Tuesday morning, our hearts were torn at the news of a young black man shot to death by police while they were attempting to arrest him in Louisiana. Wednesday evening, we are broken again by news of another young black man, shot to death by police during a traffic stop in Minnesota. Then the knife is twisted in the wound of violence on Thursday night when twelve police officers were shot, five fatally, by a sniper during a peaceful march in Texas in honor of the black men killed this week.
It begins to feel like we are a country at war with ourselves.
After this week of Americans killing Americans, we come to one of the most well-known parables of all – the Good Samaritan. When I looked at it earlier in the week, I almost passed it by and chose another text. How can we get anything more from this favorite, maybe tired parable? But when I read it in the context of this week’s news, the heart-broken social media posts, I decided to give it another look. Have we understood it? Have we, can we, take it to heart? Might it speak into this moment in the lives of our nation, and of our own congregation?
Luke is very careful to point out in this parable that Christianity indeed IS a practice. I have often mourned the fact that Buddhism is called a practice and Christianity is called a religion. Luke would not agree at all! Nor would Jesus. Christianity is first and foremost, a practice. “Take up your cross and follow me.” “Go make followers in all the nations.” “Go heal people.” “You follow me.” Almost all of Jesus’ instructions are about how we live, what we do because we follow Jesus.
So also this parable. It starts with: “What must I DO to inherit eternal life?” And ends with: “Go and DO likewise.” We can define love all we want, we can know all the confessions, we can understand Greek and Hebrew, or be able to explain the latest theological interpretation, but the way to eternal life is to give life away.
Neither taking up violence to protect others, nor taking up violence to further our own cause, is the way to eternal life. Instead, the way to life is to give our lives away. Jesus knew this would be hard to understand, and that only a few would take it seriously. What about us? Do we live to give life away? Do I? If all Christians, including us right here in this room, began to live this way, would it be the door to eternal life? Not just for us, but for all? I wonder….
Clearly the Samaritan is the hero of the story, the central figure to understand. He is the one who lives Christianity as a practice, he responds like the Holy One in life as he finds it. Remember, the lesson of the story was to go and do likewise. So, we must look primarily at what he did.
First, the Samaritan sees the man in need. This is no small first step. It is well-known that our brains do not register all that we see. Twenty eye witnesses to an event will have twenty different stories to tell. In fact, if their stories were identical, we would know that there was something fishy.
The Samaritian’s seeing was not simply a picture-perfect replica of the man. No, the Samaritan sees with the eyes of his heart. He was “moved with pity.” The Greek word, esplagnisthe, occurs only three times in all of Luke. And in every case it is the divine one who is credited with this response. So we can say that being “moved with pity,” in Luke’s story, is something identified with God.
What does it mean to be “moved with pity” or compassion? The Samaritan shows us. He sees not just with the eyes in his head, but with his heart, he feels with the broken man in the ditch. He sees him as a human being, a neighbor, rather than as a burden or a potential threat. In so doing, he is seeing as God sees, seeing as God would have us see. To see with compassion is to see the broken ones as part of myself, my world and my wholeness, as God would see each thing as part of Godself, God’s own creative and loving heart.
Seeing with the eyes of compassion, or moved with pity, is a particular way of seeing, a way of seeing associated with the practice of Christianity. I would suggest that it is trained into us in a couple of ways. On the one hand, this way of seeing can work through us because the Holy Spirit intervenes and gives us a sudden heart for seeing. When this happens, it seems random and can happen to anyone when God is desperately seeking someone to be divine presence in a human situation.
On the other hand, seeing with the eyes of compassion can also be practiced intentionally, and over time, we will be better “seers.” One of the best practices to develop this kind of seeing that I know is the Ignatian Examen. In this practice you begin the day asking God to show you God’s presence throughout the day. And at the end of the day, you review the day looking for the places you saw God and noticing the places where you were not open to seeing God. After a prayer of thanks and forgiveness, you are ready for rest and to begin again, setting the same intention the next morning upon waking. Father Dennis Hamm calls it “Rummaging for God – an expression that suggests going through a drawer full of stuff, feeling around, looking for something that you are sure must be in there somewhere.” [http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/rummaging-for-god-praying-backward-through-your-day]
It is a simple practice. And it will change your life, because it will change your seeing. It can help to have a companion on this journey. I know of a number of families who practice this at the dinner table each evening. Everyone shares their best moment of the day, their worst moment of the day, and their hope for tomorrow. A relationship with Spiritual Director or Companion can help. Or a prayer partner. This is a practice which helps us tune our hearts to the presence of God, and the call of God.
May we see with the heart of compassion. May we see with the heart of God. If all people practiced this Christian way of seeing, there would not be so many shootings, and we would have more friends in our cities.
But the Samaritan not only sees the man in need as a neighbor, but he draws near to him, coming over to help. The Samaritan chose the way of vulnerability. I have been reading the work of Brene Brown, who researches the dynamics of vulnerability. One of the things she discovered in her research which changed her own life is that people who live whole-hearted lives have the same life experiences as everyone else, they just choose to engage whatever it is, to connect deeply and to risk vulnerability. Yes, it hurts sometimes, but it produces a life well-lived and well-loved. It is counter-intuitive to the American spirit. We think that everything should be in order and well planned out in order for us to be successful and happy. But the research showed the opposite. The desire for perfection and control were more likely to lead to unhappy lives. [Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, Avery, 2015]
The Samaritan was vulnerable by connecting with this man, who might or might not survive, who was an inconvenience and cost him something.
This has been our experience at Mt Tabor Church too. It is our mission to “…follow Jesus by opening our doors, sharing sacred space, listening, serving creating, learning….” Add to this the mission of the our Taborspace Program, “to create connected community, by providing a welcoming and nurturing gathering place…,” and we have a pretty strong stated commitment to connect with neighbors, to be neighbors with neighbors.
And it has cost us something, like it cost the Samaritan. We don’t have full access to this building at all times, because others are using it too, to make their dreams become reality. The neighbors who share life with us are different from us, have different goals and different life experiences. Sometimes they are difficult and need us in ways we would rather not be welcoming. They even understand God and church differently than we do.
The religious leaders in the story, who have the “right” perspective on God and church, don’t come off in a very good light, because they were not vulnerable, did not make any kind of connection with a neighbor in need. It didn’t fit in their religious, correct, perfect world. Yes, vulnerability is messy. I am sure that the Samaritan’s clothes got dirty and he had explanations to make for why he was late at his destination. But none of that matters. What matters is that he gave us an example of the life-giving practice of Christian vulnerability.
What if eternal life is known here and now when we are the most vulnerable, the most trusting, the most available to the God-life flowing through us? Rather than separating, building walls of safety, what if we just welcome the “other” inside?
“Who is my neighbor?” means, according to Jesus, a commitment to coming near. Your neighbor is not just the person living next door, who meets the qualifications of your company. Your neighbor is someone who is experiencing pain, struggles, challenges, and sorrow; someone who is different and often difficult to be with. And yet you draw near.
May we be vulnerable with neighbors. May we make connections, draw near and experience life to the full! If all people practiced this Christian way of connecting, there would not be so many shootings, and we would have more friends in our cities.
My daughter got into a conversation yesterday which seems to illustrate what I am trying to say. She had a difference of opinion with a couple of girls at her table. The girls became apologetic, afraid they had offended. She said, “No need for apologies. You are free to think as you do. And there’s room for you here,” as she pointed to her heart. Maybe that should be on a T-shirt, she mused. “There’s room for you here.”