14 July 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus,
‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10)
I’ve been thinking about the difference between ideals and expectations, and wondering how they are related. Ideals are those convictions we each have that draw us out of and beyond ourselves. They represent something not yet achieved, but to be desired. They challenge us to reach out, to go beyond, to exceed the ordinary. Ideals are beliefs like the inherent dignity of all people; our right to equal treatment before the law; and while we are at it (since today is July the 14th, Bastille Day) we might as well cite lofty watchwords of the French Revolution: the ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.
Expectations, on the other hand, are beliefs that we have about what we think we are owed. They are the sense of entitlement we feel because of some personal status or achievement: perhaps because we are well-educated, or are a native-born citizen, or because we’ve worked hard for what we have, or even because we have a well-developed spiritual rule of life. Expectations are about what we think we deserve. And unlike ideals, they cause us to turn inward, to become preoccupied with what we expect to receive, rather than with what we are obligated to give.
The trouble, of course, is that ideals and expectations so easily start to blend into one another. When we have done well by living up to our own ideals, for instance, then in our sense of accomplishment we all too often instinctively start to slip into expecting some reward or recognition for having done so. I can’t tell you how many honorary doctorates the seminaries of our church hand out to people every year, just for having been faithful Christians!
And so we come to the lawyer who stood up in today’s gospel to test Jesus. He knows already what the ideal is: to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength—and to love neighbor as self. But now he wants to know just how faithful to that ideal he has to be, in order to get his reward. So he chooses the question of neighbor as the case study: just who is my neighbor, anyway?
And so, of course, Jesus tells the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan: a priest and a Levite come upon a man left for dead by robbers beside the road, but both pass him by. Then a Samaritan comes by—a foreigner—and only he stops to care for the beaten man lying in the ditch.
The usual emphasis placed on the story is that only the Samaritan recognized this poor soul as his neighbor, and so only he fulfilled the ideal of loving neighbor as self. But if we read carefully, Jesus actually points toward a slightly different interpretation: his question to the lawyer at the end of the parable is not, “Who recognized the injured man as his neighbor,” but “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” In Jesus’ question, it’s not the man in the ditch who is the unrecognized neighbor, finally ministered to by the Samaritan. Rather, the point is that it is the Samaritan who becomes his neighbor.
The difference is subtle, but it shifts the story from being about a uni-directional offer of help from the Samaritan to the injured man, to the establishment of a mutual relationship between them both. It’s a story, in other words, as much about receiving as giving help.
So the ideal that Jesus holds up is that “loving your neighbor as yourself” is not just about being willing to offer something to someone else, but also a willingness to receive something from them—to become bound in a relationship of mutual respect, sharing, and kindness. My father always admired Harry Truman as a president of uncommonly good sense. I remember him quoting Truman to me, saying, “All will concede that in order to have good neighbors, we must also be good neighbors. That applies in every field of human endeavor.” Neighborliness is a two-way street: it is Mutual. Communal. Reciprocal.
The Aspen Institute has an initiative underway under the leadership of David Brooks to identify “Weavers,” that is, people who in the midst of a society that is “frayed by distrust, division, and exclusion,” are weaving together the social fabric in their local communities by putting relationship at the center of life. The Institute’s website tells this representative story: Asiaha Butler lives with her family in the Englewood section of Baltimore, a depressed, dangerous neighborhood that she and her husband had decided to leave. But one day just before their departure, Asiaha was looking out her front window at the vacant lot across the street. Some little girls were playing, throwing rocks and broken bottles and playing with abandoned tires in the mud. Aisaha turned to her husband and said, “We can’t leave that.” In that moment, she recognized not only that the girls playing in the vacant lot were her neighbors, but that she was their neighbor as well. A sense of relationship sprang up inside her, and she and her family decided they had to stay, going on to found a community renewal organization known as RAGE: the Residential Association of Greater Englewood.
In moments like Aisha’s realization the she and her family had to stay, it seems to me that what happens is that our ideals and our expectations suddenly converge. What we need and want for ourselves, is put in alignment with what we believe is the best for others as well. Perhaps that is the larger meaning of the Good Samaritan: the story is about a meeting point between ideal and expectation that allowed a relationship to take root.
And if you think about it, perhaps a big part of what we do here at church is to try to effect something similar. We use some very lofty idealistic language—talking about the New Creation, the kingdom of God, or the beloved community. But we put that language side by side with the very human set of expectations we all bring with us about what we need and want—and then try to mold them into a vision of life together. We’re all about learning to become weavers.
Because you see, we human beings don’t just naturally gravitate toward ideals. We have to be coaxed out of our futile self-preoccupation, toward a commitment to something bigger. Ideals and expectations have to be brought into sync, harmonized into an ambition to which we can give ourselves whole-heartedly and unreservedly.
We, in our country, are in a time of high expectations, and low ideals right now. We are collectively more concerned with what we expect to get, than with that toward which we aspire. And that’s why it’s important that you are here today: this is a place to be called to rediscover the ideals that weave us together in the communities where we life—like the Good Samaritan, like Aisha Butler. We come here to learn to make our families, our schools, our church, our city, our politics, arenas where relationships are woven together. That is a high calling, but as Moses reminded Israel, that word is not actually far off: it is very near you, even in your own heart. Amen.
23 June 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus sent the man away saying,
“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8)
When our son was about four years old, it so happened that we were in Rome for an ordination at the local Episcopal church. Because it was a very ecumenical occasion, arrangements had been made for us all to attend an audience with Pope John Paul II the day before, with the proviso that we were to bring children.
So off we went to the audience, and at the appointed time, the children were called forward for a blessing. Our four-year old son marched right up to the pope and gave him a big hug, and then looked him square in the eye and asked, “Now what?”
Well, today might be called, “Now What?” Sunday. Last week you may remember was Trinity Sunday, which I called the exclamation point that comes at the end of the long cycle stretching from Advent through Pentecost that tells the story of Jesus: his birth, his baptism, his ministry, his arrest and trial, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and his gift of the Holy Spirit. A lot has happened, liturgically speaking, with plenty of high drama and unexpected outcomes—and it has all pointed to a God who is revealed to be all about love, relationship, and community! And now we enter into that long stretch of time when we are left to live out in our own life, what we have been taught by Jesus.
We heard in the gospel the story of a possessed man, the co-called Gerasene demoniac. Apparently a whole legion of demons possessed him, who made him do crazy things like wear no clothes and to live by himself among the tombs. But when the demons realize that Jesus has taken an interest in the man, and is about to heal him—that is, to throw them out—they beg to be allowed to escape instead into a nearby herd of pigs … which they do, only to cause the pigs to rush into the lake and be drowned. Strange and dramatic events, to say the least!
You might think, after such a powerful healing, that Jesus would encourage the man to take on some great new role: to become an evangelist, or join the disciples, or write a gospel. But instead, Jesus simply suggests that the man go home. It’s time for him to live his life ordinarily, to get on with it.
We’re in a place rather like that this Sunday. After all the drama that has gone into telling the story of Jesus, week after week, we come to a moment in the year when the message is simply about the ordinary. Live your life. Fulfill your commitments. Do the work that has to be done. It’s what my mother used to encourage as “having some normal home life,” whenever she thought I was gadding about too much as a teenager or burning the candle at both ends. Settle down. Don’t rush. Catch your breath.
Except that … life can’t just be ordinary any more, not after what we have learned about life through following Jesus these past weeks and months. He has taught us that God looks on us, even with all our faults and imperfections, and sees something of infinite beauty and dignity. Something even worth dying for. Something definitely beyond ordinary.
Jesus has taught us that we human beings are nothing less than an icon of God’s own compassion and love—a living, breathing image of what is at the very heart of creation. And so Jesus loves us, because we are lovable. And Jesus coaxes us into loving one another, because God has made us capable of doing so. And Jesus challenges us to see in the ordinariness of our life, nothing less that an embodiment of the great mystery of creation. As Paul says in the reading from Galatians, we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free—we are heirs of Christ! Heirs of all creation!
And knowing that, life can’t be just ordinary any longer. Or rather, the ordinary, is extraordinary. Isn’t that what actors help us to see: holding before us an image of ourselves, they encourage us to look within and see something of immense interest and fascination that we normally overlook? Or music takes the simple fact of sound vibration and turns it into something of exquisite power and depth. Poetry takes simple words and phrases, and weaves them into layers of multiple meaning. Painting takes a flower, a landscape, a shape, a color and asks us to see the breathtaking beauty within it. Even something as ordinary as bread and wine can become Christ’s own presence; and nothing more than water is enough to make us God’s own children.
Some of you may remember a film called “Room with a View,” a Merchant-Ivory film based on an E. M. Forster novel about some English folk on holiday in Florence. Miss Lucy Honeychurch, a very prim and slightly prudish young woman, meets a certain Mr. Emerson, a rather eccentric romantic young man. On a walk through the central Piazza Signoria of the city, they witness a violent fight between a couple of young Italian men, which results in one of the young men being carried away bleeding from the mouth, eyes rolled back in his head, and quite dead.
Seeing such an eruption of human passion reveals to Miss Honeychurch just how narrow the line is between being alive and being dead, and that realization makes her feel as if something has changed inside of her. Suddenly, the quiet sheltered life she has lived is no longer sufficient. She has discovered the extraordinary within, even in so ordinary an event as a stroll through the city. And so Mr. Emerson says to her, as they later look out over the Arno River trying to make sense of it all, “Don’t you see? We can never go back to the way it was. Something dramatic has happened. Something has changed.”
That’s where we are today. We are asked to see, after all that we have been through with Jesus, that we can never go back to living the way we were before. Something dramatic has happened. Something has changed.
Jesus has given us all that we need to live life differently—to live it creatively, passionately, confidently. He has given us trust in the power of love. He has inspired in us commitment to mercy and truth. He has given us assurance of our ultimate worth and dignity. He has demonstrated in himself the triumph of life over death.
And so now, like the Gerasene demoniac of today’s gospel, it’s time to get on with it. We have been relieved of whatever holds us back. So now is a good time to … well to go on a mission trip to Navajoland (like our guests from Indianapolis). Or it is a good time to mend a broken relationship. To marry the person you love. To plant a garden. To mentor your children. To care for aging parents. To start a family. To become politically engaged. To go to school. There’s nothing more we need. We have been given all that is necessary—which is not to say that what we do with our ordinary time won’t be a struggle. But it is to say, that we will not be overcome in the doing of it. Amen.
Proper 8, Year C
Luke 9: 47-62, Galatians 5: 13-25
June 30, 2019
With Faces Set Towards Jerusalem
Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
“But Jesus …took a little child and put her by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest’”(Luke 9: 47-48).
Perhaps you saw the picture of the young Salvador girl swaddled in her father’s t-shirt, lying with her father face down in the reeds of the Rio Grande. Perhaps you heard their story—a two-week trip from El Salvador; ending up at the International Bridge across from Brownsville, Texas; turned away because the asylum office was closed; making the choice to swim for freedom; being washed away before the very eyes of her mother/his wife.
Maybe you heard the reports late last week about children held in detention camps—government officials that look the other way when children ask for food, when mothers beg for diapers for their children, when young girls are told to watch and care for small children; the small-minded chintzinesss that claims that toothbrushes and soap are not essential to the health of the children and their families held in detention.
You might have seen pictures of children lying on green mats, covered with silver mylar blankets. Maybe you heard tales of bright lights shining all night and frigid air blowing down on the children.
Maybe you saw the account in Huffiington Post. The story of a young mother and her baby sleeping on rocks because there were no mats in the detention area where they were being held.
Have we forgotten who we are? Have we forgotten that we are people created by Love and in love and for love.
Sometimes I think we have.
And then I hear another kind of story—the story of boys kicking around a soccer ball on the grass behind the Bosque Center; the story of a group of kids clustered together on a sofa in the basement of First Pres—all giggling and pointing and drawing pictures as they play Pictionary (or maybe a loose version of it) in a language they do not speak with an English speaking volunteer; the story of a St. Michael’s volunteer on the floor with a toddler weighed down with sadness and fear and then lifted up from all of that by a singing game most all of us have played—the itsy bitsy spider.
Think of it—people made for love connecting through sport, through laughter, through songs little children sing.
There are other stories too—stories of young girls—children themselves really—taking care of children in need; stories of people from distant parts of our country traveling to the borderlands to bring water to the thirsty; stories of border patrol fighting the very system that employs them.
In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul writes, “Everything we know about God’s word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself” (Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, 469).
You and I, we’re part of that work. You and I, we, too, do the work of love.
You and I, we, too, are people doing the work of tending the sick, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger.
Important work. And surely part of the way of love. But is that always enough?
Remember what Jesus said when he launched his public ministry.
He launched it with words from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And then he said: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Sure enough, Jesus of Nazareth walked the walk. He healed the sick; he gave sight to the blind; he even raised the dead.
But his work was not yet done; his walk was hardly over. Why do you suppose that was? Surely folks needed to be healed; surely the poor needed to hear good news; surely the blind needed to see, the deaf needed to hear, and the lame needed to walk.
But Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Why not just continue all that healing, all that helping, all that freeing work?
He was doing a good job. People were being healed. People were being helped. People were being loved.
Sometimes that isn’t enough.
Sometimes you have to wrestle with the underlying issues.
Sometimes you have to confront the power brokers, the power wielders.
So Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Sometimes we must do that too.
It’s not easy.
Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero or the person sitting next to you in the pew.
And yet—we were made by love.
We were made in love.
We were made for love.
And we don’t do this on our own.
The one we follow walks with us to the Jerusalems of our day; joins at the table; promises to be with us until the end of the age.
That’s really all we need.