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Sermon: And is Better. Go Further.

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA July 14, 2013.

8th Sunday after Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Amos 7:7-17; Ps. 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

Have you seen the recent TV commercials for the new Ford Focus automobile?  I’m not here to promote the car, but I am really taken by clever ads.  One commercial has a couple driving along, looking for a Chinese food restaurant.  They celebrate a few features of their car such as voice-activated calling AND great gas mileage.  The woman says, “That’s so much better than choosing voice activated OR great gas mileage.”  To which the man replies, “That would be like eating sweet OR sour chicken.”  Flash forward to the couple eating in a Chinese restaurant and clearly NOT enjoying their meal.  With their faces all twisted up in agony, they ask about what they’re eating.  The server says, “Sour Chicken!  It’s good, right?”  The tag line for Ford’s commercial is “And is Better.  Go Further.”

In Luke’s Gospel, when the lawyer asks of Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” we hear the wisdom of God as found in and through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  “You should love the Lord your God with all your heart ... soul ... strength ... mind ... AND your neighbor as yourself.”  “And is Better.  Go Further.”  In our tradition, you sometimes hear this referred to as “BOTH/AND.”

We’ve also heard the parable of the Good Samaritan.  So where do the characters end up?

  • The robbers, having done their brutish deed, have long since made off with whatever it was they stole from the poor man they attacked;

  • The priest and the Levite, each having separately bypassed the half-dead man beside the road, continue on their way to Jericho;

  • The victim recuperates at the inn, where the owner entrusted with his care has received a down payment for whatever that care will cost; and ...

  • The Samaritan continues his journey, promising to return to settle accounts for the victim's expenses, for someone who was previously unknown to him.

So where does that leave us, you and me, who hear this story?  We listen along with the lawyer who wants to know where his neighborly obligations begin and end.  With him, we hear the directive from Jesus, "Go and do likewise."  We are given, as an example of neighborliness, this story about the Samaritan who is out of place and vulnerable himself because of the long history of hatred between Jews and Samaritans.

The Jews and Samaritans are related peoples.  Both are Hebrew.  Samaritans were descendants of those who had not been deported or killed after the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell in 722 B.C. while Jews are of the old Southern Kingdom of Judah.  When Israel fell, survivors married outside their clans with heathen colonists brought in from Babylon by Assyrian conquerors. Consequently, Samaritans were considered to be unclean traitors to Jewish blood.  There were other differences as well regarding worship and scriptures.  The Samaritans’ offer to help rebuild the temple in Jerusalem when Jews returned from the Babylonian exile was refused, and this caused great bitterness. Consequently, Samaritans refused to worship in Jerusalem, preferring instead their own temple on Mt Gerizim, which had been built around 400 B.C. When this temple was burned by the Jews in 128 B.C., relations between these two peoples deteriorated even more to the point that Samaritans would occasionally detain Jews traveling through their territory.

This parable Jesus tells the lawyer might open wide floodgates to drown us beneath worries of the world.  For, truly, we see needy neighbors in every direction.  It's hard to know what to do.  How do we guard our souls from growing numb in the face of wholesale sorrow that surround us?  How do we avoid ending up exhausted, adding ourselves to countless others who ache for attention? Is there a way to sidestep compassion fatigue, so that the fire of concern within us does not just flare up and then quickly burn out?

Here at Immanuel, we receive phone calls and visitors at our door who seek aid from the church.  All of them have a story, and time is required on my part to hear about their circumstances, assess the need, and determine how best, and if, we can help. 

His name is Wayne, and he had ventured from a suburb of Hollywood, CA to find his family in Maine.  The family knew he was gay, but were unaware Wayne was now HIV-positive and dying of complications from AIDS.  He badly wanted to reconnect with his family, but instead Wayne was utterly scorned and completely rejected by them.  You might say he was left half-dead at the side of the road.

Speaking to Wayne, my heart ached and my spirit was troubled.  What should I do?  What can I do?  He was at a hotel on Rte. 1, seeking a ride to get into D.C. to a hotel where a friend in California was couriering a train ticket to get him back home.  Wayne knew time was fleeting and he was going home to die.

Wayne had been robbed of hope he still had in his parents and siblings, people he imagined might still love him most and perhaps care for him best.  Yet, they completely alienated Wayne as an unclean traitor of the family blood.

After literally spinning round in my office and then again several times more out in the hallway, I turned to Mary for advice.  She saw me, she heard me, but she said, “David, I cannot tell you what to do.  Trust your gut.”  So I grabbed my car keys, not knowing what I was going out to, who I would find, or what I would do.  I can tell you I was praying very hard for answers before I got to that Red Roof Inn.

I pulled into the parking lot and found a timid, rather gaunt and frail man with scraggily white hair and a rough beard.  I wondered if I was placing myself in a foolish or awkward or even dangerous spot.  I prayed God would grant me gentle compassion enough to help, but that I would also be smart enough to not get hurt.  I trusted God to ‘guide me and direct me, to guard me and protect me.’

Identifying myself by name and offering to help, I grabbed Wayne’s luggage and placed it in my car, saying I would drive him into the city.  I know where Union Station is and how best to get there.  What I didn’t know was the hotel for the couriered train ticket rendezvous would be 14 city blocks up Georgia Avenue.

We drove to the Motel Six and I bought Wayne an overnight stay.  I got his bags to his room and noticed he was exhausted from walking from the car to the room.  We sat, I let him catch his breath, and we held hands to pray.  That could have been enough.  In his weakened state, with  baggage that he carried, literally and figuratively, I thought it impossible for Wayne to walk from the hotel to the train station.  I gave him my business card and what money I had, hoping it would buy some food that night, cover a cab to Union Station the next day, and help on the way back to California.

Three days later, I called Wayne’s cell phone.  He was in Chicago, had needed an overnight hospital stay to help hydrate him while clearing his lungs of phlegm.  He was about to board a train to continue home.  I called three weeks later to leave a voicemail.  I tried a final time three weeks after that; the message said that phone number could not accept voice mail messages.

We are all called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  That’s what it means to mirror God’s mercy in responding to our neighbor, whoever they may be, and wherever we may be found.  It is that kind of mercy that witnesses to the compassion of God found in its most profound expression of the ‘gospel that has come to you’ - namely through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

It is that gospel and its mercy which comes to us each time we gather in this place: at that font of living water where we are cleansed of our sin, in front of this pulpit where we read, hear and are inspired by the Living Word of God Almighty, and around our altar, where we receive holy food and drink in the Body and Blood of Christ to comfort and sustain us.  They are all constant reminders to us that the Good News of Jesus Christ is ‘here and now’ and very near to us all.

When Jesus ends the parable of the Good Samaritan with "Go and do likewise," he’s not imposing any one way of responding to travelers who end up in trouble.  No, I believe our Lord’s intention is greater and far more practical; it is something that applies to countless different situations.

Jesus wants us to truly see, hear and try to help someone in need.  We can't account for every needy person on the planet, for the needs of this world are great, and abuses of our compassion may lurk behind any door or voice.  Yet we will recognize those with whom we have life and hardship in common.

The saga of those persons will not lead to compulsive activity or obligation or guilt. Instead, we will likely will be moved by pity.  We may feel compassion for people ‘in our gut’ as deeply as we can possibly feel.

This will prompt action.  Because when we truly see and have truly felt, there is reason to believe we will use our resources wisely and effectively.  Perhaps we may find that, by grace, we have turned out to be the right person in the right place at the right time.

Later, when another lies broken in mind, body or spirit alongside the road that is this life, I pray we all will be better able to see, to feel, and to act in a way that reflects God’s loving compassion and mercy as neighbor to that person.  For the answer to our question, "Who is my neighbor?" will appear there before us, as plain as day, in the one who has need AND awaits our action.

Who is our neighbor? Look around.

Who will show great mercy? Look to yourself.

And IS Better.  Go further.

Go and do likewise.  AMEN.

                              Mirror Love