The Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris
In the name of our Creator, Liberator and Sustainer, God in three persons, Blessed Trinity, Amen.
This is the third time I have had the privilege of preaching from this pulpit. And I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to do so today, as the Cathedral honors the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I’m happy to have laity and clergy of several congregations from the Diocese of Massachusetts and throughout the state present, as well as our Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. And I would like to express my appreciation to Dean Baxter, an old and dear friend, and the Cathedral staff, for the kind invitation to serve as preacher for this service.
Let me begin with an urban legend that has been circulating on the Internet for the past year. And that variously has been attributed to one or more community activists, and most recently, to a teenager from Columbine High School.
More than important than its source, is the content of its message. This is what the teen author wrote:
The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings, but shorter tempers. Wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less. We buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses, but smaller families. More conveniences, but less time. More knowledge, but less judgement. More experts, but more problems. More medicines, but less well-ness. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom and often. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life, but not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We’ve conquered outer space, but not inner space. We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve split the atom, but not our prejudice. We’ve higher incomes, but lower morals. We’ve become long on quality, but short on quality. These are the times of tall men and short character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the times of world peace, but domestic warfare. More leisure, but less fun. More kinds of food, but less nutrition. These are the days of two incomes, but more divorce. Fancier houses, but broken homes. It is the time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose to either make a difference and pass it on, or just delete it.
What I have just read is perhaps not unlike the all be it, more primitive climate that Jesus had in mind as he framed the setting for his parable of the Good Samaritan. Going down that dangerous, bandit-infested road from Jerusalem to Jericho, which we have just heard in our Gospel reading for today.
Now most preachers who expound on this parable concentrate on the question: who is my neighbor? That question can easily be answered. For indeed, our neighbor is every man, every woman, every boy, every girl who needs our attention and our help. We readily can identify them at home and abroad. And indeed, a cursory look at the daily news can suggest several, from the lost boys of the Sudan to abused children in middle class homes. But the lawyer who came to Jesus, whether arrogantly as the Gospel writer suggests, or with a sincere inquiry, asked a prior question. He asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? What, teacher, must I do to inherit life?”
He was not talking about days and nights without number or without end. He was not talking about immortality in the sense of not having to undergo physical death. He was not talking about a quantity of days, but a quality of days.
There is an old hymn of the Church which begins, “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian when he sings. It is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings. When comforts are declining, he grants the soul again, a season of clear shining to cheer it after rain.”
And that is what Jesus provides in this parable of grace—a season of clear shining. And it came from an unexpected source—a hated Samaritan.
Now, on hearing the parable, many people are quick to condemn the priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side. Let us not be so ready to condemn them. They both probably were on important business, Temple business, and therefore God’s business. And really could not be distracted as they went down that road where muggings were as common place as violence on our urban streets today. Nobody with good sense went down the Jericho Road alone. If you could not afford a bodyguard, you joined some caravan or group of travelers so that you were not fair game for whatever thugs were out there.
But more important than the obvious answer to the question of who acted in neighborly fashion, was the lesson answer to the prior question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Or put another way, “How can I be in right relationship with God and be safe?”
Through the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus clearly answers this question, and the answer simply put, according to Lutheran Pastor Ralph Wallace of Columbia, South Carolina, is that eternal life comes from participation, not affirmation. The lawyer, like many of us, would seem to be seeking a principal which he can affirm, or some theory with which he can agree. But Jesus refuses to provide him with the rule or theorem with which he merely can acknowledge or to which he can ascent without taking it to the next level of putting it into practice.
When our Lord very practically asked, “What is written in the Law?” the lawyer begins to enter into debate. Not unlike some among us who poise on that slippery slope of offering proof tests from Scripture to prove a particular theological or moral position. He begins a defensive kind of debate. “Let’s define our terms here. Who is my neighbor? What is your concept of neighbor?” Asking what in effect is, is?
I believe that Jesus was teaching a few principles here through the lesson answer given
in this familiar story. By taking the initiative and becoming a participant, rather than affirm or merely be an observer is a first step in the eternal life process. Not that righteous works alone, pouring on some soothing ointment, putting someone into our means of transportation, sharing our lodging and offering to cover someone’s future expenses, is the real point. Rather, it is a willingness to get down into the ditches of life with those who have been victimized, wounded or oppressed. That is the principle being articulated here.
Similarly, we cannot choose whom we rescue or by whom we are rescued. Given the enmity between Jews and Samaritans, the rescuer on the Jericho Road probably would rather have preferred to continue his perilous journey without stopping, and the half-dead man probably would have preferred to have been rescued by someone like the priest or the Levite, rather than the apostate Samaritan. Again, there is as much for us in this lesson answer as there was for the lawyer. And the lesson answer each of us derives depends on the person in the story with whom we identify—the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, or the man who fell among robbers.
We cannot, for example, be hung up on whether we are called on, who we are called to minister or for whom we are called to advocate, whether they are of our ethnic, theological or ideological persuasion. Nor can we ask if they will ever become so. If they need us, they need us.
So did Jesus empty himself on our behalf. He was baptized into our condition. He wrestled with our temptations. He died a human death so that the whole creation might be made new. Likewise, when we find ourselves in our own dirty ditches of life, the ditches of doubt, depression, darkness and despair, we cannot be choosy about who rescues us. Just as Jesus perturbed some because he came as a carpenter instead of a crowned king, just as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and not in a chariot, just as he died on a cross and not as a hero on the field of battle—we cannot hope to fall back on the particularity of our Anglican heritage, our Episcopal tradition, or whatever our faith group, our social status, our gender or our racial identity in choosing by whom we will be rescued or helped.
In this period on the Church’s calendar, when we find ourselves in what is called ‘ordinary time’, we would do well to reflect on the lesson answer found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We must distinguish affirmation from participation. Or put another way, one of my colleagues, the Rev. Canon Ed Rodman, says, we spend too much time seeking a safe and comfortable liberation theology, rather than participating in Jesus’ recommended liberation methodology. We must not confuse the symbols of our worship, such as affirmation, with the act of meaningful witness, participation. It is not the how of our worship, but the who at the center of our worship, that really matters.
The history of the Church is rich in forms through which we express our feelings about God and our relationship to God and how we seek eternal life, from the high of the liturgist to the low of the pietist. The genius of our worship and our service, lies in our welcome of the loving God in whose imagine all humanity is made. Thus, we are granted fellowship through the grace shared in Word and Sacrament by all who love God. Blessed with the grace of knowing God as Creator, Redeemer and Spirit, we are called to move from the comfort and solace of this Holy Table, on to the dust of the Jericho Road, the world. The affirmation of worship must be translated into the action of participation.
In this, our season of clear shining, this season of ordinary time when we are reminded of the wonderful works of God through human participation, we must seek to recreate structures of safety and grace for God’s people. We must seek to redeem the lives of God’s people, and strive to empower them to meet the challenges of our present day and the days ahead. Indeed, our faith will be made whole when we, not by affirmation, but by the holy boldness of our participation or service to all kinds and conditions of God’s people, seek to live into the unity and the harmony of the Holy and Blessed Trinity.