Vision & Mission Conversations: “Afflicting the Comfortable”
Psalm 36 & Luke 10: 25-37 ~ October 17, 2021 ~ Northwood United ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
Do you have a favourite bed-time story? I wonder what it is? Your favourite bed-time story that you cherish reading to your children and grand-children? Perhaps even a story that you recall being read to you? Bed-time stories provide a special moment when a young person is lulled off to a dreamland as they hear pleasant narratives of comfort and consolation. My fear, as we hear this story of the ‘Good Samaritan’ is that it has become banished among the bed-time story bookshelves in our mind that function to lull us into sleep. My fear is that this story is increasingly losing the power it once had when Jesus told it. My fear is that this text before us has shifted from its origin that confronted to only one that brings comfort and lulls us into sleep.
Amy-Jill Levine, in her study of Jesus’ parables (see Short Stories by Jesus, 2014) suggests that religion is meant to “comfort the afflicted AND to afflict the comfortable.” She goes on to make a good case for viewing the parables as Jesus afflicting us out of our comfort. Jesus was not comforting, he was challenging us to live lives of discipleship! She argues that, “if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’, or worse, fail to take any of the challenges offered, then we are not listening well enough.” The Good Samaritan is a story that we have heard many, many times. And it has, I think, increasingly fallen among the realm of bedtime stories that lull us to sleep, rather than waking us up! We have heard this in Sunday School and we can think of classic art productions narrating this story as adults. Even if we don’t go to church this story is popularized in modern culture. “Good Sam Clubs” contain members pledging to assist people broken down at the side of the road. The Good Samaritan Act is written into Provincial Law as a statute that protects well-intentioned people as they assist others. In short, we all know the story well. And slowly, as the story is told…and re-told…we have been lulled into a warm and cozy sleep…feeling that all is OK…we are comforted in our afflictions, rather than being afflicted out of our comforts.
In many ways there is a comfort found in this narrative’s familiar simplicity. A man robbed and left for dead; a priest and a Levite pass him by; a Samaritan stops and helps. The Samaritan shows mercy, exemplifies neighbourliness. And I should do likewise. And we often want to stop right here and have the comforting story lull its comfortable promises of protection, care and love. The problem is that we gloss over the characters, seeking the quick comforts that we ‘think’ are immediately there. And we become people who are lulled into a good, deep sleep.
Would it wake us up, if we began to understand who the Samaritans were to the Jewish audience whom Jesus was teaching? Samaritans were given lots of names back then. They were the “unclean Samaritans”; they were the “unwelcome Samaritans”; they were the “hated Samaritans.” And while Jesus’ community, even before Jesus time, knew the command to “love your neighbour as yourself,” these kinds of descriptors of the Samaritans: unwelcome, hated, unclean, made the vast majority of the community unable to view the Samaritan as a “neighbour” who was good; worthy of being named “good”; a Samaritan would make one’s skin crawl and would be the last person who we would want aid!
And this is what makes this parable so shocking in the ears of Jesus’ hearers. It is one thing for Jesus to tell a parable about a righteous Jewish person showing mercy towards a Samaritan. That person would have been viewed as exceptionally compassionate. And it would have left intact the Jewish people’s sense of ethnic and spiritual superiority over the Samaritans. It would have maintained the assumption that Samaritans aren’t normally included in the list of people that they were supposed to love. Yet, this is not the story Jesus tells. Jesus names the hero of the parable to be the despised, unwelcome, unclean Samaritan! Jesus turns the world of hero and villain upside down. The outcast are viewed as the ideal for those who view themselves superior. And as we are coming to see, this is not a bed-time story! This is one that jolts us from our slumber; that jars us into action; that disables us from the comforts of sleep as we live the challenging way of Jesus!
And what makes this reading all the more jarring is its overall context. Apart from a ‘go and do likewise’ call to extend our loving ways of hospitality, care and compassion to those the world names as “despised”, “unwelcome”, and “unclean,” it is also a distillation of the existential million-dollar question… what is the essence of life? Remember this story all unfolds following the lawyer’s question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is this call to separate wheat from chaff, the essentials from the frills, they key parts of a deep, meaningful life. Jesus begins with the Law, the Torah in his response to the lawyer. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”… “what is written in the Law?...How do you make sense of the Jewish laws which govern our spiritual ways?” The lawyer answers well, as I know all of you would too… “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you love your neighbour as yourself.” Congratulations, proclaims Jesus, you have spoken the right answer… “Do this, and you will live!”
And the doing…the loving of God…with heart, mind, soul and strength. The loving neighbour as ourselves is what Jesus proceeds to call us to living a life worth living! Suddenly we are not sleeping…or nodding off. We are on the edge of our seats considering where the real depths of life…where the real eternal matters of life are found. You see, where this story has tremendous power is when we enter the story with our lives. You might, like me, locate yourself as the priest or the Levite on your bad days. When you are rushing around, too busy, too preoccupied, overwhelmed and exhausted to offer the care you wish. But the ‘Good Samaritan’ is the ideal Jesus is pushing us to strive towards. And as we deeply consider the text, we realize that he is really not someone we are comfortable striving towards. He is NOT us and (quietly) we confess that we are glad. He was ‘the Other’. He was the enemy of the Jews. The object of their fear, their condescension, their disgust, and their judgment. He was the heretical outcast and the last person that you would ever want to help you. I wish not to offend, but I'll throw out some modern-day parallels and see which might stick and challenge our living. An Israeli-Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life. A left-leaning politician is robbed, and a good right-leaning politician saves her life. A white supremacist is robbed, and a good black teenager saves his life. A transgender person is robbed, and a good anti-LGBTQ activist saves their life. An atheist is being robbed, and a good Christian fundamentalist saves his life. I don’t want to trivialize the real and agonizing differences that divide. The separations between the Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day were not theoretical; they were embodied and real. And this teaching puts aside our worldly identities ~ political, racial, cultural, sexual, economic (and the list goes on), and calls us to “go and do likewise”. What a challenge that wakes us up to live lives of meaning, depth and integrity!
As we review this second pillar of our mission statement, this is the challenging foundation that lies underneath it. How do you envision Jesus’ call to Northwood of “go and do likewise?” Last week, we discussed the person power of lay ministry…which is essentially the ‘who’ part of the conversation. This second component of our mission speaks to the ‘what’. “To be a church community where love reaches out through active and visible engagement and involvement in the local community through a variety of methods and modes, and through responsiveness to activities in our world.” What did this look like for us as church over the past chapters? What is Northwood’s story. What will it look like in the chapters ahead? I’m really excited to see what you will record on the feedback sheet. This will all be recorded, collated and produced for all to see. What are you going to write?
One metaphor I liken the church’s ministry to is rhythmic flow of the tide coming in to the shore and going back out to the sea. How many of us love to watch the water come in and flow back out? I think we all do. Church life is like that. At times we need to come and receive. It is a time of the tide returning to shore and receiving refreshment, healing and renewal. It might be a time of the valley of the shadow of death; a time of pain and suffering; a time of struggle; a time of rebuilding after the storm. You all know exactly what I’m referring to when we consider what the water retreating to the comfort and safety of the shore. In a corporate sense, many churches are doing this as we rebuild through Covid. However, at other times, there is also a time of the tide going out to brave new places. For the church, it is a church of boldly loving in new ways; of boldly reaching out, radically welcoming, compassionately caring as Jesus teaches. And you will know many of the ways that Northwood has done that over the years. Now, if you are a fisher or a boater, you will have a tide chart that tells you exactly when these movements of tide coming in and going out will occur. As people of faith, however, we do not have such a chart. We only have our spiritual compass. A prayerful guide that directs us forward as we consider our call to be the church. Guiding us, at times to see things as a time of the tide coming in – healing, care, renewal; and at others to boldly let the waves push us out and “go and do likewise”. As we regather on this, only our 7th Sunday back in this hybrid worship with people in the church and online, these are the questions we are asking: what is our calling to be the church right now? How will we rebuild after the storm of being closed? How will we bravely move ahead and “go and do likewise?” May we faithfully discern our call to be the church.