sits at Jesus’ feet and listens, not the one who scurries around trying to do the right things for her guests. This is as surprising in a culture that survives on hospitality as the story of the Samaritan hero. That is, until we glimpse the world as Jesus sees it. He’s not condemning Martha. He loved her. Mary and Martha and Lazarus were his good friends with whom he stayed whenever he traveled to Jerusalem. But on this occasion, Mary resisted the temptation to set not only a Martha, but a Martha Stewart praiseworthy table. Such a labor would have been to her glory, and not the glory of God.

This upside down kingdom of God makes us uncomfortable. It stirs the pot, reminding us that God’s ways are not our ways. Adults become like children. The religious miss the heavenly banquet. The pious receive curses—shattering our assumptions. Things aren’t the way we expect them to be. We’re baffled and perplexed. Amazed, we step back. Should we laugh or should we cry.

 The kingdom is full of surprises. Again and again in parable, sermon, and act Jesus startles us. Things in the Gospels are often upside down. Good Guys turn out to be Bad Guys. Those we expect to receive rewards get spankings. Those who think they are headed for heaven land in hell. Things are reversed. Paradox, irony, and surprise permeate the teachings of Jesus. They flip our expectations upside down. The least are the greatest. The immoral receive forgiveness and blessing.

         No wonder Jesus got into so much trouble with the lawyers! More often than not they looked like fools for imagining that their good works and capacity to follow the law would save them. The text says that the lawyer wanted to justify himself. Jesus didn’t come to justify do-gooders, he came to set the world free. He didn't’ come to give us another set of rules to follow, but to invite us into a joy-filled and whole life whereby love alone is the law that makes it possible for us to inherit not only eternal life but God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.

         I forget this all the time. I’m a doer. I like to get stuff done. It’s rewarding. I like to look back at the end of every day and reflect on what I’ve accomplished. When I get to about 9 o’clock to night I know it’s been a frustrating day if I say, “I didn’t accomplish a darned thing today.” Then I remember hearing my grandmother say that, and I remember once again how easy it is to confuse what our grandmothers taught us with what God wants from us. It’s not that our grandmothers were wrong, anymore than Martha was wrong to serve her guest.

Grandmothers back in the day valued industriousness and didn’t like to see little kids sitting around when they could be useful. That can be a good thing. No, it’s not that they were wrong, its just that even the best lawyers, the most industrious Martha’s, or even you or me sometimes miss the point. The world reinforces our worth being all wrapped up in what we do. God rewards those who treat other people the way they would a beloved friend, attending to their need with compassion.

         When I left my last church I felt as if Jesus whacked me up the side of the head with a two by four to try to get me to understand this very thing. You see we’d accomplished a lot together there. We’d raised $9 million for a capital campaign to rebuild the church. We closed a $250,000 budget deficit my first year. We re-wrote by-laws and established personnel policies and re-organized the staff. All these were necessary changes to move the church forward, but I can tell you this. On my last Sunday these were not the things that mattered to anybody. Nobody came through the line to tell me how much they appreciated the amount of money we raised.

         I remember a young man, an athlete and father, who thanked me for praying with him before he had open-heart surgery and thought he would die, and for being there when he woke up to thank God for the precious gift of his life. As people shared their stories of our shared lives in ministry, it was as if Jesus was standing in the room telling me to give it up. Stop trying to make an A plus in the book of life by what you do.

We all remember those who made us feel loved. I don’t know about you, but doesn’t it sometimes seem easier to clean the closets, or the garage, than to love that frustrating family member who makes you crazy. Isn’t it enough to keep the church clean and in good working order? Do we also have to risk inviting people to come who might mess things up or make us uncomfortable?  We try to be truly loving but we forget. It’s hard.

So God, in God’s infinite mercy sends the outcast, the least and the vulnerable to remind us that what pleases God is finding a way to help somebody else be the hero in the story, not us.

          Writer D. B. Kraybill wrote a beautiful illustration of this in his fine work, “The Upside Down Kingdom.” You may recall the story.

“A few years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times and began to cry. The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them. One girl with Down’s Syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes. People who were there are still telling the story. Why? Because deep down we know this one thing: What matters in life is more than winning for ourselves. What truly matters in this life is helping others win, even if it means slowing down and changing our course.” This upside down way of viewing the world isn’t just about provoking us to behave differently, but to see God differently.

“The most predictable thing about the ministry of Jesus was its unpredictability! Jesus seldom acted in the ways people expected him to act. He bypassed the respectable and the “righteous,” preferring the company of “tax collectors and sinners.” He openly violated the religious standards of his day, preferring to show compassion. He shocked and scandalized the rich and powerful, preferring to care for the poor and lowly. He welcomed children and spoke with women and touched those who were considered unclean. He was always turning people’s expectations upside-down.

“Nor did Jesus speak in the ways people expected him to speak. He told stories in which the heroes were Samaritans rather than Jews, publicans rather than Pharisees, sinners and outcasts rather than priests and teachers of the law.

The kingdom Jesus proclaimed was an “upside-down” kingdom, a kingdom that completely defied everyone’s expectations, and which radically re-defined both what we think it means to be faithful, and the very nature and purposes of God.” (Br. David Vryhof, posted February 15, 2004)

If you want to know God, expect to be surprised out of your winter-hardened sleep. In the kingdom of God that Jesus brings into the world, the first will be last and the last first, and the greatest will be the servant of all.”

May it be so. Amen