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02 August 2015

The Good Muslim (When The One Who Saves You Is The One You Hate)

Sermon on Luke 10: 25-37,
preached by Fritz Wendt
on July 26, 2015 (Pentecost 9),
 at Zion St. Mark's Lutheran Church,
New York City

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us pray ...

My friends,

Charlie Brown runs into Lucy Van Pelt and announces he has something to confess. “I did something stupid,” he says, “and now I hate myself.” “What's the matter?” she says. “I was sitting on the floor,” says Charlie Brown, “working a puzzle, and my little baby sister came crawling over.

She crawled right into my space and messed up the puzzle, so I yelled at her. She started crying, and now I hate myself.” He sighs and adds, “I shouldn't have yelled at her; she's only a baby; I feel terrible.”

Lucy moves a bit closer and says, with great warmth in her voice, “Charlie Brown, I understand what you're going through. Don't forget that my brother Linus was a baby once too. I had the exact same problem. I used to feel the same way about baby Linus the way you do about your baby sister.”

“Really,” says Charlie Brown, "I am so glad someone understands. But what did you do when your little brother got on your nerves?" “Well,” says Lucy, “I solved my problem."

Even as Charlie Brown asks, "But how?", Lucy's brother Linus walks by, reading a comic book. Lucy's voice instantly changes from sweet and compassionate to loud and demanding: “Hey young man, doesn't that comic book you are reading belong to me, your big sister?” As Linus turns around, startled, it is dawning on him that he is being scolded.

But Lucy doesnt give him a chance to respond: “How many times do I have to tell you to leave my things alone?” Linus looks as though he is going to to cry. Lucy roars at him, “If I catch you with another one of my comic books, I'll get you, Linus.” And then she adds with an even bigger roar, “I'll chase you clear out of the country. I hope I am making myself clear.”

As Linus walks off, quietly crying, Lucy turns back to Charlie Brown who's been watching the spectacle in disgust, turns on her smile and tells him sweetly, “As I was saying, I got over it.” As Charlie Brown starts walking away, Lucy shouts after him, “Believe me, I really got over it. Being mad with my brother is not an issue at all.”

The little vignette from the Peanuts cartoon illustrates that talking about love is one thing, and that acting out of love is quite another.  Speaking about love and living love, that is the topic of my sermon text from Luke Chapter 10.

There Jesus encounters a man to whom our translations usually refer as a “lawyer”; the Greek term nomikos describes a scholar of Israel's religious law; it is fair to assume that this would put him into the company of the people who most often oppose Jesus and his teaching, the “Scribes and Pharisees”.

This religion scholar stands up with a question to test Jesus. “Rabbi”, he says, “what do I need to do to get eternal life?” Jesus' answer is simple: “What's written in God's Law? How do you interpret it?” Because this is what the scholar does for a living, he rattles it off instantly, and perhaps with some impatience in his voice, “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence; love your neighbor as well as you love yourself.” 

Again, Jesus' answer is simple, “Good answer! Do that and you'll live.” But the scholar is frustrated; he has wanted to engage Jesus in a public fight.  So he comes back with a reply that would make any lawyer proud: "Who is my neighbor?" In other words: Love my neighbor, you say? ... but Rabbi, how do you define what that is, a neighbor?

Jesus replies by telling a story, a story so well known and so famous that many are tempted to stop listening when it's told once again:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  [31] Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. [32] So likewise a Levite ..."

Unlike you and I, who are used to hearing it, for those listening to Jesus telling this story for the first time, it would have been very difficult to take. They didn't want to identify with the priest or Levite, who both seemed like cowards; their only choice would have been to put themselves in the place of the victim, presumably a Jewish man, bleeding and helpless in the ditch, beset by flies, under the killing sun.

As Jesus continues his story, the horror among the listeners only increases:

[33] But then a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. [34] He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. [35] The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

Jesus' audience is in dire straights now: they have been unwilling to identify with the priest or the Levite, but they were also not exactly willing to identify with the man in the ditch.  Thus, their only hope has been that the savior of the robbed man might be a Jew. But to their utter shock, the hero in Jesus' story is not a well-respected Jew, but an enemy of the Jews: a Samaritan. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans went back hundreds of years.  Well no, they say, we cannot possibly identify with a Samaritan hero.  To do so would damage our reputation.

So just one option is left: to slip into the shoes of that wounded victim. And as it dawns on them that the one who saves them is the one they hate and despise, they look like they are going to be sick.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a morality tale. Jesus is not telling us to be “good Samaritans”! Of course that always has seemed like the simplest reading, but it misses the mark; for that to work, the Samaritan should have been the victim.  

We cannot even imagine how utterly shocking it must have been to first-century Jewish-Palestinian ears to hear of a Samaritan in the role of hero.

Jesus, as we see everywhere in the gospels, uses his parables to bring the Kingdom of God to us, in a language we understand but at the same time in a way that profoundly disorients us. We think we know, and then he pulls the rug out from under us.

Whenever Jesus tells a parable, we must be prepared to be told things that we have never thought possible before, things that fundamentally challenge our assumptions about who the good guys and bad guys are, about the way the world works.

The enemy as hero -- that is Jesus pulling the rug out from under us.

And you and I, who came to church this fine morning?  I can see that some of you are quite uncomfortable as we are shown that God is making his divine presence felt in the world by making a hated man the hero.

In making us identify with the victim, Jesus forces us to put ourselves in the skin of the half-dead, the destitute, the despairing.

Before you protest (because you don't want to think such dirty thoughts on a fine Sunday morning), be honest for a moment: You and I, we know a time or two on our own journey between Jerusalem and Jericho where indeed we felt half-dead and destitute and desparate one way or another!

Martin Luther, in one of his sermons on our text, writes in his typical drastic style: 

"The man who here lies half dead, wounded and stripped of his clothing is Adam and all mankind. ... We still struggle a little for life; but there lies horse and man, we cannot help ourselves to our feet, and if we were left thus lying we would have to die by reason of our great anguish and lack of nourishment; maggots would grow in our wounds, followed by great misery and distress."

Helpless even against the onslaught of maggots, at the mercy of a kind man who, as everyone says, is our enemy -- that's where Jesus places us in his story!

Jesus' parable wants to teach us that goodness and kindness come from our neighbors - regardless of whether or not the neighbor looks or believes or thinks the way we want them to.

Yes, it would be much easier had Jesus just told us to find enough grace and goodness in our hearts to love our enemy.

But Jesus knows that people use abstractions to seek safe ground. He aims to get us out of our comfort zone: We're supposed to identify with the helplessness of the wounded victim to overcome our pride, ... and to hope that those we dislike and detest will save us.

The Greek word our translations render as “compassion” is splanchnizomai; literally, it means “to be moved in one's gut”. The splanchna are the inner organs of the stomach.

The enemy, the Samaritan, was “moved, and felt the pain in his very gut”. At that very instant he saw through the illusion that each human being is separate from the other people in the world.

He overcame the barrier of self and other, and the pain of the wounded traveler became his very own. Jumping off the donkey, treating the wounds, making provisions for shelter and care were but the most natural kind of action to follow.

Compassion is something that happens to us when a fellow human being is shaken to the core to such a degree that she or he just has to help us ... and we are not in control. We are not in control when compassion happens to us.  

Jesus then ends his story, reminding us that we are supposed to do this sort of kindness because we have experienced it ourselves.

[36] Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” [37] The expert in religious law said, “The one who showed mercy to him.” So Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”

Compassion, seen this way, is a reflex, something we do inevitably, without much thinking involved. Let me give you an example of a reflex. Think for a moment of what happens when an itchy feeling arises in your right arm; without even thinking, your left hand will move in its direction, your left fingers will start scratching, and when they have done their job by relieving the itch, your left hand will go on back doing whatever it was doing before. And all this would happen without any conscious decision on your end.

In forcing us to see compassion as a reflex -- nothing less, nothing more --Jesus challenges our boundaries. He says that everyone is your neighbor. Everyone is charged with your well-being, and everyone is your charge. Jesus implies that the universe is one, and that all creation is one.

  • We are not to act like the priest and the Levite as they listened to their anxious ego which said, But what will happen to ME if I help him?
  • The Samaritan, on the other hand, had overcome the cravings of his ego and simply asked himself, What will happen to THIS MAN if I don't help him?

Each and every one of our fellow human beings is our neighbor. The universe is one, and everyone is our neighbor. That is a slap in the face of all the Pharisees during Jesus' days and all the Pharisees living today.

Now and then, you meet a Pharisee in church. He or she will say, “Pastor, we feel that she doesn't belong here. He is not like us. She just won't do. We don't like him to come any more.” Martin Luther talks about these “verdrießlichen Heiligen” (the miserable saints) who think they can rely on their holiness and therefore have chosen to avoid the suffering of their fellow human beings.

He says they are convinced that the Lord owes them, and that they don't owe anything to God or anyone. Luther concludes, “In our own affairs we are shrewd; how to scrape together money and goods, how to speak well of God before the people, and how to push ourselves ahead in a masterly manner. But what does God care for this?”

Many people find it odd, peculiar, yes: highly insulting, to have an enemy shoved in their faces as an example of someone they should trust and emulate.

And so, Jesus' Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan is not only a story about active compassion but also one about our habit to judge others.  

We gather in church to be closer to God, but today we are getting so close that it's outright scary.

How do we like being close to a God who loves us enough not to pass by but lingers among us long enough to judge us, to measure us with a standard of judgment that is tougher than the standards by which we measure ourselves, and to tell us, "I expect more of you!"

With his Parable of the Samaritan Jesus indicts each of us.  Deep down we know that Jesus has taken the masks off of our faces: we are all Pharisees.

My fellow Pharisees, it's not easy to bear God's closeness when God comes to judge ... yet we should feel loved and accepted, as we are sent to God's school of compassion.  We are asked to learn to be shaken up. First, by being put into the role of the helpless victim. Second, by remembering the kindness we have received when we encounter suffering, despair and injustice, and to identify so deeply with those in misery that we simply need to act. Everyone can talk of love (especially when things are kept general and abstract), but putting love into action is a whole 'nother thing.

One of the problems with our story is that we don't have Samaritans in our society, and so the story has lost some of its bite.

In one medieval painting the Levite becomes a Catholic monk, and the Samaritan, a turk. The artist knew that the idea of a turk would conjure up fear and anger in those looking at the picture. He put the bite back in.

I think of Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, who suggested in all seriousness to put a stop to letting Muslims come into the US.  He stated this practice should be continued "until the threat is over".

Despised, detested, feared -- a Samaritan during the days of Jesus, a Turk in medieval times, a Muslim in 2015.

There you have it: The bite of the parable is restored immediately when we imagine "The Good Muslim" as the savior of the wounded half-dead man.  Now put you and me in that ditch, bleeding and near death. See, we are being saved by a compassionate Muslim; the bite is back.

In loving everybody, we only imitate our God's love for us. God's love is without conditions.  "God's love is like the sun", we sang in youth group, "it's always there and everywhere".

As we can find a compassionate ear and someone to share our burden all around us, there are people out there who need our willingness to show compassionate hearts and offer our willing shoulders.

We're invited to connect with all God's people (and that's everyone), so others can reflect God's love to us, and so we can love others.  The universe is one, and we are part of this beautiful wholeness.

All of creation is one, brimming with God's love and showing us the way of love.

The old German hymn comes to mind (the translation in blank verse is my own):

Whoever says, “I love my God”
yet hates his fellow humans,
is making fun of God's own truth
and tears it down completely.
Himself true love, God calls on me
to love all people as myself.

Practice compassion, my friends. Love until it hurts, until there is nothing left of you, until you don't know where you end and the rest of the universe begins.  Amen.

And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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