When it’s really not about us

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A sermon for the Eight Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 25:1-9, Colossians 1:1-14, and Luke 10:25-37.

Today’s Gospel contains a famous story, the story of the Good Samaritan.  Even those who may never go to church are often familiar with the basic outline of the story: that of a person who is left by the side of the road for dead, and then of all the people who pass by, a foreigner—about whom there were all kinds of cultural assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices—is the one who offers help.  Of course, the story offers a nice moral and serves as a gentle reminder for us to be helpful, to live on the lookout for those in need, and for us to remember to practice charity.  But the story goes much deeper if we notice the context of Jesus’ telling.

The story comes in a conversation Jesus is having with a young lawyer.  We don’t know if the lawyer is serious at the beginning, or not.  He could be genuinely asking Jesus about eternal life, or he might be trying to show off, to score points in front of his friends and impress the visiting holy man.  And so he asks Jesus his question and Jesus responds with another question, “What does the law—meaning the teaching of Moses, the inherited and interpreted law of God—what does the law say?  How do you read it?”  The man piously quotes back to Jesus the famous teaching of Israel, the Shema, one of the first things a Jewish kid might learn, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ead,”  Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”  The lawyer knows his basics, and Jesus says, “You’re right, you’ve given the right answer.”

And at this point in the story, I imagine Jesus is ready to move on.  There are people to heal and hearts to reach.  This lawyer seemed to want recognition from Jesus, and he got it, he got what he wanted.  But then, just as Jesus is moving away “wanting to justify himself, [the man] asks Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

I love that phrase “wanting to justify himself.”  There’s a lot in those few words.  The translation by Eugene Peterson (The Message) makes the lawyer’s intention a little clearer:  Peterson’s version says, “[But] Looking for a loophole, [th]e lawyer asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

The lawyer asks about his neighbor not out of concern for the neighbor, but to justify himself, to make himself look good, to make sure that he’s doing what he needs to do somehow to please God or make God love him.

I stumble on that little phrase because the lawyer’s motivation is familiar to me.  That’s the sort of thing I might ask Jesus—well, which neighbor?  The lady who gets seems to scam people at the intersection or the guy who begs and then goes and spends the money at the liquor store?  Are they my neighbors?  What about the ones in far away places whose pictures are used for fundraising—if I send money, will it get to them?  Should I help those who don’t care a thing for me, or my tribe, or my country, or my religion? (I get creative trying to justify myself and can spend quote a bit of time doing that– all the while, the neighbor in need has either been helped by someone else or has simply vanished.)

The young lawyer wants to justify himself, and so, Jesus then tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  He tells the story to try to explain to the man who his neighbor is, what his neighbor might look like.  But even more, Jesus tells this story to change the focus of the lawyer.  With every word, every look, every move, Jesus has communicated that God is love and Christ brings God’s love to all people.  There’s nothing to do to earn it, or argue for it, or win it, or buy it.  There’s no loophole to exploit. There’s no self-justification.  Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in an artful and compassionate way to say to the lawyer—“this isn’t about you.”  It’s about helping someone in need.  It’s about service.  You want mystical religion?  You want a spiritual experience?  You want to see God?  Then offer yourself to another in service, and strange things will happen.  You’ll find yourself a part of God’s kingdom—unfolding, transforming, making a new heaven and earth.

The story of the Good Samaritan illustrates this.  The man going to Jerusalem is robbed and beaten.  A priest walks by but is probably late for an appointment.  Maybe he’s told someone else he would meet them, or is expected elsewhere.  He might have good reasons for passing on, but whatever those reasons were, they don’t help them the poor man on the side of the road.

Next a Levite passed by.  The Levites had particular responsibilities, especially related to the synagogue.  They were busy people. They were important people and they were concerned with God’s law, too—in macro-ways, in institutional ways, in communal ways.  The Levite might have had very good reasons for passing by, but again, the man by the road is still hungry and hurt.

But the Samaritan does help.  Why?  Somehow, he’s jolted out of his own head, out of his own needs for self-justification or approval. He’s able to move out of weighing the pros and cons of the situation.

What jolted the Samaritan out of his own head?  Out of his own routine?  Out of his own sense of importance?  It may have been that he recalled a time when he had been helped.  Or it may have been because he saw something in the other person that reminded him of someone he once knew and loved.  Or it might even have been because the Samaritan was simply oriented outward, he aimed his energy, his affection, and his interest toward other people.  There are people like that, often among the very young. And we’ve heard of one especially in the last few days.

It may be that someone here knew Andrew Pochter, or perhaps know his family.  A friend of mine has a daughter who was one of Andrew’s best friends, and so I’ve been hearing about this young man over the last few weeks.  Andrew Pochter was the 21-year-old from Bethesda who was killed by a protestor in Cairo a few weeks ago.  Pochter was spending the summer working on his Arabic and working as a volunteer to teach English to young people.  He was like so many of the young people we know—from this parish, from this community, and from our families.  On Friday, people filled the National Cathedral to mourn Andrew’s death but, even more powerfully, to acknowledge his life and the life force he seems to have conveyed with so much passion and energy.  As has been mentioned in the press, since he was 16 Andrew had worked volunteered with Camp Opportunity, helping young people who didn’t have his background or advantages.  In early June, Andrew wrote a former student through the camp, and his letter talks about the “why bother?” of helping another person.

Andrew wrote

Egypt is hazardous right now because the country is feeling the consequences of a enormous political revolution.  I lose electricity and water all the time but that’s okay because I have many Egyptian friends to help take care of me.  When I am in trouble, they take care of me and when they are in trouble, I always take care of them.  Good friends do not come easily but as a rule, I always appreciate the good deeds people do for me even if I don’t know them well.  What is most important is that I am trying to do my best for others.  I want to surround myself with good people!

[He goes on to say] I did not come up with this personal philosophy on my own.  Without thoughtful and caring people like you, I would probably be a mean and grumpy person.  Your kind heart and character serve as a model for me…. Surround yourself with good friends who care about your future. Fall in love with someone. Get your heart broken. And then move on and fall in love again. Breathe life every day like it is your first. [The full letter can be read at http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/local/andrew-pochters-letter/312/]

I’m sure many in the cathedral on Friday felt the power of those words and that energy,  just as we might.

Jesus says to the young lawyer, “It’s not about you.”  Jesus says the same thing to me and to you and to all who want to know God, experience life in its fullest terms.  It’s about service; about serving one another.

Who knows what will move us out of ourselves, beyond the need to self-justify, to be noticed, or to find a loophole that lets us appear moral without ever sacrificing.  But whatever it is, I pray we might be open to it.  May God move us out of ourselves—whether it’s the words of a 21-year-old, or the heart of a child, the ongoing problems of racial and class difference in our own country….  May God move us out of ourselves, no matter what does it— through our own sickness or failure or challenge, or perhaps simply by hearing familiar words in a new light—may God move us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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