Road Trip

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10C/Lectionary 15C]

Luke 10:25-37

As some of you already know, my family just returned from a vacation out in the Midwest. We first spent some time with our close friends at their home in Wisconsin, and then just the five of us stayed for a few nights in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. All of this involved a lot of driving. I knew on paper that driving first to the northern end of the Mississippi River and then the shores of Lake Superior and then back to Richmond would a long trip, but it wasn’t until we were on the open road that it sunk in just how far it was. All in all it was about 2500 miles and when through a total of eight states, nine if you count the little bit of time we crossed into Minnesota. We are thankful for a reliable car, children who are excellent travelers and Google Maps.

20190714_161845

Google Maps is amazing technology. It makes road trips so much easier. It figures out the quickest routes from here to there, it automatically re-routes you around traffic snarls, it even tells you where the speed traps are (not that I need to know, of course!) But maybe one of the best features of Google Maps, however—one which I think they’ve only added fairly recently—is the little icons that pop up when you cross a state line. They make long distance travel just a little more interesting. Google Maps knows the exact moment you cross into another state and at the bottom of the screen a little window appears that says “Welcome to” whatever state you’re now in, along with a little cartoon character that is somehow related to that state’s history or economy or culture.

Each time we neared a border, we found ourselves glued to the smartphone screen to see what little character would pop up. Lots of times we’d guess as to what it would be. Would Indiana be a little corn farmer? A basketball player? Nope. It was a little Indy car driver. Would Michigan be represented by a car factory worker? Nope. It was a Motown singer. In case you’re wondering, Virginia’s icon is a little colonial-president-looking dude with peanuts over his shoulders. The one we were most surprised by was Minnesota’s, which was a little Prince, as in Purple-Rain-Prince, the pop music singer who died just a few years ago.

icons

Granted, these little icons are a little bit based on stereotypes, but they do supposedly say something about the territory you’re traveling through. In life, as on trips, we cross boundaries, we encounter others, and we want to what to expect from them, and how we should regard them. What zone do they belong in? What’s their icon? Are they this this group or that?

Isn’t that really the heart of the matter in this dialogue between the lawyer and Jesus? It starts out as a way to test Jesus through a question about inheriting eternal life, but it quickly evolves (devolves?) into a question about how to regard others. This exchange starts out as a way to trap Jesus on his interpretation of Jewish law, but it turns into a matter of how to navigate the world and all of its different distinctions and boundaries and territories. Because the two commandments of loving God and loving the neighbor as self are so intertwined, we can’t have one without the other. That is, if a person’s relationship with God is going to directly reflect on their relationships with their neighbor then (and vice versa)—I agree with the lawyer—it would be helpful to understand just who the neighbor is.

And so Jesus responds to the lawyer by talking about a roadtrip. A man starts in Jerusalem, which sits way up high at this elevation, and plugs Jericho into Google Maps. He knows that it is going to take him down a steep path that plunges 3300 feet in just 17 miles. In addition to that several icons pop up that look menacing. As it turns out, this is not friendly territory. Roads rarely were, but this one, from Jerusalem to Jericho, because of its terrain, was notoriously sketchy. But the man goes anyway. We could question his motive, perhaps. We could question whether he has any right to be there, or if it is a wise decision to travel such-and-such by himself, but Jesus doesn’t seem to do that. And sure enough, the man is attacked and beaten and left for dead.

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Hanna Varghese, The Good Samaritan

Then, as chance would have it, Jesus says, a priest was going down the road and sees the man who has been beaten. It would be helpful to know the priest’s motivations at this point. Does he pass by the man because he assumes he’s dead and it is unlawful for a priest to touch a corpse? Is he in a hurry and doesn’t want to get sucked into this guy’s drama? We could come up with any number of reasons why the priest and later the Levite—both religious professionals—pass by and choose not to help him. The point is that they are stereotypical characters.  They are icons of religion. They work in the temple and synagogues. They are little representatives of the best of what God’s people have to offer. If you were hurt on the side of the road, you would hope and expect that the priest or the Levite would help you.

I have a friend who serves as a pastor out in California and just this week she was visiting someone in the hospital and a nurse saw her with her collar on and asked if she was a Catholic priest. “No,” my friend answered, “I’m a Lutheran one.” The nurse said (nurses know how to get things done), “Well, could you come and pray with this Catholic patient who is entering surgery?” So my friend did. Then, a half an hour later, another nurse came to her and said, “I hear you are willing to do a Catholic prayer before surgery. Please come.” So she put on the gown and gloves and mask and let them all in prayer together.

Priests and Levites are expected to help and pray, but for some reason the two in Jesus’ story don’t and perhaps we’re a bit unsettled.

Then, at this point, the lawyer and anyone else listening to Jesus’ story are expecting a third person because things come in threes. Historians tell us that for Jews in Jesus’ time, the Jewish world was divided between three classes of people: priests, Levites, and then everyday Israelites. But the third person who comes by the injured man is not an ordinary Israelite. He is a Samaritan, a figure completely out of left field! No one listening would have seen it coming. Samaritans were not just foreigners, but foreigners who no one trusted. Their religion wasn’t trusted, their culture wasn’t trusted, and furthermore they lived right at the border, sometimes mixing right in with ordinary Israelites. Law-abiding Israelites like the lawyer would have detested Samaritans. And so to hear this story about the Samaritan being moved with pity or compassion would have been infuriating. Finally in the story we have evidence of someone’s motivation, and it is the foreigner’s! And it is a motivation typically associated with God’s character. The Samaritan’s icon pops up on the Google Maps and…it is an icon of God! The Samaritan not only helps the guy out of the ditch and treats his wounds, but he provides money to nurse him back to health.

The-Good-Samaritan-Square

Jesus ends the story by returning to the lawyer’s question but he changes it a little. “Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be not the best question. In doing so, the lawyer is still living by borders and boundaries, into zones of neighbors and people who aren’t neighbors. Jesus asks, “Who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” and the lawyer has to admit it is the one who showed God-like mercy. Living as a person of faith involves displaying mercy and pity, responding as Christ, and not really being concerned about whichever icon or stereotype they’re represented by. Rather than wondering about who our neighbor is, our task is just to go and be a neighbor to anyone who needs one.

If we’re going to be legalistic about our faith, Jesus says to the lawyer and to that part of each of us that longs to know exactly where the lines fall, the only law we really need to be following is the one written on our hearts by Jesus’ tender mercy. It’s the law of compassion. Because Christ-followers know that we’re all, equally, on dangerous roads in need of mercy. We come to realize that on some level we’re all just wandering through perilous country here, that we all vulnerable and utterly dependent on the grace of God in others to get us through. Jesus doesn’t look upon the earth from the cross and see states or countries or boundaries or Google icons. He sees people he loves. He sees people in need of forgiveness. He sees people in need of cleansing with oil and wine, people who need shelter and nurture. He sees a world where Samaritans can do the things that pure-hearted, God-fearing Israelites would do. And since we are his people, we go and do likewise.

Early Christians were the ones who invented the world’s first hospitals. They were pioneers in creating buildings like this inn in this parable, where the best medical practices of their day would be combined with prayer and service to tend to those who were in any need. Scientists and priests and deacons would work together to nurture people back to health, if they could. Christians became so good at forming these institutions that non-Christians began to take note. In fact, the pagan Emperor Julian, who was notorious for wanting to rid the Roman Empire of Christianity, “chided his fellow pagans that the Christians supported not only their own poor but [the poor and sick] of others as well.” These early hospitals were called “xenodochion.”[1]

You may recognize the first part of that word, “Xeno.” It means foreigner or stranger. We hear it mostly these days in the form of xenophobia, fear of foreigners or fear of the other. Yet early Christians were known far and wide for xenodochion, which means “hospitable to foreigners.”

immigrants
immigrants detained at the U.S. border

The Irish rock group U2 came out with a song several years ago called, “Invisible.” All of the proceeds from downloading it went straight to care for people with AIDS. The ending of the song repeats the words:

There is no them
There is no them
There’s only us.
There’s only us.
There is no them.
There is no them.
There’s only us.

I like to think that’s the message echoing in the lawyer’s head as he leaves Jesus thinking about that foreigner-loving Samaritan dropping his hard-earned money in the innkeeper’s hospital.  To be honest, I’d hope that’s what’s echoing in my own head on my roadtrip of life as I watch people bring in diapers to stock the ACTS house today, as I see photos of our youth group’s trip this week to Tarboro where they rebuild hurricane-damaged houses. I hope that’s the message playing over and over in my head as I watch children whose personal stories I don’t know file into our sanctuary by the dozens this week for Vacation Bible School. I hope it’s the message I remember as I deliberate and ponder whatever’s happening at our own national border and with immigrants in our community…and as I still foolishly watch with anticipation to see what stereotype-driven icon will pop up when I encounter anyone on my path.

Welcome little Caius Roma, just baptized today. You’ve got oil on your head. We’re going to have wine here in a minute. Listen:

There is no them.
There is no them.
There’s only us.

Thanks be to God!

Wisconsin2

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The First Thousand Years. Robert Louis Wilken. p 159

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