“Unpleasant questions”

“Unpleasant questions”

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 14, 2019

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”

Good Samaritan

In the Summer of 1995, I was in Paris on the 14th of July-Bastille Day. I was spending the Summer studying written French at the Catholic Institute of Paris. After having lived in New York City for several years at that point—in the Throgg’s Neck Section of the Bronx, I had decided that Paris was a rather “tame” city by comparison.

All of that changed on Bastille Day. All at once if felt as if though the city “exploded.” Suddenly the streets were unusually full of people. There was a kind of martial fervor which seemed to me to be decidedly “un-French.” The tricolor seemed to hang from every balcony, window, and door. It was a sea of Red, White, and Blue. And then there were the parades—they seemed to take over almost every neighborhood which I visited during the day. Even more astonishing was the view of the Champs-Élysées. At first it was full of sirens from police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. But then, it was crowded with tanks—and their “wheels” were chewing up the street as they processed towards the Arc de Triomphe. And, then the planes flew overhead with tricolored plumes of smoke trailing behind. And all around were bands—soldiers in uniform, marching and playing “La Marseillaise.” The police officers on the sidewalks and the soldiers who were not playing instruments were loaded to the gills with munitions-bayonets, rifles, and submachine guns. What had happened to the cultured, sophisticated, and genteel French citizenry that I thought I knew and understood? How had they been replaced by this frenzied crowd crying that the “bloody standard has been raised!”? Remember that this was in the days before September 11th. And so, I had never seen anything like this in my life.

Bastille Day helped me to realize that there was another France. A France which was the product of the Revolution—of the Reign of Terror. It was a country of storming prisons and guillotines in the public square. And Paris was the epicenter of that reality. When the Revolution broke out the largest and most elegant public square was called the Place de Louis XV. In the days following the storming of the Bastille, the statue of Louis XV was torn down and the square was renamed the Place de la Révolution. On this site Madame guillotine reigned and the streets overflowed with the blood of aristocrats including that of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. At the end of the Revolution as a cry for peace, healing and reconciliation the square was renamed the Place de la Concorde, “The Square of Concord,” so close to the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. Each of the names of this square tell us something about the reality of France. It is almost like witnessing one of those shows in which three persons claiming to be France are interviewed and try to convince us that they are the “real France”-the old regime, the revolution, and the new France. Will the real France please stand? Paradoxically, all three rise to their feet!

Truth is not always easy to accept. It is at times more complex and nuanced than we would wish. It is filled with both good and bad—with moments of bliss and with moments of despair. There is often light, but at the same time there is darkness—and many shadows. So much depends on what we look for, on what we choose, and on what we allow ourselves to see. It depends, in fact, on the questions that we allow to be asked of us—and on how we choose to answer them.

There are two pivotal, inter-connected and painful questions in our Scriptures. There may in fact be more, but these two are really at the heart of our self-understanding and form the foundation on which our awareness of morality is based. At first glance they appear to be simple questions. We are well catechized to give the correct answer. We know what it is, or at least what we are expected to answer. And because both questions are part of a story about someone else, it is quite easy to miss the point that the stories raise. These are not simple questions at all. And they are not ultimately stories about anyone else. They are stories which force us to stare the mirror and to ask, “What does this story say about me as an individual and about the various communities of which I am a part?”

The first story from the Hebrew scriptures, from the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis, is the story of the first murder-of the first fratricide. It is based on that question which God addresses to Cain regarding his brother whom he has brutally murdered in a fit of rage and jealousy. “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” Am I my brother’s keeper? What an unpleasant and difficult question for Cain. The very last question he wanted to hear. Because the truth was more than he could accept or endure, he tried to avoid answering by asking a question to relive him of responsibility. Am I responsible for Abel? God, though, would not let him off the hook. He forced Cain to admit the truth. He had killed his brother. Was this premeditated murder? It certainly seemed planned. And yet, who knows? Did anger, and resentment and jealousy so cloud his judgement that he acted in ways that he never meant to do? The only thing which we do know is that God did not demand Cain’s death as well. He was punished—by exile but was given a mark of protection to prevent anyone else from doing to him what he had done.

The answer to this story is that yes, we are our Sister’s and Brother’s keepers! Yes, we are connected to every living person—they are family to us. If we fail to love them, and care for them; if we fail to respect their intrinsic worth and treat them with dignity; we have failed the moral test. The danger is to try to find an easy way out. Oh, we could say, this is a reference to our biological families. I am obligated to care for and to love the children of my parents. I have a responsibility for them. Others, though, can take care of their family, of their people. I am not responsible for the care of everyone! We know, of course, that this is the kind of splitting of hairs—of casuistry—that gives law codes a bad name. This kind of thinking looks for a loophole, and exemption, a way out. This does not apply to me, or to us. I am not responsible; we are not responsible. And so, this lets us off the hook. I will care for my family, my friends and my neighbors as best I can. Someone else will have to take care of that situation. A very amusing modern way of articulating this is “not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Between Genesis and the story which we hear today in the Gospel according to Saint Luke is the account of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. The “Law of Moses,” we are told by Orthodox Jewish Scholars, actually contains 613 laws. Then ten, which are included in the story of the tablets, really are a summary. They want to make a clear point: as individuals and as a community of faith, we are connected to God and to each other. And so, this summary of the ten commandments tries to make sense of what that connectedness is and of what it means for us. The danger, of course, is that for those who are looking for an escape or a loophole, they can claim that these laws only apply to their community. They only prescribe responsibilities to those who are their neighbor. In this narrow legalistic, casuistic view, these commandments say nothing about connectedness to those outside the community as it is legally understood. To be clear, the prophets utterly and totally reject that view. Jesus was by no means the first person, nor the last, in the Jewish context to broaden the notions of family and of community. And yet, for those who would be his disciples and followers he does in a way that is clear, unambiguous, and binding.

For Jesus, no loophole is ever acceptable. Every person is our family member, and every person is our neighbor. Case closed!

I find it fascinating that the story of the good Samaritan is told in response to an interaction with a lawyer who wants to “justify himself.” Avoiding the temptation to say anything at all about lawyers—one of my dearest friends is a lawyer, and also a priest, and a monk!—the lawyer is brave enough to ask the question which everyone is thinking, “what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer takes us by surprise. He asks the lawyer what the Torah, what the law says. This is one of those amazing interactions in which Jesus connects with someone in the perfect way. He allows the lawyer to enter into the discussion using concepts and ideas which make sense to him. He is most comfortable speaking about the law—after all, he has spent years thinking and studying the law. He has no doubt seen all the ways in which the law has been applied and used. But, our text tells us that the lawyer asks the question to test Jesus! Perhaps the lawyer is taking the risk of seeing if Jesus’ teaching will make any sense in his own world. Will Jesus be able to speak to his life, and his experience, and to his concerns in a way that will make a difference. Or, will he discover that Jesus does not understand him at all. So, all things considered, this is a very important question.

The lawyer’s response is both simple and profound. It is clear that he is a person of deep faith who understands the imperative of the Shema, which he prays every day, “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,” But the, he takes it a step farther and adds, “and your neighbor as yourself.” In doing so, he shows that the understands both the story of Cain and Abel and the meaning of the Commandments.

When Jesus praises his response, the lawyer is happy. After all, lawyers are not accustomed to having people say nice things about them—then or now. But, Jesus takes the risk of pushing him further. He challenges the narrow and comfortable boundary which the lawyer has set up so that he can consider himself a good and compassionate person. He asks him to think outside the box, beyond the law, in ways that he has never done previously. He asks him to take those two concepts which he does understand—“love” and “neighbor” and to view them from God’s perspective. In doing so, I suspect that he shakes the lawyer to his core. Jesus invites the lawyer to realize that in God’s eyes, there are no limitations, no boundaries, no loopholes. Every person, without exception, is a family member and a neighbor. This is especially true of those who do not know, do not understand, do not like and perhaps fear! Not only are they deserving of love, they are also deserving of compassion and mercy!

I can not help but feel that we are all like this lawyer at times. We would like to be good, and to be thought of as good. We are prepared to do what we can, as long as we can do so safely and with protections. We are willing to occasionally volunteer and to make a small donation here and there for some good cause. But we really do not want to be inconvenienced. We have our plans for the day, and for our lives, and do not want to allow anything to interrupt those plans or to throw us off the path. And so, we plead our case. We believe that we are doing the best that we can with what we have—within the safety of our “comfort zone.”

Jesus challenges us to do more. He invites us to cast aside our fears, our worries, and our reluctance. He invites us to realize that we are more than able to meet whatever opportunity which presents itself to be agents of encouragement, love, compassion, and mercy. I can not help but reflect on the very practical reality of the Samaritan. He knows exactly what to do. Why? Has he been beaten, and robbed, and abused? Or has this happened to people that he knows and loves? Has he learned not to leave home without a basic emergency kit? Does he not know what it means to be held and comforted and sheltered when he is hurting and in pain?

Perhaps the most important question is, “Who is the man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho?” Is it Jesus? Is it our Sisters and Brothers who are Black or Brown? Is it our Sisters and Brothers who are LGBTQIA? Is it our Sisters and Brothers who are from other countries who speak other languages? Is it our Sisters and Brothers who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic of atheists? Who is this person? Could it be someone travelling from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras to escape violence, oppression, and abject poverty? Could it be a child locked up in a detention center on our border?

As our Presiding Bishop and Primate has often told us, “If it is not about love, it is not about God.” May we learn to love freely, fearlessly, and unconditionally. May we lean to love without expecting anything in return. May we learn to throw aside our plans and ask God, “What do you want me to do today? Help me to be useful. Show me how to make a difference for whoever is most in need.”

Jesus concludes with a plea to each of us and to us as a community of faith: “Go and do likewise.”

Note: Since I am not preaching in a community today, I had the freedom to take a different approach than I might normally do. This is what God is challenging me to hear today—and in church, I am sure that other words will strike me as well. That in all things, God may be glorified.

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