The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: July 14, 2013
Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
Preacher: Jennie Talley, Summer Seminarian Intern at St. Michael’s Church and Senior M. Div. student at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church
(The recording is of the sermon preached at the 10:00 am service. The sermon text which follows was preached at 6:00 pm.)
Just a few years ago Wesley Autrey saved a stranger’s life. Autrey, a 51-year old African American Vietnam vet saw a 20-year old man suffer a seizure, and fall onto the subway tracks. Risking his own life, Autrey jumped down onto the tracks. With the honking train approaching, Autrey covered the victim with his body, pinning him down in the gutter between two tracks, while the oncoming subway train rolled over them both, with only an inch to spare. Wesley Autrey was rightfully hailed by onlookers and the media, alike, as a “Good Samaritan” for his brave and selfless actions in rescuing a stranger.
This morning, we hear from Luke’s gospel what has become one of Jesus’ most famous parables: “The Story of the Good Samaritan.” And the name, Good Samaritan, having been deeply ingrained into our wider culture, conjures up for many of us an image of a good person helping a stranger who is in trouble, an image such as Wesley Autrey rescuing the young man. But these Good Samaritan actions of mercy and compassion of course need not require putting one’s life on the line. Just this past week, while contemplating this parable during my daily commutes, I witnessed many Good Samaritans performing many acts of mercy and compassion. And I was once again reminded that what we focus our attention on tends to expand, for the more I reflected on the subject of compassion, the more acts of mercy I seemed to witness.
And certainly not to diminish the great importance of coming to someone else’s aid, but I wonder, is Jesus’ teaching moment solely a lesson in helping the stranger in need? What more is Jesus wanting us to know? Perhaps it is a broader story about our own life journeys and how we can be closer to each other and to God along our pathway. In the greater context of the Good Samaritan story, Jesus is on his own self-sacrificing journey to Jerusalem, preaching and teaching along the way about the emerging Kingdom of God.
A lawyer asks Jesus how he can have eternal life. Now I understand eternal life to be not only a forever relationship with God in the hereafter, but perhaps a rich life with God in the here and now. So the lawyer asks Jesus, “What do I need to do to have a more intimate relationship with God?” And Jesus asks the lawyer, “Well tell me, what does the Law say?” And the lawyer responds by quoting the Torah, “You must love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer seems to be clear on what it all means, except for the term of “neighbor,” for he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
And in answering the lawyer’s question, Jesus tells the story of another journey — about a Jewish traveler. The traveler is robbed and left for dead. Two men — a priest and a temple worker — who we might expect to stop and help him, just pass him by. We don’t know exactly why they don’t stop. Maybe they are running late for other appointments; maybe they have something else on their minds; maybe they are afraid for their own lives; maybe they think it is a hopeless case and they can be of no help; maybe they went to get additional help; maybe they continue on, hoping someone else will stop and help. Whatever the reason, someone else does stop and help.
And very surprisingly, it is a Samaritan who comes to the aid of the injured man. Samaritans and Jews, you might know, were known to hold each other in mutual contempt, making the Samaritan’s grand generosity even more amazing. The Samaritan, we are told was somehow “moved to compassion” for this stranger, and the Samaritan took great care of him.
So by the end of Jesus’ story, the lawyer learns that the “neighbor” is defined only as the one who shows compassion, and that there are no limitations as to who a “neighbor” might be, or what a “neighbor” should do. The Samaritan has demonstrated mercy, and Jesus instructs the lawyer — and indeed us all — to go and show compassion in the world. So perhaps we can think of the Good Samaritan as not only one who helps the stranger in trouble, but as someone who reaches beyond all human divisions and boundaries to express compassion.
So what might move us to compassion beyond our comfort zone, as the Samaritan was “moved to compassion” beyond his? Maybe we are moved to deep compassion by God praying through us — praying through us and creating, through grace, a heartfelt welling up of remembering who we are. At that point, we are then able to remember that as individuals in the larger human community, we are all connected and equally beloved of God with the same expectations, needs, and feelings — joys, hurts, and loves. And this welling up of compassion cannot help but overflow like a big wave, splashing itself all over the place, for compassion is contagious. Yes, Jesus is telling us that we are all each other’s neighbors, there are no strangers, there are no boundaries among humankind, even as we continue to erect painful walls that divide and partition ourselves from each other. We still have such difficulty in perceiving “the other”— the one that doesn’t look or act or speak exactly like us — as “neighbor.” And when we don’t perceive “the other” as neighbor, tragedy happens. The tragedy that we have been watching unfold for the past year and a half, happens! The tragedy that took a 17-year old’s life in Florida, happens! The tragedy where a man with a gun followed an African American kid simply because his skin was the wrong color for the neighborhood, happens! The tragedy where the outcome of a trial reduces a certain group of people to perceive their lives as being of less value under the law, happens!
Yes, our boundaries create tragedy after tragedy. When we contrast the inspiring story of the subway hero, Wesley Autrey, risking his life for the man having the seizure, with the horror story of the altercation between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, we see both extremes that we as humankind are capable of. It is the difference between seeing no boundaries, and seeing no neighbor. And it is heartbreaking to ponder.
And yet, we must hold on to some hope, because there are no boundaries between us and God. Incredibly, 2000 years after Jesus preached of loving God and our neighbor as being essential for living an eternal life, modern science is showing a link between contemplative practices that put us in relationship with God — such as prayer and meditation — and our capacity for compassion for our neighbor. Researchers have shown that praying, meditating, and contemplating a loving God increases our brain centers that are associated with compassion and empathy. In other words, we all have the capacity to become better Good Samaritans on our life’s journey through prayer and our love of God. We have the capacity to break down our boundaries. So let us all pray more — as individuals, as a community, as a nation — as we strive to work beyond our limitations of embracing everyone as “neighbor.” Let us work to heal our social wounds, striving for God’s brand of justice for all.
May we continue in our relationship with God in prayer, and with Jesus at the Holy Table, as we ask the Holy Spirit to connect us all in love for one another. Amen