Sunday, July 15, 2007
Sunday, July 15, 2007 - Risky Behaviour
I want to start by reading you something from Leviticus 21 and 22. "And the LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them that none of them shall defile himself for the dead among his people... If any one of all your descendants throughout your generations approaches the holy things, which the people of Israel dedicate to the LORD, while he has an uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence."
We often get down on the priest and the Levite in Jesus' good Samaritan story for walking by the seemingly dead person on the road. But I think it's important to remember that the priest and the Levite had good reasons. They weren't just being mean or selfish when they walked by, they were actually following the Law of God. They were obeying God's commandment that told them that if they touched a dead body, they would be unclean, and if they went before God unclean, if they carried out their religious duties while they were impure, then they would be cut off from God's presence. That's pretty serious, when you think about it, especially for a priest. So it makes sense to me that the priest wasn't willing to risk banishment from God's presence for a man who was probably already dead; it makes sense that the priest would want to behave conservatively and with care. Why take that kind of risk?
Not that the Samaritan wasn't facing the same risks. It's unlikely that he was a priest, and he certainly wouldn't have been a Levite, but Samaritans followed the same Laws as the Jews, and touching a dead body would still have made him unclean. Plus, Samaritans and Jews were never the best neighbours - they were more like religious enemies - the Jews thought the Samaritans ought to worship God at the temple in Jerusalem, and the Samaritans thought the Jews ought to worship God at the temple in Gerizim. So in addition to having the same Law about not touching dead people, the Samaritan had the added risk that the person lying there on the road in front of him was also a religious enemy.
Now, that's just to start. Once the Samaritan did decide to help the seemingly dead Jewish traveller, there were other risks that he would have to contend with. The first is that the chance of the Samaritan being repaid or even thanked for his help were pretty slim. In fact, it was highly likely that he would be on the receiving end of some pretty nasty words from the man whose life he was saving. Jews didn't worship with Samaritans, didn't touch Samaritans, and really didn't even talk to Samaritans. Once this Jew realized that he had been touched by a Samaritan, he would probably have wished that he had been left to die by the side of the road. So thanks and repayment were pretty much out of the question.
And there was the risk of the Samaritan being rejected by his own people. Even though later on, Samaria came to be a very multicultural place, at this point in time, our good Samaritan's friends could very well decide that after touching a Jew, he was too unclean, too low-brow to spend time with. In helping the man on the side of the road, in helping his neighbour, the Samaritan would be - at the very least - breaking one of God's Laws, but also probably risking his money, which he would never get back, and his future in the Samaritan community.
You, as a congregation, are in the same position as the Samaritan. You are being called to risk what you have in order to help your neighbour. Now, you may not think you're in any position to risk anything or to help anybody. The church is running out of money, the savings are pretty much gone, you've cut everything from the budget that there is to cut, and then some. It's pretty difficult to help with anything, especially if it doesn't result in some kind of return. If there's no compensation, then there's pretty much nothing you can do. Not that you're all about money, but, as they say, it's one of those bottom line things. And it's not just money you need to be conservative about, it's people, too. The membership here is dwindling, and those who stay are naturally getting older, and less able to work on Council or committees, the things that keep the church going. There's no way that this congregation can afford to engage in any kind of risky, radical behaviour that might alienate existing members. There's no way you can help your neighbour if it's going to mean, at the very least, breaking any of God's Laws, but also if it's going to upset the already precarious status quo or jeopardize the community.
So with all the risks involved, with the Samaritan's future in the community, and with his relationship with God at stake, why did the Samaritan reach out to the man on the side of the road? Well, interestingly enough, although God does command the followers of Torah not to touch dead people, there is a Law in Leviticus that precedes and seems to override that. Leviticus Chapter 19, Verse 18 tells us, as the lawyer in our Gospel story reminded Jesus, that "you shall love your neighbour as yourself." The lawyer, actually, goes a step farther by connecting love of neighbour with love of God - "you shall love the Lord your God... and your neighbour as yourself." Not only is loving your neighbour actually a Law of God, it's directly connected to your love of God. And for Jesus, it's the trump Law - it's the Law that overrides every other Law.
The Samaritan, who was moved by compassion, as the text says, obviously saw it that way. It may be because in the past, Samaritans were quite gracious in helping Israelites. In 2 Chronicles, we hear about two hundred thousand people of the tribe of Judah who needed help after being taken hostage in a war, and it was the Samaritans who, in the name of the Lord, clothed and fed them, put oil on their wounds, and then put the weak on donkeys and brought them to Jericho where they could get proper help. So our good Samaritan may have known his history and wanted to carry on the tradition. We don't know. All the text tells us is that he was moved by compassion, by pity and mercy. He believed that the grace of God, that the love of God for the helpless, embodied in the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself, overcame any other Law that was set before him, and like his ancestors before him, he clothed the dying man, poured oil on his wounds, put him on his donkey and brought him to a place to be cared for and fed. He risked losing his finances and his community - everything, in fact - in order to help his neighbour
So what specific risky behaviour is this congregation being called to engage in? Well, I don't know who specifically will come to the door of this church needing help. But I do know that you have certain gifts that you can risk in order to help your neighbour. The first gift is a gift of physical shelter. One of the particular gifts this congregation has is the parsonage, and the time may come when you can help someone with this gift. You might risk the parsonage by offering it as low-rent housing to a family in need, or as temporary shelter to refugees, or abuse victims, or homeless teens. Yes, these people don't enjoy reputations as good tenants, and yes, there's the risk that they wouldn't treat the property very well, or give you a good return in rent, but helping our neighbour never comes with a guarantee of repayment.
As limited as the church resources are, you might consider risking the church finance and increasing your benevolence to Synod, or to Canadian Lutheran World Relief, or to Campus Ministry. Yes, it would probably break your budget, but again, we are called to help our neighbour, not protect our bottom line. If the Samaritan had been concerned about his money, he certainly wouldn't have paid for the almost dead man to spend two more days in the inn. "Love your neighbour as yourself," says the lawyer, not "love your money as yourself."
Another radical risk that you could take could be with your gift of hospitality. You are an extremely loving and welcoming congregation. You are open to diversity and you embrace strangers who come in the door. Can you be risky enough with your gift of hospitality that you will welcome absolutely everybody? Not just the poor, not just the sick, not just people from different ethnic backgrounds, but also people who have previously been shut out of churches? Can you risk this congregation, and the disapproval of other Christian communities, by welcoming gays and lesbians into your midst? Can you be a Samaritan to the Jew in this respect?
Ultimately, whatever risks you choose to take for your neighbour, you will not be alone. Your greatest model, beyond even the good Samaritan, comes from God almighty. The simple act of God bestowing grace on us is the most risky behaviour ever. We know that God is bestowing grace and forgiveness of sins on a bunch of sinners who are completely unworthy of the gift. We know that in doing so, God is risking that we will abuse God's gift, or flat out ignore it, or waste it by sinning some more, counting on forgiveness to come. We know that despite the wonderful gift God has given us, we are going to make God look bad by not living up to that gift, we know that our irresponsibility as Christians and our flagrant abuse of God's grace makes Jesus' death meaningless. We know all this, and more importantly, God knows this. But God, risking everything, risking forgiveness, risking grace, risking unreturned love, and risking the only beloved Son in death on the cross, has sent Jesus anyway. The book of Romans lays it out crystal clear: "While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly... God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us....[and] while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son." God risked God's son on the weak, on the ungodly, on the sinners, on God's enemies. God risked everything on you.
So it's only a small thing for this congregation to risk everything on those who are in need. It's only a small thing for this congregation to follow God's ultimate commandment to "love your neighbour as yourself." Not only because God commands it, but because, in Christ, with Christ we have seen God demonstrate it. We have seen God risk everything, and lose his Son, for us. And so we know that because of that, as the second reading says, your hope is in the Gospel, in the good news of grace and forgiveness risked on you through Christ.
So, as you go forward today as a congregation, as you seek the path that God has laid for you, as you take risks for the neighbours who need your help, as Paul says in his letters to the Colossians, I say to you, "May you be strengthened with all power, according to God's glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified [you] to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. God has delivered [you] from the dominion of darkness and transferred [you] to the kingdom of God's beloved Son, in whom [you] have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." You can risk everything, as God has risked it for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.