Sunday, 10 July 2016

Compassion in your guts, mercy on the road

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 10th July 2016. Text: Luke 10:25-37.

Have you ever heard of a bad Samaritan? We’re often told that we’re in a post-Christian culture, but we live in a society saturated with biblical imagery. The idea of the Good Samaritan is all around us. There are charities and hospitals named after him, the phrase is universally understood and admired even among people with little interest in faith.  Indeed so good is the Samaritan that even he doesn’t need an adjective – those wonderful folks, The Samaritans, who help people in their direst emotional needs, don’t need any qualifier.

And of course it’s not down to the reputation of the people of Samaria. Because among Jewish people of Jesus’ time, that was shocking. They were heretics, who worshipped God not on Mount Zion but on a different mountain to the north. They were impure, the product of mixing between pure Jews and Assyrian immigrants, a real issue given the racialized culture of 1st century Israel. They were the subject of many historical feuds and grievances, battles between the two cultures. And they were inhospitable – Jews travelling to Jerusalem through Samaria were not welcome to stay in the villages along the way. So the idea of a bad Samaritan wouldn’t be a surprise to Jewish ears. The surprise is that we see them now as something positive, because of this one story.

Now it’s such a well-known story that you’ve probably heard it preached, or read interpretations, or seen re-enactments of it, a hundred times. It’s a story for children to listen and get a good solid moral message – be kind to others, even if nobody else will. And it’s a story that a preacher tackles with care if they want to get any point across except that one. There are many lessons to be taken from the Good Samaritan. But, spoiler alert, to me it gives a message that is at the very heart of the gospel. It gives us a clear message about what we need to do as Christians, and what eternal life feels like. It feels like mercy. It feels like receiving mercy when we least expect it, and from the places we least expect it. And it feels like giving mercy in ways that are costly to ourselves, that put ourselves at risk. That is everlasting life, and that is the heart of the kingdom of God.

We start with that lawyer, and he starts with a question that many asked Jesus and few have had answered to their satisfaction – how do I get eternal life? It’s basically a selfish question, a transactional question. OK JC, I’m important and I’m busy. How do I get this eternal life thing? What rituals do I need to do? How much do I need to pay? Give me the bill so I can get back to work, I’ve got a client coming at 12 o’clock. People in churches are still asking this question in the same self-centred and crass way, and it’s done the church a lot of harm. Because the answer isn’t paying an easy bill. It’s about relationships and it’s about giving yourself.

Of course the lawyer, clearly a good student, knows the proper answer. Love God and love your neighbour – the two-fold commandment. It’s a brilliant answer, which really does sum up the Torah, and it also sums up the Christian life. But the lawyer needs to set boundaries on his love, so he asks the question ‘who is my neighbour?’. As the biblical commentator Amy-Jill Levine puts it:
To ask “Who is my neighbor” is a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” or “Who does not deserve my love?” or “Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?” or “Whom I can hate?” The answer Jesus gives is, “No one.” Everyone deserves that love— local or alien, Jews or gentile, terrorist or rapist, everyone.
Photo: Berend de Boer
And so Jesus tells that story about the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, down that road which his listeners knew so well, and which was so dangerous. Really it’s the kind of place you’d expect to be set upon and robbed. I’m not going to spend much time on the priest or the Levite today. Their reasons for passing by on the other side have been widely discussed. There’s an argument about them breaching their ritual purity, which doesn’t quite work if you look at it long enough. Perhaps the best explanation is something Martin Luther King said – maybe they were just afraid and didn’t want to be robbed and beaten themselves. Maybe they felt it was some kind of scam. Or maybe they objected to helping individuals. I have myself walked past homeless people with their hands out, and not given them money. I’ve had the chance to complain to my MP about the conditions that lead to food poverty and not done it. I’ve seen pictures of terrible disasters in faraway places and done nothing. I don’t think I’m especially unworthy, I imagine we’ve all walked by at times. Don’t judge the priest or the Levite.


But let’s look at the Samaritan. I’ve said already just how hated were the Samaritans. They were the enemy, the other. The people like us and yet not like us. I watched a funny video from TV series That Mitchell & Webb Look which had Jesus telling the story to a group of liberal Jews who starting telling him off for his prejudice, that they all knew some great Samaritans, took their holiday in Samaria and the people were so nice. I’d have shown it today except it had some swear words that I didn’t want to inflict on you. But if there were such Jews in Jesus’ time, they were few and far between. Samaritans were despised. I’ve been trying all week to think of an analogy, of a group that’s close enough to us that know all their moves but to find them utterly alien. No single group fits the bill for all those in this room, I imagine, to say nothing of those outside. But I bet you have group that count as the enemy for you. Perhaps it’s those of another political persuasion, those who voted for Brexit or those who voted for Remain, or the Tories or UKIP or Labour. Perhaps it’s a different religious group – when I was growing in Glasgow, the divisions were really strong between Protestants and Catholics, and woe betide you if you strayed to the wrong tribe. In many places it’s about race, as we still see so tragically in the United States. For others, it’s around sexuality. Identifying a whole group of people as the enemy, as someone less than human, certainly not capable of good moral acts, is a terrible thing. It’s to deny that they’re made in the image of God, simply because they belong to a particular group. But, bluntly, it’s also a really common human activity, and at some level it’s something we all do.

Image: Jesus Mafa

So when the story took that three-part form that’s common in stories, the listeners would not have expected to hear the word Samaritan as the one who helped the man in danger. It would have come as a real shock, almost as something offensive. Those people, they’re the ones who help someone in danger? They’re the ones who act as a neighbour to the man? Yes, says Jesus, and moreover you need to be like them. Jesus says that the Samaritan felt compassion for the victim (the NIV which we heard says pity but compassion is a more common translation), using a really strong word which relates to your guts or even your bowels. The Samaritan felt so sorry for that man that it made his insides churn up, the way you do when you feel something is so wrong that you feel physically ill before you act. This was not a man with no moral sense. And Jesus says that the Samaritan showed mercy to the victim. Throughout the scriptures, that word mercy is the attribute of God. It’s God who shows mercy. The Muslims say “in the name of Allah, the most compassionate, the most merciful” and they have this biblical sense just right. Mercy is an attribute of God. And that is what the Samaritan showed to the beaten man.

So here’s the first message to take from the Good Samaritan. Mercy comes from unexpected places. God’s love comes through all sorts of people and in all sorts of ways. We live in a world that’s so deeply divided. It really feels this year as though things are falling apart. Our country has chosen to divide itself from the European Union. We have racist politicians in this country, throughout Europe, we have Donald Trump in America, all strengthening and exploiting divisions between people. We have horrendous acts of violence across the world carried out because of division. Elsewhere in the scriptures, prophetic voices loudly argue against this kind of division. The parable of the Good Samaritan says the same, more quietly and subtly, but no less clearly. Hear the message of the Samaritan with mercy and compassion: this man was doing God’s work. Division between human beings has no place in the kingdom of God. All human beings are brothers and sisters, and all are capable of goodness.


Let us move on to look at the story from a different perspective. The question is often asked who you identify with in this story, who you think is the key character. In passing, my wife Becky has told this story to children at our church a couple of times using the method called Godly Play, which includes asking which character in the story you most identify with. The answer is often the donkey! For adults the answer varies, but all too seldom is it the injured man. Yet I think there is real insight to be had in seeing yourself in the position of the person who was attacked, of taking what one commentator calls ‘the view from the ditch’. We don’t know anything about him. He’s described in some translations as ‘some man’, which is to say everyman – or everywoman. The injured man could be any one of us.

Because here’s the thing. Many of us are wounded people. Some of us have literally been physically beaten. Others have been emotionally beaten, or spiritually, or in our working lives, or in any of a number of ways. Sometimes that beating happens from strangers. Sometimes it happens from people we’re afraid of. Sometimes it happens from those we thought we could trust. Any of these is a terrible thing. My heart goes out to anyone here who has experienced these things.

But help often comes to us, and sometimes it comes in unexpected forms. The stranger who stops when someone is calling another person by racist names, and they simply say ‘enough’. The older woman who sees a young woman in a vulnerable position and walks her home. The street pastors who at weekend nights roam our town centre, and those of many other towns, helping people in danger. And the people who help those of different races, different religions, different political stances.

When that happens, can we acknowledge the help? Are we prepared for mercy to be shown to us? Later in the service, we will sing the hymn ‘Brother, Sister, let me serve you’ which contains the lines ‘pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too’. Are we prepared to do that? In moments of vulnerability, of hurt, are we able to respond to mercy when it comes from unexpected sources? So that to me is the second message of mercy from the story of the Good Samaritan.


And last comes those closing words of Jesus to the lawyer: ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ to which the lawyer responds, ‘The one who had mercy on him’ and Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’. We may receive mercy freely, from the unlikeliest of places, but we are also called to show mercy and compassion to others. We are called to follow the example of this man who felt the pain of his fellow-traveller in his guts, and actually did something about it.

Some of this is the individual response of the kind I have already mentioned – of showing compassion to somebody we encounter in trouble or in need. This response may be easy for us to take, but it may equally well be costly. As I said earlier, the priest and the Levite may well have been putting themselves in danger had they stopped for the injured man. The Samaritan may well have done so also. But he chose to accept that danger.

I know of plenty of Christians who have given up well-paid jobs to work and live among people in great deprivation, in this country or elsewhere, serving their needs in many ways. There is no condescension or patronising behaviour in such acts, they see the people they live among as equals and friends. These are hard paths, but those who follow them report that they are living life to the full. Or consider the Christians who travel to Palestine as ecumenical accompaniers to live alongside people in great hardship and oppression, both Christian and Muslim, in the land of Jesus.

But this kind of individual action can only go so far. Because there are many different people in many different kinds of trouble travelling from Jericho to Jerusalem, and other places beside. And helping them takes more than individual action. Consider food banks, like you have here – it’s great that they exist to help those in immediate need. But it’s a terrible thing that they need to exist, that living in the 5th largest economy in the world as we were constantly told last month, that we have anyone in food poverty who needs food banks. It’s a scandal, a disgrace. Our calling to go and do likewise goes beyond helping those in immediate need, it surely includes helping stopping that sort of need from arising. To quote Martin Luther King again:
We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.
The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us so much about God’s mercy and compassion, shown through others and which we are called to show to others. It speaks to a divided and hurting world, looking up from the ditch by the side of the Jericho road, and it speaks to us now in the commission of Jesus: go and do likewise.


Sunday, 26 June 2016

The stars are not out of reach

Tonight I read a bedtime story to my son that made me cry. Tender stories for parents to read to children do that to me sometimes but this touched a nerve. It was called "It's not my fault ... that the stars are out of reach", from a collection It's not my fault by Bel Mooney.

In the story, Kitty (a girl of perhaps eight) has recently lost her Gran to old age and illness. She wished upon a star one night and yet her Gran still died. She tells her mum this, who says:
"Listen, love, I decided a long time ago that the stars are out of reach. It's not their fault and it's not my fault - no more than it's your fault that your wish didn't come true. All it means is you can't help things happening - do you understand?"
But Kitty doesn't accept this as the final word. She spends all her pocket money on glow-in-the-dark stars, puts them into her parents' bedroom and waits for nightfall. They are left speechless with wonder. Kitty explains:
"I wanted to prove something to Mum. She said the stars are out of reach, but I've proved they aren't. You can touch these stars, Mum - and they're all for our gran."
It was then that my tears flowed. Both my parents, and my wife's, are still alive, but they're ageing and showing some signs of poor health, and I know that at some point in the future I'll have conversations with my children like Kitty with her mum.

But there's more, and that leads me to feel as much hopeful as sorrowful. 2016 has been a really rubbish year for the world. We have had a horrible bombing in Brussels, the massacre in the gay nightclub in Orlando, a British MP murdered while serving her constituents. The UK population has been lied to and manipulated for months, served up xenophobic and small-minded propaganda and has taken the irrevocable decision to withdraw from the European Union. We are smaller and poorer for it, morally and economically. The United States refuses to pass gun legislation to curb their many massacres, and has at least a chance of electing a racist demagogue as president. Refugees continue to stream out of Syria and Iraq in a desperate hope of finding safety somewhere in the world, and doors are closed in their face. Programmes of austerity, devised by western governments to appease the bankers who created an economic mess with their greed and incontinent gambling, increasingly cripple our public services and damage so many lives. And climate change gets worse and worse.

It seems that hope is a long way off, that the stars are far out of reach.

But I refuse to believe it. I refuse to believe that the stars are out of reach.

I refuse to believe that terrorists, whether motivated by extremist religion, prejudice, politics or hate, can succeed.

I refuse to believe that murder and violence can triumph over love and justice.

I refuse to believe that those who hate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for who they are will stop those people living out who they are.

I refuse to believe that xenophobia and insularity are the right routes for the British people.

I refuse to believe that demagogues and extremist politicians will win out over the voices of reason and tolerance.

I refuse to believe that refugees don't have a place where they can be welcomed.

I refuse to believe that austerity is the answer to economic troubles.

I refuse to believe that the human spirit will be cast down, or trodden underfoot.

I refuse to believe that the oppressed of the world are lost.

Instead I believe in hope. I believe in love. I believe in tolerance, and justice, and human decency. I believe in a God who has promised to cast down the mighty from their thrones, and send the rich away empty-handed; and who calls us to love the strangers, widows and orphans in our midst.

In the words of the Iona Community, I affirm God's goodness at the heart of humanity, planted more deeply than all that is wrong.

I believe that good will triumph over evil. I believe in a dawn after the darkness.

I believe that the stars are not out of reach.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Seeking and finding God, in the wilderness and in stillness

Sermon preached at Paulerspury URC on 19 June 2016. Texts: 1 Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-29.

I'm going to start with the wilderness that Elijah escaped into, fleeing for his life. Not a friendly place. Not a place of hope, or a place you want to settle in. No human settlements, no good land or easy access to food, limited shelter against rain or sun, risk of attack from wild animals. In this country, there’s not a lot of it left, even in the more remote areas. But elsewhere in the world, there are plenty of wilderness places where if want to travel, you’d better take care and go equipped. And if you go back in history to times of less settlement, there’s a lot more wilderness around. So it’s a common theme in the Bible. The Israelites travelling out of Egypt spent forty years in the wilderness. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness preaching repentance.

Image: Negev desert (Wikipedia)
This week feels like one of wilderness for our society. This is not a week for a cheerful all-shall-be-well sermon. The murder of Jo Cox MP, a decent person working hard to help people, has hit many of us hard. It comes in the middle of a really bad-natured and divisive referendum campaign about EU membership, which has brought out the worst in so many people. Elsewhere in the world we’ve had the massacre at the gay bar in Orlando, and the constant drum-beat of violence in Syria and Iraq. The world feels dark.

Many of us have our own individual wilderness that we’re struggling through. Some people struggle with their health or that of a loved one, watching someone decline and not knowing whether they’ll ever recover. Others struggle with depression, stuck in the mud of all-consuming unhappiness and not knowing how to get out. Again, others struggle with economic hardship, with uncertainty about their job or no job at all or not enough money or no roof over their heads. I’m struggling with my own wilderness of still another sort, after receiving a recent setback. Where that takes me next, I simply can’t say. This sermon isn’t about that, but it gives me a little taste of the other sorts of wilderness.

But here’s the thing about wilderness, as so many people experience it. It might last forty days, or it might last forty years, or it might end next Wednesday. But most people, most places, simply don’t know how long it’s going to last. It’s a time of wandering, a time of emptiness. It’s a bit like the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Looked at now, we know that Saturday only lasted for one day, but on the day after Jesus died, his disciples didn’t know that. The American preacher John Ortberg called that Saturday:
The day after this but the day before that. The day after a prayer gets prayed but there is no answer on the way. The day after a soul gets crushed way down but there’s no promise of ever getting up off the mat. It’s a strange day, this in-between day. In between despair and joy. In between confusion and clarity. In between bad news and good news. In between darkness and light.
So let’s go back to Elijah wandering in the wilderness. He was in a literal wilderness, but he was also in an emotional wilderness. He’d just had a huge triumph, defeating the prophet of Baal in a contest of gods in a scene on Mount Carmel where he literally called down the fire of God. But then he chose to kill 400 of them, and Queen Jezebel, a follower of the worship of Baal, had threatened his life and he fled for safety. He’d come down from his big victory and now he felt isolated and alone – twice in this passage he says he alone is left of the prophets of Yahweh.

Image: Russian icon
From victory to despair. He wanders alone in the wilderness. He sits alone under a solitary broom tree and wishes for death. It’s a sad and lonely image. But then God comes to his aid. He sends a messenger with fresh food and drink. Elijah drinks and eat and falls asleep. Even then Elijah seems sceptical, as well he might be given the danger. As some commentators observe, the word for the messenger which brings him food, mal’akh, often translated angel, is the same Hebrew word as the messenger who came from Jezebel to threaten his life. But the angel comes to him a second time and reassures him and the food gives him strength to journey for those forty days. Let’s emphasise that point. In the midst of Elijah’s wilderness moment, physically and emotionally at his very lowest, God sends a messenger to him and says: hang on there. I am with you. I will give you strength to carry on. And that’s a key message from this passage, as much as what follows. In the wilderness moments of our lives, God is with us. God comes to us in the wilderness and feeds us as we need to be fed, he gives us the strength to carry on.

So Elijah eventually makes it through the wilderness. He comes to a holy place, a notable place, to Mount Horeb which is also called Mount Sinai. In this place, and very possibly in the same cave where he goes, Moses met with God and was given the Ten Commandments. It’s the place where the covenant with God was established. He hears the voice of God asking why he’s there, and proclaims his aloneness. Given that Elijah has just been calling down fire, it’s not that surprising that he expects to find God’s voice in big signs of natural wonder – the earthquake, and the wind, and the fire.


I talked earlier about the sound that silence makes [and played the song Quiet from Matilda the Musical]. I find the song Quiet very moving because it expresses that feeling of profound and deep silence, of total connection with God, so well. But that’s an attitude of mind. One thing I learnt from my time as a Quaker is that the point isn’t the silence either. The silence is a tool. The point is the stillness inside, an attitude of readiness and openness to God. You can get that stillness in noisy places. I use a daily prayer podcast on my phone, which is designed for use in crowded spaces, and I often listen to it on the train from Northampton to Milton Keynes, standing up a bit uncomfortably with my bike. And it works. God can be found in all sorts of places, in all sorts of ways. God gives us strength in the wilderness places, but God can give us strength in the ordinary places of our lives as well, if we are able to listen for what the King James Version calls the still, small voice.

One more thing to say, and for that we need a verse of the passage from Galatians. There are many sermons to be preached from this passage, about freedom and law, about coming out of being disciplined as children in faith into being mature believers living in Christ. But there’s one verse I want to focus on, which speaks to the rest of what we’ve been thinking about this morning. It’s verse 28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Our society is riven with divisions – like in the text between racial groups, economic groups, or gender; but also between religions, nations, political affiliations, sexualities and others. It’s one of the causes of some of the ways we sit as a society in the wilderness. And people make so many judgements as a result of these divisions. The killings in Orlando seem to have been related to one – the people in the nightclub were killed because they were gay, or because they had friends who were gay, and the guy who did the killing hated them for it. We don’t yet know why Jo Cox was murdered, but it seems to have been hatred for the things she stood for, the people she championed. There are many who hate others because of divisions they see as more important than a common humanity. Paul tells us that they are totally wrong to do so: all are one in Christ Jesus. There is no division between rich and poor, or gay and straight, or black and white, or Brexiter and Remainer, or male and female, or Russian and English, or Catholic and Protestant, or between you and me. All are one in Christ Jesus.

God comes to us in all places, brings us help when we least expect it, and can be found in all kinds of people. We may be in a wilderness place, but if we listen attentive for the still small voice of God, then God will be with us, and will be with us in the wilderness.

Let us pray:
God of all people everywhere,
Help us to find you in the midst of the noise and turbulence of our lives.
Help us to seek for you when we stumble in the wilderness,
Help us to look for you in moments of our greatest despair,
Help us to search beyond noise for the voice you bring us in quiet ways.
For we know you are with us,
And we know you are with all people,
And we thank you and love you for it.
We pray these words in the name of our risen saviour and lord, Jesus Christ.
Amen.