SERMON: 5 Pentecost C 7 14 19
There was a time, around 1982, when I became interested in church. Raised an Episcopalian, I went to see the priest of the Episcopal church nearest my home, a fellow I had worked with on a non-profit board for ex-offenders. I essentially asked him, "What's new?" I'd been missing from the church for a little over a decade.
Anyone who had been involved in the church during the years of my absence would know that those years were difficult times for the Episcopal Church. Specifically, like most mainline Protestant churches in the US, the Episcopal Church had noted the reforms in the Roman Catholic Church resulting from their early-60s Vatican II review. The Episcopal Church and the other mainline Protestant Churches established their own review and reform panels.
Being people of the Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopalians set out to update the BCP. It was a grueling task with squabbles and skirmishes about how modern the language should be, how much of the 1928 BCP itself and how much of its style should be retained. The church witnessed a number of trial revisions including a green book and a zebra book. Only in 1979 did the Episcopal Church produce its "new" prayer book. The 1979 BCP, I think you probably know, is still called the "new" prayer book.
The compromises and changes that it contains are for discussion another day. But when I asked the priest in Anchorage, Alaska what was new in the Episcopal Church, he raised up this red book and said, "This." I took one home and looked it over and started going back to church. There were things in it that really caught my attention, and I'll mention just two.
The first was the Post-Communion prayer on page 365 which we pray at the end of each 10 am service. I found that that prayer explained to me in plain language what happened in Communion and what I was charged to do in response. I loved (and love to this day) its clarity, its simplicity and its bright tone.
The second thing was The Peace. Previous to the 1979 BCP release the Peace was a more private matter. One shared the Peace with the priest, who ordinarily did not circulate, and maybe with one or two people nearby. With the 1979 BCP and its focus on congregational life, people felt empowered to get into the aisles, to greet one and all if they wished, and, and reflect the grace of God which grants us peace and to share it with one another, not just acknowledge it to God and the priest. Actually, prior to the 1979 BCP the priest was called the minister.
But these things caught my attention. They opened up for me my understanding of church and my place in church and my relationship with God. There were dozens of other "aha" moments that led me to this pulpit, if you will. But eventually I came to explore the language itself, the words that we pray, word by word. All this reflection surfaced for me when I read this morning's collect.
Let's read it together:
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen
We have asked God to hear us. We have asked that we could know and understand what we ought to do. And we ask for grace and power to do it. The mechanical clarity of this prayer is the kind of thing that brought me back to church. I understand these words. This prayer also points out my role in this business of praying. I need to discern what God would have me do. Uncomfortable, awkward, inconvenient though it might be, I still need to do it. I am asking God to help me do it. It was that kind of microscopic clarity--oh, yes, and DO it--that jarred my sense of involvement in my faith into action.
And that is what Jesus wants for his followers. As he is engaging the lawyer who is testing him in today's Gospel reading he is also teaching all those present, especially the disciples. He weaves this dramatic tale of the man who was attached by a gang of men who robbed him, stripped him, beat him and left him half dead.
Well this is terrible, we think to ourselves, Somebody's got to help him. But two people--a priest and Levite--pass him by. Whatever their reasons, they don't help him. Then along comes the Samaritan. And the way he helps the man exceeds our simple thought of "somebody's gotta help." It is really impressive:
He was moved with pity. He bandaged his wounds, he poured oil and wine on them, he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii-the equivalent of two days' wages--gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.'
Needless to say this puts the priest and Levite to shame. And they are the spiritual leaders of Jesus' people. They are Jewish leaders. And for biblical reasons such as not working on the Sabbath and not touching blood, they passed him up.
But the stunner is that it was the Samaritan who helped the victim. Samaritans were outcasts to the Jewish faith. They engaged in practices which the religious authorities prohibited. So they did not deal with Samaritans. Yet here is this outcast doing as Jesus would have him do and there are the religious leaders doing the opposite. This is the kind of layered complexity that makes Bible study interesting and deeply meaningful. Obviously we can see the Samaritan is showing the mercy Jesus prescribes. We can also see the leaders are afraid or perhaps simply unwilling to do the right thing, however good their reasons.
There's no doubt as to who is doing the will of God here. God wants us to love God and love our neighbor. It would seem that the two who passed by the victim were doing the will of the rulebook, not of God. And the person who their religion shuns is doing God's merciful will.
In Bible study some years ago we reviewed this story. The priest conducting the group asked who in the Good Samaritan tale we identify with. A few people fearlessly said they identified with the Samaritan. Some admitted they occasionally had fears about helping people and identified with the priest or the Levite. Someone said they identified with all the characters due to different experiences in their life. And one identified with the victim.
You can imagine how interesting the discussion that followed was, given all these perspectives. By listening to one another, by recognizing each others' apprehensions and desires to help, their cautions and, yes, their rule awareness, we all learned more about ourselves, each other, and the richness of this incredible Bible story.
We also learned that the reject sometimes has the right answer and the authorities do not. These are important lessons. But pushing aside all the qualifications and conditions, God's message is not complicated. It is hard, at times, to overcome our reservations. But mercy can be offered to anyone.
In our reading from Deuteronomy we read of God's mercy toward us. "
...(T)he Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God..."Our Hebrew Bible reading also asserts something similar to last week's Gospel in which Luke wrote that Jesus repeatedly told his followers to proclaim, "The Kingdom of God has come near." Our Deuteronomy reading notes that people ask where they are to discover God and they are told, "' No, the word --that is God's will--is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe."
This tells us something we are sometimes afraid to know: we know what God wants us to do. Sometimes it suits us and sometimes we make excuses. That's normal. That's human. But we know.
This is the kind of situation where we can ask God to help us with our will, so it can better fulfill God's. That is why we have a prayer life and perhaps a meditation practice that keeps these issues in front of us.
Like the Good Samaritan we have the capacity to surprise people with our goodness. Sometimes the one we surprise is ourself.
A sermon preached on the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY