Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sermon July 14, 2019

That’s what a parable does – it’s an imaginative story which illuminates reality, getting around our own mental barriers to cut to the heart of the matter. We are not told, you should do this; we are shown what reality is and who we are to be.
Luke 10:25-37

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

If you could have one of Superman’s superpowers, what would it be? His ability to fly? His super-strength or super-speed? His X-Ray or his heat vision? His ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound? His invulnerability to bullets? There are so many choices and they’ve kept science fiction fans arguing for years.

But I would argue there’s one superpower that outweighs them all. For Superman the most important attribute is not what he can do, but who he is. It is his character that is the most important thing about him.

Superman’s character was formed by his two fathers. His adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, raised him as his own and encouraged him to use his great powers to benefit others. His birth father, Jor-El of Krypton, trained him to view human beings, physically weaker than himself, not as slaves, but as equals and to care for them in secret, without reserve.

And so, when confronted by someone who is in need of help, Superman does not ask questions. He sees what needs to be done, does it, and moves on. He is a man of action.

Superman is, of course, not a real person. But his story can be considered a parable, whether the creators meant it to be or not. As we think about Superman, we are led to ask ourselves: if I or a loved one were in need of help, would I want someone around who had not only the abilities, but the compassion, the mercy, the decisiveness of a Superman? And what would I do if someone needed help? What would I do if I had the power to do this or that?

Or perhaps we do not ask these questions. Perhaps in knowing and breathing the story of Superman, we come to the answers without verbalizing them.

That’s what a parable does – it’s an imaginative story which illuminates reality, getting around our own mental barriers to cut to the heart of the matter. We are not told, you should do this; we are shown what reality is and who we are to be.

Today in the Gospel, Jesus is asked by the lawyer, who is my neighbor whom I should love even as myself? The question and the answer both show us reality.

The question shows us our sinful reality. It reveals the character of the old self who clings to each of us. This old self wants to keep life under control; to manage risk, to keep enough distance even from those it is to love. The old self wants to fulfill the love-commandment without loving. The cool calculating tone of the question belies the anxiety, fear, anger, and cynicism which lies behind it.

Who is my neighbor? In many places around the nation today, preachers will be only too glad to tell you who the neighbor is. It is the defenseless child in the detention center, or the defenseless child in the womb. It is the young black teenager who in a moment of panic flees a police officer and is shot down, or it is the police officer who is putting his life on the line in a dangerous world and must decide in a split second whether or not to shoot. To people who want guarantees, to people who desire definitions, there will be no shortage of those who will say, ‘This is your neighbor.’ The problem is that everyone who defines the neighbor must of necessity blind themselves to human suffering outside of their definitions.  

Even by mentioning these categories, I have inspired anxious questions in many hearts. By talking about the child in the womb and the child in the detention center, the teenager and the cop,  I have inspired you to put up barriers. In your mind you are deciding whom you should love, who counts more. I know this because I’m asking the same questions.

Frankly, these preachers who so blithely define the neighbor do not understand that the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’ is an endless question. No matter how it is answered, there is always a further question which can be asked. In the end whatever answer is given can be twisted to the old self’s advantage, so that it always gets the last word in, so that we may love without loving. 

Who is my neighbor? is the devilish question put in our mouths and our hearts, right up there with ‘Did God really say?’ And Jesus refuses to answer the devil, to play the devil’s game. No one wins when one argues with the devil.

Jesus does not answer the question, who is the neighbor? Instead, he shows us a neighbor.

The Samaritan immediately sees the person in need, he knows what to do. He is not consumed with anxiety about himself, but with compassion for the other. He is a man of action, not someone racked with questions. What should I do? Should I help? Am I obligated? Who is my neighbor? These are the farthest thoughts from the mind of the Samaritan. What fills his mind is the plight of the other. His actions reveal his character, the character of one who does not wish to preserve his life, to keep safe what is his own, but to give away that which his own for the sake of the other.

Jesus does not answer our anxious question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Instead he asks us the question, ‘Who was the neighbor?’ The neighbor is not the object whom I may find but the neighbor is the subject whom I must become. If we wait until I find our neighbor whom I may love, I shall never love. But if I become the neighbor who loves, I will find neighbors everywhere – I will see them in both unexpected and expected places.

We must be very careful when a religious leader, a politician or a political party, a media personality, or a corporate or media entity tells us too much who we are to love, because any direct answer to the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’ is playing a dangerous game. Because when we ask, ‘Who?’ we are perhaps very far from loving. Character is not formed by asking about who is to be loved.

But character is formed by meditation on character and then acting. We are to know so thoroughly and imitate the character of a Superman, a Samaritan, a Savior, that we will no longer ask the anxious questions but be able to see the other and clearly.

Surely it would be better if, instead of entering into the endless and pointless debate over who should be cared for more, we would soak our minds in this story, letting it enter into our hearts, being so immersed in the Jesus who told the story that we ask not ‘who is my neighbor’ but become the neighbor ourselves.

Surely it can’t be that simple.

Can it?