Sunday, November 03, 2002

In the Hands of the Savior

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Stewardship Sunday
Text: Luke 10:25-37

Once upon a time there was a humble fellow who left the great city of Jerusalem to travel south, to descend, to go on down the road to Jericho. I invite you today to place yourself in his position, to identify with his journey and his need. For you are the visible church in this place and this time. You are in the hands of the Samaritan.

Change is hard, and real change is real hard. Descent of any kind is that kind of hard change. No one likes to descend down through the ranks of work and life from which depths at one time one had ascended. Who truly enjoys the trip down into loss and grief, the lonely road of emptiness and longing? Victory has a thousand parents. Defeat is an orphan. Did the children of Israel relish the harsh forced march into the wilderness? No. They complained bitterly to Moses: “Are there no graves in the land of Egypt that you have brought us here to die?” Did their forgetful descendents appreciate the exile to Babylon in 587bc, chained and roped as they were taken into generations of slavery? No. In Jeremiah they expressed their Lamentations. A quiet killer of an Old Testament book. No one wants to descend like that. It hurts too much. When I see Elie Wiesel photographed in Rochester, I hear the voice of Jeremiah, ringing out on the down road away from Jerusalem.

In our own history across this land we too can remember the experience of descent, from Jerusalem to Jericho, if you will.

Washington’s army hobbled south into Valley Forge, or was it Jericho? A dusty backed Robert E. Lee left his sword as he left Appomatox: was he riding to Jericho? The native peoples left one temporary campground for another, striking tents from east to west, so that today there are 100 Oneida Indians left in New York, and 15,000 in Wisconsin. It is a long walk from Oneida to White Fish Bay, from Jerusalem to Jericho. I saw a clip again of the last survivors flying out of Saigon in 1975, many wailing on the rooftops and left behind-their Jerusalem in flames. We have known all manner of displacement, from center to periphery. In the winter I hope time will open up for another reading of the Grapes of Wrath. The road from settled security to uncertain unknown can run from Jerusalem to Jericho, or from Oklahoma to the Pacific Ocean. The road from religious complacency to social injustice can cover a year in the first century, or a decade, the 1930’s, in the twentieth century.

I remember my uncle saying that every birth creates a new family, because everyone is in a different position. So it goes on the road to displacement.

You may be on the road to displacement today. Displacement, replacement, out placement. It is a hard road. Jerusalem is so much more settled, secure, serene. There is a temple in Jerusalem, a statement in stone of the affirmations of a people. In Jerusalem there is a King, Herod, and a Proconsul, Pilate. They embody authority and exude stability. There is tradition, that of Ezra, there is history, that of Amos, there is glory, that of David-all to be found in Jerusalem. Why would anyone ever leave? Hardly any ever do, by choice, on their own.

About 40 years ago - such a biblical number - we set out on the same kind of descent. We, too, in this country have long since left Jerusalem, that “city set on a hill” which Governor Bradford described on the Massachusetts Bay. We no longer attempt to build Jerusalem here. Hardly any of our leaders would recognize the rhetoric anymore. This has become a country that requires car insurance but not health insurance. Ours is a land of smart bombs and ignorant children. We live in a country less fearful of doing wrong than of getting caught. Oh, we can be scared, occasionally, into justice, but we are not eager to build Jerusalem. Our debt maims our future, our priorities maim our children, our Promethean power combined with willful arrogance now threatens the whole inhabited order. We are the stewards of nuclear powder keg, and seem impervious to the dangers of preemption, what Robert and John Kennedy would have called, “Pearl Harbor in reverse”. Jerusalem is behind us, and fading in the distance. And in the distance, not a city set on a hill, but our next appointment-Jericho.

The trek toward Jericho began in about 1965. We have made a good headway out south in 37 years. The hiker with the least strength, bringing up the rear if you will, straggling on down the road of the last generation, is the historic church of Christ. The church is the metaphorical canary in the cultural mine. When the canary stops singing, you know the atmosphere has changed, and there is danger on the horizon. Or, think of it as a column in march. The weakest bring up the rear-the church, the home, the school. Others have tripped on down the road far faster than we. We straggle along, at a distance from the larger culture. It is getting dark and we are alone along the road. Evening falls.

In the best tradition of banditry, thieves have swept down upon us, seizing the weakest and last in the cultural column, stripping the church, beating the church, using the church, stealing from the church, and leaving the church half-dead.

This phrase in the gospel, half-dead, always gives me pause. Which half? It is like those impossible questions: would you rather lose your sight or your hearing? Your mind or your strength? Your daughter or your son? Could you go on with no job if you had your family, or would it be easier to see your family leave and hold your job? Leaving the church half dead, the thieves fled. Which half? In these forty years, there have been moments of numerical strength but no depth of root. There have been times of spiritual fervor but no lasting power. There have been epochs of growth in breadth, without the developing of spinal column seen in the vertebrae of tithing, imprisonment for cause, and decisions for the ministry. A church may have all the flabby flesh available, but without spine it is not a body. How many of us tithe? Who has gone to jail for justice? How many preachers have we produced? If we give birth to no preachers, why should we expect to have any? In short, over 40 years, a biblical back forty, thieves have done their worst. The church has been moved from cultural center to cultural periphery, as hard as that is to keep in view here along East Avenue. We do not set the beat. The steeple bells do not call the tune. The symbols of the church have grown cold for the culture and so are ignored or replaced by warmer, falser calves of gold. Sunday is not a day of rest from commerce, but just another part of the endless flow of colorless time, one thing after another.

The thieves have done their worst, and for some time, the historic church has been left by the side of the road, stripped, beaten, and left half-dead. If you doubt it, compare those entering the seminaries today with those of forty years ago. In any case, the parable does not stop to reprimand the thieves. The story assumes that in certain circumstances, some people will steal from others. The Gospel is not about right and wrong, first, but about life and death, first. First the mystical. Second the moral. So the Lord on Golgotha can say, to a thief: “This day you will be with me in paradise”.

Thieves have battered the church, the littlest and weakest of institutions, like home and school. You can name them better than I. Swelling social changes in availability of time. A temporary economic boom that becomes a prolonged bust. Spiritual surges, now and then, that take no part in service to widow and orphan, what the bible singularly calls “real religion” (James). All these, though, the church might readily survive.

Our time has born witness to another, profounder thievery. It is spiritually important, when you have been burglarized, to be able to list and name the items stolen. I have been swimming at the LeMoyne College pool for 15 years, never locking my belongings. This fall someone stole $65 from my unprotected wallet. You, too, have lost things and it is important to name them. The naming marks the time we live in. What has been stolen from American Culture in this post-modern or post-Christian era is a sense of presence. Gabriel Vahanian, again, saw it most clearly, though no one quite “got it” 40 years ago. We are living through a time when the sense of presence, divine presence, has been taken from us. We live numbly like rape victims who repress to some degree the loss. We live in atmosphere of functional atheism, in which even the great symbols and signs of historic religion are made to serve a nether God. We live in a time that has lost its ear for the music of God. An age tone deaf to the cadence of the Holy. So we are tempted to fill our sacred hours and space with noise and chatter and irreverence. Thieves have fallen upon the church.

Sauntering down the same road have come both Priests and Levites, liberals and conservatives. The undercurrents of thievery in culture find religious expression in the liberal priest and the conservative Levite. I caution us not to use the church for lesser ends, however good. Not to use the church for social action or private revelation, however important both are. The liberal, over 40 years, found the church a convenient cudgel for political change, whether related to war or race or justice. This priest though - ecce homo - found no abiding interest in personal ethics or traditional teaching on intimacy, or reverence for marriage, or discipline in finance, or other personal disciplines. Passing by on the other side of the road, the liberal priest left the church bleeding, crying, hurting and half-dead. We still haven’t said which half. Likewise, some years later, there came the conservative Levite, who also found it seemingly easy to pass by on the other side. The conservative found in the wounded church, so hungry for humans, a convenient haven from the righteous demands of economic justice, what Wesley might have called social holiness. Just having individual belief, being saved, thrice or twice born, allowed one to pass by on the other side of the secular road, and to live without the historic church, whether in Bible Fellowship or roadside chapel or Crystal cathedral. Love your neighbor without! Love the neighbor within! Two shouts, one liberal and one conservative, and both faithless.

You notice that Luke has entered our autumn meditation. Sometimes you need a little humor to get through life, a little hope to get through hurt, a little horizon to get through valleys, and a little Luke to get through Matthew. You recognize that last Sunday’s lesson is also here - love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew leaves it there. But if we follow the textual trail to Luke we are offered something more. Just who is my neighbor? And while Luke’s parable of the Samaritan has often, and rightly, been read as an encouragement to good deeds, its fuller sense is Christ, and puts you in the hands of the Samaritan.

For the third traveler to journey past the half-dead man, this dear body of the church, for which odd, numinous and impractical reasons we so cherish, is, as it happens, a Stranger, a Samaritan. An unexpected lover, a stranger to the church laying in the ditch, to the anxious church leader awaiting stewardship help from on high, to the liberal priest and the conservative Levite.

In this sermon I commend to your spiritual attention, the Samaritan in whose hands the half-dead church now rests. I announce with you his presence this day. A church is such a fragile organism, the larger the more fragile. In the Gospel we announce the model Neighbor, who in tradition is Good, as God alone is good. On the road down to post-Christian Jericho, in our hurt, he has found mercy for us. This strange lover of the church - who resists in the cross all our lesser desires to use the church for lesser ends-is only barely visible in the mists of worship and counseling and dinners and committees. Here, this Stranger stoops to us. Stooping is most christological gerund in English. Stooping he comes to show mercy where the priest and Levite saw only a half-dead body. He stoops. He binds up wounds. He pours on oil and wine. He puts the church on horseback. He carries to the inn, that is, as Cervantes and Luke both know, the only real Inn, which is the heart.

It is a strange presence, unexpected, that generally ministers to the church. In flat stewardship terms, over many years and miles, it means that the church has been healed and helped by those you would least expect. Tithers: widows, retired school teachers, recently arrived members, people of lesser means, preachers, retired preachers, those, I guess, who have known a little of what it means to be on the side of the road.

Oh Strange Samaritan! I overhear I suppose some of your Samaritan musing, but it falls on my ears as a foreign tongue, at once sensible and nonsense. In the mist of a party, one mentions: “Our community needs more community - I will be in church this year”. I sense the hoofbeats of a Samaritan. In the confusion of a wedding, one says, “You know, I may have something to offer this year”. I sense the rustle of a Samaritan. In the hospital room, that place of no repose, one asks, “I expect you could use more help for children over there. Count me in.” I sense the money pouch of a Samaritan. On the doorstep, in muted measure, one states, “We have had to stay away for a time, but the music beckons and I can help your choir.” I sense the whistle of the Samaritan. At the little service, 10:00 A. M., in the rush of benediction, one affirms, “I have felt somehow summoned here. I think I can make a strong contribution.” I sense the goodness of a Samaritan. Oh Good Neighbor Christ! For all the dangerous fragility of this autumn, I feel your love for the beaten body of the historic church!

Rest assured, robbed one. Here is good news. The historic church is in the hands of the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ.