Monday, July 15, 2013

Homily: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [July 14, 2013] All Saints, Pasadena

"Just Who Is That Lying in the Road?"

I'm Gary Hall, and I used to work here.  I now live and work in Washington, D.C.  And I must say that it's a great comfort to me to live in a city that is so much like Hollywood. Some of you who remember me from the years I was on the staff here (a steadily decreasing percentage of you, I'm sorry to say) may recall that I started off my adult life wanting to be a comedy writer. It won't surprise you when I say that, to me today’s Gospel, the Good Samaritan story [Luke 10: 25-37], has always had the structure of a joke--you know one of those "a priest, a minister, and a rabbi go into a bar" kind of jokes; except that in this one it's a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.  A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are playing golf.  A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are in a boat.  A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are shooting pool.  You get the idea.

When I was in seminary in the 1970s, the idea of seeing Jesus as a stand-up comedian was in vogue among New Testament scholars for about 15 minutes.  Even though I loved both Jesus and comedy, I was never really attracted to this idea.  But I must admit that some of the sayings would make more sense if punctuated by a rim shot.  Just as comedy gives us a new perspective by throwing us off base, Jesus's parables often work the same way. You think you understand the way God works?  Listen to this story . . .

A Levite (that is, a person trained in interpretation of the scripture), a priest (that is, a person who presides at holy rituals), and a Samaritan (that is, a foreigner, not much higher than a leper in Israel’s social structure) are walking down the road.  They see a man who has been beaten up and robbed lying in the middle of it.  The priest crosses to the other side of the street and keeps going. The Levite does the same.  The Samaritan stops, attends to his wounds, takes him to an inn, and provides for his lodging until he gets better.  What makes this story sound like a joke on its own terms, of course, is that the "outsider" does the right thing.  When confronted with an actual suffering person, the two religious professionals act like they've never even heard of the Bible.  It's only the outsider--the Samaritan, a person with the wrong social pedigree and religious ideas--who acts like--well, like a Christian person.

Jesus's closing question ("Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?") has made generations of preachers and commentators talk about the story as if it's essentially about the choices made by the three people walking on the road.  I don’t think Jesus wants us to think about the three passers-by. I think he wants us to think about the man lying helpless in the road.

Like the priest and the Levite, most of us don't want to regard the person in the road for very long. We will do anything to make this parable about an ethical dilemma so that we won't have to contemplate what it means to be sick and near dead, lying helpless. Preachers love to talk about the three passers-by, and we love to identify with those men, because we all want to think of ourselves as people in control, as men and women with choices. But our being in control, our having choices, is always at best a temporary condition.  When you're an infant or a child, you are not in control. When you are aged or sick or disabled or incapacitated you don't have a lot of choices. When you are oppressed, depressed, lost and alone you don't have many options.

None of us wants to think of ourselves that way for very long. We want to live our lives confident that we will always be in the driver's seat. So when we hear this story our thoughts immediately turn to the people who can do something, and they turn away from the one who is totally dependent on "the kindness of strangers". But if we are listening to Jesus attentively, if we think about this story more like patrons in a comedy club and less like pew-sitters in a church, we just might get that the story really is about the one person in it who cannot do anything to help himself at all. He's a man beaten up, left for dead, and lying in the road.  After all, the story begins, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers." As uncomfortable as he makes us, this man is the main character in the Good Samaritan story. We should think, if only for a nervous minute, about him.

So just who is this person?  I have two thoughts about who he might be and how things might really be for him.

Thought one is that the man lying in the road is you and me. Now I don't like to think of myself this way.  Doing so certainly does not flatter my best image of myself.  Hey, I'm a cathedral dean!  I hold advanced degrees.  What do you mean, saying I'm helpless?  How can Jesus be comparing me to a man lying near dead in the road?  Couldn't he at least be a man with a Ph.D. lying near dead in the road?

The first truth is that, despite our many illusions about ourselves, all of us are vulnerable, fragile creatures.  No matter how affluent, how accomplished, how healthy, how comfortable we might be, each of us is potentially that person lying in the road.  An illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the ending of a relationship, taking the wrong side in an argument--any of these events can land us in what my friend the writer Nora Gallagher (who has herself experienced serious illness) in her new book Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic calls "Oz", a place you enter when you get sick or lost, a zone where you realize you are up against it and that the priests and Levites of this world really don't want to have very much to do with you now. Most of us get through life keeping the idea of our vulnerability at bay, and because we can't entertain the thoughts of our own potential disability, we don't want very much to do with people who remind us that we too might end up in a wheelchair, on chemotherapy, in prison, on the street.

Therefore, thought one is that in directing our attention to the man lying in the road, Jesus is asking us to see ourselves as we are:  fragile, vulnerable creatures who are always just a step away from losing it all.  We have come to think of health and freedom and agency as our basic condition.  Jesus knew better.  Even at the height of his popularity as a healer and a teacher, he knew that Calvary was just around the corner.  It was partly that knowledge that made him open to the suffering of the outsiders, the sick, the bereaved, and the lost. Only when you acknowledge your own vulnerability can you respond to it authentically in others.

That's thought one. And here's thought two:  Just as the one lying in the road is vulnerable, so also is that person loved. If our individualism prevents us from seeing our fragility, so does it also keep us from grasping our real worth.  In the culture of late Capitalism which we all inhabit together, you only have value commensurate with your purchasing power. One reason why so many Americans are so insecure is that at bottom we think our worth is a function of our relative affluence. Nevertheless:  even though most ignore the one lying near dead, there still is One who sees and cares and acts.  As dire as his situation may be, the one in the road is not alone.  His value has nothing to do with his net worth. There is someone in the story who is with him and for him.  In this tale that one is the Good Samaritan, a parabolic stand-in for God. Do you want to know what we are like?  Look to the wounded person in the street.  Do you want to know what God is like?  Look to the Good Samaritan.

Like all of his parables, the story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’s way of showing us our real situation in the universe.  We are both worse and better off than we think. This story asks that you see yourself as you really are, and that you love yourself as you really are. You have real value. There is some One who knows and loves and values you beyond any human frame of reference. Realize that in your fragility and vulnerability you are like everybody else. They have real value, too. Reach out in compassion and forgiveness and humility and you will meet the One whose love and justice and grace sustains the creation.

You do not have to be healthy or powerful or successful to be loved.  There is someone who knows you and loves you as you are. That one loves you always, even and maybe especially when you are lonely and broken and lost. There is someone who is ready to see you, pick you up, and help you on to the next stage of love and life.  That one is here and available now in this community among us as we gather at this table.  That one loves you.  That one loves me.  That one loves us all.  That's the Gospel truth.  And I'm here to tell you it's no joke.  Amen.