by the Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning’s “teaching sermon” explores what those of us in “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement” believe and do in relation to the end of life and the rituals of burial.
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed it, but in this sermon series we’ve been making our way through the Book of Common Prayer: we looked at Baptism and Eucharist, the Church’s primary and central sacraments, and then at the sacramental rites – confirmation, marriage, ordination, confession and healing. In the Prayer Book, these additional services come in the order in which we’ve looked at them, grouped together as “Pastoral Offices”. (One exception is that ordination services come under “Episcopal Services”, since they require the ministry of a Bishop.)
The last of the pastoral offices, or ways in which the Church supports and ministers to its members through the transitions and challenges of life, are Ministration at the time of Death and the Burial Office.
Let’s start with acknowledging that death is a hard thing to think about and talk about, for a variety of reasons. We all to want to live as long as we can – our lives are, after all, a gift from God, to be cared for and preserved. It is painful to lose those we love, hard to face the ways in which aging involves the loss of capacity for all of us who manage to live into old age, and really hard to see the suffering that often accompanies serious illness - painful both for the sick person and for those who love them. Death is scary in that we just don’t really know what comes after. And some deaths are simply tragic, especially when death involves a young person who has not lived a full life, or if death is sudden and unexpected.
The reality of the many ways in which death is difficult exists in a tension with what our faith teaches us about it. As followers of Jesus, we believe that death is not the end of life, but is, rather, a transition to another part of life in which we return to God, entering into a larger life than we can know or imagine now. We believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ assures us of this.
Secular culture has popularized images of a heavenly afterlife to a ridiculous degree. The Book of Revelation speaks about pearly gates and streets paved with gold (Rev. 21:21), but the ways in which this symbolic and mystical image has been taken literally and expanded – we’ve all heard plenty of jokes about Saint Peter as gatekeeper with clipboard in hand - are not biblical and definitely not helpful.
What scripture does promise us is that God’s love surrounds us even as we pass away out of this life, and that beyond life in this realm we are set free into a closer life with our God, with Love itself.
Here’s some of what scripture offers:
Jesus assured Martha of Bethany, at the time of her brother’s death, that “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-6)
Similarly, he assured the disciples, as he was preparing them for his own death, that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2-3)
Comfort is also found in Paul’s writings: he assures the Romans that “neither death nor life… will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8:38-39), and in his wonderful dicussion Love, written to the Corinthians, Paul promises that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then [we will see] face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. (I Cor 13:12)
We believe these things, and yet, when death comes, we grieve. The Church, in its ministries, seeks to honor and balance both of these truths.
The Prayer Book actually offers a series of opportunities for prayer around the time of death. Ministration at the Time of Death (BCP 462-465), which is often referred to as Last Rites, is a brief service of prayers asking God to comfort the dying, to protect them from pain and evil, to pardon sin and grant them a “place of refreshment” and “give them joy and gladness”. It includes a brief litany to be prayed with loved ones who are present, as well as the Lord’s Prayer, and we anoint the person with the oil of chrism, the same scented oil that we use at baptism. The service includes what I think is one of the most beautiful prayers in our tradition, the prayer of commendation, which is also included in the burial service itself:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your
servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive them into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen. (BCP p. 465)
Ministration at the time of death is a very precious, intimate, and privileged moment in ministry. The liturgy is ordinarily led by an ordained person, but it can also be offered by a lay person if a priest or deacon is not available. It is a tremendously powerful way to offer the concern of our hearts to God at the time of death. I have read it by myself when learning of a death I want to respond to but have not been present for, and have also read it together with family members who live far from a loved one who has passed away.
Following Ministration at the Time of Death in the Prayer Book are two additional short sets of prayers through which the Church can mark the processes of attending to death. “Prayers for a Vigil” (BCP 465-6) provides prayer for family and friends in the time between death and the funeral and, like Last Rites, expresses love and petition for God’s care for the one who has died. The Prayer Book also provides a brief liturgy for “Reception of the Body” (BCP 466-7), for use at the time the body is brought to the church.
In the Episcopal Church we now have a variety of funeral liturgies available. The Prayer Book offers two options for The Burial of the Dead – Rites I and II - and we also have an authorized alternative from the Enriching our Worship series; they all follow the same approximate format, but differ in the style of language. In a funeral service, hymns may or may not be sung, scripture is read, and prayers are offered both for the one who has died and for family and friends in their grief. The departed is often remembered with reminiscences by family members, and clergy may preach a homily. Holy Communion may be included. The service, if it is in in the church building, concludes with a Commendation of the individual to God’s care.
The final part of the service may follow directly after the first part of the burial rite, or it may be separated in time. During the Committal the body or ashes are placed in their permanent resting place – whether in the ground, at sea, in a columbarium, or otherwise – and again, prayers including the Lord’s Prayer are offered. It concludes with a dismissal based on the Easter affirmation:
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Funeral practices have changed in recent years, in large part because the pandemic has been a significant factor requiring families to adapt their expectations and their practices. For one thing, cremation has become much more accepted and commonplace, and it allows families to schedule services when it is convenient for those who need to travel. The limitations of safety protocols for indoor gatherings has resulted in many more families choosing graveside services, and those that Heather and I have presided over in the last couple of years have been lovely.
While restrictions on end-of-life rituals have made it difficult for some families to celebrate their loved ones as they might have wished, I think that the opening up of options has ultimately been a good thing. In comparison to other aspects of the Church’s life, our tradition allows broad leeway for personalizing the services that mark the end of a human life, and leeway is often called for as the individual needs, circumstances, and preferences of families can vary. As Heather and I work with families planning funerals, our focus is on helping the families move through and beyond their pain as they remember and celebrate the life of the one who has died.
I’m sure many of us have experienced the fact that the processes that follow death can be messy. While enduring a death can help us put things in perspective and bring out the best in us, deaths can also re-activate old family issues and conflicts. In our complex psyches, regrets, resentments and guilt can surface in unfortunate ways as we move through not only the religious rituals but also the other practical chores that accompany death, such as disposing of property. Whatever we can do to minimize the potential for additional hurt around times of death is something to strive for.
Which brings me to reflecting on implications for us here and now: (you know that Heather and I always try to offer things to think about and do as we leave our worship each week!) There ARE things we can do as we think about death.
It is not only a gift to those who love us but a personal responsibility for us to prepare for our own deaths, however little we may feel like doing so.
For one thing, it is really important to have a will that directs others in how we want our worldly assets used after our deaths. The process of making a will helps us to come to terms with our own mortality AND to think about what is important to us in the way we leave things behind. Making provision for distribution of our assets is not only an opportunity to provide for our families’ security, but also to be generous in charitable giving in the many places where there is need in the world.
Closely related to the importance of having a will is that of having advance health directives on record and having a health care proxy designated, a person who can make decisions for us if we are not able to express our wishes. Hopefully your health care provider has already had you complete these documents: if they haven’t, please take care of this soon.
I also urge each of us to do some funeral planning. It is not a morbid thing to do. It provides help to our family members who, after we pass away, will have plenty of things to take care of and decisions to make: providing them some guidance on how WE would like to be remembered in a funeral can make the process a little bit easier for them. Here at James and Andrew we have a form that reminds you of choices to be made for your funeral. You can take it home to think about, discuss it with your loved ones, and/or you can meet with one of us to talk about your wishes, and we can keep a copy of your completed form on file here for the day it is needed.
Our Faith Community Nurse, Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy, has also introduced us to a form called Five Wishes. It can be used as an official document that outlines what we would like the last stage of our life to look like. Kathryn tells me that she has numerous copies. I have completed it, and I commend it to you.
Taking care of these acts of planning is, in its way, an act of faith. It says that while we value our lives, we know that they will end, and we want to do what we can, now, to help end our lives responsibly and with love.
Amen. May it be so.
By Steve Houghton
Purpose: Reﬂect on how God gives extraordinary purpose to ordinary people.
In the name of the One God, who is Lover, Beloved, and Love Overﬂowing. Amen (Br. Aiden Owen, OHC)
When I was much younger I was in awe of, some might say venerated, the saints. That was likely because I attended parochial school and it was expected of me. As I have become older I am bold enough, some would say brash enough, to consider the human side of the saints and wonder what the heck was God doing with that gal or guy. That wonder is particularly keen concerning St. James the Greater.
Our James was the Greater, in all probability, because he was taller than James the Lesser. We can consider some other possibilities as we go along. For the moment I think it should be enough to know that many historians consider James’ height as the reason for his title of Greater.
We are blessed with quite a number of passages in scripture that reference James and some of his actions. This morning we heard two of them. In the Gospel we hear of his mother trying to get him honor at Jesus side. The second one was in the Epistle and records the very end of his ministry.
You might recall that In the Synoptic Gospels, James and his brother John were the third and fourth apostles to join Jesus as he taught along the Sea of Galilee. All four were ﬁshermen. It might be helpful to know a little about ﬁshing in the area of the Sea Galilee at the time of Jesus and his apostles.
Fishing was and is hard work. The actual ﬁshing took place at night when the ﬁsh wouldn’t see the nets and swim away to avoid them. The boats were about 23 feet long and seven feet wide, capable of carrying around a thousand pounds of ﬁsh or 11 to 13 people. It held a crew of ﬁve, four to row the boat and throw the nets and one to steer, watch for storms and supervise the casting and retrieval of the nets. By the way, the fact that they sailed at night and had to have someone on the lookout for storms might add a little ﬂavor to some of the other bible stories with which we are familiar. Back to the topic. The throwing of the nets and hauling back the catch to the boat and then lifting it into the boat was really only a part of the job. Most of the day for the ﬁshermen was spent mending the ﬂax or linen nets; drilling holes in stones and attaching them to the nets as weights; drying the nets; and storing them for the next night’s sail. There doesn’t seem to have been a lot of down time. (1)
The most successful ﬁshing ventures were undertaken by families that had good strong sons. The more family members in the crew the less money had to be paid out to day laborers to serve as rowers and net tenders. There were also licenses to be paid for, tolls to be paid and the ever present taxes. So you can see that Zebedee, James and John’s father, had three ﬁfths of the crew as part of his family; a deﬁnite ﬁnancial advantage. There was also a partnership with Simon (Peter) and Andrew and their boat, as referenced in Luke (5:10). It is likely that they had a rather proﬁtable venture going in their joint ﬁshing partnership. (2)
So at ﬁrst glance, reading only Mathew (4: 18-22) and Mark (1: 16-20), you might scratch your head a bit when you read that Jesus just came strolling along the shore, saw the four ﬁshermen, and said they should drop their nets and follow him . . . and they did. In the Gospel of John (1: 35-40), he states that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist and heard John the Baptist say of
Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God”. We might be able to guess from this that Peter, James and John were familiar with John the Baptist’s message through Andrew. In fact we read in John that Andrew carried that message to Peter. And if you read Luke’s account (5: 1-11) you realize that Jesus has just performed the miracle of telling Peter to cast his nets, in the daytime, after a nighttime of catching nothing and retrieving so many ﬁsh they almost sink the two boats and split the net, it begins to make a little more sense.
My guess is that Zebedee was too stunned at the catch to protest losing near his entire livelihood to this itinerant preacher. I wonder what his reaction was the next day. For that matter, I wonder what James was thinking when he woke up the next morning traipsing after this miracle worker.
I am left wondering what sort of men these four ﬁshermen and James in particular, were and why Jesus invited them to follow him. To be honest, if I were trying to get a movement going and needed people to help build and grow that movement, I would be a bit concerned about relying on someone who would abandon his work so easily and abandon his father who needed his help to succeed.
Of course if I were looking for people who could work tirelessly for long hours and in the face of a disappointing night on the water, someone who would keep going when all seemed lost, these might be the very people Jesus was looking for.
Whatever the reason he was invited along, James found himself in the inner circle of the twelve closest to Jesus. Along with Peter and John, James was invited in to the healing of Jairus’s daughter. Again along with Peter and John, he was present at the Transﬁguration. Then in the Garden at Gethsemane, Peter James and John were with Jesus as he prayed before being arrested.
Both Mark (10: 35-40) and Matthew (20: 20-23) recount a story where James and John ask to sit beside Jesus when he comes to power. Pretty bold! Even if they were in the inner circle of the inner circle, you have to think well of yourself to make that kind of request. Do you think you could ever make that request?
Just to top that request we have James and John, in the Gospel of Luke (9: 51-56), asking Jesus if he wants them “to command ﬁre to come down from heaven and consume” a village of Samaritans because “they did not receive Him, because his face was set on Jerusalem.” Of course the lesson in this section of scripture is about the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans and about Jesus’ concern for loving all and having malice against none. This does, however, give us insight into the character of James and John. They are not timid about their support of Jesus and his teachings. They are, perhaps, a little over zealous given the fact that they want to bring down ﬁre from heaven on villagers who don’t want to listen to their cultural enemies. And Jesus corrects them on that point. I have to wonder, though, if Jesus didn’t smile a little to himself witnessing how headstrong these two were about his mission.
I believe we all have met people in our lives who act like James did. They passionately believe in their cause and they will not be swayed. When I was protesting the war in Vietnam and protesting for Civil Rights in the late 60’s and early 70’s I knew a number of people like James. I found myself caught between wishing they would tone it down and wishing I had the courage to speak as boldly as they did. Can you picture a person in your life who stands out like that? Might it even be you? When I ﬁnally got my voice in the protest movement it certainly was me. I remember standing in the middle of the gymnasium at North Adams State College at the beginning of the Student Strike and throwing my books down and declaring I would not pick them up until we were out of Vietnam.
You see God never has had anyone but us to carry his message to the world. When Jesus walked in Israel he used ﬁshermen and tax collectors and rebels and all sorts of humans. That was one of the things that the Sisters of St. Joseph in my high school taught me about saints that has stuck with me as a truth. We all have the potential to do God’s work. Heck we have a hymn to that eﬀect here in the Episcopal Church. We often give it lip service. We don’t always believe it. If the church continues or fails; if Jesus’ teachings continue or fail; that is on us. We adopt saints names for our churches to remind us of that fact. Those saints serve as a reminder that we are capable of doing God’s work and with his grace we will do it.
In the end, James was beheaded in 44 CE by Herod Agrippa because he would not stop declaring Jesus’ life changing message at the top of his lungs. I do believe that St. James, that brash young ﬁsherman speaks to a strength of voice from which we can gain inspiration. When you hear his name spoken in reference to this church or in any conversation, ask yourself, what has God planned for my talents today?
1 James Campbell, D Min “Biblical Fishing101 Reeling in the First Fishers of Faith” Loyolapress.com
2 Ibid James Campbell
By Rev. Ted Thornton
Our reading from Luke’s gospel this morning pits us against a problem that should feel familiar to us all, the problem of competing agendas: in this case, between two sisters who are friends of Jesus. At stake in this contest is the ancient Middle Eastern code of hospitality, one of the most important virtues of life in the Middle East for all the people who’ve lived there throughout the ages and down into our own time.
In 1979, I spent a summer studying at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. One hot day, some of us traveled south to visit the tenth-century BC ruins of Beersheba, located in the northern Negev desert region of Israel. It’s the place where Abraham swore an oath with the Philistine king Abimelech in Genesis 21:25-34, the oath that gave Abraham rights to draw water from the well there. It goes without saying that rights to water sources are important to have if you’re going to survive, especially so in the Negev desert. That well is where God renewed the divine promise to Isaac in Genesis 26:23: “I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”
The day in July when we visited the remains of ancient Beersheba the temperature was close to a hundred degrees. A group of Arab Bedouins had pitched their goat hair tents near the site of the ancient city. Outside one tent we were amused to see a Honda generator and a TV antenna. There were a few children playing among the city ruins and a woman we assumed to be the grandmother of the kids who, with no questions asked and no hesitation, approached and offered us loaves of freshly baked pita bread still warm from the oven. She was practicing the ancient Middle Eastern custom of hospitality: diyafa in Arabic, eruach in Hebrew.
Fuller Theological Seminary Professor Peter Altmann offers one of the clearest summaries of the importance of hospitality in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. It all begins with this critical question: What should we do with strangers, people who just show up at the opening of your tent as we did on that hot July day, or in Abraham’s case from our reading in Genesis 18 when he shows up at Abimelech’s tent?
People away from home need protection, shelter, and food. They are at the mercy of the locals. In response, the Hebrew Bible makes a central virtue of hospitable care for outsiders. The Israelites were reminded in scripture (Leviticus 19:34, for example) that they, too, had been aliens in Egypt. Hence, it was their duty to care for strangers.
Jesus, like many Passover pilgrims and despite more than one visit to the city we know about, was a stranger in Jerusalem, and as a Galilean he was doubly suspect because his home region had a reputation for rebellion against the ruling empire of Rome. Anti-Roman terrorists from Galilee had become a constant thorn in the Roman side in Jesus’ time.
The law of hospitality is alive and well in the Middle East today, especially in Arab countries. Over the course of my thirty-four years teaching at Northfield Mount Hermon, I led several student and teacher travel study trips to Egypt and Jordan among other countries. More than once, I found myself face to face with those ancient laws of hospitality, especially at those times when I was there to conduct business of any kind such as securing lodging for my students and getting us started on our itineraries.
If you plan to do business in Arab countries, I quickly learned not to expect to seal any deals on the first meeting, or even the second, third, and sometimes fourth. Instead, I had to allow time to be lavished with hospitable offers of tea (shay), Turkish coffee (ahwa mazbut) and food. The custom of spending more time than seems necessary receiving hospitality from one’s Arab counterparts can become frustrating for Western businessmen and women who are sent over on tight expense accounts and for whom time is money. But that’s what you’ve got to be prepared to do if you want to do business in the Middle East.
Conversations that don’t begin with extensive questions over the course of perhaps multiple meetings about your family life and where you live will never be the case. Business is always business deferred until a relationship is formed. That’s the whole point of hospitality for Middle Easterners: establishing relationships. As was the case with Abraham, lavishing rest and refreshment on the strangers who visited him and the Bedouin woman who welcomed me and my friends with fresh bread, hospitality is its own reward. Relationships have always been the most important safeguard for making and keeping peace with one another in the Middle East.
So, why after taking note of all this is there a problem with Martha and how she behaves in the gospel today? Elizabeth Johnson, Catholic theologian and Professor Emeritus at Fordham University tells us that the problem in the gospel today is not Martha’s hospitality; it’s her distractibility. There’s more going on with Jesus’ visit than meets Martha’s eye.
What starts out as a pleasant story about Jesus being welcomed into the home of beloved friends takes a sharp turn when Martha, distracted by her many tasks, comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me (10:40).”
Many of us may cheer Mary for her inversion of the traditional role of women: she takes time out to simply sit with and converse with a man instead of waiting on him hand and foot. Others may empathize with Martha’s resentment of her sister for leaving her to do all the work. Some of us may do both and end up doubly perplexed.
Jesus’ response to Martha seems less than sympathetic: he chides her for her distraction and her worry, and in turn praises Mary for taking time out from her duties as hospitable co-host.
The problem with Martha is not that she is busy serving and providing hospitality. Certainly Jesus commends this kind of service to the neighbor many times, notably in the parable of the Good Samaritan we heard Heather preach about last Sunday. That story in Luke immediately precedes the story of Mary and Martha. It’s where Jesus goes out of his way to point out the duty we have to treat strangers, even those we may dislike. The problem again with Martha is not her hospitality, but that she is worried and distracted. The Greek word Luke uses in verse 40, periespato, that we translate as “distracted,” has the connotation of being pulled or dragged in different directions. We’re back to competing agendas, aren’t we?
Martha’s distraction leaves no room for the most important aspect of hospitality: gracious attention to the guest. In fact, she goes on to further break the rules of hospitality by trying to embarrass her sister in front of her guest and by asking her guest to intervene in a family dispute. She even goes so far as to accuse Jesus of not caring about her (“Lord, do you not care…?”).
At this point, it’s helpful to consider the geography of this story of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha. The geography of the story is a crucial backdrop to understanding why there may be more important things going on in this particular visit of Jesus than hospitalitable offerings of food, drink, and a safe haven.
It’s well known that Luke uses the geography of the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem, to frame his theology of Jesus’ message and mission. Luke in fact saturates his geography with spiritual force. It would not be too extravagant to say that for Luke the geography of Jerusalem and its nearby surroundings is the stage upon which the good news of Jesus' conquest of death and our salvation is played out.
The story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha is set in Bethany, just a couple of miles from Jerusalem and very near the Mount of Olives. Bethany is a powerfully charged place in Luke’s gospel. It churns with cosmological potency. Bethany is near the summit of the Mount of Olives where Jesus ascended into heaven. That’s only about an hour’s walk from the old city of Jerusalem, only a few minutes walk from the path Jesus took on Palm Sunday, and less than an hour from the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spends his last night on earth.
Early Christians who were familiar with the geography of Jerusalem and who listened to Luke’s narrative would have understood instantly why Jesus gently but firmly indicates to Martha that there are more urgent needs at this point, the last days of his life, than hospitality: Bethany, the place, is the beginning of the end of physical life for him and with his ascension into heaven the beginning for him and for us of salvation for this mortal and broken world we inhabit. It’s at Bethany in the home of good friends sisters Mary and Martha that Mary, echoing the Jewish custom of anointing corpses in their tombs, anoints Jesus’ feet with oil in John 12 and where Jesus raises their brother Lazarus from the dead in John 11. Bethany is literally the gateway into eternal life. It’s where this world touches eternity. Orthodox Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, the first to rise from the dead will be those buried on the Mount of Olives. Forthis reason its slopes have been the most sacred burial ground in Judaism for centuries.
During the ‘80s, I spent two summers working on an archaeological dig in Israel. The dig team spent its weekends in Jerusalem. One Saturday morning, a small group of us got up before dawn and climbed the streets up to the Mount of Olives to watch the sunrise on the walls of the old city. Those walls glow with a dazzling, fiery, golden hue in first morning light. It was easy to imagine you’d temporarily entered the next world. We were reminded of the vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 18: “The city was made of pure gold, clear as crystal.” I have to imagine that the writer of Revelation was inspired by the golden glory of sunrise on the city walls of Jerusalem.
The significance of the story we heard today of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha is that it belongs to passiontide: it’s part of a chronicle of the sequence of events of Jesus' last days on earth and indicators of another, better world to come.
Jesus isn’t saying to Martha, “Forget about being hospitable.” He is saying be attentive to those moments in our lives when we need to suspend business as usual and turn our attention to more pressing matters, in this case, the point in historical time when we become acutely aware of the convergence of two worlds: the present physical life we all inhabit and the eternal world to come, the convergence of the world of hospitality and acts of loving kindness on the one hand and the world of eternal divine reality on the other.
Luke’s stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Mary and Martha demonstrate clearly Luke’s approach to the gospel and in particular Jesus' ministry. Some have observed that the Gospel of Luke at various points breaks the mold of our expectations with the force of Zen koans, those paradoxical Buddhist word puzzles that challenge our expectations about what’s real and important, that challenge our prejudicial notions of what’s right and good, that challenge our egotistical judgments about things and about other people, that challenge our personal political echo chambers. Martha’s problem today is that she can’t quite bring herself to see that for Jesus it’s not business as usual anymore.
You and I are not in Bethany today. For us, the ancient code of hospitality is still one of the key ways we can act out Jesus’ commandment to love one another; just as long as we keep in mind that the backdrop of that commandment as well as the backdrop to all our business as usual is our faithful conviction that every hospitable act is fundamentally an act of love, not an act of duty, and that these acts are playing themselves out against the backdrop of the eternal journey of our souls through this world and into eternity.
On Friday, July 7, over a hundred of our fellow Episcopalians interrupted their business as usual as convention delegates to convene at a place near the convention center where yet another gun murder had occurred two days earlier. Will business as usual for you this coming week be interrupted by some event that brings you in touch with the spiritual reality that undergirds our everyday lives? If so, I hope yours will be one that leads you into deeper discernment of and commitment to your relationship with God. Look upon it as God’s hospitality, as nourishment and a safe haven for your soul.
The lawyer who approaches Jesus would have been an expert in Jewish law, and he was quite deliberate in his questioning.2 He asks:
What must I do to inherit eternal life? (v.25)
Now, Jesus is wise, and knows exactly what this lawyer is up to. He playfully uses the law as a teaching moment. Jesus asks:
What is written in the law? What do you read there? (v.26)
The lawyer references two passages:
Jesus affirms that the lawyer has indeed given the right answer, and tells him:
Do this, and you will live. (v.28)
But this lawyer still thought he could make himself look good, so he provokes Jesus with just one more question:
And who is my neighbor? (v.29)
Jesus then shifts into telling us our parable:
There was a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell into the hands of robbers. He was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. (v.30)
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is about 18 miles, with an elevation that drops 3,600 feet. 2/3 It is a dry, barren, and narrow road that was an important route for trading caravans, military personnel, and pilgrims heading to and from Jerusalem. 4 Full of rocky, hiding places; it is an ideal place for robbers to set upon travelers. 4 Up until the fifth century, this road was actually called the red or bloody way, and folks would pay local guides to help ensure their safety. 3 Imagine that kind of scenery, as we dive deeper into this parable.
By chance, a priest was going down that road; when he noticed the man he moved over to the other side. (v.31) Likewise, a Levite was traveling along that road and also noticed this man. He too passed by on the other side. (v.32) But then a Samaritan saw the man, and was moved with compassion. He went to the man, tended his wounds, set him on his animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he paid for their stay, and asked the innkeeper to continue caring for the man, promising he would return to repay him any costs he encountered. (v.33-35)
The parable invites our curiosity:
Why did the priest and Levite pass to the other side? Some say it was because they both had roles at the temple, and they needed to maintain ritual purity to abide by the law. Yet there are several passages within the Torah which debunk that theory. 6 Meaning, the law, the heart of this entire encounter - was not what stopped them.
For that matter, why did the Samaritan stop to help? Those listening, would have been expecting the hero of the story to be an Israelite. 2 Yet instead, the hero was a man from a distinct ethnic group that lived in tension with the Israelites. 2
So what were the motivations for this priest, Levite, and Samaritan?
The most helpful explanation I have found is in a speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the night before he was assassinated. Titled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, this speech was given in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, and in it, he refers to today’s parable. 5
King points out the fear that the priest and the Levite must have felt on this dangerous road, asking themselves,
“If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” 5
In other words, what if this was a trick? What if this man was actually just lying in wait, hoping to attack them? Or what if he really did need help, but the robbers that had hurt him were nearby, eager to attack anyone who stopped to help?Their fear limited their perspective, and it kept them focused on self-preservation.
King goes on to say,
But the Samaritan asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to
The Samaritan was able to take in the wider perspective, that we are ALL responsible for one another. Within the teachings of the law - again, the heart of this entire encounter - is the truth that everyone must be treated as a neighbor. 2 This definition includes fellow citizens who live nearby, the stranger, or those who might be seen as enemies. 2
Now, what if we were to take King’s reading one step further... 7
What if the Samaritan asked himself,
“If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
In other words, what if we acknowledge there is a real cost to our souls, when we choose self-preservation before love of God and neighbor? That there are high stakes for God’s world, when we choose our individual well-being before that of the community? The Samaritan understands what King alludes to in his sermon - that God is calling on us to “...develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” 5
When Jesus is finished telling this parable, he asks the lawyer,
Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who was robbed? (v.36)
It is worth pausing to remember that the lawyer’s last question was:
“And who is my neighbor?” (v.29)
But at this point, Jesus is flipping the script by asking,
“Which of these three was a neighbor?” (v.36)
The point being we are ALL neighbors, those who live nearby, strangers, and those we think of as our enemies.
The lawyer answers Jesus’ question,
“The one who showed him mercy.” (v.37).
And the encounter ends, as simply as it began, by Jesus telling the lawyer:
“Go and do likewise.” (v.37)
As we reflect on what it means to be a neighbor, I’d like to push us to take this parable even one step further. What if when we consider what it means to be a neighbor, we ask ourselves what it means to be a neighbor to ALL of creation?What if we read this parable as though the earth herself was the one who had been robbed, stripped, and beaten, before being left for dead on the side of the road? We have allowed corporations to rob the earth of its natural resources and to pollute every corner of creation, in pursuit of their own economic gain; in their mission to fulfill our every want and desire, as long as we are willing to pay.
James “Gus’” Speth once said that, “The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change…They are selfishness and greed and pride.” 8
We can choose self-preservation, ignoring the science telling us the climate crisis is real, that we must act now or let our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren suffer the consequences. Denial allows us to ignore the reality that, “...climate change intensifies every system of injustice, discrimination and disadvantage,” as theologian Jim Antal describes in his book, Climate Church, Climate World. 9. Like the fearful priest and Levite, we can move to the other side of the road, ignoring God’s law that requires us to be a neighbor to one another and creation.
Or we can look to the Samaritan, and ask ourselves:
If I do not stop to help, what will happen to creation?
If I do not stop to help, what will be the cost to my soul?
To our collective wellbeing?
What might it look like for us to be a neighbor to creation? Environmentalist Bill McKibben suggests that the best thing we can do for the climate is to stop being an individual, because, as he notes: “Movements for social change are fueled by bottom-up engagement in which people identify with the movement and claim their collective power.”10 When we work together in unity, we can overcome corrupt systems of oppression that seek to bleed the earth dry of all her resources. We can use our collective power, influence, voice, vote, and wallets to demand change wherever we work, live, play, and do business.
We might also look to our siblings in the United Church of Christ, who in 2017 passed a resolution that called upon its churches and members. Part of the resolution read:
“Let us all incarnate the changes we long for…let us commit to making decisions of integrity in our energy choices, undoing the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color, indigenous communities, and poor white communities around the world even as we commit to hold all our religious, political, corporate, and global leaders accountable to do the same.” 11
Dear ones, as we head into the world this week, let us find ways to collectively love ALL our neighbors - one another and the earth herself. Amen
1 Luke 10:25-37 New Revised Standard Version. Unless otherwise noted, all passage references are from Luke 10.
2 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors, 2011, pages in order of reference: 124, 124, 123, 121, 121, 123, 123
6 Numbers 19:10b-13; Tobit 1:16-20; Leviticus 21 (for more references, see commentary in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors, 2011, pg. 123.
7 As inspired by listening to Sermon Brainwave: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/brainwave-852-fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-ordinary/id1538186845?i=1000568536841
8 James ‘Gus’ Speth as quoted in Jim Antal’s Climate Church, Climate World, 2018, pg. 9
9 Jim Antal’s Climate Church, Climate World, 2018, pg. 2.
10 Bill McKibben as quoted in Jim Antal’s Climate Church, Climate World, 2018, pg. 25.
11 I first read this resolution in Jim Antal’s Climate Church, Climate World. You can find the entire text of the resolution here: http://synod.uccpages.org/res21.html
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