Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Trinity, September 10, 2017
“But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.”
Our lives are like gardens. We want them beautiful and functional, not overrun with the opposition, cruelty, greed or ugliness that certain people bring with them. It’s our right to take friends of our choosing and to exclude people we believe will not make good friends for us. We make mistakes at this, sometimes, and must amend our decisions. Like falling in love with the wrong person: one day you wake up and have to make painful separations. It’s okay to have in your garden an intersection with only those other lives you choose to have there.
It’s another thing when we classify a whole subsection of humanity as unfit merely due to a superficial trait or characteristic. In our history we’ve seen such injustice done to people of race, of color, of class, of national origin and of religion. The rich may disdain the poor, and with just as much antipathy, the poor despise the rich—neither class even knowing anyone in the hated other group, but feeling they have a prima facie case for pre-judgment.
There can be a right sort of prejudice, a positive knowledge and preference for or against some people. I don’t feel comfortable around methamphetamine addicts, or used car salesmen, or people who use foul language too much—but I do have a special liking for intelligent, positive people, those who enjoy the same music as I do, little children, or wise and elderly people. We can’t help but have preferences and, just the same, we have to be open to relationships with individuals who challenge our preferences, who cross our boundaries in friendship and show us we can enlarge our world.
The wrong kind of prejudice is termed discrimination, taking a described part of humanity and refusing your goods or services to them, calling them names, insuring their economic disadvantage, reduced educational opportunities, substandard living conditions and exclusion from your society. Black Americans have suffered these and worse rejections in our land, as have Mexicans and other Hispanics, Italians, the Irish, Jews, and almost every racial and national minority at times. For these definite offenses, our nation has sometimes been called a racist society.
I say that’s not so. There are certainly many instances that give evidence to that accusation, and yet this is the only nation on earth that has welcomed and made room for every other race and nation’s rejected people. And living with the strife, and overcoming it, our people work to make this land an attempt, a heartfelt try to see all the world’s people at peace. And when we achieve that, and befriend the other, embracing the differences and being enriched by them, we honor the poem engraved on our Statue of Liberty, that lady standing watch over New York where “From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. ‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
America is not the world’s greatest racist nation: it is the world trying desperately to solve its ethnic clashes and rise above them, stronger and more loving than before. We are set in this great crisis because of our proximity with each other, and because many of the ancient lands are too dangerous for families, too poor for their lives, and offer no hope of betterment. And America seems to have more.
We currently are challenged with illegal immigrants and refugees from such Middle Eastern lands as Syria, war-torn and violent. We ask: who are they and what are their intentions? They look different, struggle with English, live in enclaves, keep to themselves and worship in ways we don’t recognize.
That was the description that the Israelites of our Lord’s day gave for the strange people north of Judea with a history of offending God’s people. The Samaritans. In 740 BC, Assyria was an emerging world power looking to conquer its part of the world. The northern Jewish kingdom had been unfaithful to God, filling its land with idolatry and taking none of God’s warnings from His prophets. So doom fell on them, and ten tribes of the north were killed or captured or driven away. Assyria took their land and peopled it with pagan foreigners. In time, these invaders took Jewish spouses and eventually merged their religions into a blend of Jewish and pagan beliefs and worship practices.
The southern kingdom of Judah had its own Babylonian captivity, but returned to rebuild their capital, Jerusalem, and its Temple. The Samaritans, those half-Jews living to the north, tried everything to stop them from this holy cause. The Samaritans built their own Temple on Mount Gerizim and claimed it was superior to the 2nd Temple, establishing their own priesthood and sacrificial system. Samaria attracted criminals from Judea fleeing for their lives and joining the outlandish religion. By the time of Christ, the Jews had come to consider Samaritans the lowest form of human life on earth, human weeds.
There is something about God that doesn’t leave any injustice standing forever. He doesn’t allow any nation, tribe or person to be unworthy of His love. We may see and even seek His judgment to fall, His sending souls to hell, His wrath – from our perspective, a choice by God to love some and hate others. I think that’s merely our perspective, not His, and it may not be true. The final effect may be the same, but isn’t it rather the choice of an errant soul against God that causes that sulfur smell, the angry refusal of salvation by some that brings high the flames that consume them? People don’t want heaven and yet get hell instead. It’s the rejection of goodness that brings a bad result, and still God loves them. He just can’t let them turn heaven into hell. He loves us that much. And He can’t embrace evil.
So God on earth in Jesus Christ could not simply relegate, along with His fellow countrymen, all Samaritans to perdition. He stated clearly that He was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel and not to foreigners – that would be for His disciples later. And yet He healed foreigners filled with demons and one grateful Samaritan leper who returned to thank Him. He paused to speak with an immoral woman at a Samaritan well, revealing to her that He is Messiah, awaited by both His and her people. And He told this parable we call The Good Samaritan. We might today call it The Good Moslem.
Lawyers and scribes were always challenging Jesus with questions cleverly devised to trip Him up, make Him say something that would expose Him to charges, or alienate His following. (I’ve been deposed for ten days by Planned Parenthood’s attorneys and I know how this goes.) One day, a lawyer set Jesus up, first by reciting the great commandments, to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. “Do that and you will live,” Jesus responded. “But who is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer, laying the trap. Anything Jesus answered now could be debated. Instead of giving a careful answer, Jesus raised the stakes and told this story.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and was set upon by brigands. They stripped him and beat him and ran off leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, and when he saw him he went past on the opposite side. So too a Levite came by the place; he saw him too, and went past on the opposite side. But a travelling Samaritan came to where he was. When he saw him he was filled with pity. He came over to him and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine. Then he put him on his own beast, took him to an inn, and looked after him. The next morning, as he was going on his way, he gave the innkeeper two dinars. “Take care of him,” he said, “and on my way back I’ll pay you whatever else you need to spend on him.”
“Which of these three do you think turned out to be the neighbor of the man who was set upon by the brigands?” Jesus asked. “The one who showed mercy on him,” the lawyer had to say. Jesus said to him, “You go and do the same.”
Jesus used the dreaded S word, Samaritan. ‘One’s neighbor,’ everyone knew, ‘had to be another Jew, but only those Jews we approve of. Jesus had a reputation for hanging around with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, demon-possessed people, adulteresses: the outcasts. These Jews were not neighbors to the better classes of Israel. We surely can’t befriend Romans, the hoards of Greek-speaking foreigners who overrun our land, Arabs, Persians, Africans, and especially these Samaritans.’
The children of Israel were sent into the Promised Land to escape slavery, to leave Egypt behind, to drive out pagans, the practices of whose religions would get you arrested in America today. But from the peace of a Promised Land, they were to be a beacon to the nations, convincing the nations that their God was the only true God, and to bring those who might believe Him to His Temple, to His presence. It happened in a small way. The queen of Sheba certainly was impressed. Others were envious. But the Jews, afraid of religious contamination, set up their boundaries to the Gentiles too heavily. Very little light got out. Jonah hated to go tell Nineveh that God was ready to judge them.
In the first generation of Christians, one brave deacon, Philip, traveled right up to Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah, Jesus. Everyone was converted. They were baptized and received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John came and laid hands on them, confirming them in the true faith. It was as it might have been, should have been, long before. But the Samaritans were Israel’s weeds, chosen and selected out of their garden. History had been kept alive in an ever-living insult. But the final command of Jesus overruled it all. Go ye into all the earth, baptize all nations.
Who is excluded from your garden? Is it a good exclusion—remember, you hold the power to protect your life from unwarranted intrusion. But God has let you into His kingdom, and you were not truly worthy nor can ever be by yourself. You have this authority—to allow or to deny. Some can’t be close—they’re not safe. But that decision can only be person by person. We don’t select a race or ethnicity or political affiliation, or even religious identity out of our world without being discriminatory.
How is your garden—too much all the same? Does it need some variety? Can you stand a few more friends? Our nation, its great new colossus with her torch raised high, a blend of everybody on earth, a great melting pot, accented with spices rare and gloriously appealing, calls to our hearts the awaited peace and God’s good will to all men. The flesh-tone Band-Aids and Crayola’s that matched nobody’s skin color are of another era. Welcome the entire world within one nation, and Christ the King at its head.