God at Work in You
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Luke 10:25-37 & Philippians 2:1-13
Sept. 14, 2014
Audio not available for this sermon.
This morning the choir sang that the people of God care and share God’s love in the world. In other words, they are compassionate people.” But what exactly is compassion? What words would you use to define it? Some synonyms might be– Love, Sympathy, Empathy, Concern, Kindness, Mercy. It’s not quite the same thing as pity, is it? It is more than feeling sorry for someone. And it’s not exactly the same as tolerance. It is more than simply allowing or enduring someone or something. Besides, there are limits to tolerance, and when the going gets rough. tolerance gets short. The ability of compassion to endure in hard times is much greater than that of tolerance. [i]
What makes compassion real? Is it real if we only give intellectual assent to it? Is it enough just to believe in compassion? Or is there more to it than head stuff, than believing? Is it something we do? Something that affects our behavior, and is not only a matter of assent, but also an experience of the heart, and a way, not only of being, but of doing in and for the world? What does it look like when we see it?
Sometimes the only way to get at the meaning of an abstract word is by looking at a concrete example of it. Paul gives the example of Jesus himself as he writes to his beloved Philippian congregation., encouraging them to do nothing from selfish ambition, and to look to the interests of others and not of themselves. Look at Jesus, he says, humbled himself, the way he served others, the way he was willing to die rather than be false to God in him. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” I wonder how they responded to that? It is a rather daunting challenge and it would be easy to say, “but I’m not Jesus!”
In our gospel reading for today, the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus gives a example of compassion when he is asked by a lawyer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And in order to answer his question, Jesus tells a story of someone who is beaten and robbed and the Samaritan who goes to his aid. The lawyer probably didn’t want a real life example; he probably meant to ask a question of belief, and Jesus gave him an answer about practice. He probably meant to ask, “What must I believe to inherit eternal life,” but he misspoke, and once he said “what must I do,” Jesus gave him an answer about behavior, about practice, and not about belief.
Jesus first asks him what is written in the law, and they both know the answer to that question. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all our mind,” the lawyer says, “and your neighbor as yourself.” I wonder if he didn’t just rattle it off; probably learned it as a boy, could say it in his sleep, maybe the way we say the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer sometimes. Barbara Brown Taylor makes an interesting observation about this conversation. She notes that “in Luke’s gospel, it is the lawyer who gets to give the summary of the law, not Jesus. Jesus just stands there quietly, waiting to hear what the lawyer has to say. It is almost as if Luke is standing behind each of them with a sign on a stick. The sign over the lawyer’s head says, ‘The Word.’ The sign over Jesus’ head says, ‘Made Flesh.’” Here’s how it sounds. Here’s how it acts.”[ii]
Jesus’ response underlines this contrast between word and action. “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” He is telling the lawyer that giving the right answer, having all the right words, believing the right things, is not the same thing as giving flesh to that belief and that answer. Right answers don’t house homeless people. Right answers don’t run soup kitchens. Right answers don’t open shelters, or offer hospitality and sanctuary. Religious people spend a lot of time on right answers and right belief, and various groups like to think they have the corner on truth and that others don’t understand correctly (and may go to hell for that), but actually right answers and right belief in and of themselves never made anything better or changed one thing. Marcus Borg has suggested that when we say we believe, we should be attesting to what we love, what we give our loyalty, commitment, and trust to. So that we could as easily say we “belove” as we “believe”.[iii]
Jesus is saying, “Do love. Don’t just think love, say love, have faith in love, or believe that God is love. . . . Give up the idea that your ideas alone can save you. If you know the right words, then bring those words to life by giving them your own flesh. Put them into practice. Do love, and you will live.”[iv]
Jesus asks the lawyer who was the neighbor to the man who was beaten, and grudgingly the lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy”, and Jesus responds, “go and do likewise.” Jesus’ command to “do likewise” rather than to “believe likewise” or “think likewise” kind of messes with our Protestant belief in salvation through faith, not works. But it’s not just here, that he talks that way. You remember in Matthew’s gospel where he says ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirsty and you gave me something to drink; a stranger, and you welcomed me.” And everybody says, “Master when did we see you?” and he answers, “when you did it unto the least of these you did it unto me.” When you did it – not when you thought about it.
The relationship between faith and works is complicated, but somehow these two things are intimately and intricately intertwined. Acting is important, and without it, belief is powerless. “Faith without works is dead,” the book of James says. In defense of the lawyer, though and by extension of us, while loving God is a clear command, it really gets sticky when it comes to loving our neighbor, or having compassion for our neighbor, and actually doing something about it more than thinking loving, compassionate thoughts.
The lawyer’s question is quite contemporary and relevant. Who, after all, is our neighbor? Are there any limits? In our global society, it can be an overwhelming and even frightening thought. Do we have to love everybody? Do we have to be merciful and compassionate to everybody? What about ISIS? Aren’t there some limits, some exceptions, somewhere?
In Jesus’ time, the world was a bit smaller; the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan all knew their groups, their neighbors, by profession, or tribe, or class, or belief, and these things set them apart from one another. Cultural issues, fear of contamination, a desire to maintain ritual purity may have been motivation for the Levite and the Priest to pass by on the other side, leaving unaided the beaten and robbed man lying half dead in the ditch. Maybe they were afraid that he was faking his injuries and was a robber too, hoping to prey on their sympathies if they drew closer. The Samaritan may have had his reasons too, not to become involved. After all, the man in the ditch was probably a Jew, and Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along, didn’t like each other; they disagreed about where God’s temple is and who bearers of the true faith really are.
But Jesus seems to be saying that it’s not about who has all the right answers. It’s not about our class or our station in life. It’s about actions. There are fourteen different actions that the Samaritan performs in relation to the beaten man; only two for the Levite and priest? In which person, then did the word become flesh?
God cares how we treat one another, how close we get to one another, how willing we are to reach out and touch one another and offer love and compassion. If we want to know the living God, Jesus is saying, we have to get involved with living people because that is where God is found. The Samaritan came near the stranger in the ditch. He ignored the immediate dangers of the situation, and he ignored the traditional hostilities that existed between his people and the Jewish people. He didn’t let their differences inhibit his response. He comes near enough to see him, to be moved with compassion for him, and to show him mercy.
It is easy to brush off concepts and generalities. For some, it is easy to speak dismissively of “the unemployed” or the “uninsured.” It is easy to cast judgment on the “illegals.” It is easy to say, “later” rather than, “now” to the plight of refugees. But if we ever give these concepts a face, a name, an address, it is very difficult to speak in vague generalities about them, or to stereotype them with a single word. If we come near, we have to act with love, with kindness, with compassion.
Karen Armstrong writes that compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves and impelling us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of others, to dethrone ourselves from the center of the world and put another there, to honor the sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. She adds that it is about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.[v]
But Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Philippians, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Will and work. Think and act. Whether it’s down the street or half way across the world, if we are the people of God, we are called to love, to compassion, to acts of mercy both large and small. We have to draw near – near enough to see, to feel, to recognize a neighbor in someone who is in need of a neighbor, and to respond. After all, that is what God has done in Jesus. As God presents us with opportunities, as God works in us, we will no longer be able just to see and walk on by, or think kind thoughts from a distance. We will have to stop, come near, and find ourselves filled with love and compassion. And when that happens, God’s word will become flesh in us, we will become the people of God, and eternal life will be all around. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Do This and You Will Live,” Festival of Homiletics, Atlanta, GA, April 17, 2006.
[iii] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 2003, 40.