Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
for St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington
Since arriving in the Northwest – and especially since the weather has been a little nicer – my wife and I have been doing a little camping. Just last week we camped our way down to Crater Lake and up the Oregon Coast, and I think after several nights of sleeping under the stars we’re finally starting to get the hang of it.
It wasn’t always this way.
The first time we tried camping this year was on the Olympic Peninsula, at the Kalaloch Campground in Olympic National Park. We found a glorious campsite, perched on a bluff overlooking the endless horizon of the Pacific Ocean. If you were to try and nab that campsite on a weekend in July or August, good luck. But we were camping on the first weekend in May. April showers were not just lingering, they were throwing an after-party and they had invited high winds and crashing waves to join them. There were a few other brave souls who had decided to crash the joint, but they were huddled in their cars and RVs, gaping at the storm through fogged up windows. This was no place for first-time tent campers.
But adventure was out there, and so we soldiered on. We stretched out the rainfly over our little tent and tried to stake it into the ground. Except that, despite the torrential rain, the ground was still hard as cement. And I had forgotten a hammer. So I tried lashing it to a tree, to a watercooler, to a picnic table… nothing really seemed to work. All the while the wind and rain and gray sea worked up a frenzy around us.
Suddenly a man stepped out of the RV parked next to us. Under the pouring rain he walked over and stuck out his hand in a friendly greeting. He introduced himself and said he and his family would be staying in the camper next to us all night, that we’d be neighbors for the evening. Then he looked over at our tent, and back at us. And then he asked us a very important question.
“Do ya’ll need any help?”
Nope, I said, we’re good. Got it all under control. Thanks for the offer, really, but we’re doing fine.
It can be hard to accept help when we need it.
Many of us were raised to be good helpers, to serve our neighbor in need. Our gospel story for today is often cited as a prime example of how to serve our neighbor in need; in fact, the idea of being a “Good Samaritan” to a person in trouble has made this parable part of the common lexicon. Sometimes we even put laws into place to make sure this sort of helping happens; Washington State has had a “Good Samaritan” law” for a few years now.
Of course, as a church community we’ve been hearing the story of the Good Samaritan for years. The idea of helping those around us has become so ingrained in us that we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to serve our neighbors in need. We have a soup kitchen, and a garden that feeds our soup kitchen; we have a fellowship hall that we turn over to folks who need a place to sleep for the night; we have rooms that we rent out to recovery groups; we even support a public policy office to advocate for structural changes that might help heal society’s systemic sickness, and not just its symptoms. We are not the only community of faith that does so; in fact, so many churches do things like this that I wonder why there aren’t more congregations in the ELCA with the name of Good Samaritan Lutheran Church.
But here’s the thing: Service is only one side of the parable we hear today.
The story Luke tells begins with someone standing up and asking Jesus a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The question itself is a bit comical in its incoherence. The person speaks of an eternal life – in other words, the full life that God intends for us – inherited, received as a free gift, salvation through grace alone. He’s practically a Lutheran, what with his theological training and understanding of God’s grace as freely given to all, inherited, not earned. And yet, like so many of us Lutherans, he still finds himself asking what more he must do to receive it.
And so Jesus tells him a story. It is the story of a man going down the road, making his way through life. For a while things are going okay but soon life takes its toll. Best-laid plans end abruptly; the road map is stripped away. He might as well be dead, for all he has left.
Ah, Jesus’ listener is thinking, this is where I come in. A person in need of help, surely that is my neighbor! And, sure enough, along come a couple of religious folks, a couple of helpers.
Except that they just pass on through the story. Before the listener can raise an objection, another character has arrived on the scene. It is a Samaritan, an outcast, a person living on the margins of society, a homeless person, an undocumented immigrant, a name on the no-fly list, a convicted felon, a drug addict. At worst, the Samaritan is outside the bounds of who we are supposed to help. At best, the Samaritan is a helpee, one to be helped, not a helper.
But the Samaritan is shown to bear the image of a loving God just as surely as any the priest and the churchgoer, maybe even so more, as Jesus tells it. The Samaritan comes near the man in the ditch, perhaps because he knows the ditch himself. The Samaritan is moved with pity. He is moved like the father of the prodigal son is moved when he sees his lost boy. He is moved like Jesus is moved when he sees the widow whose only son is carried out in a funeral procession. Luke uses the same word three times in his gospel, a verb describing a heart broken in compassion, once to describe the prodigal father, once to describe Jesus, once to describe the Good Samaritan.
And then this Samaritan who bears the likeness of his Creator, who shares the compassionate heart of Christ, bandages the wounded man, puts a salve on his cuts and bruises, like aloe on a sunburn. He nurses the man in the ditch back to health.
Jesus concludes the story with a question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” But here again is a question that reveals even more than its answer. We thought Jesus was going to tell us about a neighbor in need, but instead Jesus shows us the neighbor as one who gives. The one in need in the story, the one in the ditch, the one with wounds in need of healing, is not the neighbor, but us.
It is no accident that Jesus tells this story right after he has sent seventy disciples out into the world to heal the sick and preach the gospel, using words if necessary, and relying on the people they meet for shelter and sustenance. As Pastor Carol preached last week, Jesus sends his disciples out to be interdependent. As they carry out the mission of God in the world, Jesus instructs his disciples to receive even as they give.
Because this inhaling and exhaling of receiving and giving is what it means to live into eternal life, into the life God intends for us. This is what it means to be fully reconciled with God and with one another. Receive the peace of Christ. Then share the peace of Christ you have received.
Perhaps that is why God promises to meet us in the water and in the wine. They are not things we can accomplish, but only gifts we can receive.
In baptism and communion, we become like the man in the ditch. In the water and the wine, salve is put on our wounds, and we are anointed, and given a new life to live. It is a way of life that we inherit from God through a cloud of witnesses, Samaritans and Seattleites alike.
And so we come again, like the one in the ditch, broken and wounded, run down and ready for Sabbath, in need, once again, of a fresh start. In water and word, in bread and wine, in a community gathered, we come to receive the grace, the mercy, and the love of God.
It is only then that we hear Jesus saying, Go. Go and do likewise. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the earth, advocate for justice. Share the grace, the mercy, the love you have received. For these are the gifts of God, and they are given for you and for all the people of God.