Saturday, July 13, 2013

We Are Not Alone

RCL Proper 15C
14 July 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Luke 10.25-37
            One of the cultural differences I had to get used to after we emigrated to Canada in 1987 was the different academic terms Canadians and Americans use.  For example, American kids go to first grade, while Canadian kids go to grade one.  American students enter their freshman year of university, while Canadians enter first year.  Canadian theological students are in their first year and then, after some time, enter their final year.  An American theological student in a traditional seminary enters her or his three-year programme as a junior, then becomes a middler and finally a senior.

            These names are actually quite accurate descriptions of my experience as a theological student.  During my first year I really was a ‘junior’; it was a whole new world for me and every day was a discovery.  When I reached my final year, my ‘senior’ year, I had established myself within the college and truly felt on the cusp of my new life as an ordained minister.  But my ‘middler’ year was something entirely different.

            For me the ‘middler’ year was just that:  the excitement of the first year had worn off and the excitement of my final year was still in the future.  It was during my ‘middler’ year that I experienced what some people might call a ‘burn out’, others a depression.  No one seemed to notice that something was wrong.  Since I was a good student, I managed to plod along without arousing the concern of the faculty.  Most of my friends within the student body were married, so we only saw one another in class or in worship, so their alarm bells were not triggered.  Only two people recognized that something was going on.

            Both were women, one a Canadian preparing for ordination to the priesthood, the other an American who was preparing for ordination to the diaconate and the exercise of an educational ministry.  Now you need to know that I entered seminary opposed to the ordination of women and that I held very traditional views about sexuality.  So here I was in the midst of a depression and the only two people who stepped to the side of the road were two woman, one a misguided seeker after the priesthood, the other a lesbian.

            Since that time I have never been able to hear the parable of the good Samaritan without thinking about the two ‘Samaritans’ who stopped to tend my wounds.  My views on both the ordination of women and the place of gay and lesbian disciples of Christ have changed considerably and I have no doubt that Barbara and Anne played a significant part in changing my views.  They did not reach out to me as a ‘project’, someone to be ‘converted’.  They reached out to me because they saw a need and chose to respond as Christians who share in the same ministry that Jesus of Nazareth embodied during his earthly ministry.

            Today’s parable is a familiar one and, because of that familiarity, it is easy for us to let its words flow over us as we move on in our lives.  But we cannot afford to let its familiarity lead us into complacency.  So let me offer a few reflections on what this story means to us, here and now.

            First, let’s pay attention to the series of questions and answers.  The lawyer begins with the right question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In both his question and his answer the lawyer indicates that he and Jesus are on the same page.  Eternal life, both the lawyer and Jesus know, is not found in a series of religious beliefs but in action:  Love of God and love of neighbour.  Despite the debates that rage around us about belief and non-belief, what God is really interested in is whether we love.  Love, in the biblical sense, is not about how one feels but about what one does.

            ‘But who is my neighbour?’, asks the lawyer.  This is not a question arising from a desire to dodge responsibility but to know how far-ranging the obligation to neighbour extends.  To this question Jesus gives an answer which, quite frankly, is frightening to me:  My neighbour is anyone who is in need.  Children who are denied education, people who are starving, families who are homeless, middle-aged men who find themselves out of work and unemployable, women who are treated as property, the list of who are my neighbours grows infinitely large and the risk is that I am rendered powerless in the face of the enormity of human need.

            But just before the despair sets in and leaves me in passivity, the good news enters and shows me the path forward.  The first glimmer of hope is in the character of Luke’s gospel.  In Luke’s understanding of the good news, ‘one is not a disciple alone [but becomes] one of the people of God who live as citizens of God’s kingdom’. [1]  We are not alone in the work of loving our neighbour; the burden does not fall on the shoulders of one but upon the shoulders of many.  What is important is that each one of us takes up the share that falls to us.

            Steve Godfrey asks, “Where do [our] gifts, vocation and avocation create opportunities to bless the lives of others with the steadfast loving-kindness of the gospel of the kingdom of God?  Where does [our congregation’s] time, talent and treasure offer . . . opportunities to do the same?  Where these answers lead is where we can validate God’s steadfast love to us by extending it to others.” [2]

            And these answers often lead us to simple and concrete acts of steadfast love.  Alan Brehm writes, “[it] seems to me that it is when we are engaged in the most mundane activities that we make the most difference in another person’s life.  When you get right down to it, that’s the only place we can really make much of a difference in the life of another human being. . . . Christian life is ‘nothing special’ --- it’s a mater of simply living out the grace and mercy and compassion of God.” [3]

            My friends, what must we do to inherit eternal life?  We must love God and we must love our neighbours.  And the love we offer to God and to our neighbours will often be unspectacular.  We will love by showing people compassion when they are in crisis.  We will love by reaching out to the clients of our pastoral resource centre with food, empathy and practical assistance in obtaining the services they require.  We will love by boulevard sales that provide funding for various agencies serving in our communities.

            But, my friends, we shall also be loved by others, some who share our faith and some who do not.  We shall receive compassion when in sorrow, discover hands reaching out to us just as we think we are lost and we shall find unexpected gifts that meet as yet unknown needs.

            For we are not alone.  We are surrounded on every side by neighbours, known and unknown.  And with them we shall inherit eternal life, abundant life, not only in God’s future but in this present time.

[1] The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed., 94 New Testament.

[2] Steve Godfrey at accessed on 8 July 2013.

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