By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 10:25-37
It may not surprise you to know that this pandemic has caused me to reflect quite a lot on what are the essential activities of the church and its people. Our morning worship used to average in the low 90’s. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, it averages in the 30’s. Some who are quarantining tune in to the Sunday morning Zoom… which is also a time of worship. But, many more simply go online to view the sermon each week. I certainly don’t want to discourage any of that. I want to encourage us. But still, I feel as if the church – as the Body of Christ – is a bit dismembered. Even for those of us here in the sanctuary, it’s not the same. We don’t sing congregational hymns. We don’t join in unison prayers or pass the offering plate. We don’t have our time of greeting with hand shaking and hugs. And, when we commune, it is no longer from a common loaf and common cup.
So, what is essential to the experience of church?
If one studies our gospels, we discover that the most prevalent title for Jesus is that of rabbi; a word meaning teacher. And, the most prevalent title for those who follow him is disciple; a word meaning student. So it would seem that, most of all, to be a Christian is about being a “student” of Jesus; adhering to and living out the lifestyle and teaching of Jesus.
That’s why we need to pay attention to the very clear directive or teaching in the parable we heard this morning.
Jesus tells this parable in response to a question from a lawyer. Now, that English word “lawyer” is a bit confusing. The term or title in our gospels refers to those who are experts in the Hebrew laws or teaching; experts at interpreting them and helping people understand their application.
Throughout the gospels we read of Jesus having interactions with these religious authorities or experts and, from our perspective, it often sounds as if they are asking sincere questions. But generally, they weren’t because the ancient Eastern world was what sociologists call an honor/ shame culture. And the way honor was “managed,” shall we say was through a practice called challenge/riposte in which one person enters into an honor challenge with another by posing a question. If the question is answered well, one maintains – or even elevates – one’s honor. If the question is answered poorly, one loses their honor, reputation, or social standing in their community... which was the currency of the ancient world; what one used to get the basic stuff one needed out of life. It was really a very detailed, complex social phenomenon which we have no reason to deep dive into this morning… Except to say that the lawyer’s “question” is designed to determine if Jesus, this so-called “rabbi,” has any right to embrace such a lofty title for himself.
Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with a parable. Rather than a direct answer to the question, Jesus tells a story that concludes with his own question (a kind of “right back atcha dude”)… a brilliantly clever approach that is a counter challenge; a kind of check mate, so to speak.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” was the lawyer’s initial question. Jesus counters the challenge by throwing the ball back in the lawyer’s court, “You’re an expert in interpreting the scripture. Don’t ask me; just tell me what it says. You’ve read it for yourself.”
"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”[i]
The man very accurately responds that love of God and neighbor are the foundation of the Scriptures. Jesus affirms his answer; but, this interaction has resulted in a sort of stalemate and the lawyer is not about to walk away without a clear winner and a loser in this honor challenge game.
So he pushes further. “Tell me Rabbi Jesus, just who is my neighbor?” And Jesus begins what is one of his most popular parables. At its conclusion, notice that Jesus frames the question differently. The lawyer wanted to know WHO his neighbor was. But Jesus’ question has been nuanced. Who WAS a neighbor to this man who’d been beaten and robbed?
Now, the hero of the parable is a Samaritan. Samaritans were only partly Jewish. So, pure-blood Jews did not consider them Jews at all because purity was a really big deal in the ancient world. Samaritans were considered dirty little half-breeds. And perhaps that is why the lawyer cannot even bring himself to name the Samaritan as hero. Instead, he provides a more generic response… one devoid of any ethnic commitment. He says, “The one who showed him mercy” to which Jesus replies “Go and do likewise.”
"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”[ii]
My friends: mercy, in our bible, is central to the character of God. Way back in Exodus when God invites Moses to climb up Mount Sinai so God can give him the commandments for the Israelites, Moses asks if he might see God. And here is what we read…
God said, "You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." 21 And the LORD continued, "See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."
Exodus 34:4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone…; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. 5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there… 6 The LORD passed before Moses, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…[iii]
Throughout the Psalms, we read the prayers of the psalmists who cry out to God for mercy. The psalmists trust that mercy will motivate God to come to their rescue in times of trouble. The Hebrew prophets also proclaimed the mercy of God. Micah reminded us: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?[iv] As humans, we sometimes experience mercy as a double-edged sword. We love to receive it, but are not always excited when he cuts both ways. The prophet Jonah is furious over the fact that God’s merciful character means those nasty Ninevites got a second chance after they repented. He gripes to the Almighty: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[v] Over and over again in our gospels those seeking healing from Jesus, cry out for mercy. They clamor after Jesus as he is walking along. They cry out in the middle of his sermons with their notorious refrain: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”[vi]
Mercy is who God is. Mercy is who Jesus is. And if we identify ourselves as disciples of Jesus, mercy will define who we are and how we engage with others.
Friends: this morning you’ll hear an announcement from Catherine Gray about making sure you are registered to vote this fall because voting is a way that we live out our Christian discipleship. Sometimes people have asked me, as a pastor, how they should vote. First let me say, no pastor should ever tell you who you should vote for. That’s inappropriate. But I can tell you this much: as followers of Jesus, our voting should reflect a desire to demonstrate mercy toward those in need. Often politicians (from both parties) try to earn our vote by telling us how they will look out for our personal interests. You can’t really blame them. After all, that is the ultimate description of the sinful human condition. Sin, simply put, is when we look for ourselves above all else. But, if we are followers of Jesus, if we have been washed in the waters of baptism, we have invited God’s Holy Spirit to put to death within us that desire to live for self and self-interest. Sometimes it may be hard; as hard and upsetting as it was for Jonah to see God show the Ninevites mercy. Yet, we rise from the waters of baptism committed to living as Jesus lived. And if the Spirit of the Rabbi Jesus, our risen Lord, is living in us and we are living according to his lifestyle and teaching, all of our life’s decisions will be motivated by a desire to demonstrate mercy toward others.
"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”[vii]
So what does mercy look like? Well, it looks like it did in this morning’s parable: it provides healing for the sick, protection for the vulnerable, shelter to those in the streets, and it embraces the stranger or those who are different and recognizes the gifts they have to offer. And it does all of this with a spirit of generosity and a willingness to give even more when it is needed. So, before we vote, we need to study the policies politicians have administered and are advocating and ask ourselves, “Will this candidate’s agenda provide healing for the sick, protection for the vulnerable, shelter to those in the streets and does it embrace the stranger and those who are different; does it provide them with rights and opportunities?” We need to make our political decisions from a place of generosity, not fear or self-preservation as the priest and Levite did. We need to remember not only within these walls but out in the streets and even in the voting booth that we have pledged our allegiance to…
"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”[viii]
What are the essential activities of the Church and its people during a pandemic? They are no different than any other time. Whether we are sitting in a pew in a sanctuary or in front of the computer in our pajamas at home, we are called to be people of mercy: to do justice, to love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Hear, O Trinity, the voice of Jesus as he says to us, “Go and do likewise.”
[i] Exodus 34:6
[iii] Exodus 33:20 – 34:6. NRSV.
[iv] Micah 6:8.
[v] Jonah 4:2b
[vi] Exodus 34:6
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