I rarely publish my Sunday sermons here. Few sermons have a shelf life of more than twenty minutes. They are spiritual souffles, best served right from the oven. But this one seemed to be more sturdy and so I am bold to offer it to you. The Youtube version is different, please note. The spoken word is not the written word, but the message is the same.
The Church of Latter Day Samaritans April 24, 2011 Easter
Polls say we are more pessimistic now than ever – and maybe for good reason. But we do not stake our lives on bad bets. Nor can we live on fantasies of perfection. Every week I try to find a small piece of honest hope, honest faith, honest love. Help me. “May these words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be found true in thy sight, thou who art my rock and my redeemer.”
Why do we do this? Easter I mean. If you ask the fellow who visited two weeks ago, we shouldn’t because we are not Christians. For him, Christian means loyalty to Jesus as the Messiah who was himself divine and appeared on earth to reconcile humanity to God by offering himself as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of all people. There’s more to it than that of course, but all those who call themselves Christian affirm this notion. And if that’s what Christian means, then we are not. And we should not honor Easter, or Christmas for that matter.
But we do celebrate Easter and Christmas, which means either than we are bald hypocrites or that we are Christians and don’t admit it. Tough choice.
I say we are Christians, but before you rise up with torches and pitchforks, I also say those who are aren’t. They are the unbelievers not us. Yes, I do mean that all those Christians - over a billion people - are wrong, and I am right. In all probability I will not persuade them, but there is a chance I can persuade you, and that will be enough.
Jesus himself supplies the proof in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Let’s take a hard look at it, then.
A lawyer (meaning a skeptic of Jesus) asks how to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies with a question, and the answer are well-known Jewish commandments to love God and neighbor. Jesus then says, ‘You’re good.’ But the lawyer presses the issue with another question, ‘who is my neighbor?’ which Jesus answers by telling the parable.
We see that a neighbor is whoever needs us, not just those who are known to us. Humanity trumps tribe. The lawyer admits that neighbor is as neighbor does. Nice.
But the parable holds more than this. Notice that Jesus chooses three distinct characters, much as a joke that starts with a priest a minister and a rabbi. Something about them being a Priest and Levite and a Samaritan is significant. The Priest and Levite are at among the privileged, officials in the temple. They should set a good example, right? That’s the message we today take away. But what we do not realize two millennia later is that they are strictly enjoined from touching blood or corpses. The robbed man, ‘half dead’ as the story says’ would defile them. It is not their haughtiness that prevents them from acting, it is society itself.
By challenging the status quo, as he broke rules about eating on the Sabbath and such, Jesus shows how the most powerful people are really powerless. Perhaps the Priest and the Levite wanted to act, but were constrained. To make this current, imagine seeing a broken down car by the road but we have to get somewhere on time. The poor kid wants to mow our lawn but we already have a lawn service. A fellow asks for money but we suspect he will drink it instead of buy diapers. Let’s be honest, we all have our Priest and Levite moments, more than we like to admit, when ‘common sense’ overrides the human sense that we ought to do something.
And we’re not done. Logically, the person who helped should be a mere Jew, a lowly peasant who comes along and does for the robbed man what the mighty and powerful could not. That is the message we have heard in other parables. It would fit with the social critique of the high and mighty. But Jesus says it was a Samaritan that saved the man. And that is what makes this the most radical, even dangerous parable of them all.
Samaritans were the lowest of the low, heretics to the Jews. There is a long story about why, but they were despised by Judean Jews who avoided them and feared them. To get a sense of how this affects the original story let me tell it another way, one that approximates the situation.
“Pastor Terry Jones is visiting Manhattan when some hoodlums see him walking. beat him up, snatch his wallet and take off. They leave Jones unconscious and bloody on the street.
"Rudy Giuliani comes along, sees Jones but thinks he might be a drunk or a druggie and thinks that the cops will be along soon enough. Besides, if some reporters see him it will be all over the paper.
"Not long after that Donald Trump comes along, and he too sees someone in the street, and though he does not mind publicity, helping people thing will soften his image as a tough guy.
"After that Feisal Rauf, the imam of the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ comes along and sees the man in the road. He stops to help him and recognizes him of course. But even so he takes King to a doctor, presses some money into his hand and says, ‘take care of him and if you need more money, I’ll be back to settle the bill."
Not just a person, but the least likely person, the least wanted, and for Terry Jones the least trusted person, will be your savior. When people first heard the story they were utterly confused. “We know the high and mighty don’t care, but you can’t mean that Samaritans (Muslims/gays/blacks/drug addicts/illegal immigrants/liberals/atheists) are our saviors?”
Yes. That is precisely what Jesus is saying. The outcast is the savior. Over and over again, Jesus subverts the world around him – religious laws, class boundaries, social mores, and eventually political authority. He speaks and lives a subversive life, and at Easter time we see this all enacted as Jesus goes from folk hero on Palm Sunday to vandal in the temple, to accused traitor, and ultimately criminal execution. At every turn he is rejected by more and more, ultimately by his own closest followers. The suppressed and subversive message of Jesus is that the outcast is the messiah.
Turning to our times, we live in a nation that is overwhelmingly Christian in numbers and in culture. It is the establishment, with the wealth and power of society. Those who would be true to Jesus’s subversive message can only be those who are outcast by Christianity – the rejected, the unwelcome, the heretic and infidel - people like us. Not because we are smart or good or better in any sense, but because we are outcasts. In a Christian society the most "Christian" people are those who are not Christian by official measures.
Why is this? The message of Jesus is essentially this, ‘wake up.’ Outcasts cannot sleep to reality. While the rich relax, the poor are awake to hunger, while the favored are celebrated the rejected are awake to loneliness, while the powerful are admired the despised are awake to hatred. Not that these hard facts are more real than love or hope or peace, but the powerful and privileged forget that these hard things are real. They are asleep to the world beyond their view.
You might say they are the real atheists, for their faith is in a God or Christ that reflects only their own image. Nicolai Beryaev once said, “We find the most terrible form of atheism, not in the militant and passionate struggle against the idea of God himself, but in the practical atheism of everyday living, in indifference and torpor. We often encounter these forms of atheism among those who are formally Christians.”
More simply, and applying the parable standard, Christian is as Christian does. In this country, paradoxically, many "Christians" are like the Priest and Levite who are not very Christian at all. They turn from the poor and the suffering because it would diminish their power, defile their position, cost them money, or just ruin their clothes.
But outcasts truly know what the world is like. They have eyes to see and ears to hear. They are the real Christians.
- Like the poor black man and wife who cooked barbeque for some friends and me because we were replacing his roof. They could not afford it but they did it anyway.
- They are the gay couple I know who foster care children ‘straight’ couples will not take. But if they want to adopt them, they are not suitable.
- They are the day laborers who earn their illegal pittance and send half of it back to Mexico or Guatemala.
- And the Sudanese boys who walked across the desert to escape being child soldiers,
- The people of South Africa who could have taken racial revenge and didn’t,
- The nameless man who stopped the tank in Tienanmen,
- The thousands who ended Egyptian autocracy,
- The mothers of the plaza in Buenos Aires,
- The Muslims who keep coming here even while Terry Jones reviles them,
- The Jews who have endured two millennia of hate,
- The atheists endure every thoughtless proclamation that we are a Christian nation.
These are the ones who save the world by loving and pleading and forgiving and failing and getting up and trying again. If neighbor is as neighbor does, then Christian is as Christian does. And yes, we are the real Christians.
In the psalm my great predecessor Duncan Littlefair quoted every week, “This is a day which the lord has made,” are two other great verses that belong to us as well. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord,” are the words shouted by the peasants as Jesus rode into Jerusalem in mock glory. Last week I said that all of us ‘come in the name of the lord,’ are messengers and messiahs who deserve to be honored like a king.
The other verse is this one, ‘The stone rejected by the builder will become the foundation." That is my Easter message for you.
We - the despised and rejected by the powerful, those pushed to the margins for being female or poor, ignored for being black or young or disabled, reviled for being infidels or atheists or gay or socialists – are the latter day Samaritans. We are the ones who bind up the wounds of the world because the powerful cannot even see them. We are the disciples of Jesus, whether we know it or not, whether we care or not, whether we want to be or not.
Because we, the outcasts, are the church of latter day Samaritans – the rejected stones that are the foundation of the kingdom of heaven. Let us be bold enough to say so and go forth to build it.