Br. Curtis Almquist originally preached this sermon on July 15, 2007. In it, he offers his thoughts on Luke 10:25-37, also this week’s proper.
You may know the term “proof-texting” when it comes to the interpretation of the Bible. Proof-texting comes down to deciding whatever it is you want to say about the Bible, and then searching out the scriptures to find the verses or the stories to support or prove your point. By being very selective in your Bible references, by choosing and mixing and matching verses, you can make the Bible say almost anything you want it to say. For example, “Judas went out and hung himself.” “Go and do likewise.” That could be a rather extreme example of proof-texting: patching together two things which really are not related to one another. Another form of proof-texting is taking a verse or story from the scriptures out of the larger context – making more of it or less of it than should be, were you to look the whole picture.
I want to say that this gospel lesson appointed for today could lend itself to proof-texting. If we were to take Jesus’ story of this good Samaritan as a kind of normative template for how we are always to navigate in the world, we might miss the mark. Now I know this is rather risky ground for a preacher to tread. The Good Samaritan gets such good press in the Bible. Who am I to impugn the actions or motives of the Good Samaritan? So I won’t. Rather, I want to extol the virtues of the priest who gets very bad press. This is the priest who passes by to the other side of this man who has been beaten and robbed. I admit to identifying with the priest. I have passed by many people, many, many people in life who are in great need. They may not be bloodied by robbers, as in Jesus’ story, but they are clearly wounded by life. Something has happened to them, and you need go no further than the streets surrounding Harvard Square to find such poor souls. Whether they have struggled with substance abuse, or mental illness, or joblessness, or some kind of terrible trauma, whatever, they are clearly in need, a good many of them standing or sitting or laying beside the roadway.
Looking backwards in my own life, I recall being traumatized in the work I did right out of college in international development. I made a trip to Haiti and saw a level of abject need that was absolutely overwhelming. I had never before seen such poverty, and this just miles off our Florida shores. I returned to the States intent on simplifying my life, giving more and more away to those in need, eating less, sleeping less, working more. It was my kind of intentional identification with these dear, so-poor people I had come to know in Haiti. Less for me was more for them. I remember waking up one morning realizing my own downward spiral was mostly fueled by guilt because of my many privileges as a white, North American male in good health and with the benefit of some education. I felt guilty about that, and I was atoning for my guilt by practicing incredible generosity meanwhile making myself as miserable as those whom I had met. And I was miserable. And so were the other people who had to put up with me. To overlay my story atop the story that Jesus tells about the Good Samaritan, it’s as if I took the action of the Good Samaritan as inviolable marching orders, always, and with everyone in need. Finally someone rescued me and told me this wasn’t the only story in the Bible.
My point is twofold. I think we need a plan and we need a prayer. The prayer is about our own individual place as a child of God in a world filled with God’s children. We need a prayer – a way of praying our lives – which acknowledges the dignity of our own birth and the benefits of our own life. And we need a prayer for how we desire to steward this gift of life entrusted to us. It’s how to pray gratitude for all we are and all we hold. It’s to see it all as what God has entrusted to us (very temporarily) to steward in this life. All that we are, all that we have we hold in trust. I would say we need to hold it all very gently. Don’t cling. Don’t hoard. Hold like in the palm of your hand. Be ready to part from it sooner rather than just later. I would say we all need a way of praying our lives that acknowledges our own place in life, and that allows, encourages, and enables others to live, also. If this is not your practice already, a way to begin is to pray the front page of the newspaper. Pray the front page of the newspaper as if you would looking into a family photo album. We belong to one another. We who are children of God read the stories, see the pictures of these other children of God. That means we’re like siblings to one another: the greatest and least are all among us.
Momentarily, as we draw our focus to the altar, we will be invited to pray the prayer that Jesus taught us, what we call the Lord’s Prayer. There is this phrase in the Lord’s prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This kingdom comes to be on earth by all of us taking up our distinctive responsibilities as builders of this kingdom. I was saying that we all need a prayer. And we all need a plan. This is about the plan. What is your plan? We cannot all do everything; but we all can do something to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound. (Those words are Jesus’ promises of what he, that is, “we,” will do. We will do in Jesus’ name and power: to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.) All of us have a different constellation of gifts, a different reach, a different cultural heritage, a different ability to connect with people, different ground on which we stand and navigate. What’s your plan? I think we all need a plan to embrace for where our own lives touch and transform the world which God so loves.
Which brings me back to Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan whom Jesus extols as a worthy neighbor. The Good Samaritan clearly does what is good, and right, and helpful. I suspect that all of us here have our own version of being a Good Samaritan, whether it was one particularly significant experience in our life, or whether this is an ongoing pattern how we respond to need. I can identify with the Good Samaritan, as I’m sure all of you can. But I said earlier that I can also identify with the priest who passes by on the other side of the road. What’s his story? From where has he come and where is he going? We don’t know.
I’m reminded of my own experience this past December around Christmas. I was at a shopping center where I passed by someone who was collecting money and supplies for needy children and their families. I had several sacks of purchases in my arms. I passed by this collection point and made no contribution. The person overseeing this collection station called to me made several rather-badgering comments to me about why I should be contributing to this worthy cause. I simply passed by, a little offended, mostly saddened, and I made no response to this person. What he did not know was the sacks in my arms were supplies and gifts for poor children and their families in Tanzania and Kenya, where several of us brothers traveled on mission just after Christmas. That was our plan. I was on a mission. This other man – a good soul, undoubtedly – simply did not know that he did not know that I was already on a mission. And I would say we’re all on a mission and we don’t usually know the full story of one another. It seems to me we should err on the side of dignity as we look on one another as they make their own way.
I admit that this may be proof-texting, but I want to think that the priest in Jesus’ story was also capable of being a very good neighbor. Maybe he was on the way to the next accident scene. Maybe he just came from one? We don’t know. We never know. What we can know is the truth of our own lives: all that we are and all that we hold is gift, entrusted to us for a very short while on this earth. The Lord gives; the Lord takes away. Be prepared to give away what inevitably is taken away at death. Have a plan that fits your life. Let your plan spring from your prayer, that all of your life be hallowed. In the doing, we all share in what Jesus had in mind, now and for all eternity.
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