Indict us, Convict us, Provoke us. . . . with a Parable

Luke 10:25-37 / Proper 10C

Let us pray: God, in your mercy, show us our complicity in injustice; convict us for our indifference; forgive us when we have remained silent; equip us with a zeal for righteousness and never let us grow accustomed or acclimated to unrighteousness. Amen.[1]
I don’t know about you, but after a week of news focused on the death of two black men by police officers and then 5 police officers killed by sniper attack during a rally that was intended by its organizers to be a peaceful protest,  I’m not sure I’m ready for more provocation.  I’m not ready for more Ferguson, more Cleveland, more Baltimore, more New York City, more Chicago.  In fact, I’m a bit tired of it all and I suspect you may be too.  So, we gather here on a Sunday morning – perhaps seeking some comfort and some solace – some rest for our tired and broken hearts.  But you know who else is tired? You know who else wants comfort and solace?  Our black brothers and sisters.  Our black brothers and sisters who are tired too but who have been fighting and fighting and fighting and, asking God, "How long? How much longer must we wait for justice?” And so those of us here today wanting rest must pray now the words that will be a part of our Eucharistic Prayer later this morning: 
“Dear God, deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”[2] 
And today, we have a parable – a familiar tale – often called the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  It is a story that many of us learned in Sunday School and the lesson that most of us learned was that we, as Christians, are the Good Samaritans – or, at least, should strive to be like the Good Samaritan – helping those who are less fortunate than ourselves.  But here’s the deal.  The parables aren’t meant to tell us something we already know.  Of course, we should help someone on the side of the road who is beaten and lying in a ditch!  Any sensible person knows that.  But Jesus didn’t tell this story because he thought his followers – in the first century or in the 21st century - might want to hear a story about something we already know! No, he told the parables to indict his followers, to indict us – to provoke us; to provoke us to change. 
I had an opportunity a couple of months ago to hear Professor Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Divinity School speak at Bexley Seabury’s Spring Convocation in Chicago.  She is a self-described “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominately Protestant divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt” and is perhaps best known for her dedication to eliminating anti-Jewish, sexist and homophobic theologies.  In her keynote address to the Convocation she spoke of how our misunderstandings of Jesus’ Jewish culture can create misinterpretations of the parables he told and how a fresh understanding may provide new and provocative messages applicable for today. 
According to Levine, the word “parable” means to set side by side things which do not go together.  She goes on to say that if our interpretation makes us more comfortable or more complacent then it is probably not a good interpretation.[3]  So hearing the story of the Good Samaritan and saying, “ah, yes, I am like the Good Samaritan” and stopping there . . . not such a good interpretation.  So what do we really have at work here? What two things are being set side-by-side which do not go together?  Let’s start with a little context.
Jesus tells this story to a lawyer who asks what he needs to do to inherit eternal life.[4]  This lawyer already knows what the law says – “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”[5]  And Jesus says, YES, YES, you are EXACTLY right and then goes on to tell him this simple story about a man in a ditch, a simple story about the men who pass him by, and a simple story about one man who ultimately comes to his aid.  And he tells them this story not to demonstrate what a good man this lawyer is but rather to indict him – to indict him for being like the priest and the Levite, good religious men in the story, who pass by the man in the ditch and who do nothing, who say nothing, who change nothing.  And what makes the story so provocative is that the hero in the story is a Samaritan and the first century Jews hated the Samaritans.
This enmity between Samaritans and Jews dated back more than 5 centuries – to the time of the Babylonian exile.  Both Jews and Samaritans shared the same scripture but they interpreted it in very different ways.  “The split between the Jews and the Samaritans gradually widened until eventually . . . the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim” about 30 – 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem.[6]  The Jews, on the other hand, maintained that the Jerusalem Temple was the only place to worship God. 
Now hate is a strong word and yet, in the 1st century it was an accurate way to describe the relationship – or lack of relationship - between Jews and Samaritans.   So, what did the lawyer think after hearing Jesus’ story about the “good” Samaritan ---hearing this parable – this setting side by side two things which do not go together --- good and Samaritan--- and hearing Jesus conclude by saying, “Go and do likewise?”[7]   And what are we to think? 
On Friday at noon, I had the privilege of attending a prayer vigil at Second Baptist Church in the wake of this week’s violence.  I say I had the privilege to attend because it is true.  I have privilege just about everywhere I go because of the color of my skin.  I grew up being able to ride my bike all around the neighborhood without fearing for my safety.  I grew up being able to wander the aisles of the local candy store without being followed because I looked like I might be the sort of kid who steals things.  I grew up knowing that studying hard would get me into the college of my choice. Today I don’t need to have a talk with my nieces or my nephew about what to do if they are pulled over by the police because in my experience when people with white skin like mine are pulled over it is because we have actually been speeding, driving the wrong way on a one way street, or really do have a taillight out.  I can reach into my glove box for my insurance card and registration and not fear being shot.  Today I do not fear for the safety of my nieces and my nephew.  Today I do not fear that I may be next.  And this is what it means to have privilege. White privilege.
It is tempting for those of us with white skin to get defensive when hearing about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice . . . do I need to continue the litany of brown- and black-skinned martyrs? It is tempting to reply to the declaration that Black Lives Matter with a shout of ALL Lives Matter or, in the wake of Thursday night’s sniper attack in Dallas with a cry of BLUE Lives Matter.  But here’s the truth.  While we may want to live in a world where ALL Lives DO Matter – after all that is what our baptismal covenant says – that we will respect the dignity of EVERY human being - the fact is, that today – and for at least the past 400 years – White Lives have mattered more.  That’s called White Privilege and it is at the root of the Systemic Racism on which our society was founded and built.  I want desperately for ALL Lives to Matter; but, until they do, I must add my voice to the cry that BLACK Lives Matter.  And what about blue lives? What about the lives of the men and women who are sworn as police officers to “well and truly serve . . . without favor or affection, malice or ill-will. . . [to] see and cause our community’s peace to be kept and preserved?”[8]  What comedian Jon Stewart said so eloquently in 2014 remains true today:
“You can truly grieve for every officer who's been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards."[9]
So, again, to be clear: Black Lives Matter.  Period.  And that may make some of us uncomfortable.  And that’s o.k. 
Today we have a parable – a setting side by side of things which do not go together.  What are we to think when we hold up the light of the good news as told in this parable to the news of another black man killed?  What are we to do?  What are we to say?  As a white skinned person, it is tempting – and easy – to declare, “I am the Good Samaritan in the story.”  But the truth is, more often than not, I am the priest or the Levite who looks the other way – saying nothing, doing nothing, changing nothing – because at the end of the day, I can go home to the comfort of my bed and wake up the next day with my privilege, my life still intact. 
This story – this parable - is meant to provoke us.  Our worship is meant to provoke us.  Philando Castile and Alton Sterling are dead this week.  Five Dallas police officers are dead this week.  Who is the man in the ditch in our modern day news cycle?  Who are the priests and the Levites?  Who are the Samaritans in our society?  Who are you in the story?  And is it who you want to be?  Is it who God is calling you to be?
I want to close this morning with the words of one of our African-American brothers.  His name is Bernard Little and he is a minister at Second Baptist Church.  This is what he posted on his Facebook page on Thursday morning – words that were read at an Evanston prayer vigil on Friday and again at an Evanston Black Lives Matter protest last night:
“Facebook Family and Friends,
I pray it not be the case but want and need your help if it were the case. If I am next, please let my daughters and my wife know that I truly loved and adored them. Let them know that I wish my life wasn’t taken by a senseless killing, but for whatever reason it was. Let them know that regardless of what the media says, I tried every day to be a good man but a better father and a loving husband. Let them know their father loved the Lord and prays they do the same.
If I am next, hug Krystal Pernell Little for me. Let her know that I believe in her and wish I was there to support her but I know that she can make it in the end. Make her laugh. Wake her up in the morning and ensure she remembers where her glasses are and to take her allergy medicine. Love her for me. Buy her a sweater because she gets cold easily and every now and then make sure she has a steak. She doesn’t like red meat, but if cooked well-done and seasoned properly, she will appreciate it.
If I am next, buy Peyton books every now and then. Listen to her dreams and answer as many questions as she has. She has a lot of them. Let her lay with you, and ensure her that she will be alright. She will miss her daddy. Please ensure that she overcomes her emotions and remembers that daddy loved her. Make her eggs in the morning with a side of avocado and tomatoes. Roma tomatoes. She likes those the best. Don’t let her food touch each other on the plate and make sure she pushes herself to achieve great success.
If I am next, encourage Parker in every way but allow her to be quiet and come around. Ensure her that no matter how loud the world is, she is safe and secure. Watch her in large crowds, she hates them. But she is getting better. Make her chicken and make her noodles. Never together though. And give her chocolate frosting. When she’s up to it, let her help you cook. She really loves slicing vegetables. But she doesn’t eat them all the time. Don’t force her. And make sure that her mother doesn’t give her too much candy.
If I am next. Take care of my girls. Love them. Fight for them. Keep pushing for equality and a better world that they will rule one day. Teach them to drive. Peyton really wants to learn. Attend their sporting events and recitals. Hug them before they are baptized and let them know that God loves them. Give them flowers on prom night. Scream too loud on graduation. Walk them down the aisle for me if and when they choose to do so and love whoever they decide to love. And sing. Because it annoys them but they know that daddy always had a song in his heart.
If I am next, please just love my girls.”[10]

Look around you.  We are all God’s beloved.  Who among us will be a good neighbor? 

May the souls of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamrippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens rest in peace and rise again in glory. Amen.

God, deliver us from the presumption of coming to your Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Amen.

[1] Adapted from the concluding prayer by Yolanda Pierce from “A Litany for Those Who Aren’t Ready for Healing,” Kinetics Live, accessed online, July 7, 2016.
[2] Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer¸ 372.
[3] Amy-Jill Levine, “Of Pearls and Prodigals: Hearing Jesus’ Parables,” Telling It Fresh April 28: Chicago Convocation 2016, Bexley Hall Seabury Western Theological Federation Inc., April 28, 2016.
[4] Luke 10:26.
[5] Luke 10:27.
[6] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 4th edition, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986), 530.
[7] Luke 10:37b.
Jim Heitmeyer, “Police Officer's Oath,” Law Officer Connect: Police and Law Enforcement Network, March 29, 2010, accessed online, July 8, 2016.
[9] Jon Stewart, “A Single Factual Error,” The Daily Show, December 8, 2014, accessed online July 8, 2016, [warning: strong language].
[10] Bernard Little, July 7, 2016, accessed online July 8, 2016.


It's Not About Me.

Sermon Preached on July 3, 2016
Proper 9C / 2 Kings 5:1-14

“Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram. . . a great man. . . in high favor with his master” . . . a “mighty warrior” and yet, one who “suffered from leprosy.”[1]  This morning’s Old Testament lesson at first seems to be a story about God’s healing power, one of several stories about the miraculous curing of leprosy.  But, I want to suggest this morning that Naaman, suffers an ailment far worse than leprosy and that this story from 2 Kings is actually about that healing.  The story doesn’t mention Naaman’s other ailment by name but it describes it in great detail.  Naaman is afflicted by Pride.  It’s a common literary device, isn’t it? The hero, the powerful character in a story, the one who has fame or fortune or power or prestige is presented with a tragic flaw that has the potential to lead to their downfall.  Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, King Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Victor of Shelley’s Frankenstein all share one thing in common with Naaman.  Pride.
Sadly, I suspect the reason this literary device is so common is because it is a flaw that many of us share.  We can readily relate to it on one level or another – from not asking for directions when we are clearly lost to persisting in doing something in the same manner even though we continue to get the same failing result.  Or, like Naaman – so used to his pride of place in society, that he cannot imagine why the prophet Elisha would not personally come out of his house to heal him; so set in his nationalistic pride that he cannot imagine why the waters of his own mighty rivers in Damascus are not good enough – not better than - the River Jordan in the land of Israel to produce a cure; so convinced of his uniqueness, his special place in the world, that he cannot imagine that a simple act of bathing in water could be enough to cure him of his leprosy.[2]  And we, like Naaman, if we are honest, can also get so caught up in our egos that we cannot grasp the possibility that the solution to our problems might be as simple as asking for help and following the simple suggestions that are given to us.
In this morning’s story, there is a great twist of irony, the servants of Naaman - enslaved by Naaman’s army – are the very ones who are able to convince Naaman to humble himself before the God of Israel, to engage in the simple act of bathing in the river Jordan, so that “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”[3]  Those who are enslaved – the captives - are able to see the way to freedom for their captor so that Naaman, held captive by his own pride, may ultimately be set free by becoming humble.
Now humility gets a bad reputation in our day.  It is often misconstrued as “acting as if” we are “unimportant, inadequate, [or] of no value.”[4] Or, it is misunderstood as being centered on knowing our place or not being overly competitive.[5]  But a definition I prefer – and one that I think is more in keeping with our scriptures – comes from Keith Miller, a layperson who was a prolific inspirational author throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  He writes:  “humility is seeing ourselves as we actually are, good and bad, strong and weak, and acting authentically on those truths.”[6]  When we see humility in this light, it is more about truth-telling and integrity than it is about self-deprecation or self-loathing.  And in being willing to tell the truth about ourselves – to ourselves, to one another, and to God – it becomes possible for us to ask for help. To ask for help when we are lost. To ask for help when we are confused.  To ask for help when we are in need of healing.  Because, there is not one of us who is not in need of healing.  There is absolutely nothing shameful in that.  The shame comes in our unwillingness or our inability to let go of the pride that gets in the way of saying, “Help me” and the shame comes when God presents us – often through the words of another human being – with a simple path forward and our egos continue to insist that our problems are so special, so uniquely ours, that they must require a special, unique solution.  That our problems, like Naaman’s, require the prophet himself to come out of his house to stand before us ”and call on the name of the Lord his God,” to “wave his hand over” us and cure us.[7]  It is our human pride – our own leprosy of the mind – that becomes our worst enemy on the road to healing. 
But there is hope.  And that hope comes in the amazing turn-about that is the Gospel – the good news – for us today and for tomorrow.  It is that in every prayer in which we do find the courage to humble ourselves, to acknowledge that we do not have the answers, and instead ask God for help, what we receive in return is the power of the Holy Spirit![8] Amazing, isn’t it?  We humble ourselves acknowledging our lack of power, our lack of knowledge, our lack of might and God, turns around and gives us the very power we need!  The power of the Holy Spirit that heals, that transforms, that endures.  Richard Rohr, a Franciscan teacher and wise spiritual leader, writes,
“We can never engineer or guide our own transformation or conversion. If we try, it will be a self-centered and well-controlled version of conversion, with most of my preferences . . . still fully in place but now well disguised.  . . . God has to radically change the central reference point of our lives.”[9]
You see: it is not about me; it is not about you; it is about God, the One who has all power.
Naaman’s pride led him to expect “the prophet to stand before him” but instead, albeit with a great deal of reluctance and coaxing, it would ultimately be Naaman who “on the heels of his obedience to the simple commands of the prophet” would wash himself in the healing waters of the Jordan, the living waters of God’s transforming grace and love, and be restored to good health – of body and of mind.[10] May you and I find the courage we need today and each day to humble ourselves before God, to ask for the help that we need, so that we too might know ourselves to be restored – in mind, body and soul.

[1] 2 Kings 5:1.
[2] 2 Kings 5:11-13.
[3] 2 Kings 5:13-14.
[4] J. Keith Miller, A Hunger for Healing: The Twelve Steps as a Classic Model for Christian Spiritual Growth, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 116.
[5] Ibid., 116.
[6] Ibid., 117.
[7] 2 Kings 5:11.
[8] Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2011), 61.
[9] Ibid., 63.
[10] Cheophus J. LaRue, “Summer Series 1: Intervention: Four Parts: Proper 6 through Proper 9: We Serve a God Who Sees, Cares, and – at Times – Intervenes in Human Affairs,” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C, compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 222.