Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pentecost 7C

(NB: With help from Willimon's Pulpit Resource)

Sometimes people ask me, “Do you think Muslims will go to Hell?” It doesn’t have to be Muslims each time the question is asked. You can fill in the blank with any faith group that’s not Christian. Or even non-faith groups like professed atheists.

At it’s heart is the question of judgment. Who will God judge? And maybe by extension, who can WE Christians judge.

I don’t think that question is very biblical. When God is in a judgmental mood, God’s most intense condemnation isn’t for Muslims or atheists, or anyone else those outside the faith. In the bible, God’s saves the most severe judgment for those who seem closest to God: Israel, the church. Especially church leaders.

Today’s gospel, popularly known as “The Good Samaritan” but really should be called “the bad pastor.” The pastor, who ought to be in the business of helping people, passes by the man in the ditch. There is judgment in the story. It’s subtle. But everyone know who Jesus is talking about.

Judgment begins with God’s own house, say the prophets. This happens when we get too high on ourselves, thinking that to be part of God’s people means to be - somehow - better than others.

For those paying attention you might have noticed a common theme that has popped up in my preaching over the last little while. It’s the notion that, as Christians, we’re different, distinctive, our voice is unique, our action are particular.

And while that’s true, there’s also a danger lurking inside that notion. The danger that uniqueness equals superiority. And that we have a lock on doing God’s work.

I think Jesus knew that danger. He saw it in the eyes of the young man who wanted to justify himself. He overturned everything people knew to right and true and threw it in their faces. A priest and a Levite passed a beaten man dying in a ditch, and a Samaritan, of all people, stoops down to lend a hand. And not just a hand. Sacrificially gives so that the man can get the healing he needs.

It’s hard to demonstrate the level of bigoted hatred Jesus’ listeners had for Samaritans, the abject loathing, the searing disgust, without resorting to racist words, or hateful, xenophobic expressions.

Samaritans perverted the faith, trampled over holy traditions. They were dirty and ignorant. They had questionable morals. They married people from other cultures, diluting the blood line (which was VERY important to folks back then). They spat in the face of everything Jesus’ listeners valued.

And Jesus lifted them up as a example of faithful living - over and against the local pastor and church council president, who were demonstrated as being rabidly UNfaithful.

The young man who questioned Jesus knew all the correct answers to all the right questions. But Jesus told this crazy story because he wanted to demonstrate to this fellow Jew that being faithful isn’t about knowing all the answers. Being faithful is answering the questions with our lives.

This is a good story. But it’s a hard story. Especially when we start looking for our place in it. I see myself as the young man trying to justify himself. After all, I value learning, good doctrine. My book-lined office shows that I work hard to have all the right answers. I safe-guard holy doctrine. I teach the faith.

I am also the priest in this story. There were times when working on one of my brilliant, erudite, sermons that the phone will ring, and someone looking for help is on the other line. And I get annoyed. After all, I’m on a roll. I’ve spent the morning dissecting the bible passage and just came up with an ingenious new interpretation to share with the congregation and I want to get it down before I lose it.

(Btw: it’s never any of you folks call. I ALWAYS have time for you, no matter what I’m doing!)

I reluctantly pick up the phone and slide into pastoral care mode. But always looking for when I can get back to stewarding the mysteries of God. I’m tempted to pass on the other side of the road, ignoring those who need help because I’m too busy doing “pastor work.”

Where are we as a church in this story? Are we the young man who knows all the rights answers, who has good theology, who can cite scripture by chapter and verse, but doesn’t know what it means in daily living?

Are we the priest who has other things on his mind and doesn’t see the hurting man just under his feet? Are we the Levite who is so concerned with the proper running of the church that the pain of others doesn’t appear on the radar screen?

Are we the man dying in the ditch, staring our mortality in the face, waiting for someone to rescue us?

Or are we the, dirty, ignorant, Samaritan, who is used by God and held up as an example of the right answer in action?

I think the answer to all these questions is: “yes.”

That’s why Jesus’ parables are so powerful. We find ourselves in them, in every person. This is a parable of judgment. But it’s also a parable of grace. It shows us that we are capable of great neglect and of ravishing faithfulness - almost despite ourselves. That’s how we know that God is a gracious God, a God who works in us, and works in others. We know God is gracious because ANYONE can be chosen to be God’s instrument of mercy.

This parable is a great equalizer. Where everyone stands before equal as saint and sinner. Where even those whom we despise stand next to us, eating at the same table.

May this be so among us. Amen.