Sunday, July 14, 2013

Risking Something Big for Something Good

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 14, 2013

Year C, Proper 10: The 8th Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Risking Something Big for Something Good
            If you were in church last week you may remember that we heard the story of Jesus sending out the seventy to heal the sick, to cast out demons and, most of all, to proclaim that the kingdom of God had come near.
            In my sermon I called the seventy Jesus’ “advance team.”
            I’ve still been thinking about that story. I imagine it must have been both frightening and exciting for those seventy followers of Jesus to be sent into the unknown.
            It must have been like riding a bike for the first time after the training wheels have come off: exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. It must have been exhilarating to go out and offer peace and healing. It must have been terrifying to enter unfamiliar towns and share the Good News about Jesus and the kingdom of God.
            The seventy took big risks. They took a big risk by going out to unfamiliar places, offering peace and healing. The seventy took a big risk by proclaiming the kingdom of God had come near. The seventy took a big risk on Jesus.
            To borrow a phrase from William Sloan Coffin, the seventy “risked something big for something good.”
            And then, remember how the story ended?
            The seventy returned to Jesus amazed at what they had been able to accomplish in Jesus’ name. With maybe more than a little surprise, they said to Jesus, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”
            Today we pick up in the Gospel of Luke right where we left off last week.
            But, today we meet someone who’s very different from the seventy.
            He’s described as a lawyer – a lawyer who stands up to test Jesus.           
            He tests Jesus by asking, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            Jesus recognizes that this isn’t a sincere question. Jesus is well aware that the lawyer, who’s presumably an expert in the Law of Moses, already knows the right answer.
            So, Jesus tosses the question right back to him.
            And, sure enough, the lawyer quotes from Leviticus and Deuteronomy:
            “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
            Jesus congratulates him for getting the right answer. But then the lawyer asks Jesus what seems like a surprising question, “And who is my neighbor?”
            Luke editorializes a little bit, writing that the lawyer asked this because he wanted to “justify himself.” But, I’m not so sure about that. It sounds like a sincere question to me. It’s possible that even after years of study and reflection on God’s Law, the lawyer really wants to know the answer: “who, exactly, is my neighbor?”
            Sincere or not, the lawyer’s question gives Jesus the opportunity to tell one of his most important parables, one of his most-loved and least-followed examples: the Good Samaritan.
            Jesus begins, “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.”
            Jesus’ listeners would have recognized the scene and been not at all surprised by the crime. In First Century Palestine, like in much of the world today, robbers and bandits roamed the roads. Travel was a dangerous business. And, apparently, the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was especially dangerous.
            Jesus goes on to say that two men with special religious authority and responsibilities, a priest and then a Levite, came down the road and when they see the injured man, one after the other they each cross to the other side of the road.
            Now, let’s stop there for a second. You may think and you might have even heard that the priest and the Levite avoid the injured man, cross to the other side, because they were concerned about becoming ritually unclean – that somehow Jewish Law prevented them from helping someone in need.
            That’s absolutely not true. Jewish Law and teaching is very clear that people are obligated to help those in need. And even if they did become ritually unclean they could always do whatever it took to become purified.
            No, it wasn’t religious law that prevented them from helping. More likely, it was fear. Whoever had attacked this man might still be lurking around. Or maybe they feared it was a trick – maybe the man was only pretending to be injured. Or maybe the priest and the Levite simply had places to go, people to see, and things to do. And those places, people and things were more important than helping someone in need.
            So, for whatever reason or reasons, the priest and the Levite decided not to risk something big for something good.
            And, then the Samaritan comes along.
            Actually, Samaritans were related to the Jewish people. It’s a long story, but in the First Century Jews and Samaritans were enemies. Jews and Samaritans avoided each other as much as possible. Jewish people of Jesus’ day would have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of a “good Samaritan.”
            But, that’s who Jesus describes in the story. In fact, “good” doesn’t really do him justice. The Samaritan takes a big risk, offering healing, pouring oil and wine on the man’s wounds and bandaging them. The Samaritan takes a big risk, putting the man on his animal, bringing him to an inn, and paying for his stay in advance.
            Like the seventy, the Samaritan, risks something big for something good, shows mercy, offers healing and peace.
            The Samaritan, the despised enemy, is the true neighbor.
            Today, even people who know nothing about Christianity know what a “Good Samaritan” is.
            Lots of hospitals are named “Good Samaritan.”
            There are what are called “Good Samaritan” laws that protect people who offer assistance to those in need.
            And, every once in a while, we hear about people acting as “Good Samaritans.”
            Last week there was a story in the NY Daily News about a New York cop named Joe Pecora. As it happens, I taught Officer Pecora when he was a student at St. Peter’s Prep.
            Anyway, on a recent rainy day Joe was at a tense and busy crime scene on Ninth Avenue when he spotted a blind man named Rod Clemons trying to cross the street. Joe could have looked the other way, but instead he sprang into action, offered his arm, assisted the man across the street, and even helped him find an ATM and a drug store.
            The scene just happened to be captured by a Daily News photographer.
            Officer Joe Pecora, who was a great kid, is now also a Good Samaritan.
            And then, last week, the Port Authority honored two men who sprang into action after a woman passed out onto the tracks at the Grove Street PATH station. While everyone else stood frozen in shock and fear, and as a train entered the station, the two risked something big for something good, jumping onto the tracks and saving the woman.
            Two more Good Samaritans.
            I’m sure that when most of us hear stories like these we wonder if we would be “Good Samaritans.” Would we help the blind man cross the street or would we look the other way? Would we be courageous enough to jump on the tracks as the PATH train barreled into the station? Do we have what it takes to be a “Good Samaritan? Are we willing to risk something big for something good? Or are we more likely to be the priest and Levite, and look away, cross to the other side, avoid trouble, and decide not to take a risk?
            I don’t know.
            But, especially after hearing about last night’s “not guilty” verdict in Florida, I keep going back to the lawyer’s haunting question to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
            Jesus could have answered that our neighbors are the people who live beside us. Jesus could have answered that our neighbors are our family and our kin and our ethnic group; that our neighbors are the people who think and look like us.
            But instead Jesus answered with a story about a man risking something big for something good, crossing all sorts of religious and cultural boundaries, helping someone he had been taught to think of as the “other,” as an enemy, as someone likely to be ungrateful and maybe even dangerous.
            So my prayer for all of us here at St. Paul’s is that we’ll be generous, bold and brave.
            My prayer is that we’ll take risks for Jesus.
            My prayer is that, like the seventy, we’ll take a big risk by going out to unfamiliar places – unfamiliar places maybe just down the block or around the corner, offering peace and healing in Jesus’ name, proclaiming through word and deed that the kingdom of God has come near.
            And my prayer is that when we encounter a neighbor in need, we’ll be like the Good Samaritan and take a risk.
            May we as Christians, as followers of the One who risked and gave his life for us, have the grace to risk something big for something good.