The legendary Jewish novelist and Rabbi Chaim Potok tells the story of a young Rabbi at the beginning of his ministry, reading from the Torah. He goes over to where the scrolls of the Torah are kept (much like you saw Marianne go to the altar and get the Gospel book to read the Gospel lesson), takes the scrolls of the Torah, hugs them to his chest, and begins to dance. He dances his way down into the center of the congregation, and then he reads the Jewish law -- the Torah -- the sacred lesson. Later on in the story, this young Rabbi asks one of his Christian friends, "Do you Christians ever dance with your Bible? Do you Christians ever dance with your stories of Jesus?"
Well, do you? If there is any Jesus story that we Christians should dance with, it should be the story that was read as the Gospel lesson for today: a story of a man who falls among a band of robbers while on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. They beat him and club him and leave him half-dead. A man from Samaria comes along and saves his life. It may very well be the best known of all of the Jesus parables. If there is any story we ought to dance with, it is this story--the story of the Good Samaritan. He is never mentioned by that title, by the way. He is simply mentioned as a Samaritan man who shows compassion and mercy.
The story is told in the context of a dialogue between Jesus and a lawyer. Now, this is not a lawyer like we tend to think of today as a representative of the state judicial system. Rather, this lawyer is a religious lawyer, one who is steeped in the Law of Moses. He rises to the occasion as a way of testing Jesus, and says, "Master Teacher, how might I inherit eternal life?" This is a way of saying, how might we, the good Jews, inherit eternal life? Jesus turns to him, and sensing that he is being tested says, "Well, you're the lawyer; you're the theologian. You know the Jewish law. What is it?" And this lawyer/theologian probably thought, "Oh, I wasn't expecting this, but I might as well give the answer that I know." So he answered,"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your mind and with all of your strength. You shall love the Lord your God with all that you have. And you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself." Jesus responds, "That's the law. You're right. You gave the right answer." Then Jesus delivers a kind of Nike commercial by saying, "Just do it. Don't talk it. Go do it. Don't talk the talk. Walk the walk. Do it. Just do it."
Jesus then might have turned around to the rest of the crowd and said, "Are there any other questions?" The lawyer/ theologian stands up to him and says, "Oh, excuse me, Jesus, Master Teacher, I am not quite through with you yet. Just who is my neighbor?" The lawyer was probably expecting an answer something like this: "In Jewish law your neighbor is another Jew, hereinafter called the party of the first part, etc. He lives within a certain number of cubits of the party of the second part, and so forth," but Jesus doesn't go there.
Instead, Jesus tells a story. Maybe we've heard the story of this Samaritan so often that we lose its power. It's an outrageous story. Tertullian, the great second century theologian, says that this is one of Jesus' most outrageous stories. A Danish theologian by the name of Soren Kierkegaard says that it is a shocking story. "If the Gospel of Jesus Christ," says Kierkegaard, "ever loses its power to shock you, it will lose its power to save you." This is a shocking story. It should leave you breathless.
Here again is the story that Jesus tells: There was a Jewish man who was on the road going from Jerusalem to Jericho, down near the Dead Sea. On his way, this man falls among robbers. They rob him, beat him with a club and leave him beside the road for dead.
"By chance," says Jesus, "along the road comes a priest." Now, let's not be too hard on these priests. Maybe this priest lives in Jericho and is just returning to his congregation after having served his two-week stint in the Temple in Jerusalem. (This is something all of the priests had to take their turn in doing.) He sees this man on the side of the road, dead or near dead. In Jewish law, if a Jewish priest touches a man or woman who is dead, they are defiled. They have to go back to the Temple, stand in line and go through the Jewish Rites of Cleansing. This priest knows all of that, and he may be thinking, "I really need to be back with my congregation, Calvary Synagogue, down there in Jericho." He is caught, like so many of us are, between two good duties. He chooses to go to his congregation, and so he passes by on the other side of the road.
Then along the road comes a Levite, who is an assistant to the priests in the temples. The same law applies to the Levites as applies to the Order of Priests -- if you touch anything that is dead, you are defiled. Maybe he is headed home also. Besides that, one of the common things robbers did on this Jericho road was to plant someone who looked as if he had been beaten up, while they hid nearby, waiting to see if anyone would stop to help. When someone did, they would come out from hiding and rob that person. So, the Levite also chooses to walk on the other side of the road.
"Eventually," Jesus says, "along the road comes a Samaritan." And the crowd probably goes, "What did he say?" You see, a Jew never even used the word Samaritan, and now Jesus has one in his story -- it is shocking. It's just flat-out outrageous. He's talking about a Samaritan! To put this in context, remember that for 500 years the Jews had hated the Samaritans because the Samaritans were the Jews who stayed behind during the Assyrian assault. They eventually intermarried with the Assyrians. They kept the Jewish law, they kept the worship, they kept the rites, etc., etc., but they did not go to Jerusalem to the Temple. They created their own temple worship on top of Mount Gerizim in Samaria. They believed that that was a holy place as well. The Jews called the Samaritans heretics; they were complete social outcasts to the Jews. And here is Jesus telling a story where a heretic, an outcast, comes along and shows compassion and mercy on a Jew who has been beaten and robbed and left for dead. Not only does he stop, but out of compassion, he binds up the man's wounds after pouring oil and wine on them. He places the man on his donkey and takes him to a nearby inn, where he cares for him. The next morning he pays the innkeeper to continue to take care of him, saying, "I'll be back this way again, and I'll pay whatever more you spend. You just give me the charge."
It's flat-out outrageous -- this story. Then Jesus looks at the lawyer and says, "Now tell me, Mr. Theologian, which one in this story is the good neighbor?" And the lawyer/theologian says, "Well, the one who showed compassion and mercy." Jesus replies with that Nike commercial again. He says, "Well, then, just do it. Don't talk it. Do it. Just do it. Show compassion and mercy."
That Jesus story is a story I've danced with most of the days of my ministry. It's a story I have sought us to dance with here in Calvary Church. Do you know that at six o'clock this morning -- long before some of you were even up -- there was a group of about ten or twelve parishioners here, preparing breakfast for around 200 people? They don't just do this for Calvary parishioners. They also prepare breakfast for well over a hundred people from the streets of Memphis who are brought into Calvary Church and fed the same breakfast that you and I get. The volunteers do it with lots of compassion and mercy as they feed the poor, hungry and homeless the bread of grace.
Last week I was having prayers with the street people before breakfast, and one of them came up to me and said, "Father Doug, what kind of church is this?" And I said, "Well, it is an Episcopal Church. Don't try to spell it. Even God misspells Episcopal." He laughed and said, "No, that's not what I am asking. What kind of church is this that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday gives us a breakfast like this?" I didn't know how to answer his question, so I really didn't answer it. But later on I began to think, "Maybe these volunteers are showing that we are a Samaritan kind of parish. Maybe we're a church that's trying to show mercy and compassion to others. Maybe it's a church that's trying to be a good neighbor to the City of Memphis."
We had about a hundred junior and early senior high youngsters here this past week. They are here as a part of a program called Teen Job Services. It's a jobs program that we developed back in the early 1980s. It got too large for us, and so we gave it to MIFA to run. They still do all of their orientation work and all of their training with these youngsters here in Calvary Church. They're youngsters who are first-time job workers. Sometimes they're the only one in their entire family who is bringing home a paycheck. We are trying to train children to receive a paycheck before they get used to receiving a welfare check. One of the instructors in the Teen Job Services program pulled me aside and said, "What kind of church is this?" And I said, "It's an Episcopal Church." He said, "No. That's not what I meant. What kind of church is it that starts this kind of program and nurtures it and funds it and assists with it and houses it?" Again I wish I'd said, "Maybe we are a Samaritan kind of church. Maybe we are seeking to show compassion and mercy to those who are in need -- young people who need a job. Maybe."
Three people died this week that you'll never hear about. One of them was a 94-year-old African-American woman who died in sheer poverty. Novella Arnold is chaplain and counselor for a program for Calvary Church that buries people who die in poverty or who die from AIDS. Novella will bury this old woman in her ministry, in your ministry, this week.
The second one is a 57-year-old African-American man who lived in poverty in North Memphis with a sister who is mentally ill. This man had died a week ago, and his body had already begun to decompose. It was discovered, and Novella will preside at his burial this week.
The third death was a young man who died from AIDS in the halfway house of the Calvary Street Ministry Drop-In Center. We will bury him this week with grace and love and dignity. I spoke over the phone with his mama in Chicago concerning the burial. His mama said to me, "I understand you're called Father Doug." I said, "Yes." "Father Doug, what kind of church are you that does this kind of ministry?" I explained that we receive funds from The Assisi Foundation that enable us to do this kind of ministry for those who die, so that they can be buried with grace and dignity.
What kind of church is your church? I didn't know how to answer her. But later, as this homily began to take shape, I began to think, "Maybe, maybe you're a Samaritan kind of church--a church that's seeking to show love and compassion and mercy to those who are beyond the margins of our culture today. Maybe, maybe you're a church that's seeking to be a good neighbor to those who die in poverty."
Dr. John Buchanan is the Senior Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in the City of Chicago. I'm told it's one of the flagship Presbyterian churches in America. A Presbyterian friend of mine told me about a sermon that she had heard Dr. Buchanan give recently. It galvanized me. In the course of his sermon he said something like this: "Most every one of you here," (and he could be here in this pulpit today saying this to you and me), "will receive from the IRS a rebate check sometime later this year. You are going to get that check back, and you don't need that check at all. That check has been designed by our President and Congressional leadership to stimulate economy. Forget about stimulating economy. How about stimulating charity? Give it away. You don't need it. I don't need it. Give it away."
If Buchanan were standing here, he might say to you, "Give it to MIFA for the Teen Job Services Program, or any of the other MIFA programs. Give it to the Church Health Center that runs this massive, marvelous clinic for the working poor in the City of Memphis. Give your rebate check away. Stimulate charity. Give it to the Calvary Street Ministry that is seeking to build another structure to provide permanent housing for the homeless mentally ill. It will be the first of its kind in the country. Give it away! Stimulate charity. Will you? Just do it! Give it to Calvary's Outreach. Don't pay your pledge with it. You hadn't intended to receive it anyway. Give it beyond your pledge to outreach ministry, and let the Outreach Committee make its decision about where the funds might go. But just do it. Just do it."
That's the kind of Jesus story we need to dance with today. That's the kind of Jesus story that dancing with it makes a difference in the City of Memphis. We dare to become a Samaritan kind of church and show compassion and mercy to our neighbors who are in need. Just do it, Calvary Church, and as Jesus says, "You will live. You'll live, and you'll taste something of eternal life."
Copyright 2001 Calvary Episcopal Church