Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sermon: The Good Samaritan

This is the first sermon I preached at my new parish home, St. Matthew's Riverdale.

Date: July 11, 2010
Sermon Text:
Luke 10:25-37

It wasn’t too long ago, when I was in high school. And I was in love. There was a girl in my church’s youth group who seemed to me, at the time, to be everything I could have ever wanted.

I remember trying to get this girl just to like me back. I didn’t know what to do. Nothing seemed to work. I talked to people. I even read a best-selling Christian book on high school dating. After months of frustration, sitting at the kitchen table, I finally blurted out to my mother: “I don’t understand. What I have done wrong? I’ve done everything right. And it’s not working out!” My mother did what good mother’s do and gave me a hug. But, the unspoken question lay there on the table: “Really, what do I have to do to make her love me?

[Page 1] What must I do? What do I have to do? This is the question that the lawyer, the expert in the Jewish law, stands to ask Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, the Rabbi, takes this question seriously. The lawyer is testing Jesus’ ability to interpret the Law of God, and the crowd is waiting with baited breath to see how Jesus will answer. He looks the man up and down. Jesus, the plumb-line set in the midst of Israel, the expert teacher, tests the man right back. He responds to the question with a question of his own, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer smiles. He is on home turf. He responds adeptly with what he knows is the right answer, taken straight from the Scriptures themselves: “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.” Jesus nods. “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Something passes over the lawyer’s face – what is it? Confusion? Disappointment? For some reason, he cannot receive the answer Jesus gave. “But wanting to justify himself [which means that he wanted to prove himself right in front of Jesus, the crowd, and, ultimately, God], he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” This time Jesus is the one who smiles. Now, he is on own home turf. And when Jesus gets home-field advantage, everyone in the crowd knows, he almost always tells a story.

This time the story is of a man beset by robbers. They stripped him of his belongings, beat him, and left him for dead on the side of the road. A priest passes by, but instead of stopping he goes to the other side of the road and leaves the man in the ditch. The same was true of a Levite, a person set aside for the work of God. It was only when a ditch-diving Samaritan happened by that the man was rescued.

“And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer had asked. After his story, Jesus again responds with a question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer replies “The one who showed him mercy.” Out of his own mouth, the lawyer condemns himself. The lawyer’s neighbor in the story is not, in the first place, the man beaten and bruised in the ditch. The lawyer’s neighbor is not someone he can swoop in and rescue and therefore show himself right God. The lawyer’s neighbor in the story is the “one who showed [that man in the ditch] mercy.” The lawyer’s neighbor is the one who swoops in and rescues that man. The lawyer is not, in the first instance, the Samaritan; he is the man beset by robbers, naked, bleeding, and desperately in need of rescue.

[Page 2] What must I do? What do I have to do to make God love me? We and the lawyer are asking the same questions. And because we are gathered here this morning in St. Matthew’s Riverdale, we are asking the same questions of the same person. Jesus, here among us in his Holy Spirit, passes the same verdict upon us: there is nothing we can do to make God love us. There is no one we can swoop in to save and therefore justify ourselves. There is nothing we can do to earn eternal life. Nothing, absolutely nothing.

We, too, are the man beset by robbers. For one reason or another, life and our own sinfulness have conspired to find us, strip us bare, and leave us in the ditch to die.

The problem? Just like the lawyer, we often do not know where we are or where we have come from. In those moments when we do realize it – at 2:00am after a long, long day, at the soccer pitch when you’ve missed your child’s game, at 8:45 on a Monday morning when your work threatens to overwhelm you yet again – at those moments when we do realize that we are the ones who have been left in the ditch to die, we look up to see the powerful of the world passing us by. The priest and the Levite are in the story, but we might equally look up to the glamorous and successful. These are the people we patterned our life after. But they are the ones who pass us by. And not only those, even the people who should help us – our family and friends, our loved ones and our confidants – even those people sometimes pass us by.

But that doesn’t mean we stop struggling. What little peace we do find, whether it comes from the numbness we find in television or alcohol, or in the excitement that comes from thrill and adventure – whatever peace we do find leaves us where we began – in the ditch. And so, we thrash; we flail. We attempt to pull ourselves out, but we can’t. The ditch and our wounds are far too deep.

“What must I do to rescue myself? What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Nothing, absolutely nothing. We are all desperately in need of rescue.

[Page 3] In Jesus’ story, when the man is beset by robbers, he is left there to die, not only by the criminals but also by the righteous priest and Levite. It is not until the Samaritan comes that the man is rescued – and what a rescue it was. Jesus says that the Samaritan was coming along the way when he saw the man, beaten, starting to die. The Samaritan is moved with pity.

Something touches him deep down. As a Samaritan in Israel, he knows what it is like to be left in other types of ditches. Despised by most Israelites as a half-breed idolater, he knows what it is like to be passed over by the righteous of the land. When he sees the man in the ditch, he is moved with pity.

But, he not only feels, he acts. Jesus says the Samaritan “went to him.” He crawled down into the ditch to rescue the bloodied and beaten man. The ditch-diving Samaritan stooped down low. He washes the man’s wounds with oil and wine. There in the ditch, he bandages the man, one strip of cloth after another. When all the wounds are covered, the Samaritan picks the man up, carries him up and out of the ditch, and puts him on his own animal. There the Samaritan walks beside him and brings him to the steps of the Inn, where he places him to heal and to rest, to eat and to regain strength. Ultimately, the man in the ditch will get up under his own power and walk. For now, he must be carried. The Samaritan rescues the man.

And the lawyer, dumbstruck, has to realize now that the only thing to do to inherit eternal life is to stop fighting, to stop trying to find some way to make God love him. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he rightly asks. The counter-intuitive answer: get rescued by God.

[Page 4] If the lawyer’s question is our question, then his answer is ours as well. What do we have to do to inherit eternal life? Nothing except this one thing: get rescued by God.

Here, every week, we worship a God that is in the business of rescue. He is the one who sees us at 2:00am after that long, long day. He is the one who sees us when we are suffering because of our own stupid mistakes. He is the one who sees us when we are at the point of being overwhelmed by the world. And, like the Samaritan, he is moved with pity. Our travail with the world, the flesh, and the devil is not lost to God’s heart. Deep inside the eternal life of God, there is an ache for each one of us.

But God not only feels. He acts. The Bible tells us that God was not content to leave us in the ditch. Instead of keeping Himself clean and giving us good things to do to inherit eternal life, He came down into the ditch himself. This is what we confess every week when we say that our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate of the Virgin Mary. All those years ago, God very literally stooped down to earth, sliding down into the ditch of our misery, to rescue us and the world.

And now, God continues to come down into our lives to rescue us in the person and work of His Holy Spirit. There in the ditch with us, the Holy Spirit applies the oil and wine of the work of Christ in the water of baptism and the gift of faith. God the Holy Spirit picks us up out of our ditch and carries us back, supporting us, until he brings us back to the steps of the Church which he built with Jesus’ own flesh and blood. Here, God promises to provide for us until Jesus comes back to finally set all things right.

“How do I inherit eternal life?” Get rescued by the God who has made it his business to rescue us. Being rescued is the hardest and yet the simplest thing in the world. It’s so hard because we want to be in control of our own lives and doing our own thing. Yet, being rescued is simple because all it takes is to say “Yes” to the ditch-diving God. Saying Yes is simply choosing not to fight God as he bandages our wounds, as he sets our broken bones, and as he carries us into the doors of His Church through baptism and confirmation. It is choosing not to fight God as he teaches us in his Church a new way of being human, as he places us in small groups for healing and fellowship, and as he issues again Jesus’ command: “Go and do likewise.”

Brothers and sisters, we will gather in a few moments for the Eucharist. As we do so together, remember this. It is God who rescues us in Christ. When you receive the bread in your hands, remember that it was Christ’s body that broke when he slid down into the ditch to rescue us.

When you taste the wine on your lips, remember that it was Christ’s blood that was shed to found the Church that feeds us and equips us to go and do likewise. Let us remember and partake. Let us rejoice and be thankful. Let us, together, get rescued by God. 

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