Heroes Incorporated–Rev. Jessica Tate (audio available)
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29 August 2010
Fairfax Presbyterian Church
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The scripture lesson today tells a familiar story. The Samaritan challenges our blasé notions of compassion and radically expands our notion of neighbor. And the verses that come right after this Good Samaritan are familiar as well—the story of Mary and Martha appears. You remember those two sisters: Jesus comes to Martha’s house and Martha is distracted by much service while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, until Martha complains about it and Jesus tells her that Mary has chosen the better part. You know their story. Mary and Martha have become archetypes for works and faith,[i] with Mary often winning out.
You know these stories so I’m not going to rehearse them for you. But I do want to share with you a quote from the great preacher Fred Craddock. Craddock writes that it is important we not caricature those in these familiar stories, portraying Martha up to her eyeballs in soapsuds, and Mary pensively at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus giving scriptural warrant for dishes piling high. If we censure Martha too harshly [he says] she may abandon serving all together, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. “There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be YES.”
Jesus’ answer would be “yes” of course, because the two are intertwined, inseparable even. Frances Taylor Gench, among others, suggests that these two familiar stories are actually illustrations of what it means to love God and love your neighbor, but in reverse order. The lawyer learns a lesson about neighborliness and mercy and is told to go and do likewise. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary joins those who “get it” in Luke’s gospel—a forgiven sinner, a healed demoniac, a cleansed leper—all of whom take the posture that conveys discipleship, gratitude, and devotion. The Samaritan and Mary have the starring roles of these two stories that illustrate loving neighbor and loving God, but there are a couple other characters at work here too.
The priest and the Levite, poor schmucks, trot over to the other side of the Jericho road…we imagine for so many legitimate reasons like running late, important business to attend to, uncertainty about how to help within the confines of the law or social norm—reasons that most of us have likely claimed at some point in our own lives and ministries. And there’s Martha, of course, who embodies the overworked, underappreciated servants among us. She welcomes Jesus into her home (which is no small thing afterall) and she busies herself with “much service,” (which is, you no doubt remember from my sermon last month, the same Greek word that Luke uses to describe the ministry of the apostles in Acts) she busies herself with “much service” to the point of distraction, irritability and burnout. In addition to the exemplified Samaritan and praiseworthy Mary, we have these illustrations of how not to behave.
The character who intrigues me though, and the one very often overlooked, is the lawyer who sets up the whole scene. He asks the question that I believe tugs on many of our hearts: how, Jesus, do we get this eternal life of which you speak? How do we assure ourselves of the good news you say you are here to deliver? How do we actually live the new and abundant life you promise? “What must I do?” the lawyer asks.
Such a human question, regardless of motive, such a human question. We are doers, you know. Our culture encourages and rewards that characteristic in us. We get overtime for extra work, we get praised for the degrees earned and promotions granted, one can’t even apply for college now without a well-rounded set of academics, extra-curricular activities, and service hours, and there’s this kind of twisted phenomenon where we try to compete for who worked the most hectic schedule this week. We are doers. And of course this is not entirely a bad thing. Jesus explicitly says to go and do likewise. He says Mary has chosen the better part; she’s doing the right thing. But I have a hunch that our focus on doing things might miss the point.
If these stories are, in fact, about inheriting eternal life by loving God and loving our neighbors, then they can’t be merely about doing things (even the right things) and they can’t be simply about having a nice, warm and fuzzy feeling about God and people we encounter. They are about something much more than that…they are about who we are, our way of being in the world.
Over the course of the last week, many of us gathered here at the church to eat together, enjoy one another’s company, play together, and also to reflect on what heroes can teach us about stepping up in faith. We explored comic book heroes, and popular movie heroes, one group even looked at the heroes in the book of Acts. We noticed that heroes are often the most unlikely of people. They don’t give up. They work together. They are willing to sacrifice themselves for some greater good. We thought about ways that all of us can be heroes…to use the gifts and abilities given to us, not for ourselves, but for others. In no small way our conversations this week have been about trying to find ways to faithfully love our neighbors, to faithfully love God. The conversation was dressed up in capes and boots and superpowers, but at the heart this week we explored what it means to step up in faith…and that, Jesus clearly tells us, means to love God and love our neighbors.
This Heroes Incorporated week has reminded me of who we are as claimed by God, who we are as part of the body of Christ, ones who have been incorporated into Christ, who we are as ones who have chosen to place our trust in the saving grace of Christ. Receiving that grace and being part of that body translates into much more than doing the right things or simply praying the right words, doesn’t it? It invites us to embody the love of God and love of neighbor, to be that love in the world.
All the heroes we explored this week—Spiderman, hobbits, Woody and Buzz, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia—all of them showed how hard it was to do the right thing. Stepping up in faith to join in this discipleship endeavor is not supposed to be easy, and goodness isn’t that the truth. The hobbits faced enemies whose size and physical strength greatly out weighed their own. Woody and Buzz had to work together to solve problems and find their way back home. Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia took great risks and trusted the Force to destroy the Death Star. Their tasks weren’t easy. And neither are ours. It’s not supposed to be easy, this discipleship endeavor, but it is supposed to offer new life.
Recently some colleagues of mine in VOICE went to meet with the Assistant Director at the Department of Homeland Security. True to form Imam Johari and his congregant Mohammed Aldrese were late to the meeting so Martin and Father Creedon went ahead and started the meeting. Forty-five minutes in they decided they best check on our Muslim brothers. It’s good they did. Mr. Aldrese had been detained by security at the DHS building. Mr. Aldrese is in this country legally. He has a green card. However, he shares a name (though not a birthdate) with someone who committed a crime ten years before he was in the country and that open warrant plagued him for the ten years it took to get green card approved and it plagued him as he tried to get into the DHS building for this meeting with the assistant director.
Everyone was concerned by this so they all traipsed down to security to see what could be done. Turns out nothing could be done. Mr. Aldrese was being held behind bullet-proof glass and the Assistant Director told us that if the immigration agency in Boston who originated the warrant for the other Mohammed Aldrese’s crime had enough money, our Mr. Aldrese would have been flown to Boston and detained. Ultimately, on a 90 degree day in DC the Assistant Director, some of her staff and these faith leaders walked across the street to sit in the shade of a tree on a church lawn to hold their meeting.
I tell you that story because life together is complicated. It’s easy to read through what our newspapers say about immigrants and the problems of illegal immigration in our country and throw up one’s hands in despair, disgust, and confusion. But, I can’t throw up my hands anymore because I know those guys. We have shared meals and been invited to one another’s communities. I’m not sure what we’re going to do about injustice in the way Mr. Aldrese and so many others are treated, but I’m sure I’m going to stand with them. They are my colleagues and friends. They are my neighbors. And that relationship is energizing, life-giving. Standing with them to try to untangle this immigration mess is time-consuming, frustrating, scary even, but it’s also life-giving as we stand together to embody love in this world. I doubt that makes me any kind of hero, but I do hope it is faithful.
In this time and place, where we seek after the eternal life promised by Jesus we find ourselves stuck in this between the world as it is and the world as God intends it to be. And this stuck place is exactly where Jesus tells us YES, we are the Samaritan and we are Mary. We are called to love God and love our neighbors. In this world, here and now, where both those loves are foreign, Jesus tells us some stories. About a man who needed help and needed it now and the man who paused to help him. A story of two sisters and the one’s frustration with the amount of service she has taken on and the other’s seat at the feet of Jesus. Simple stories, really, that serve to remind us, to call us back to who we are, that our being is about loving God and loving our neighbors.
I was struck with a bout of insomnia recently. I am a really good sleeper, so this was foreign territory for me. I woke up in the dead of night and I lay in bed watching the digital clock tick away minutes. My head was swimming. “I don’t know what to do,” I thought over and over. Finally, some wise part of me rose to the surface—“yes you do,” that voice said, “Yes you do know what to do. You relax your body every single week in your yoga practice. You know what to do.” And I did. I started breathing deeply and consciously relaxing my muscles and soon I was asleep.
Maybe that’s what we came here to do this week in Heroes Incorporated and what we come to do every single Sunday morning: To remember or to be reminded of what we already know. Spiderman reminded us that to whom much is given, much is expected. Toy Story reminds us to stick together. Hobbits remind us that the most unlikely people are heroes, even the likes of a Samaritan man and a 1st century woman, even the likes of us. I was reminded this week that we can choose to step out in faith every day as I watched adults don costumes to the delight of children and folks who were uncertain lead classes and dedicated people show up night after night to make dinner for a huge group. Worship reminds us every week that we practice here what we do in the world: honesty, praise, confession, thanksgiving, greeting in peace, being open to God’s Spirit. We practice all those things here so that we can do them outside of these walls. Jesus reminds us that we help the one by the side of the road, we engage in the service to which Jesus calls us, we restore ourselves at the feet of our Lord. We’re called to be in the world, loving God and loving our neighbor….not just doing the right things, but being that love in the world because of the saving grace we have received. Discerning just how we are to do that is probably the hardest and most courageous thing we do and we have to do it as constantly as we are faced with decisions. No one said is would be easy, but it does give us life.
As part of the Body of Christ, we are called step out in faith, to engage the world around us in a way that integrates belief and action, the Samaritan and Mary, embodying love of God and neighbor in the world; it’s who we are. Doing so is hard because the world is messy. We’re busy and tired and hurting. It’s frustrating and often lonely to try to do the right thing. Issues are complex and there’s often no clear way to know what to do or how to do it.
Thing is, I think we do know what to do. Whether it is time to go and do or time to sit and listen. We do know. Because we are the incorporated into the Body of Christ. And we gather together to worship, to hear the scriptures, to sing our praises, to wrestle with ideas, to be reminded that we do know what to do. If we build the discipline of discernment into our lives and seek individually and collectively the courage to live out what God is calling us to do, well…. maybe that’s what being a hero looks like, maybe that’s what it means to step out in faith. These simple stories. A man who shows mercy and a woman grounded in our gracious Lord. To love God and love our neighbors. To be that love in the world. To live, starting now, eternal life.
[i] Newsome, Carol A. and Sharon Ringe (eds.) The Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998, p. 377.