Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 10 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Am 7:7-17; Ps 82; Col 1:1-14; Lk 10:25-37

Sometimes—and this happens especially with Luke—you get parables that are so well-known, and so well-loved, that it can become very difficult to read them as they were originally heard. And because of that, we might initially suppose that today’s Gospel reading hasn’t got too very much to say to us right now, in a grim and dangerous time, the news filled with the murders of young black men and police officers in the country on our southern border, and tensions here rising in the heat, over the Black Lives Matter sit-in at Pride, over the pending vote at General Synod on the marriage canon, in all our lives, in all our homes. Amos feels more immediate, the story of this early prophet trying to tell his listeners that the whole thing is rotten, that it will not stand, and the powers of his day refusing to hear him and telling him to go to some other people and predict doom for them instead.

But the story of the good Samaritan, as we’ve come to call it, is a story of bad times. It is a story which takes for granted that you can be ambushed on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and murdered, or nearly murdered, more or less for pocket change. It is a story which takes for granted that decent people will walk past bloody bodies without stopping, that it is a sight not even strange. That violence is the backdrop against which our choices must be made; that when we are asked to think about who we must love, and how, we must think in a context of violence and pain.

And into that context steps a Samaritan. The phrase, “good Samaritan”—which Jesus never actually uses—has become such a cliché that we forget that it was, originally, supposed to be a shocking paradox. For the Samaritans are not good. They are the enemy. Just two weeks ago, we heard about a Samaritan village rejecting Jesus, and the disciples suggesting that the best response would be extermination by fire. But even without that, all good Jews knew that Samaritans were not their neighbours, not their kin, but the unclean other. The victim at the centre of this story is, for most of the time, unconscious, and he probably needs to be for the purposes of the narrative, for had he been capable of rejecting help from a Samaritan, he might very well have done so.

Doris Lessing titled one of her novels “The Good Terrorist,” and she meant that, very deliberately, as a modern twist on this parable; she attempted to reclaim at least some of the sense of shock that it should involve. But in this time, in this place, this story challenges each of us to look into ourselves and ask, who are our Samaritans? Who are the people we cannot imagine as good? Who are the people from whom we cannot imagine receiving help, the ones whose help we would, if capable of it, refuse? I think that different people in this congregation will sometimes have very different answers to that question; but each of us has an other. A group whose goodness we cannot quite believe, cannot accept. And Jesus tells us, because Jesus is always telling us hard things, that it it these people who may be, above all others, our neighbours. These are the people we must love. For they are, to use the Indigenous teaching, all our relations. To make them strangers is to lose our own lives.

Now, I do want to clarify that I am not saying that this doesn’t mean that everyone is perfectly fine just as they are. It is very clear, if you look at our world for even a moment, that we are not at all fine, that we are about as far from fine as you can get, and that great change is needed. We must struggle for that change every day, with everything we’ve got. In John’s gospel, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well, and has a conversation with her, and while he clearly affirms her humanity and goodness (and is incidentally completely unconcerned about her unconventional marital situation), he does not in fact say, “Wow, you’re a Samaritan, that’s awesome, get on with it!” His message to Samaritans and to Jews is that things must change, that things are going to change, that the systems are falling, will fall. Speaking the new world into being is part of our responsibility too, and it does mean conflict, disagreement, opposition, resistance; it means there are many people with whom we will argue, and many actions, many operations of coercion and violence, which we can and must condemn.

But somehow, we must do this without denying to those with whom we struggle their full, complex, painful humanity, their potential for good; the chance that they will be the ones who save us, when we are lost and helpless and nearly dead, as we are, as we always are. Desmond Tutu once said that, should he arrive one day at the gate of heaven, the first question he would be asked would be, “But where is De Klerk?” For we are saved together or not at all.

It is hard. It is very hard. It is hard, when good people are being hurt and cast out, when innocent people are being killed, when violence is doing all that it can to erase every sense of shared humanity in each of our hearts, to continue to do the work without giving in to hate.

At another bad time in history, W.H. Auden, a cranky queer Christian poet with many of his own problems and limitations, wrote a poem, “September 1, 1939,”—titled for the day Germany invaded Poland—which I’ve quoted before. “I and the public know,” he wrote, as the world fell apart around him, “what all schoolchildren learn;/those to whom evil is done/do evil in return.” It is not moral equivalency to say that evil metastasizes, that the violence of system and state spreads tendrils of violence downwards; it is to say that we have the uniquely impossible calling of being, at one and the same time, part of the work for change and also the place where the violence must stop, even if we have compelling reasons to hate, to want to strike back. But the lines we most need to remember, I believe, though Auden himself struggled with these words, come near the end: “Hunger allows no choice/to the citizen or the police;/we must love one another or die.”

Who is my neighbour?

Of course, as Auden also knew, we will die anyway. Inevitably, we will die. But if we have loved one another somehow in the meantime, it matters. Not the love which says that everything is okay, which tries to paper over the problems and the suffering; but the love which says, even with blood in the streets, you are all my relations. However hard it may be to believe or accept, you are all my relations. And I cannot be saved without you.

I cannot tell you that it will get easier. I don’t suppose that it will, and in the coming weeks and months it will probably get harder. Do what you can. Work and pray and protest and create, build and cherish, listen to each other, keep on going. Somehow or other, love the Lord your God, and love your unclean neighbour as yourself, and let that neighbour lift you bleeding from the dust, and then go, and try to do likewise. Let it stop here, because this is the only place we have. Now, because this is the only time we have.

I will finish with Auden again—from another poem written about the same time, in about the same world, our poor world:

“O look, look in the mirror/look in your distress;/life remains a blessing/although you cannot bless.//O stand, stand at the window/as the tears scald and start;/you shall love your crooked neighbour/with your crooked heart.”