Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Compassionate Samaritan

This weekend I am serving at Grace Church in Oxford. The gospel reading is Luke 10:25-37.
Normally I post sermon manuscripts after I've preached the sermon, because preaching them always changes them a bit (and also helps me catch typos!) But today I'm making an exception to that practice and posting these "ruminations" before the services tonight and tomorrow morning at Grace.

As many of you here at Grace already know, my name is Rich Simpson and I serve as a member of Bishop Fisher’s staff. I’ve had a chance to be with you on numerous occasions in the past few years including, most recently, Father Al’s retirement service. One of my areas of responsibility in this diocese includes working with congregations facing clergy transitions. So that is why I’m here with you today.

Among other things, I’m here to tell you that we are about to embark on a journey and to ask you to not to be afraid. To ask you to pray hard and to put your trust in God. To ask you to be the Church. I know that you’ve not had much experience with transitions here over the past fifty years or so. So there may be lots of questions – which I’ll be happy to respond to when we meet after the liturgy today.

I was planning to give you my standard sermon today: to remind you that God is God and that God is not finished with you yet, and that with all due respect to Father Al, God was God before and still and forever. And Grace Church was here before Fr. Al and so far, at least, you are still here. So it is now time to write a new chapter. And that work is not the bishop’s work and it’s not my work as canon and it’s not the work of the priests who may be here along the way, or the wardens or the vestry. It’s work for all of you as the people of God. It’s work that requires all hands on deck, not a time to play “wait and see.”

Usually that sermon takes me about twelve to fifteen minutes to deliver. But in a nutshell that’s it. And that’s all I’m going to say about that, for now, because we can talk more after worship about this congregation’s transition.

But today I don’t think that’s the most important thing for us to talk about in this part of the liturgy – this time when we reflect on God’s word and the world around us and ask “what does the Lord require of us?” It’s important for us to remember today what has happened this week to Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday and to Philandro Castille in Falcon Heights, Minnesota on Wednesday night and to the five police officers killed on Thursday night in Dallas, Texas: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens.

It’s been a really rough week in this nation, and this on the heels of terror attacks around the globe, including Orlando, Florida. We feel numb, and angry, and confused, and sad, and polarized as a nation. Our hope is threatened and we are in danger of losing our faith in a brighter tomorrow. But for right now, I just want to remind you to focus on Alton and Philandro and Brent and Patrick and Michael and Michael and Lorne. All of their friends and family grieve and all of us here grieve for all of them. Michael Krol graduated from Longmeadow High School, minutes from our cathedral. But all of them went to high schools where they had classmates who loved them. Regardless of the color of their skin, whether they wore a blue uniform to work or a white one to cook for little kids, we grieve their deaths here, and now. They are all our brothers. And of them have been taken from us too soon, because of the violence of this world. We pray for the repose of their souls. But we must also ask ourselves, as the Body of Christ, an age-old question: who is my neighbor?

Today’s gospel reading is very familiar, but it really does bear a closer look today. Because context matters. It’s a radical, dangerous, hopeful story – the kind of story that will eventually get the story-teller killed. But even death cannot silence the man, or the stories he told.

This is Jesus of Nazareth’s story, told to Jewish people like himself, Jewish people for whom the term “good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron. Because the Samaritans were feared and mistrusted and the feelings went in both directions. To hear the parable properly, then, we need to try to put ourselves in the place of those who first heard it, people who would have scratched their heads at the idea of a “good Samaritan.”  

So if we want to truly understand the story in today’s world, then we might imagine Jesus speaking in his native land to Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and the hero of the story he is about to tell is a Palestinian Muslim who shows mercy and compassion. And the beauty of the story is that it can just as easily be reversed: he could be talking with Palestinian Christians in East Jerusalem, and tell the story in such a way that it’s an Israeli soldier who shows mercy and compassion.

Notice that the lawyer who is testing Jesus is asking a question perhaps some of you have asked. How far does love have to go? How far must it extend for me to consider myself a good person? Does it have to include my ex-spouse? My gay or lesbian or transgender grandchild? The Mexican family that just moved next door? How far? Muslim immigrants?

But Jesus has a knack of turning tables on us. He does this a lot and he does it here, to this lawyer. And to us. He asks the lawyer not to try to imagine how good he can be – how far he is willing to extend neighborly love—but rather, how vulnerable he can imagine himself and to picture himself lying in a ditch on the side of the road, nearly dead, and in need of a good neighbor. And to ask how he would be changed if the person who showed him compassion and mercy was someone he feared and mistrusted and even despised. To ask how that experience of love would rock his world.

So let’s make this real and move from preaching to meddling. You are on Route 395 and it's 2 am and your car is run off the road by a truck in the pouring rain, and you sustain some injuries, and your cell phone is dead. You are in trouble. And you are in and out of consciousness. But you do see one or two cars with The Episcopal Church Welcomes You bumper stickers on them and you pray that they will stop. Your own people. Maybe even someone from Grace Church. But it’s dark and it’s raining and they don’t even slow down. And you see a few cars that say things like Jesus Saves, your own people, even if not your own tribe – even if they worship at one of those non-denominational-we-never-use-the-word-mass congregations. But it doesn’t matter where they worship, or what their theology is. They keep on going. And then an immigrant from Africa, someone who works at one of the Worcester Nursing Homes as an aide and speaks little English, stops to help. And as she comes closer to you, you notice she is wearing a hijab. She acts like a neighbor to you.

Or since it seems to be the season, let’s imagine you have a Hillary bumper sticker on your car – or a Bernie sticker. And the guy who comes walking up to your car to help has a red hat on that says, “Make America Great Again.” He stops to help. And to be very clear, the story works equally well in the reverse, which is why it is so beautiful, and so dangerous, and so full of potential to change our hearts if we let it. Because if you are a Trump supporter the way I just told the story just makes you feel right and justified and the point of the story is to make us feel mercy and compassion, so you have to reverse the story to get it: then it is you, with the Make America Great bumper sticker on your car, and the person who stops and helps you has a tee-shirt on that says “I’m with Hillary” and speaks with a foreign accent.

It works in both directions because it’s about challenging our fears and inviting us to imagine a more merciful and compassionate neighborhood. So the guy in the car could be an off-duty cop, third generation Irish guy and the “good Samaritan” is a Black Lives Matter guy. Or. The. Reverse.

You know your own prejudices. I’m just a guest here so I don’t. But I served a parish for fifteen years where I knew people’s politics, I saw their Facebook posts during the week and I saw the bumper stickers on their cars on Sunday mornings. People had strong opinions in Holden, on the right and on the left. In one sense I would say we leave that at the door when we come to church. But in another sense when we do that we domesticate this and other parables and Jesus. We pretend these things don’t matter or that we are color-blind or that we don’t have any prejudices. And that’s just not true.

So to allow this story to go to the heart, we have to insert our own “un-neighbor” for the word “Samaritan.” And then you begin to see that it is a story that challenges us all in our pain and our fear and our desire to build enclaves of people like us – even sometimes congregations like that. Jesus will have none of that, however.

The sign outside of this Church says that all are welcome here, and I believe you. But it’s really hard to live that in these polarized times. Only time will tell if that was really Father Al’s thing or if it is something you all own as your own core value. But if you do own it, then you must find ways to not only speak these words on your lips but to live them in your lives, in a world that desperately needs signs of Grace.

Our grief can tear us apart – and an eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind. We seem to be living in an endless cycle of violence. Jesus shows us the way to end that cycle – by imagining the one we fear as neighbor. And by insisting you can love both black people and cops; you don’t have to choose one side. We are one. We are not the same, but we are one. And we get to carry each other.

Jesus says that the whole of Biblical faith is about just two things: love of God and love of neighbor. But it is always those two things, not just one. Because you can’t say you love God whom you do not see, and then speak ill of your neighbor.

Yeah, but who is my neighbor? The answer is, "the one who shows compassion and mercy." Go, then, and do likewise. Let us pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


  1. Powerful sermon! Miss seeing you at Wulstan's. Harold Lohr

    1. Thank you, Harold. I miss you all too! (Feel free to invite me back as a "guest speaker!" My best to all, and always grateful for my friendship with you. Peace.