"I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Son, let this woman be a bride to you in the restoration of my people. Let her be a mother for these people, regenerating souls through the salvation of spirit and water.'" (Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Homily: Justifying Ourselves

I organized a session and presented a paper at the big medieval conference in Leeds, England in summer 2007. After it was done I took the train down to Norfolk to meet and stay with a dear blogfriend and had the privilege of preaching this message at one of the tiny Methodist chapels she then pastored. The whole visit was a marvelous pilgrimage and retreat experience. We spent hours faithsharing about our journeys of motherhood and ministry and our common love for Mother God; prayed quietly in stunning old churches including Margery Kempe's in King's Lynn and Ely Cathedral, home to St. Ethelreda's tomb as well as a very blonde Barbie/Touchdown Mary; and when I had a dental emergency her anointed prayer and laying on of hands (along with the great care of the NHS) brought short term relief and delayed a prophesied root canal by three years!

(Image: Van Gogh, of course! Perhaps the vulnerability and brokenness that tragically led to his death by suicide formed his dramatic and tender emphasis on the helplessness of the victim and strength and hard work of the rescuer).

My dear sisters and brothers: peace to you from our loving God and from God’s Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. As you can no doubt tell from my odd accent, I have come a long way to worship with you today, and am honored by your gracious welcome and by Sally’s invitation to offer a message from God’s saving Word.

The Gospel reading for today is very familiar. We call it “The Good Samaritan,” though the text itself does not use that term. Inspired by this story, we have hospitals and counseling centers named after this brave and loving man from Samaria, who helped the man who had been robbed and left by the roadside to die. I worked in one as a phlebotomist my last year of university, in fact. “Good Samaritan” has become a common term, the phrase we use for someone who goes out of their way to help a stranger in need. “My car broke down last week-end, and the battery of my mobile gave out; thank heavens, a Good Samaritan came along and helped me.”

As you may remember, though, from your study of the Bible, or other sermons you have heard, the term “Good Samaritan” would have had a very different effect in the ears of Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters. It would give them nothing but shock and confusion, because Judeans and Samaritans hated one another with a passion. The Samaritans were the Jews who stayed in the land of Israel when many others were carried off into exile in Babylon, and over the centuries these sisters and brothers in faith had taken very different paths with their devotion to the same God. The Samaritans worshipped on their holy mountain, while the Judeans worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem. And instead of rejoicing in the different paths God had revealed to them, they judged and condemned each other. “Those infidels—why can’t they follow the true law? They are impure and unclean—stay far away from them—or, if you do get near one, beat him up.” So for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of this story, while depicting his people’s honored religious leaders, the priest and the Levite, as the hard-hearted ones who don’t follow the law of love given by Moses, was a deep challenge to his listeners—both those who heard him tell the story, and we who hear it now in this holy assembly.

Why would Jesus tell the story in this way, certain to confuse and anger many of those who heard him? I think it was a bit of a shock treatment-- the only way he had of reaching the hard heart and closed mind of the lawyer who asked him the question that started it all. The Gospel tells us that the lawyer asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. A great question to ask a holy rabbi—if it were asked with a sincere heart, willing to learn and to follow the word of life when it was given. But Jesus was no fool, and he could tell that the scholar of the law was asking as a veiled attack—to test Jesus, some translations say, or even to tempt him, in the words of the King James Bible. Jesus makes this point by calmly turning the question around: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

This man was expert in the law of Moses, and he knew perfectly well what God asked of him: to love God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, and his neighbor as himself. So he answered correctly, right away—as the first reading from Deuteronomy tells us, the command of God was very near to him, already in his mouth and in his heart. Unfortunately, he wasn’t willing to take the next step mentioned in the Hebrew Bible passage--to carry it out. Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if, as he quoted those holy words, they sank into his heart and changed it to embrace the good news that Jesus preached? But he resists their transforming power instead, and presses his attack, demanding of Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

Once again, Jesus surprises us. He could so easily have gotten into an argument with the lawyer. He could have attacked the man in turn, or continued to ask him questions about the law and let the man stay at an intellectual level where his great knowledge had no power to save him and bring him to the love of God that his studies were supposed to be all about. But Jesus had the wisdom to read people’s hearts. He sensed that the only way to reach this man was to shift gears and tell him a story, and his story was perfectly designed to reach inside the wounded heart of his listener and call him to conversion, healing, and deep grace.

I am especially moved by the reason that St. Luke gives us for the man’s taunting question, “And who is my neighbor?” The Gospel says that he asked “because he wished to justify himself”—to show that he was right, to excuse himself, to gain back some points in the debate at Jesus’ expense. Justifying ourselves is a familiar term and a familiar activity for us—sometimes in legitimate self-care and self-defense, and sometimes because we don’t like the weakness and embarrassment of losing face in a conversation and want to get one-up on someone. But there is more to the word “justify” in this story than our common daily usage, because it is a very important word in the Bible and in Christian doctrine. The Greek word for justify is dikaio, which means being saved and being set right with God. It means having the gap between us and God, the shame and anxiety in which we fear we are unlovable and will always be alone, healed through the gracious love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.

St. Paul uses it all the time, and he always emphasizes that we cannot justify ourselves though our own efforts or good works or knowledge—that this setting right, this reconciliation, this experience of the loving embrace of God who delights in us and cherishes us just as we are, comes as a free gift. Our God is a fountain of mercy, and all we need to do is accept the streams of living water that come from that glorious fountain—the heart of the most loving Parent we could ever dream of, made known to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus our Beloved. As he said in the Gospel of John: “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me and drink; the living water that I give will become a fountain deep within, welling up for eternal life.”

We can’t justify ourselves, and we don’t need to, because our loving God is always reaching out to us in tender compassion and mercy. The legal scholar didn’t need to justify himself, because God was standing there right before him in Jesus, offering him the love and freedom and transformation that his heart longed for as a gift. All he had to do was accept it, as the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the lepers and the woman with a flow of blood accepted it. All he had to do—all we have to do—is come to Jesus, rejoice in the good news of God’s reign he preached, receive the forgiveness and transformation he offers, and pass his love on to others. But the legal scholar—a respected expert who clung to his own achievements, perhaps to still the fear of emptiness and loneliness inside--was scared to accept that gift, just as we are sometimes scared to accept that gift.

To admit our vulnerability and neediness is a huge risk. As we have all learned from hard experience, people don’t always know how to respond appropriately to revelations that may remind them of their own sins and wounds and seemingly unfixable problems. We may be treated with reverence and compassion, like butterfly wings brushing our cheek or a gentle hand stroking our head; or perhaps our wounded hearts will be tromped on with army boots. The legal scholar knows that too, and he’s not going to take the risk…So Jesus reaches out to him with the story of someone who knew what it was to be rejected and to live far from the center of power in his land, below even the other Jews who were themselves oppressed and degraded by the Roman invaders.

(Image: Jose Tapiro Baro)

A Samaritan traveling through Judean territory knew well that he was considered the lowest of the low, that he could be the next one stripped and robbed and beaten and left for dead. Somehow, this Samaritan was able to draw on his own vulnerability as a resource, instead of running away from it like the priest and the Levite. He let it bring him compassion and courage and generosity to meet the man’s needs, regardless of which group he belonged to, the risk that the robbers would come back to finish the job, and the expense and time it cost to get the man to the inn and pay for his care and further treatment. And in so doing the Samaritan helped himself, not just the man by the side of the road—he claimed his own dignity through joining the work of God who helps the helpless. I like to think that as he rode away from the inn he breathed a little freer and sat a little taller on that donkey, that the love of God had gone a little deeper in his heart and given him strength to face whatever he needed to face as he went on to the next phase of his journey.

I was struck for the first time, in studying the story for this sermon, by the resemblance of the man on the side of the road to Jesus in his passion. Stripped of his garments, naked and absolutely powerless, beaten cruelly and—not just left half dead—but actually killed. I don’t believe that this was God’s price to forgive our sins, because God is so much more generous and loving and compassionate than we are. But perhaps it was the only way God could reach out to us and convince us to stop running away from our own brokenness and nakedness and wounds.

The Greek word used here for the wounds of the man who was robbed is traumata, which we know today as trauma, and we also know how much courage it can take to face and feel and work through our own traumatic memories. But if God, the glorious and all-powerful creator of the universe, can take on our humanity, can embrace our brokenness and suffering, can enter our grief and struggles and painful memories, we too can find courage and compassion to face these in ourselves and each other. Through his grace we can be, for and with each other, the broken and glorious risen Body of Christ that brings his healing love and compassion to the whole world.

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