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Goodness, For God’s Sake

A sermon by, Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

July 14, 2013

Luke 10:25-37

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 7:7-17, Colossians 1:15-28, Psalm 82

When the lists of “best books” for the last century are drawn, Cormac McCarthy shows up for his book The Road. It’s a book that the critics rave about while the rest of us shirk back in fear and dread. Undoubtedly, The Road is the most despairing book I’ve ever read and it stands as a book I can cautiously recommend if I think you’re tough enough to read it. How’s that for a review?

The Road is about a nameless man and his nameless son who are living in the aftermath of some god-awful post-apocalyptic time when most have already died and all that’s left of civilization is run amok by bandits and gangs of men who travel the road looking for victims they can exploit. The man and his son are travelers on that road and they’re vulnerable except for the survival skills of the father. Together, they’re “carrying the fire,” a rich euphemism for uncertain hope and self-dignity and better times. That idea carries the boy along as they face whatever sense of hope can be gained by traveling the road south to warmer climes. They didn’t mean to be travelers on the road, a perilous road that calls for vigilance if one is to survive.

All of us live on the road when we take a wrong turn or travel to the far country. I was in Princeton one spring taking a course and decided one night to take the train into the city to see a play on Broadway. The play was over just before midnight and since the night was clear and I had a general idea of how to get to Union Station where I would hopefully catch a late train back to Princeton, I decided to not take a cab and instead walk to the train station. I did not know that even though Union Station was not all that far away that I was walking in peril on the dangerous road. Predictably, I was followed by a guy and so I picked up the pace. And then he too picked up the pace. Luckily it was just him and I soon found the train station. Sometimes we make a bad decision and yet have luck with us even though we’re on the road.

What about Trayvon Martin? He was a good kid who learned the road ran through his neighborhood. On a rainy night after buying some candy and a drink and walking home he found he too was being followed. The stalker was also alone but this stalker had a gun and confronted Trayvon, a young black man that had been singled out because he had been profiled as a thief. We don’t know for sure what happened (and we’ll never know) but somehow Trayvon ended up on top and the hunter became the hunted as Trayvon pinned his stalker on the ground and was kicking his can. But in Florida this case was tried under the Stand Your Ground law, a law designed to honor self-defense. Trayvon may not have begun this fight but his assailant sure ended it. One news service seemed to say it best this morning in the headline: “Not Guilty, But Not Innocent.”

Trayvon didn’t know he was on the perilous road until it was too late and danger descended upon him and turned him into another gun victim.

The perilous road runs through Middle School and High School campuses where bullies pick on weaker kids in a culture of the strong bullying the weak simply because they can. They roam the parking lots and the locker rooms. They huddle menacingly in the hallways where they make a living hell out of a parent’s sweet question, “How’d it go at school today, honey?”

This Jesus-story is about one person in need and three unwitting persons who are drawn into the drama of helping simply out of chance because they happen to be on the same road heading from Jerusalem to Jericho. They didn’t set out on their journey to see who might need their help. They simply ran across the plight of the poor man because the circumstances of their trip led them into one another. Call it a fluke or call it fate, they met up with this broken and beaten man because they happened to share the road together.

Jesus took the quizzing of a professor of the law and turned it into a morality play about mercy. The legalist asked the hard questions and Jesus turned the tables on him and made him answer his own questions. Jesus seemed to understand the fact that the questions we ask speak as loudly about the questioner as they do about the answers of the one being questioned. Ever the teacher, Jesus answered him with a question, “What do you think?”

It’s not really about our questions of belief … it’s about how we live. In that kind of exchange, Jesus makes sure it’s not about orthodoxy (right belief) but about orthopraxy (right living). At least in Jesus’ thinking, if right belief doesn’t stay connected to how we live, something vital is missing. So Jesus told this story in answer to the man’s question, “Who is my neighbor?”

It’s at this point the story takes a decidedly wicked turn. Jesus turns the tables on the smug so-called keeper of the law. This is not a story about the quest to determine right belief. This is not about getting the answers right. It’s not about determining whether “your theology is as right as mine,” as it is commonly played.

Maybe the focus of the story doesn’t center on the helpers at all. Maybe it’s about the one lying bloody in the road. Robert Capon, Episcopal priest, helps us with this interpretation of the story by reversing the interpretation of the meaning of the characters. He sees the central character of the story as the one beaten by robbers and he does that by seeing this character as a Christ-figure who enters a world of danger. In that light, we might consider renaming the parable as some have done as “The man who fell among thieves.”

This man was hiking the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho. It was commonly known to be a dangerous stretch fraught with the possibility of being trapped on the road. It was a road that most traveled in the safety of a group rather than alone. It was a downward spiral of a trail that descended down to one of the oldest cities in the world sitting down near the valley carved by the waters of the Jordan River as it moved slowly down to the sinkhole known as the Dead Sea.

Anyone with half a brain knew it was the fool who tempted fate by traveling alone. It was like walking into a war zone, like taking a walk in those parts of the city best traveled in the safety of a car during the daylight hours but never at night. Folks who use their common sense know there are parts of the city that should be avoided. “So what’s a God like ours doing in a neighborhood like this one?” we might ask.

Paul the Apostle said, “For our sakes God became poor,” and theologians have given that a name calling it the Divine Impoverishment. In the movement from the safety and security of God’s power and sovereignty to the vulnerability of incarnation, God became vulnerable: hands-outstretched, willing to be beaten, killed, and crucified.

So perhaps this story is not about being nice and proving who are justified by their goodness. Maybe we can crack open the door of a deeper understanding and see how Christ has entered into human history imploring us to see the world as though Christ himself were in every moment and in the midst of every human situation.

The Samaritan outcast picks up the Wounded-God outcast and does all he can to absorb the Christ figure’s pain and suffering. It’s almost as if there are two losers who happen to meet in a moment of need. One, the Samaritan, is a genetic mistake being a half-breed outcast from the purity of Jewish sensibilities of cleanliness laws. Not quite Jew and not quite Gentile, he’s banished to the edges of two worlds and rejected by both.

The other is a Jewish itinerant teacher who simply wanders about the Jewish communities claiming to have a special relationship with God with an agenda of loving and healing and pointing the way. This man broken by thievery and circumstances is embraced and loved by another suffering loser.

Capon stretches the realms of our thinking by pushing us to think about our religion apart from the niceties of a form of faith that rewards niceness and punishes our not-niceness. He wants us to understand that Jesus didn’t institute a religion comprised merely of behavioral modification but instead wants to introduce us to renewal and transformation.

So the questioner in this story is us … all of us who want to explore the limitations of love rather than seeking to live out the generosity of God. We want to know the bare minimums necessary to keep us safe in God’s kingdom. We’re not willing to bend over and touch the one in need, mind you, but we need to know just what it is that will get us inside God’s good graces with the minimum of effort and personal expense.

What we miss in that kind of living is the exploration of mercy, both for others and for ourselves. And so Jesus turns to us all when we ask, “How little is necessary for the salvation of our souls?” by asking us in return, “What do you think?”

The road runs through our neighborhoods and our schools and our lives. “Who is my neighbor?” the confused young lawyer quizzed and the story Jesus told that day continues to haunt us every time we come across the figure of Jesus broken and bleeding on the side of the road. If the peaceable kingdom of God ever takes root in our world, it must first take root in our hearts. May it be so, O Lord. Amen.