Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bishop Gene Robinson preaching about the Good Samaritan

This morning, just before the post scrolled off their front page, I discovered via An Inch at a Time that Bishop Gene Robinson preached at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena this past Sunday. Click here for the video of the sermon. Lots of good stuff there, so I transcribed most of it

It's important to remember that, though this is called The Good Samaritan, no word like "good" appears in this parable. It's our tendency to rush to judgement about something. It reminds me of the cartoon where the dog is lying on his therapist's couch, and the dog is saying, "It's always 'good dog' or 'bad dog'! Why can't it just be judgement free?"

So I think we rush to label things good and bad. And part--maybe even most--of what this story is about is that this is actually about three good people. The priest and the Levite, who come off looking pretty awful, are actually *very* good people. They are religious people, they are upstanding, they take their religion seriously, they know all the right answers to things, they can recite the creeds--they do all of that exactly right. They "get it" intellectually and theoretically. Even, perhaps, theologically. And it seems that Jesus tells this story in order to show us that it is not 'right belief", it is not "right thinking" that gets us to the heart of God, but actually doing the will of God. That's what actually gets us to know the heart of God.

The priest and the Levite actually had very good reasons not to take care of this fellow on the side of the road. First of all, this road, which still exists--it's the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is at about 2500 feet above sea level, and Jericho is at 800 feet below sea level, near the Dead Sea. And it was a very crooked road, it was a very dangerous place. There were robbers all along it, and to slow down for anything was thought to be terribly dangerous. And indeed, this could well have been a trap. It was not unknown that people would fake being hurt, and the unsuspecting traveler would stop and try to do something, and in doing so would be robbed and mugged, and perhaps killed.

Not only that, but the priest would have been expected to go to Jerusalem as every priest did, and serve for two weeks in the temple. And he know, being a student of the law, that if he touched a dead body, he would be ritually unclean, and it would take quite a lot of purification rites to make him capable of performing the service that he was due to give. And so, why would he risk touching this comatose traveler, only to discover that he was dead, and in doing so, defile himself, and delay his service in the temple? These were good people. These were good people.

And then, of course, along comes the Samaritan. And Luke, as you know, is the outsider writing a Gospel for people on the outside. And Luke understands that this Gospel of Jesus Christ turned the whole world on its ear. Turned the world upside-down. And so, sure enough, as in so many of Luke's stories, it's the Samaritan who actually does the will of God. It's the priest and the Levite who know the will of God, but seem unable to do it.

It's almost as if, when the lawyer asks the question "What must we do to gain eternal life?", and then he gives the right answer. His head knows the right answer--it's to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus says, "A+, very good!" And then he pushes the point and asks about the neighbor, and Jesus tells this story, I think, to show what love of God looks like detached from love of neighbor. They got the "love of God" part. They understand that. But the priest and the Levite didn't connect that to the love of neighbor, which is really the heart of the Gospel.

You know, more and more, I am convinced that the Christian life is not about life after death--it's about life before death. What God does for us after death, God will take care of. But what we do with life before death is up to you and me. That's the real reward of Christianity, isn't it? Not so much life after death, but life before death. It's not an accident that in our confession now, and in the absolution which follows, we don't say "and may God *bring* you to everlasting life", but keep you in everlasting life. It gets to start now...if we are awake. If we understand that in the doing of God's will, we already participate in everlasting life.

So, it is right action, not right belief, not right thinking, that gets us to the heart of God.

A little while ago, in the only time that the Archbishop of Canterbury ever deigned to see me, we were having a little "chat", and at one point in our conversation, he was explaining to me that, actually what the Episcopal church should have done prior to electing and consecrating me, was that we should have figured all this out theologically and intellectually... We should have come to a common mind, and then passed canons and and then done this thing. And I said to him with as much respect as I could, "Your Grace, it seems to me that all of the great steps that has taken, have been as a result of our doing the right thing, and only then, "thinking" our way to what we did. It's not the other way around. I mean, if we had waited for instance in this country for everyone to have been on the same page about civil rights, there would still be separate drinking fountains, wouldn't there? And if we had waited until women were valued as equal and full members of society and the human race for goodness sakes, all of that discrimination would still exist.

And, does anyone think that if those 11 women hadn't been "irregularly" ordained in Philadelphia, that we would be ordaining women yet? I'm not sure we would! And it seems that all the great steps forward we have made have been a result of our doing the right thing, and then thinking our way theologically to how that was the right thing.

He didn't have a really good response. (Laughter)

So, this lawyer (no lawyer jokes!) this lawyer then pushes the point and says, "So then, what must I do?" And Jesus' answer in this story seems to be "love that costs". Love that actually costs us something--costs us time, costs us money, costs us focus, costs us convenience, love that actually costs us something.

There was a young seminarian who one summer worked with an old priest at a homeless shelter, and they had a feeding program at noontime. A lot of people, and on this particular day, there just seemed to be an unusual amount of people who came. And they were *just* exhausted, and it was nearly 3:00 before the last person left. The old priest asked the seminarian to go and close up the front door and shut down for the day, and just as this young seminarian got to the front door, thinking that this long and difficult day was about to be over, saw yet one more homeless man making his way up the front walk. And in his exhausted state, and thinking he had nothing left to give, he said, "Jesus Christ!" And the old priest said, "It just might be."

Love that costs, even when we think we're depleted, I'm always reminded--you know how when you throw away an old tube of toothpaste that's done, and then you go to the closet, and you've forgotten to buy another one? And so you reach into the trash can and you haul out the thing? Every time you can make one more toothbrush full of toothpaste--yeah? But isn't that the way God is--just when we think there's nothing left to give, if we make but the simplest effort, God provides. God provides manna in the desert--and maybe just enough for that day--but it's enough. God gives us what we need to respond in the way the Good Samaritan responded. That's the real miracle of life in God.

And this is really important: we must do the work of ministry--not just give a nod to it. Louie Crew, who I think was here not to long ago, was the one, I believe, who discovered this mistake in our prayer book. It's in the catechism--it's the only real mistake that I know of in the prayer book, and it's in the section on the Hebrew covenant. And it says "What must we do to please God?" And the answer, in the prayer book, which means to be a quote from Micah, the prophet. It sayw that we must love justice, do mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Well, that would all be very nice, except that's not what Micah said. Micah said we must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And it strikes me, maybe you're like me, we just looove to love justice, don't we? And even an astounding witness to justice, like All Saints Pasadena can so love to love justice, and sit around, and form committees, and talk about it all day, that we forget that what Micah said is that we must do justice and walk humbly with our God. I think that what Jesus is teaching in this story about the Good Samaritan is that it's not enough to be good. It's not enough to know the creeds and say you believe all the things that you're supposed to believe.

Remember that our baptismal covenant, which is as close to a purpose statement as we have in the Episcopal church, are all action verbs. Right? They're all action verbs. It's not about which doctrines you ascribe to, but will you love and serve one another, will you respect the dignity of every human being, if you make mistakes, will you repent and come back to God? It's all about doing. It's not about ascribing to the right tenets and the right doctrines. That stuff is dry. It's important, but it's not the most important. Because what we see in the story of the Good Samaritan, is the danger of loving God separate from doing the work of loving our neighbor.

So it seems to me, that the real question, the challenge, really, of this story for you and me, is whether or not we want to be admirers of Jesus, or disciples. It's easy to admire Jesus--to think he was a nifty guy with really wonderful ideas. Following Jesus is a whole lot harder. Doing the work of ministry and doing justice--getting into some "Gospel trouble" is what we are meant to do.

You know, this Lent, I realized for the first time that this symbol, this cross, is such a political symbol. Now, let's be clear: the Jews did not kill Jesus. That's a bunch of anti-semitic stuff that runs throughout some of the Gospels, especially John, and it is not true. The Romans killed Jesus.

Now, the Romans killed lots of people, but they saved crucifixion for a very specific kind of criminal. And it was the one who challenged the Powers That Be. Who took on the government, who threatened the Pax Romana with their notions of turning the world upside-down like Jesus did. And they didn't put them all high and lifted up like Cecil B. DeMille--I realize that criticizing Cecil B. DeMille in Los Angeles is...(laughter). But, crosses were actually quite low to the ground, so that as people died and began to rot away, the dogs could eat their flesh, and there would be almost nothing left to bury. They wanted to make a real example of anyone who challenged the Powers That Be. And it is an indictment of you and me that we can wear this symbol around, and it doesn't threaten anybody.

When we wear a cross, it ought to scare people to death! And the more powerful they are, the more it ought to scare them. We should be being followed around by the F.B.I.--I know you're being followed by the I.R.S. (laughter). You've got a good start on this one! But really, really--shame on us that this doesn't threaten anybody! When we put this on, when we put on the cross of Christ, we are saying that it's not just religion that we are about. We are about changing the world, as Jesus changed it. We are about loving the people that Jesus loved--those in the margins. And it doesn't mean sitting in a committee room somewhere talking about loving those people, but actually loving them, and doing the hard work of justice.

Are you and I going to be admirers of Jesus only, or are we going to be disciples?

You know how an innoculation works, right? You don't want to get chicken pox, so you go to the doctor, and they give you just enough chicken pox to make your body form antibodies to it, so you never get a full-blown case of chicken pox. God help us if we come here on Sunday mornings just to get enough religion to keep us from having a full-blown case. It is so easy, isn't it, to come here, isn't it? It feels so good, and you see people you know, and the music's great, and the preaching is good. It just all works! But if we leave here, and it causes us to not do anything any differently, then this is nothing but a religious theme park. Really! We have to be out there doing the work that God has given us to do, or else it is all ultimately just self-serving.

And it'll be hard work! When Jesus says "Take up your cross and follow me", he means it's going to be tough. It's going to be very hard--it means taking risks, it means loving that costs. But the miracle, the miracle is that when we do that, and we face that trouble, we come to know the very God who is at the center of all that is. It's the only way we get to know him--we don't get to know him by memorizing the creed. We get to know him by doing the work that he did.

So, you and I can do that--especially if we do it with him, that he can work in and through us, to do the work that he has given us to do. So the question for you and me today is, do we just come here for an innoculation? Or do we come here for a full blown infection of God's love? Because it's only when you are fully infected yourself with the love that simply know no bounds, can you go out there and love the world, and God's children, in God's name. And this God promises to be with you and me from now on! There is no better news than that, on this, or any Sunday. Amen.