Sermon 8 Pentecost July 10 2016 Beauty in the Beast

 

St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 7:7-17

Psalm 82

Colossians 1:1-14

Luke 10: 25-37

 

Beauty in the Beast

 

This last week I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with my family at a camp ground at the lower falls of the Lewis River in Washington. There was no access to social media, no cell phone, no email, no land line, no daily paper, television and radio was sporadic. This was pretty amazing to me to contemplate since the campground was only two and half hours from Portland. I have been to some remote places in the world and had access to email, phone contact etc. from remote villages high in the Andes or in the mountains of China, from villages on the borders of Kenya and Uganda and yet, two hours from Portland we were cut off from civilization in the way we have come to know it in a day to day way.

Regardless of the loss of electronic communication and attachment, camping with my family is hardly an exercise in survival. My daughter does not travel anywhere without her French press coffee maker. Our meals reach far beyond mere hot dogs and hamburgers, to delicious meals taking in account everybody’s particular tastes. The chance to be together for meals, for conversation, taking time for each other, exploring the trails and wondering at the loveliness of nature all served to have us forget, for just a few fleeting moments, all the chaotic challenges, the tragic absurdities and the global insistence on fighting a familiar beast in the same way that has failed repeatedly time after time.

The magnificence of old growth trees, built to shelter all that lives below, the continuing flow of gushing water over rocks that were there long before we came into the world and will be there long after we leave it, the understanding that there are places like this around the world, places that sometimes fall before humankind’s greed,….that sometimes stand in spite of it…..that exist to remind us that we are, each of us, given choices by God to love and preserve or hate and destroy. At the heart of the former lies compassion….at the heart of the latter lies ignorance, misinformation and lack of awareness of God’s unending kindness and mercy for us all.

Each of these kinds of places exist to offer beauty within the beast that we are called to face down each day.   In a way, they serve as a metaphor for the moments of beauty that each of us has the capacity to offer into the world. Moments of kindness, of compassion driven by insight into the value of goodness rather than meanness of spirit.

Someone struggling to put up a tarp when the rain came was aided by several folks from various other camp sites. A little girl crying in the lane because she was lost was led home by my two daughters. People sharing, people caring, laughter heard through the trees, a quieting down and an easing up, working with and within the environment in a way that could be replicated beyond where we were…. into a raised consciousness about the comforts of our homes waiting for us to return just two hours away…..and about a different kind of camping….an enforced way of life for too many people in the world who are living on the borders of society in refugee camps waiting for someone….some nation or nations…..with deep wells and broad seas compassion and kindness….to stop by to rescue them.

We have just heard about a rescue today in the story of the Samaritan who stopped to pick up a dying man. The story is so well known, it could border on the cliché were it not so critical to teaching God’s desire for God’s people. By way of introduction, Luke tells the story of a lawyer who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tests him regarding his understanding of Gospel law. The lawyer quotes the Torah saying one is to love God with all one’s heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus tells the lawyer that he’s right on with his answer and reminds him that if he does just that, he will indeed, live.

This should have been the end of the story, but the lawyer, being a good lawyer, is not finished with his line of questioning and asks Jesus just who one’s neighbor actually is. The question implies that the lawyer wants to find out who is the one we are to consider neighbor in the here and now rather than on the continuing journey we call life itself. Who and where are the people, where and what are the encounters, to whom and to what do we offer kindness, and who is it that we tend to ignore either because it is too hard to contemplate how to offer kindness, or because we consider it someone else’s problem? In a way, the lawyer’s question reflects a questions that sits deep in each of us….amidst all the craziness of a dangerous world, where do I find my neighbor? And what is this “eternal life?”

For thousands upon thousands of years, the world has been a dangerous place….it was at the formation of humankind, it was during the time of Jesus and it is now. We find ourselves during our lifetime at a time filled with danger….caused by the same, but now real-time, more widespread and lethal misguided judgment, with age-old rage and hatred which exhausts hearts, minds and souls……as well as the opportunity, for real-time, widespread insight and wisdom, kindness and love.   .

To emphasize the point, Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question about the meaning of eternal life with a story of not one, but several journeys.

A man is journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho, a particularly dangerous route for anyone, especially if travelling alone. The road is about 20miles long, with bandits always lurking around ready to rob, kill or create some other kind of mayhem. We don’t know who the man was, but he must have had a very important need to be taking such a route alone, and we don’t know much about that either. His identity and his circumstances are clearly not as important as the rest of the story.  We know that he fell victim to robbers, who took everything he had, beat him senseless and left him in a ditch to die.

People on their own journeys pass by the man, each aware of him lying there and his plight. First a priest of the temple goes by and then a Levite. Each is bound by their own religious law to not touch the man, each believing he was dead. To touch the man would be to break the temple law and thus become unclean by the law’s standards. They feel a greater need to adhere to the politically correct, the acceptable and accepted reasons to pass the man by…..to obey the temple law to remain pure and clean for worship. They are also aware that the safest thing to do is to keep moving a little quicker or they, themselves, might be set upon.

Then a Samaritan comes along. The Samaritans were discounted by all “good” Jews at the time who held that Samaritans were not temple worshippers and were not faithful to the law of Moses. The Samaritans didn’t like the Jews either. Each held on to their own ways of thinking, their own turf, their own need to be right. Theirs was as real a racial divide as we experience today: Black versus white, resident versus immigrant, clashing ideology and religious zealotry, gay versus straight, border against border, and on and on.

The Samaritan sees the man and rather than simply moving past, or pretending he doesn’t see the suffering victim, he comes close to take a look and stops. Jesus says the Samaritan was “moved with pity.” He was moved by something that transcended his worldly feelings of contempt for what well might have been the enemy. He tends to the man’s wounds, regardless of the potential danger around him. He does not consider his call complete until he has lifted the man gently up and has delivered him to an inn whereupon he pays an advance for his care and goes on his way promising to return to pay whatever else is due for the man’s care.

It is not a complicated story although some would like to read more into it then is there. Yet it is not a singular story, caught as just one incident in time. It is a story that is repeated at every moment somewhere in the world….. even here. It is a story of misguided choices…..looking away or looking who to put down. The story’s obvious message is one of simple kindness to one’s neighbor and if there is complexity in the parable, we find it in God’s message to us to remember that ours is more than a simple earthly birth to death passage.

As Christians, our journey begins at birth until we are reborn at baptism. We journey from a life that is limited to a life that, if we choose to acknowledge it….if we choose to accept it……is richly full and abundant with faith, with hope and with charity.

Those who will inherit eternal life seldom find themselves on the front pages of our newspapers or talked about length on the daily news nor do they seek that kind of notoriety. They are the Samaritans by any name, of any religion, of any race. They are people like David Gilkey, a news photographer who was killed in Afghanistan on June 5th of this year and who was remembered at a memorial service last Friday here in Portland. His photography was the kind that helped us understand the human side of war. Said one director of photography who had worked with David, “He could find the beauty in the horror.” A recording of his voice was played, as he explained his photographic work “It’s not just reporting; it’s not just taking pictures; it’s (asking) do the visuals, do the stories change somebody’s mind enough to take action: I think at the end of the day that what it’s about….. getting people to do something.”[1]

In the wake of this week’s tragic killing of police officers in Dallas, Texas, there are people like Jennifer Jones, an African American student, 20years old who said becoming an oppressor is exactly the wrong way to respond to racial killing saying, “I want to be the person that can stand up and talk and fight for the right thing to happen.” [2]

There are hundreds of stories about people who reach into their hearts for understanding and compassion rather than reach for ways to lash out. They are stories from which Jesus could pick and choose. His story of the compassionate Samaritan is no more complicated on the surface and just as complex as these. Each contains stories within stories. Stories of differing constructs, of personal preferences, particular religious understandings and beliefs, of racial differences and perspectives, of personal needs and dreams, pursuits of happiness and the desire to live safely and securely with family and friends.

Like the Samaritan, like each of the people I have mentioned, everyone is on his or her own journey and everyone has an opportunity to travel in the direction God would have us go. God’s journey is one of growing love and compassion in a world that wants to grow something else….like taking a road to revenge.

God’s journey is one of gratitude and desire to fulfill the difficult task of giving back to a world that covets holding on to one’s rights above all else.

God’s journey is about the amazing and transcendent power of God working in the hearts of all those who travel through this dangerous world and who, by their actions of simple kindness and compassion, move us all closer to the fullness of life in the day to day.

When we travel along God’s highway, we go with faith and trust in God’s guidance, not knowing what encounters may appear along the way. And we are called to travel with the faithful desire and grace to love our neighbor no matter his or her circumstances.

We might think carefully about what it means to be on such a journey…..and what it means to walk in the shoes of the other.  What if you are the one in the ditch? You might have been there at some point or found yourself there more than once due to your own choices or through no choice of your own. Who is the one you recall rescuing you….do you even remember or did you ever know?

What if your rescuer were Muslim, a woman in a burqa, or a transgender person, or a black teenager wearing a hood? What if your rescuer was completely unseen by you? How do you show gratitude?

How do you thank the unknown? How do you respond to kindnesses that are offered on your behalf that you might never see? Perhaps the harder question is, how do you show gratitude to the one who is called “enemy.”

When the lawyer was asked by Jesus who the lawyer thought the good neighbor was in the story, the lawyer answers, “the one who showed him mercy.” (10:37) Jesus then told him to go and do and be the same.

So it is for us. We are to do the same. We are to pay it forward. Like the people walking in peaceful protest to senseless killing and like the police men who were killed in Dallas, the medics on the front lines, firemen rushing into collapsing skyscrapers and the people next door, or on the roadside…and like all those who move forward to serve in whatever way they are prepared to do so, no matter the consequences.

Kurt Vonnegut, in his best-selling book of anecdotes, A Man without a Country, captured the meaning of what it means to travel the Christian journey, when he responded to the question from a young person from Pittsburgh, “Please tell me it will all be okay.” It was the kind of question which could serve as a modern day translation of “will I have “eternal life.” Vonnegut answered, “Welcome to earth, young man. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, Joe, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of: Dammit, Joe, you’ve got to be kind.”[3]

It is all we’ve got with which we can respond to God’s loving kindness to us and to our world and to God’s desire for us to find fullness in our living. In the words written in Verse 3 of #470 in our hymnal,

 

For the love of God is broader

Than the measure of the mind;

And the heart of the Eternal

Is most wonderfully kind.[4]

 

What this seemingly simple parable teaches us is to know that unexpected kindness can appear along our journey of life at any time. And we are often taken by surprise by it and how it reveals within us truths which may never have been revealed without it.

It was late in the day when I made my way to join my family. I turned off the freeway and confidently drove on to the forest road that would lead me to the turn off which would take me even deeper into the woods. I seemed to be driving too long along the twisting, bumpy road and I sensed something was wrong. But to go on or to turn back….was I almost there or was I travelling father away. I ventured on a little more, stopping to help my dog Phoebe who was becoming anxious and quite car sick from all the twists and turns in the road.

Dusk was approaching and I knew I was far from where I needed to be. I maneuvered the car around on that narrow road, watching the sheer drop on one side and began moving back the way I had come. I was alone on the road. I drove and drove along that twisting forest road until I saw a car parked up ahead. I stopped, got out of my car and approached the other.

The window rolled down and I saw two people, heavily tattooed with lots of facial piercings. I asked them if they knew the way to the turnoff I sought. They thought about it, consulted a map and then decided they thought they knew where it might be. They then offered to drive ahead of me to be sure I found the spot. I cannot tell you how relieved and how grateful I was and am for the kindness of those people. We found the turnoff and they waved me on and waved goodbye….I flashed my lights to convey my thanks and joined my anxious family two hours later than expected. I was safely delivered thanks to the kindness of strangers.

We shouldn’t need to go deep into the forests find the kindness of strangers or to rely on the trees to tell us truths for living, but this encounter with strangers reminded me of how we need to live wherever we are. In our every encounter, be it an inter-racial encounter, an inter-faith or one of different moral code or creed or life tradition, we are called to find beauty within the horror….to be the beauty within the beast…..to be grateful for the opportunity to care, to be compassionate, and for God’s sake to be kind.

 

End

Written to the Glory of God

E.J.R. Culver+

July 10, 2016

[1] “Found the Beauty in the Horror,” Natasha Rausch, The Oregonian, July 9, 2016, A3

[2] “Taking Stock after Three Days of Tragedy,” Moriah Balingit, The Oregonian, July 9, 2016. A6

[3] Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 107.

[4] Stanza 6, Souls of men, only will ye scatter: Frederick William Faber (1814-63)

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