Saturday, July 10, 2010

Seventh after Pentecost

RCL 10C Amos 7: 7-17; Luke 10: 25-37

Another fine midsummer Sunday, and grace and peace to you. On my internal and more personal calendar of the season I think of this Sunday as the “Sunday before the All Star Game Break,” but however it is for you, I do hope the summer is unfolding as a time of refreshment.

Susy and I are going to be away for a couple of weeks, heading up to Massachusetts, and while we’re worshiping on the next two Sunday mornings with our friends at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Scituate, my and our good friend Dean George Werner will be here at St. Andrew’s as celebrant and preacher. And George is such a wonderful preacher and great man and such an important leader in our diocese and in the wider church, I would say that I almost envy you all for the opportunity you’ll have to hear him preach. George tells me he’s always delighted to come to St. Andrew’s, and I know you all will give him a great welcome—and I won’t be surprised or offended in the least if there is a moment of disappointment when he leaves and I return at the beginning of August . . . .

Before us this morning, though, this wonderful and famous passage from the great prophet Amos, as our Old Testament lesson, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan as the New Testament reading from St. Luke.

We’re hearing from some of the great Old Testament prophets in this season in the lectionary, and this morning Amos takes us back to the image and understanding of the role of the prophet as we caught a glimpse of it a few weeks ago in the ministry of Elijah. Confronting the King and the Royal Priesthood and the wider culture for unfaithfulness to God, for persistent transgression, for departure from the Covenant Relationship established between God and his Chosen People as Mt. Sinai.

Jereboam is the King who followed Ahab and Jezebel, and it turns out things are no better now than they were before. Going to hell in a handbasket. And the wonderful image of the Prophet with the plumb line here, the tool the builder can use to determine with objective certainty whether the structure he is building is standing up straight.

And of course the measure for Jereboam, as it was for Ahab and Jezebel before him, is not good news. He is tried and found wanting. The whole nation out of line, no longer set upon its foundation, off-center, leaning toward inevitable collapse. And the prophet’s job is simply (!) to tell the truth, without fear, unflinching, no matter what the powers and principalities of this world say or do. He has been assigned this role by God himself, and there’s nothing any threat or promise on earth can do to shake that vocational certainty.

The priest Amaziah, the King’s Chief Minister for Religious Affairs, is assigned the job of silencing the nay-sayer. Putting a lid on him. Making sure the Royal ceremony proceeds without interruption. No one in authority seems at all concerned that what the prophet is saying may be true. The key is simply to get him out of the way, off the front page. He is a foreigner by birth, from the Kingdom of Judah in the south, so send him back there. He’s telling us things about ourselves that we just don’t want to hear. And the obvious point is that when we have the choice of a truth that makes us feel uncomfortable or a lie that makes us feel good about ourselves, we’ll go for the lie every time, no question about it.

In fact the Kingdom of Israel at this moment is only a couple of decades from its destruction at the hands of the Assyrian armies of the north, and I’m sure the survivors in exile looked back and remembered the words of prophets like Amos with a good deal of remorse. “If only we had paid attention, things might have been different. If only . . . .”

Although the Parable of the Good Samaritan seems fairly tame to us, in all its familiarity, probably it was a little more disturbing to those who heard the story from the lips of Jesus the first time around. For us the message may be something fairly straightforward, like, “don’t be like the priest and the Levite, who were so full of themselves that they couldn’t be bothered to help a stranger in distress, but be instead like the Good Samaritan, who even though he was something of an outsider and even outcast person had a compassionate heart and was willing to step in to this difficult situation with kindness and charity.

And I think that is a part of the message, no question. We all of us can be pretty self-centered some of the time, maybe even most of the time, the implicit self-ishness of the human condtion, and it is easy to look past those who are hurting, to be so focused on our agendas that we walk right past the agenda God is setting before us.

But this is a story with a sharper edge, which we know about historically, and we on reflection read it not simply as a personal call to a greater attentiveness and spirit of generosity and charity, but very specifically as an illustration of what is I think for all of us just about the hardest thing that Jesus ever asks of us, in his command, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What it means to be like a Samaritan who would help a Jew at the side of the road.

In this encounter between the Samaritan and the Injured Traveler, there are layers and layers of pain. Grievance. Discrimination. Susy and I the other evening rented the film “Invictus,” with the story of Nelson Mandela and his efforts to unify his new country not by punishing the Afrikaaner minority for its years of oppression and persecution, but by looking at the world through their eyes and ears and minds and hearts, by identifying with them, by finding in the symbol of the old South African national Rugby team a way of honoring their culture and heritage and tradition. And how Mandela did this, even though it cost him significant support initially from those who were closest to him. “Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.”

So that’s the story, I guess. The parable of the black township resident walking home from his demeaning, underpaid work as a houseboy, who sees an Afrikaaner alone at night, his BMW broken down by the side of the road in a dangerous part of town. Something like that.

This story is meant to push the buttons that we don’t particularly want to have pushed. For the Obama Democrat and the Palin Republican; for the serene Mainline Protestant and the fiery Evangelical; for the liberal Episcopalian and the conservative Episcopalian, for that matter. –Just who pushes your buttons these days? I guess that’s the place to begin. Who gets under your skin?

Maybe not politics or theology, maybe not a matter of race or economics or social class, but even something personal. The kid who made fun of you in the third grade. The colleague at the office who said something about you behind your back, that got back to you. A mean-spirited former spouse. Someone who subjected you to physical or psychological suffering or abuse. “Which of these," Jesus asks, "do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” It’s just really hard stuff: this business between Samaritans and Jews. Hard stuff.

It is an old saying, that the mission of the Church is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, and I’ve heard that repeated a number of times--and I suppose the point of these moments with the Prophet Amos this morning and with the Parable of the Good Samaritan is to be a reminder that if we don’t feel significantly afflicted from time to time by God’s word as a plumb line, if we don’t feel measured, weighed, tested, to show us with absolute clarity just where we’re off center, out of alignment with the foundation, then the Church isn’t really doing an important part of its job. Then the Church becomes a “non-PROPHET” organization. Which feels good, for a little while. A place of safety in the middle of the comfort zone. A mutual admiration society. A fellowship of the like-minded. What used to be called "a chapel of ease." But as Amos tells Jereboam, when a house is built out of alignment with its foundation, sooner or later it will fall. It just will.

So something challenging to wrestle with, in the midsummer. The hard process of taking the heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh. God taking us seriously when we pray “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

How do I learn to listen to the news I don’t want to hear? What would it really mean, to love my enemy as my neighbor, and to share my prayer, my heart, my spiritual center, with the one who would not in a million years wish to love me and to share with me in that way? For all our magnificent prayer and worship, our energetic outreach and service and witness, what if that is the one high road to heaven? Love your enemies. Not just tolerate them. Be for them comfort and forgiveness and healing. Be for them, good news. We’ll just set that out there and see what we can do with it.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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