Sermon for July 10
The story goes that a woman was washing her clothes down by the river one day when saw a baby floating by on the water. She jumped in, brought the baby out and up the bank of the river to safety. Then she saw another baby and she went and pulled it out too. Then another and another until finally the woman asked herself “What could be happening upstream that’s causing all these babies to be thrown in the river?”
And she decided that she needed to go up there and find out. And maybe take some people with her. And do something about it. (I added that part myself.)
Working to alleviate the suffering of our neighbors has always been a part of the work of the church. And so has looking for the causes of some of that suffering, looking upstream you might say. They are both part of what it means to participate in the kingdom of God that Jesus is bringing into the world.
I think it’s very clear that Jesus had that same kind of dual focus. Jesus was obviously concerned with babies in rivers – he served people’s immediate needs. He fed people, he healed people, he forgave people, taught them, in a direct expression of God’s love and compassion for individual people.
And I also think that when Jesus questioned the religious authorities of his day – the scribes and Pharisees, chief priests of the temple system which that left so many people out – people who needed healing and feeding and forgiveness; when he called them a brood of vipers and turned over their tables at the door of the temple, he was definitely looking upstream at the root causes of people’s suffering. And when Jesus forgave adulterous women and spoke to Samaritan women and when he healed people on the Sabbath, he was challenging the system. That’s what got him crucified, incidentally. His love and commitment for those who were told that they were cut off from God’s grace and mercy; the poor, the sinner, the outcast. Jesus insisted that God’s love and care mediated through the people of God, was for everybody. Not just the good people. And that’s good news for us, because as we all know, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus came to say, hey, you are forgiven. God’s kingdom has come, and I am here to show you what that means. For all of us, not just a select few.
I know there are Christians today who don’t think the church should get into larger questions of justice, the environment, peacemaking. Some say it’s a distraction from the gospel. I think that for Jesus, it’s part of the gospel.
A lawyer, one of the religious elite, asks Jesus in today’s gospel reading who he’s supposed to consider to be his neighbor. They’ve already agreed that the way to eternal life through love – for God, self, and neighbor. This lawyer is trying to confuse Jesus, but he’s the one who is confused. Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A person is robbed and left for dead by the side of the road. A couple of people who you would think would help him – a pious church worker called a Levite, and a priest, the so-called good people, righteous people ignore this man in his time of need. A Samaritan is the only one who helps him.
And as we all know, Samaritans were despised by the Jews, that is, Jesus’ own people. The reasons were ancient history, but that’s still the way it was. Samaritans were definitely thought to be outside the reign of God. They were not considered neighbors. Yet Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero in the parable– the one who shows God’s, love – generous, compassionate and overflowing love – by being a good neighbor.
The lawyer cannot help but understand that this parable is definitely a critique of a system of which he is a part – a system of judgment and exclusion and prejudice. By telling this parable to this man publicly, in the presence of a crowd of people, Jesus not just looking upstream, but going there and confronting what he finds. He is doing that for us, and for that he was crucified.
I served a church in a city that had pretty good social outreach programs, mostly through churches; assistance programs, feeding programs, housing, counseling and so on. All the agencies would get together once in while so we could co-ordinate services, work together and try not to duplicate programs. What we realized early was that we had to have a dual focus; that we were called not just to feed and shelter people, though that was an important part of living out the gospel for us. But there was also a point where we realized that we could just spend all our time and energy into infinity putting out fires. We’d see the same people over and over again in these programs, year after year and it felt like we were just pulling babies out of the water. So we decided to look upstream too; that we had to at least try to address the root problems of chronic poverty, hunger, and homelessness as best we could.
I think our denomination, the ELCA does that well. We have one of the biggest social service agencies in this country, if not the biggest, LSS. And we have the Lutheran Office of Public Policy which works with lawmakers and legislators to pass laws that get to the causes of things like hunger and homelessness, around the world.
We all have different gifts. Some of us feel more called to visit a lonely neighbor or give a few bucks to the homeless veteran at the intersection.
And some of us feel called to address more global issues: the dumping of plastic into the ocean or why that vet is homeless in the first place. And some of us feel called to both. That’s what makes a ball game. That’s what makes a church.
So who is my neighbor we may ask? The one who lives God’s grace and mercy. Go and do likewise, Jesus says. Go out there and get those babies floating down the river. And take a trip upstream to find out who throwing them in there.