Sermon Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson
July 10, 2016
The Church of the Intercession, NYC
Text: Luke 10:25-37
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I was a child of the 60’s, so the Viet Nam war and all of the social unrest around it were what poured out of my family’s television set in Brooklyn. Video of the horrors of the jungles of faraway Southeast Asia, closer to home riots and protests across our own country, assassinations of our leaders: some of you will remember those times as vividly as I do, especially that violent summer of 1968, when anger and frustration at the war and the murder of Dr. King exploded across the country.
I don’t remember what grade I was in when the war officially ended. What I do remember is that we had a nightly school assignment to write a paragraph on current events for class the next day. And I remember that night in the mid-1970’s when it was finally announced that the war was over, and we were pulling out our troops. I sat down to write my paragraph for class the next day at my favorite little flip down-top desk, and to start my assignment I wrote the words “Thank God the war is over.” Then I burst into tears. It surprised me, those tears, and I soaked the loose-leaf page I had written on, crumpled it up, threw it in the trash. So I wrote it again “Thank God the war is over.” I had to throw that one into the trash as well. And so it went for most of that night. Not knowing a warless world as I grew up, I never remembered a time when it wasn’t all around me, and I wasn’t aware of how it was affecting me. I didn’t really understand the ins and outs of the politics and the ideologies of who we were fighting and why, and God knows I was in Brooklyn, not Viet Nam, so I wasn’t living in terror of being killed by napalm or carpet bombing. But when that war stopped, something fell into place that wasn’t there before. Something was healed. Suddenly there was wholeness and peace where there had been discord and pain. In its place was something new: hope. It felt like we (our country, our society, our world) were making progress.
Can we get there again?
More recently, I’m sure you remember where you were on the evening of November 4, 2008. I can tell you where I was. I was dozing on my living room couch with the TV on when at about 11 o’clock, Brian Williams on NBC announced that Barack Obama was projected the winner of the presidency of the United States. I’ll never forget what happened next. The city all around me erupted in joy. You could literally hear a shout go up from every apartment in every building, cheers of celebration, an almost electrical whoop of joy that I never heard before, even when the Yankees won the World Series, and I could hear those celebrations in my apartment too.
There was that whoop of joy, and then something absolutely unprecedented happened: everyone poured out into the street. There was an overwhelming desire for community, a need to celebrate together, because somehow this moment was not about individual joy or triumph, it was about all of us. Even though I wasn’t feeling very well – I had undergone cancer surgery the week before – I put on a coat and went downstairs. If I felt up to it I would have walked the 6 blocks up to 125th Street to join in the magnificent celebration that I’m sure many of you attended: the chanting, the singing, the spontaneous parades, the car-honking, the church bells ringing for over an hour for miles around.
This was a celebration that erupted not only here in New York City, but across the country. A friend who lives in Portland, Oregon said she went out to the Portland town square where a thousand people gathered in a driving rain to join hands and sing our National Anthem. Friends in Tucson Arizona left their house in joy and started going from house to house in their gated neighborhood with hundreds of others, knocking on everyone’s doors to invite them to come out and celebrate – and that is a Republican neighborhood, John McCain country, I’ve been there. But across the country, even across the world, it felt like we were finally making progress. After the horror and sadness of the terrorist attacks of September 11, the wars that followed both justified and not, it felt like a pall was finally lifting. The grievous sin of racism seemed to be healing, and in its place there was something new: hope. It felt like we (our country, our society, our world) were making progress.
Can we get there again?
Here we are in July of 2016, and the pall is back. We are clearly in a time that is just as volatile, horrible, and uncertain as the late 1960’s and the years following 9/11, except worse, because now we are destroying ourselves from the inside-out, taking part in slow-motion national suicide driven by racism – it hadn’t gone anywhere- plus homophobia, xenophobic fear, economic inequality, and untreated mental illness combined with easy access to military-grade guns and social media that both thankfully exposes injustices to the world on the one hand while simultaneously fomenting hatred in the time in takes to hit the “send” button on a smartphone on the other.
This does not feel like a hopeful moment, yet as Christians that is exactly who what we are called to be at this moment. The fact of the matter is that when we feel helpless and hopeless that is exactly where we meet Jesus. When we feel that we have absolutely intractable enemies, that is exactly when we are called on to follow the gospels. And today’s parable of the Good Samaritan, far from just being a famous, somewhat trite story, is a powerful statement of what a Christian should do in the most frightening of times, that is to say, today.
Over the past few years, I’ve shared with you some deeper lessons from this story, including that of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., from the “Promised Land” speech he gave the night before he was assassinated; that speech was mostly about the Good Samaritan. Rev. King interprets the parable as a lesson on the courage to love in the face of fear, since the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was very dangerous, much like our world today; that is why the priest and the Levite were afraid to stop – they thought it might be an ambush trap. The Samaritan is the only one to exercise what King calls “dangerous unselfishness,” which encourages us never to count the cost to ourselves, even if there is the risk of personal danger, in order to connect with on the deepest human level with a fellow child of God in compassion and mercy.
We also spoke about the early church fathers, who viewed this parable as an allegory. In their interpretation, the city of Jerusalem represents the kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem – what we aspire to – and Jericho represents our fallen world, the wounded man us sinners, and the Good Samaritan, Jesus. Surprisingly, in this allegory, Jesus himself is the Samaritan. This means that Jesus willing took on the identity of a member of a despised and rejected race, despite the fact that he historically was a Jew. This foreshadows Jesus’ crucifixion, when he indeed will be “despised and rejected,” and teaches us that we, too, need not stick to our biological or social class when we minister to others.
There is one more way to look at this story. All of the other lessons we can learn from this story center on the Samaritan; indeed the parable is known by his name. But let’s change our focus for a moment to the robbery victim: what if we consider ourselves as this victim, as someone who has been attacked by someone or something that came out of nowhere, or perhaps a long-entrenched social system and left us broken and bloodied, perhaps even dying, by the side of the road – the road represents our life. Think about it – many of us have been either blindsided by an attack that we never saw coming: a serious illness, a betrayal by someone close to us, even being unexpectedly fired from our job, the loss of a loved one, sometimes by murder. Or we have been the victim of social injustice. In either case we are left us bloody and helpless, dumped on the side of the road. Today we recall that Jesus was himself a murder victim, and so he can play both roles in the parable – both victim and savior, both priest and sacrifice, both the injured man and the Samaritan.
Further, I think at different times in our lives we, too, play both roles in the parable – sometimes we are the victim in need of help, and sometimes we are the Samaritan. This is the key to the relevance of this parable in our times – when we are the victim we should also remember that we can also play the role of the Samaritan, and stop even in dangerous times to recognize the humanity of someone who might be despised, or a sworn enemy. And when we are in a position of power, able to help, we must, must, put ourselves in the place of the victim, and in model of the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus himself, willing to step in to danger to work for justice, going to every length to connect with every child of God.
Neither role is easy, but transformation demands ultimate sacrifice. It is absolutely true that white people, myself included, can never know the truth of what it is to live a black life in this country, but that does not mean that we cannot be part of the drive for justice and change – indeed we must be. It is also absolutely true that folks who have been raised in privilege can never know what it is to live a life of deep poverty, yet they too must be partners in any deep, meaningful change in the economic structure of this country. And so on. Jesus ministered to every one – Jew, Gentile, male, female, rich, poor, sick, and healthy. Every child of God can be reached with the gospel, if only Christians have the courage to truly exercise the dangerous unselfishness called for by Martin Luther King.
The New Jerusalem, the kingdom of God on this earth, may feel very far away at this moment, but either we have faith in the power of God to help us transform our world, or we don’t. If we do, let us take the parable of the Good Samaritan to heart, and resolve to exercise our faith, mercy, compassion, and effort on behalf of both the victim, and the Samaritan. May God bless all of us in these troubled times, and give us true healing, that our sin-sick world may indeed be truly transformed.