What must I do to have life? A Sermon preached at the St. George Chapel July 14, 2019
I have always liked walking along with the prophet Amos, with his plumb line and his calls for justice and righteousness to flow like an ever flowing stream. As much as the message, I think I like his imagery. So when I saw that Amos was one of the readings for today, I’d thought we would be strolling through Judah with Amos. But no, it was that well-known, potentially overly familiar story of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel that kept grabbing me to meander instead from Jericho to Jerusalem. Oh well. So let’s take a stroll.
This is probably one of the most guilt-producing passages of scripture out there. How many of us have not passed on the other side of the street to avoid a pan-handler asking for money for food, or turned a blind eye to a neighbor in need. I know: there are often all sorts of good reasons for turning away, ignoring, not engaging — I know, I am an introvert; I don’t really want to engage much of the time. But I also know, as one formed in the Christian tradition, whose sister is the director of the Samaritan Relief Center in her town, I know that I have all sorts of little niggling guilty thoughts about how I really ought to act, on account of this story. Before I go on my justified way.
So let’s look at it, shall we.
A lawyer stood up, to test Jesus: “Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” It’s the same thing that in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the rich young man asks Jesus: “What do I have to do to aline myself with God, with life?”
Jesus says to the lawyer, “Well, what’s written in the law; what do you read? What’s in the law of Israel?” Do you think he was just irritated with this question? “You are a lawyer; you are educated; you know the answer. Are you asking me just to show off? Or to trip me up?”
The lawyer answered: “You shall love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” He recited the catechism.
“OK, you are educated; you do know the tradition. Do it and you will live.”
The laws, the traditions of Israel were very clear. The lawyer knew them. And even the elaborations on the laws, as only a lawyer would.
In Deuteronomy: the Shema: “Hear. O Israel: The LORD our God is one God; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
In Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself….” and then later on, “ When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do that person wrong….and you shall love that person as yourself.”
Pretty clear. That’s in the Torah, something the lawyer knew.
But no, he had to push a little more: “And, just who is my neighbor.”
So we get the story of the Good Samaritan.
“Which of the three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man?
“The one who showed mercy.”
“Well, then, go and do likewise.” Clear. Not difficult.
I think it is somewhat easy to get a handle on what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves, this cross-cultural golden rule. We may not do it (and that’s another whole question about why we don’t do it), but there are clear injunctions in our scriptural traditions, ethical traditions, and in our legal systems. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, educating children, cleaning up the environment, doing what is just, speaking truth. It doesn’t always happen. Clearly. But we can figure out what loving our neighbor means, even when things are fuzzy. And they are often fuzzy: for instance, how do we decide about floating wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine, with the competing claims of our different neighbors? What is the right decision regarding inland salmon farming? What about that power line from Quebec to Massachusetts? It’s complicated, without answers as easy as just who showed mercy to the man lying by the side of the road, but I think we can slog through figuring these things out. Not all of our neighbors may be happy, but collectively, we can slog through figuring out answers. And maybe we can slog through best when we couple this love of neighbor, and who our neighbor is, with love of God.
So what about loving God? That one is not as obvious. Or maybe it is.
Loving God is where religion I think gets tripped up, even though at least nominally, it’s supposed to be all about loving God. But God, God is out there, a construct, open to all sorts of interpretation. I can see my neighbor; can I see God? Can you see God? What do you know about God? God the Father. Really? Literally? I don’t think so. Metaphorically, maybe. Omniscient, omnipotent, morally-perfect? Not really. Is it just a warm fuzzy feeling? What is this God we bandy about and appeal to? And how do you know if I love God. I say I love God. You can’t touch that. Because it’s my own personal thing, right? Who, what, where is this God in whom we live and move and have our being? Oh there are tomes and tomes of theology, gallons of ink, gigabytes out there about God. And we’re not going to solve it all on this summer morning.
But here is just a little piece I glean today, from our story. A little piece that might help as we think about what it means to have life. Because that is the questions: “What do I have to do to have life.”
First, the lawyer’s answer: “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.” “Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live.”
Both. Love God AND love your neighbor. Not love God OR love your neighbor. AND. Somehow that’s important. They are parallel. You can’t love God and not your neighbor, or your neighbor and not God. They are linked. For life.
So how do you love God? Here’s the one clue I see in today’s story that might help tease at least a little thread out. Our story is about loving the neighbor, answering the “and who is my neighbor” question, but there is also something about loving God. In the story we have the man who was going from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among robbers who left him half dead. Then we have a priest, a religious leader, going down the same road, and when he glimpsed the half dead man, he passed by on other side; likewise, a Levite, also a religious leader, passed by on the other side. The Samaritan, a foreigner, and a non-religious person to boot, came along the same road to where the man was, and when he saw him, he had compassion and tended to his wounds.
Both of those who passed by on the other side were part of a system, the religious system of the time. I can imagine them thinking that their task, whatever was taking them into Jerusalem, was far more important, holy, justified, than taking the time to examine the man who had been beaten, to stop and pay attention to what was in their path. It was the one with nothing to do with the purity of religion who stopped. Jesus probably chose a Samaritan for his story because the inhabitants of Samaria were known to be ne’er do-wells, impure, beyond the pale; Samaria was where many crooks and thieves were sent, out of Israel. No one ever expected any good to come out of Samaria.
Well, I am wondering if loving God is not all about paying attention, observing, attending to what is put before us. It’s about getting outside of the social constructs that might tell us that our systems are more important than paying attention to what is in our path. Instead, it is about shedding these identities so we can actually see what is in front of us, shedding our religious, national, economic, social, political identities and allegiances, putting them aside.
Taken this way then, maybe loving God is about close observation, attentiveness: Paying attention to life in all it’s incredible richness, the beauty of this land, the miracle of life and growth, the ecology of life and death. Maybe our scientific impulses, with close observation of smallest atoms, largest galaxies, patterns and laws of nature, maybe these impulses are most about loving God. Likewise, our artistic impulses, to understand the life we see and reflect it back, describing and interpreting the world: these are about loving God.
To love God is to look closely, to engage with this fragile earth, our island home.
Today we have an entire world that has fallen among thieves who have extracted resources, human and natural, in the pursuit of progress and growth; we have a world that has been beaten up and left by the metaphorical road. Politicians glimpse this situation and hurry back to attend to political expediency; business people glimpse this situation and turn back toward bolstering the GDP and satisfying their stockholders. Maybe it is only a child, not yet fully inculcated in the systems that consume us and keep us from seeing what is in front of our noses, maybe it is only a child who can look at rising temperatures and sea levels, who can see the plastics clogging our oceans, maybe it is only a child who can truly observe what has happened, and have mercy. Or at least, perhaps it is those able to break out of the systems that bind them to actually see and examine this beaten up world and have compassion, tending to the wounds.
Today, the writer of the gospel of Luke tells us that showing mercy, behaving as the Samaritan, is how we are to have life. The writers of Mark and Matthew are more stringent when they have Jesus respond to the young man who asks what he should do to have life. In their telling of this encounter, Jesus tells him to go and sell all that he has, and come, follow him. And the young man went away very sad, for he had many riches
So for what it’s worth, that is what I have been thinking about. Life, a full life, is about observing the world we encounter, outside of our conventions, AND responding with compassion and mercy to what we encounter. It may mean selling all that we have. I have a suspicion that it is less about becoming impoverished and more about putting aside the blind adherence to our different social constructs, and paying attention and responding to the realities in our paths. We do this, and we will live.
And I dare say, that should we not put away our conventions, those things that keep us from seeing the state of this planet, this world with receding glaciers, violent storms, disappearing bees, dying coral reefs, acidifying oceans, mountains of non-degradable plastic trash, I dare say that if we do not stare at this reality and tend to these wounds, none of us will have any life at all.
May we all love God with all our our heart, soul, strength and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. Our lives depend on it.