Thursday, February 13, 2020

Sermon - August 4, 2019 - "Constant Craving"

Luke 12:13-21  - Intro

More so than any of the other gospels, the gospel of Luke contains stories of Jesus that focus on issues of wealth, poverty, and possessions.
In this passage, Jesus is speaking to a crowd of thousands, encouraging them to be strong in the face of persecution by their oppressors,
when he is interrupted by a man who has a family inheritance issue that he wants Jesus to settle.
In context, the request seems self-serving and hopelessly petty.

In Jesus time, religious authorities had the power to settle such disputes, so the request is not completely out of left field,
but Jesus' wants no part of this.
Instead he uses the request as an opportunity to address the underlying issue - greed.
As he does so often, Jesus tells a story,
which has come to be known as the “Parable of the Rich Fool.”

Now, any time a rich man asks Jesus a question or appears in one of his stories, we know it’s not going to end well for the rich guy.

But as you listen to the story note how many times the rich man says, “I” and “my” –
This gives us a hint that this is not a story that is meant to disparage the inherent evils of wealth as much as it is about the dark side of greed -

Because, as with many human failings, it serves as a distraction and takes up space in our lives and our hearts that should instead be filled by the things of God –  love, compassion, and grace.

In some ways this passage mirrors the Mary and Martha story we heard a few weeks ago.
Martha was distracted by her tasks in the kitchen – her busyness – and her concern that her sister wasn’t giving enough,
And our rich fool – and our inheritance seeker – are distracted by their greed – their desire to have more than they’d been given.

This constant craving for more is one that we all seem to have.
And as usual, Jesus offers us a solution for how to deal with it.

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 4, 2019 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 12:13-21

“Constant Craving”

Sixty-three-year-old Larry Yockey is a wheat farmer.
He lives in Ritzville, Washington, just south of Spokane,
with his wife and two daughters.
Larry Yockey’s father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather, all farmed the same 1,200 acres that Larry now tends.
Four generations of farmers, feeding their own families, and thousands of others, from the grain they planted, nurtured, and harvested from the land.
And just like his father, and his father’ father, and his grandfather’s father, Larry Yokey is a one-man operation.
100% of his income comes from the wheat that he grows and harvests himself, every year, all on his own.

But this year, for the first time in 50 years, the harvest almost didn’t happen.
Back in February, Larry Yockey was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma.
The cancer that first appeared as a spot on his back, has spread to his bones, contributing to a broken hip and broken ribs, and leaving Larry unable to put in the long hours and do the heavy lifting needed to tend his farm.

A few months ago a neighbor asked Larry if he thought he’d be harvesting this year given his health, and Larry reluctantly responded, “No.”
For Larry, cutting and threshing the wheat is normally a three-week job, keeping him working from sunup to sundown,
and in his current condition he just didn’t see how he would be physically able to get his crop in on time before the heat, wind, and rain, laid it to waste.

The neighbor told Larry not to worry, he would speak to a few of the neighboring farmers and try and rally some help.

It’s not in Larry’s DNA to ask for help, but just knowing that some of his crops might still be harvested and sold, gave him some peace of mind.
When he stepped out on his porch last Saturday, on the day the harvest was set to begin, Larry expected to find 2 or 3 of his neighbors taking precious time away from their own farms to lend him a hand.

Instead, what he saw brought tears to his eyes.
Sixty farmers, from all over the region, had descended upon his fields.
Stretched from one end of his acreage to the other was a relative convoy of industrial combines, threshers, and 18-wheeler grain trucks.
Even the local fire department was there to lend a hand, along with a bevy of workers from the town – car mechanics, store clerks, and barbers.
Those not working in the fields brought food and drinks to those who were.

Working together, the neighbor brigade completed three weeks' worth of harvesting in less than eight hours.  The entire crop was saved.

Looking out at the flurry of activity in his fields, Yokey said,
"It's not describable the gratitude I have for what's going on…
'thank you' really doesn't even do justice here."

We might ask ourselves, what is it about this man, Larry Yocky, that caused so many to want to give up their time to help him….especially when he hadn’t directly asked any of them for help, and certainly wasn’t expecting it.

The short feature story that reported this ‘good news’ event doesn’t tell us much about what Larry did to cultivate such a neighborly response.

There was no mention of his kind heart or compassionate acts that would lead us to think this was a way for folks to pay him back for all that he’d done for them.

There was no mention of people clamoring to help because they’d experienced cancer in their own families, they knew the struggle,
and they wanted to help in some way – to feel empowered in the face of a disease that makes us feel powerless.

There was no mention of this being an intentional counter-reaction to the time we live in – where we’re more likely to be driven apart over ideological differences, rather than come together over a common and concrete goal.

Perhaps this was just small town neighbors helping neighbors.
Putting aside their own needs for the needs of another.
But you have to believe that the relationships that Larry built with his neighbors played a part in this somehow.

If no one knew him, if he kept to himself and was a one-man show claiming no outside influence, making no space in his life for anyone or anything other than his own need to acquire, achieve, and build –
no one would have known that Larry had cancer,
or would have thought to ask how his health was going to impact his harvest, and then taken the next step to say, “No need to worry, we’ll help.”

When we think about greed, we often think about it in terms of money, resources, or possessions.
This desire that we have to have bigger stores of money,
so we can buy bigger and better things,
and then build bigger and better barns to keep them in.

And when we think about greed in this way, we then think about the way it impacts others in terms of money, resources, and possessions.
Because the more we have, the less others may have.
And the more we desire to hold on to what we have out of fear,
the less likely we’ll be to share what we have with others out of love.

And the more imbalanced our society is in terms of money, resources, and possessions, the more likely we are to have problems that disproportionally impact those on the lesser side of the scale –
in terms of housing and food insecurity, limited access to quality health care and education, and increased incidents of violence and crime.

But greed is about much more than our desire to hold onto money, possessions, and resources, out of selfishness and fear.
Greed grows out of idolatry.
Our constant craving for something to fill us, complete us, satisfy us.
Something that gives our life meaning and purpose,
Something that gives us pleasure and contentment, happiness and joy.

We can make an idol out of anything.
Money, possessions, work, achievement, sex, drugs, sports, recreation, a desire for fame or affirmation, our need to feel safe and secure.
Even healthy things like gardening and yoga can become idols,
when we pour so much of our time, energy, and focus into it,
that we ignore nearly everything and everyone else,
in the belief that IT is our source of meaning and purpose and happiness –
rather than what we were actually created to crave –
which is to live in relationship – with others – and with God.

Augustine wrote:
“You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
Or, to paraphrase 17th century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal:
There is an infinite abyss – a  God-shaped hole in the heart of every human being - that only our infinite God can fill.

The rich man in Jesus’ parable speaks of “my grain” and “my goods” and “my barns” and God says to him, “You fool.” 
“When you pass from this world whose will they be then?”
Minus your possessions what will you have to show for a life long lived?

When we make space for others, and take the time to build relationships –
we just may find that they alone are standing, when every thing we own falls away.
And when we make space for God – by recognizing our abundance,
lifting prayers of gratitude, and responding with acts of compassion for others – we by default end up building a relationship with our Creator.
So when the bottom falls out of our lives, we have something - someone - to catch us. To comfort us. To sustain us. To resurrect us.

Greed is about much more than a desire to hold onto money, resources and possessions.
Greed is about holding onto fear.
Our fear of not having enough.    
Our fear of losing what we have.
Because in an odd way we find this fear to be comforting and familiar,
as it wraps us in a cocoon that we think protects us,
holding others at bay,
and shielding us from the God who demands more from us.

Fear driven greed is what compels young men to pick up a gun and fire it randomly, repeatedly, and recklessly into a crowd of strangers.
The fear that someone is taking what is rightfully theirs.
The fear that they will be left with nothing if it is taken.

Fear driven greed is also what compels us to throw up our hands claiming there are complex issues behind these acts of violence that are difficult to address – the lack of adequate mental health care, the rhetoric surrounding immigration and race relations, bullying in schools, the absence of love or faith in the home.

Fear driven greed has us searching through the weeds looking for a cause, while we ignore the smoking gun in the young man’s hand. 

Because we fear it will be taken away – along with the sense of security and freedom we believe it brings.

Jesus said, “Take care, be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

We’re all walking around with a God-shaped hole in our hearts.
Searching for something or someone to fill it.
But the only thing that can fill an infinite abyss, 
is an infinite God.

We don’t need to build bigger barns to hold our grain or our guns.

We need to build bigger relationships to hold our love and our fear.

The Good New is that God created us to do just that.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

Sermon: July 21, 2019 - "Martha, Martha, Martha"

Luke 10:38-42 – Scripture Intro

Last week’s gospel text focused on the story of the Good Samaritan and our call as Christians to offer kindness and hospitality to strangers,
regardless of who they are, or where we encounter them out in the world.

This week’s text from Luke also focuses on the call to offer kindness and hospitality to strangers, this time to those we invite into our homes.  
This is the story of Mary and Martha and the two very different kinds of hospitality each of them offered when Jesus stopped by for dinner one night.

In the ancient world, offering hospitality to travelers was a highly valued and widely practiced custom among Jews, Christians, and Pagans alike.
In a nomadic society, one’s survival often depended upon the kindness of strangers.
Hosts were expected to provide food, shelter, amenities, and protection to traveling strangers.
To be a good citizen, and because you never knew if a stranger would turn out to be a traveling dignitary, or a god, or an angel in disguise.

There’s a reason why Luke tells us the story of the Good Samaritan and the story of Mary and Martha back to back –
Both stories are about offering hospitality,
and they present us with two sides of the same coin.

The story of the Good Samaritan is about putting our faith into action
by physically reaching out and caring for others.
“Go and DO likewise,” Jesus says at the story’s end.

In contrast, the story of Mary and Martha is not about doing,
it’s about being.
It’s about sitting still and quieting our hands and our minds.
And creating space for the stranger – and God – in our heart.  

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
July 21, 2019 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:38-42

“Martha, Martha, Martha”

I have five sisters.
The oldest, Mary, is the firstborn in our family.
Like many first-born children, Mary set the standard for the rest of us.
She was responsible, she got good grades in school, she was well behaved and organized, and she helped our mother with our ever-growing family while rarely complaining.
Mary cooked, cleaned, did laundry, and when she wasn’t doing chores she was in her room studying, preferring the company of books over people.
My sister Ruthie was the second born.
She’s the artist in our family.  
She is outgoing, creative, and shall we say, less organized than Mary. 
Growing up, she disliked doing chores, she immersed herself in drawing and painting, and her idea of having a good time was to be with friends just talking the night away.

When they were kids, Mary and Ruthie were like oil and water.
Because we had such a large family, and such a small house, Mary and Ruthie shared a bedroom for the entire 18 years that they lived at home.
And as you may have guessed, Ruthie’s side of the room was just as scattered and carefree as her way of moving in the world.
In other words, it was a mess.
One day Mary got so fed up with trying to keep Ruthie’s chaos off her side of the room she took a roll of masking tape and taped a line down one wall, across the carpet, and up the middle of the opposite wall.
She then announced to Ruthie that she could keep her side of the room as messy as she wanted, but no part of that mess was allowed to cross the line to Mary’s side.
This was an acceptable compromise,
as both of my sisters were allowed to be who they were in their own space.       
Although I suspect that having half of a messy room bothered Mary a lot more then having half a clean room bothered Ruthie. 

Sibling rivalry has been around since the day Adam and Eve first said to Cain, “You’re going to have a little brother, isn’t that wonderful?”
Our Bible has no shortage of stories that are built around the love/hate relationship that siblings have with one another –
Jacob and Esau, Ishmael and Isaac, Joseph and all of his brothers.
The author of the gospel of Luke continues that tradition with the story of Martha and Mary.

Luke doesn’t mention that Martha and Mary are the sisters of Lazarus –
the man Jesus raised from the dead. A story we find in John’s gospel.
This detail was apparently not important to Luke.
For Luke, it is the sister’s relationship to one another that is the focus,
not their brother.

The story of Martha and Mary presents us with the archetypal image of Biblical siblings - one is scattered and distracted,
and the other is focused and attentive.
Except this time it is the one WE might say is the responsible one, who is held up as the one worthy of scrutiny and judgment.

Which is why every time I see this reading come up in the lectionary,
I can’t help but say, “Poor Martha.”
This morning, in more Christian churches then we can count,
preachers are lifting up Mary as an example of the model Christian –
as one who sits quietly at Jesus’ feet and listens –
while Martha is chastised for being a preoccupied worker-bee who commits the grievous sin of not making time in her overly busy schedule to contemplate the Word of God.

There’s little wonder why preachers love this text.
It’s short, it’s simple and the message for us seems easy to tease out.
Mary is the one to emulate, and Martha is not.

But anyone who sits with this passage for more than five minutes soon realizes that it’s not that simple, and the message is not that straightforward.
For instance, there’s the small problem of Jesus rebuking Martha for doing the very thing that he’s been telling his disciples to do since they began their journey to Jerusalem:
To welcome the stranger, to show hospitality,
especially within the home. 
To demonstrate one’s faith in God not just through words,
but also through action.

Which is why I say, “Poor Martha.”
Jesus shows up on her doorstep and she invites him in for dinner.
He was not an expected guest, so I imagine it playing out like an episode of “Chopped” on the Food Network – where Martha is frantically trying to put together a meal fit for a Messiah with whatever she can find in her pantry.
But as she busies herself in the kitchen in an effort to show him hospitality, she is scolded for doing so.
And not only that, her sister Mary, who hasn’t lifted a finger to help,
is praised for shirking her responsibilities and choosing to sit and listen instead.

I can’t help but imagine, if Jesus had been a woman, this story would have played out quite differently, because the entire conversation would have taken place in the kitchen, as they all helped prepare the meal.

But how might we reconcile Jesus’ words to Martha?
She is doing exactly what her faith calls her to do and still Jesus says:
"Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;
there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part."

Perhaps Martha was making too much of a fuss,
and Jesus was merely suggesting that she stop puttering back and forth to the kitchen and sit down and join them.
Perhaps Jesus was not rebuking Martha, but rather inviting her to lay aside what she was doing and pay attention to what he had to say, for it would not be long before the cross would take him from them both.
But why then did Jesus say,
“There is need of only one thing, and Mary has chosen it.”

Could Jesus be saying that it is better to sit as a passive listener to his teachings, then to busy oneself with actively living them out?
There is no question that listening needs to come before action,
but both are of equal and necessary value aren’t they?
Is it really better to be a Mary than a Martha?

I don’t believe it is.
Which is why you won’t be hearing any Martha bashing from this pulpit today.
Jesus needs disciples like Martha just as much as he needs disciples like Mary. Because his church can’t run without them.

Most of us can name the Martha’s in our lives.
Some of us are Martha’s ourselves.
And just to note, being a Martha is not gender specific.
I’m referring to the women, and men, who do all the behind the scenes work that needs to get done for any organization or system to function properly. Whether it’s a household, a community, a corporation, or a church.

This work is rarely glorified and thus rarely noticed,
until for some reason it doesn’t get done.

One day we wake up and we have no clean clothes to wear.
The grocery shelves are empty and the trash bins are overflowing.
At church, we have no Deacons, Fellowship Team, or Trustees.
Civilization as we know it would crumble if we didn’t have Martha’s.
The men and women who tend to gravitate towards this work are often those who have no need to bask in the limelight.
Martha’s are not attention seekers, and they rarely ask for help,
even when they need it…
Until the day when it all just gets to be too much, and their frustration with being underappreciated and taken for granted boils over.
Which is what happened to the Martha in our gospel reading today.

She was tired, and she wanted some form of affirmation, and some help.
And Jesus saw that…but he didn’t offer her either.
Instead he gave her something better –
something she didn’t even know she was longing for.
He gave her permission to stop.
To stop filling all of her time with doing, and allow herself just to be.
To stop gauging her value TO others on what she was able to DO for others.
To stop believing she needed to earn her keep,
earn her merit badge as a tireless and devoted worker,
earn her way into God’s good graces.

Because there is only one thing we have to do to feel the full embrace of God’s unconditional love and grace.
And that is….just be.
To do as Mary does, and sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him tell you,
“You are fearfully and wonderfully made, and God loves you just the way you are.”

Full stop.
No ifs….no ands….and no buts.

No - "if you get all the things on your spiritual to-do list done first."
No - "and you must also believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead."
No - "but only if you don’t break any of these ancient and often arbitrary rules, and say you’re sorry when you do."
None of that has any bearing on God’s love for us.

Jesus said to Martha, “Stop. Sit. Just listen, and be.”
That’s something all of us need to hear, whether we’re a Martha or a Mary.

As Lutheran Seminary President, David Lose, writes:

This, frankly, is what church is supposed to be.
…a place where there is a lull in the cacophony of voices telling us we aren’t good enough.
A time to stop amid all of our important doing and hear the one needful thing: that we are God’s children, beloved for all time,
and that there is nothing we can do that would earn that love
and nothing we can do to lose it.

To the Martha’s and Mary’s among us, 
keep on doing what you’re doing.
Knowing that God loves you, 
as you are.  

Thanks be to God, and Amen. 

Sermon - July 14, 2019 - "Looking for a Loophole"

Luke 10:25-37 – Intro to the Story of the Good Samaritan

In the passage we read from Luke’s gospel two weeks ago,
where Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem, we followed Jesus and his disciples on their first stop on the journey - into the land of Samaria.
We’re told that the Samaritans rejected Jesus and his message –
and the disciple’s immediate reaction was to ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Quite a strong reaction we might think, until we consider the history that existed between the Samaritans and the Judeans.

Historically, Samaritans were the remnants of Israel's northern tribes that remained after the Kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria.
Anyone who held power, had status or influence was sent off into exile.
Those who remained – those who lacked any power or status -  eventually intermarried with the occupying Assyrians, effectively "diluting" their culture and their faith.
Samaritans henceforth were viewed as a "mixed race," who lacked a true connection with the God of Israel.

When those who had been exiled returned to Judea and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans objected,
because they believed after the destruction of Jerusalem, God came to reside in their land on the top of Mount Gerizim.
Because there could be only one true place to encounter and worship God, and the Judeans and the Samaritans disagreed on where that was, the two nations reviled each other and built up numerous cultural walls to keep from interacting with one another.

Hostility between the two groups came to a violent climax in 111 B.C.E when the Judean king destroyed the Samaritans' temple.
There’s little wonder why Jesus and his disciples were faced with stony rejection when they visited the Samaritan village.
And little wonder that the tale of the Good Samaritan that appears in Luke’s gospel was considered one of the most radical stories of its time.

Who is our neighbor?
Our neighbor is the one whom we fear and distrust the most,
and the one we are commanded to love as much as we love ourselves.

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
July 14, 2019 – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:25-37

“Looking for a Loophole”

A doctor, a lawyer, and a priest walk into a bar...
the bartender looks up and says, "What is this, a joke?"

Actually it is…
A doctor, a lawyer, and a priest walked into a bar,
to meet one of their oldest acquaintances.
the man said to them, “I found out today that I don’t have long to live.
So I asked the three of you here because you’re the most important people in my life.
I want to be buried with my fortune but I don’t trust my relatives to handle it.
I am going to give each of you an envelope with $500,000 dollars in it.
When I die, I want the three of you to put the money in my grave."
A few weeks later the man passed away.
After the burial, the doctor, the lawyer, and the priest met up at the bar.
The doctor said, "I have to honest with you all, I kept $300,000 dollars of the man’s money to cover his medical bills. But I put the other $200,000 in the envelope and dropped it in his grave."
The Priest said, "I must confess, I also kept $300,000 dollars of the man’s money to help feed and clothe the poor as a last good deed in his name.
But I put the rest in the envelope and dropped it in the grave as well."
The Lawyer couldn’t believe what he was hearing, he said,
"I am surprised at the both of you for not honoring this man’s dying wish.
The envelope I dropped in the grave contained the entire amount –
in the form of a check I made out in his name."

Often in jokes like this one,
where three different people are presented with a similar choice –
only one of the three has the honor of delivering the punch line –
proving himself – or the others - to be greedy or dishonest, foolish or na├»ve, or less than a model and moral citizen.

And when the named trio includes a doctor, a priest, and a lawyer,
more often than not, it’s the lawyer who comes off as the least virtuous of the three.
My sincere apologies to the lawyers in our midst.

I tell you this, because:
1)   A lawyer plays an instigating role in Jesus’ telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan
2)   The three people-three responses structure of jokes like these may help us better understand Jesus’ parable – when we consider the actions of the Levite, the Priest, and the Samaritan.

To our first point, the lawyer in this story gets a bit of a bad rap.
Often he’s presented as conniving or lacking in faith
when he asks Jesus, “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It seems as if he’s looking for a “To Do List” – a well-defined inventory of action items he can check off to ensure that he receives the reward of living eternally in God’s presence.

When Jesus says to him,
“You KNOW the law, what does our scripture have to say about this?”
The lawyer responds correctly, when he quotes the words of Deuteronomy and Leviticus and says,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself.”

But THEN the lawyer asks a follow-up question that may leave us saying,
“Ah ha, he’s looking for a loophole.”

He asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

He may as well have asked,  “Who is NOT my neighbor?”
Because the question itself assumes that not everyone is included.
“Who is it that we MUST love, and who is it that we can get away with NOT loving?”
Whom should we treat with respect, and offer mercy, grace, and compassion – and whom can we write off as undeserving of all of the above –
because they’ve wronged us in some way or it’s just too hard for us to do?

The lawyer who confronts Jesus is often chastised for asking this question, because he seems to be looking for a loophole that will make the work of gaining eternal life easier and less costly for those who desire it.

But if we had the knowledge of scripture that this lawyer does, we would understand that the question he’s asking is a legitimate one.
Leviticus 19 clearly says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And the Torah – and the wisdom writings - and the books of the prophets had much to say about welcoming the stranger and treating aliens who resided in the Israelite’s land as if they too were full members of the tribe,
by offering them hospitality, mercy, and compassion.

But in other parts of the Hebrew scripture there are clear distinctions made between neighbor and stranger.
Between citizens and sojourners.
Between those who are named as God’s chosen people,
and those who were named as their enemies.

So when the lawyer asks Jesus to clarify -  “And who is my neighbor?” –
he perhaps does so out of a sense of genuine curiosity and confusion -
about WHO is to be included on his list of “those I must love to inherit eternal life” - and who is not.

Jesus – in true Jesus fashion - responds with a parable.
He says, “A priest, a doctor, and a lawyer walk into a bar.”

He says a man is set upon by robbers on the road down from Jerusalem.
They beat him, stripped him, and left him for dead.
Three people then cross paths with this man on the road.
A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.

In case you haven’t already guessed, the Samaritan is playing the role of the lawyer here.
He is the despised and distrusted one.
The one whom upon mere mention would have every head in the crowd nodding – “Oh yeah, a Samaritan, we know where this story is going–
he’s going to show his true colors by being the conniving, dishonorable, hard-hearted villain that he is.”

But Jesus throws his listeners a curveball – because in THIS story the Samaritan is Good.
And it’s the Priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side.

Jesus has already caught his listeners off guard with this parable.
Because in his time there were versions of “a Priest and a Levite walk into a bar” stories, where the third person in the trio was always an Israelite.
The Israelites included all of God’s chosen people.
The Levites were one of the twelve tribes of the Israelites – the decedents of Aaron – who were set apart because they alone could become priests.
And the priests were the cream of the crop. The ones who had all the power and the prestige.
In the stories the common people told, it was often the Priest and the Levite who displayed their hypocritical holier than thou colors by showing indifference to pain and suffering, while the ordinary Israelite saved the day.

So in Jesus’ parable, not only is the heroic third person in this trio NOT the expected Israelite, and an UNexpected Samaritan,
he’s a GOOD Samaritan at that.

Think about how this qualifier came to be there.
The phrase “good” Samaritan appears nowhere in Luke’s original text.
That was added later by someone who felt the parable needed a title.
There’s no reason to label someone as a Good Samaritan unless the expectation is that the majority of Samaritans are bad.
We feel the need to qualify identities when they run counter to what we expect.
Like when we say male nurse or female firefighter instead just using the genderless term of nurse or firefighter.
While the phrase Good Samaritan has become part of our vernacular,
and now refers to anyone who comes to the aid of a stranger,
it was considered controversial and jarring to those early readers who understood the context.
Which is what made it such a good title.
Because it reflected Jesus’ ability to take a familiar story and flip it on its head.
To get his listener’s attention.
To get them to stop and think about ingrained ways of thinking that were more harmful than helpful.
To get them riled up and arguing back at him because they were offended by his insinuation that they were somehow wrong in their assessment of the hated other….
Because it hit too close too home.
And required too much self-examination and change in their understanding of fairness, and restitution, and grace.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked.
Jesus said, “Who was a neighbor to the one who had been left for dead?”
The man said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said, “Go, and do likewise.”

The story of the Good Samaritan is all about mercy.
The story has become so familiar to us, and we love exploring its many layers, and putting ourselves in the shoes of its many players.
The priest and the Levite who show indifference to suffering.
The Samaritan who sets aside prejudice to help someone in need.
The man in the ditch, who does the same when he accepts help from the enemy.

We want to make the story about overcoming hatred,
or helping those in need,
or moving ourselves from a place of apathy and indifference.

But in the end, it’s all about mercy –
being moved by our innate desire to care for one another,
just as we care for ourselves and those we love the most.

Mercy is about offering understanding and grace, without hesitation.
Without looking for a loophole.
Without asking what’s in it for me.
Without questioning whether it’s deserved.
Without concern that we’re being manipulated in some way.
Without fear of falling into the hands of robbers ourselves.

Offering mercy to a neighbor – and an enemy - is one of the hardest things we’re called to do.
And we’re going to fail at it.
More often than not.  And God knows that.

The thing about Jesus’ parables is they’re often as much about helping us to understand God as they are about helping us to understand ourselves.

God offers us mercy and grace, unconditionally.
God is forever picking us up off the side of the road, bandaging our wounds, and offering us healing….even when we’re convinced we haven’t earned it.

What must we do to inherit the life of eternal love and grace that we so desire?
Go and do likewise.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.