Today we hear a favorite story that has become emblematic of the Christian faith. You can hear why: When a man is lying on the side of the road, beaten and half dead, two respected members of society each come upon him. They each see him, then they each cross the street to walk by on the other side. But the third man… The third man is moved by compassion; the Bible says he is gripped in his guts. The third man stops and helps.
And we know this story, and we love this story, and there’s no missing its motive. This warm, smiling Sunday School parable gently sets the question ringing in our conscience: So what would you do? If it were you who came upon the man lying beside the road, what would you do?
As long as it’s just a warm, smiling thought experiment, just a friendly Bible story, what could go wrong? We know how to give the right answer. But that’s just it. Keep your eye on the story’s conceptual instruction —you know, what we’re supposed to be learning— and whoosh! Jesus flips it around and catches it in the air.
It’s not just what you know; it’s what you do. It’s the tremble in our conscience where knowing spills into our doing… Then what if it goes the other way too? What if our actions have the power to unsettle our understanding, to change what we believe…
I will tell you, when it comes to actually stopping and helping, I’m no expert. But it’s also true that nearly everything I’ve learned about stopping and helping, I’ve learned from the Church. In all our work of caring and serving, in every card written to somebody who’s grieving, in every prayer for somebody in prison, every donation of diapers, or money, or masks… you know what we’re doing?
We’re trying to translate the teachings of Christ into the work of our hands. We’re trying to help someone who’s in need. But here’s the thing. We’re also training. We’re establishing the neural pathways that sharpen our reflexes for stopping and helping. It’s building muscle memory so every act of kindness makes the next one more possible.
Something they tell us in CPR training is: Don’t worry. You don’t have to study these handouts for hours every evening. Once you’ve absorbed the theory then practiced it in your body, it will be there for you when you need it. In a real emergency, your adrenaline will kick in, and you’ll know what to do. That’s what we’re training for.
See it flows both ways: knowing spills into doing, doing spills into knowing. It’s all important; it’s all beautiful. And we love that!
It’s just… What if the work of caring and serving, the work of our church, is putting us at risk of developing a more dangerous faith? In case nobody’s warned you, somebody should.
Today the scripture that Georgia read begins when a lawyer asks Jesus a question: Tell me, what must I do to inherit eternal life? How can I come back to life? You’re a lawyer, says the Lord. What does the law say? The man answers: To love the LORD our God with everything we are, with everything we’ve got, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. So Jesus smiles at him and gives him the A plus gold star. And that should have been it.
But the lawyer is afraid. Turns out, his question wasn’t hypothetical. There’s a tremble in his voice. Please tell me, he says to the Lord. How am I supposed to do this?
Because it’s one thing to know that we want to come back to life; it’s another thing entirely to be able to do that.
It’s one thing to know that we should love our neighbor; it’s right there in the law. But how?
It’s one thing to know that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. There’s no getting around it. This is a resplendent gem of the Christian faith. But oh my friends. It’s one thing to appreciate the thought experiment, to know that we should love our enemies. Actually doing this is another matter entirely.
I’ve shared this with you before. When I worked in a transitional home for women recovering from addiction and homelessness, our program director, Faye, used to say this whenever a conflict arose in the house.
She’d say: The sister you hate the most is going to end up saving your life.
I know! If that sounds ridiculous to you, you’re not wrong, but there are a few things to notice. First, Faye did not issue this as an imperative. She did not say: You better not hate the other women in the house. No. The first thing I love is that Faye said this with all the matter-of-fact authority of somebody who’s telling you: Look. The soup you don’t cover in the microwave is soup you’ll be cleaning off its ceiling. Just see if I’m wrong.
The second thing I love is, in my own life, Faye’s observation keeps proving to be true. Inevitably, the people who rub me the wrong way are exactly the people who show up when I most need help. Now you might still be unconvinced and that’s fine. All I’m saying is it really could happen. The person who gets on your last nerve, the one who you find most offensive, don’t be surprised if the day comes when they save your life.
So here we have a lawyer standing before Jesus with a tremble in his voice asking, How can I actually do this? This loving my neighbor? This coming back to life? And this is when Jesus told a story that answered his problem by making it worse.
Say you were leaving the temple and heading to Jericho when a band of robbers attacks you, and takes everything, and nearly kills you. (Okay… I’m not really loving this story so far, but go on…) Now a priest comes by, and you think he might stop, but when he sees you, he crosses the street. Next a Levite approaches, he does the same thing. But then a Samaritan sees you.
And when Jesus said that, the whole crowd shuddered. Remember the tension between the Samaritan people and the Jewish people. Remember the Samaritan village that refused to let Jesus and the disciples spend the night! So Jesus looked at the lawyer and loved the lawyer. The Samaritan stops and helps you. He pours wine into your wounds. He pours mercy into your trauma. Mercy is how you come back to life. Now what are you going to do?
And here’s the thing. Jesus does not say: You will get saved by a kindhearted passerby. I’m afraid, it’s so much more threatening. Jesus is telling him: You want to live? Your life is going to get saved by exactly the person you can’t stand, by the sister or brother you hate the most.
This time when the lawyer gives the right answer, when he admits that the Samaritan is his neighbor, Jesus does not give him the A plus gold star. Jesus says to the lawyer and to all of us who can hear him: Right. Now that you know, what are you going to do…
Knowing spills into our doing, and doing into spills into our knowing. And what if we are at real risk of coming back to life? What if the work of the church is putting our faith at risk of becoming much more daring and dangerous… The grace of God is the very power of salvation, and do you realize we’re handling this grace without wearing gloves? It might get into our system, and I cannot protect you from its effects.
You know how it goes. You come to the Food Pantry some Saturday morning. You might find yourself putting bags of groceries into the trunk of a car of a white man— who is proud of being white. You catch a glimpse of what’s on his T shirt, and it chills your blood. Then he looks at you and tells you he just lost his job and he says, You have no idea what a blessing this is. Tears prickle in his eyes, and wouldn’t you know. Now tears are prickling in your eyes too.
Or this happens! You go to drop off a meal to a person who’s homebound but you know what they say about no good deed. Here you turned down the side street only to find that the plow has not been through. So you do that thing where you give it some more gas, then put it in reverse, trying to inch back and forth. But it’s no use. Your wheels are spinning. That’s when a man and a woman come out of the garage across the street. She’s got a shovel; he’s bringing kitty litter.
Then you see the car parked in their driveway. It’s sporting a bumper sticker for the church in town that is proudly anti-gay. Of all the people to come to your rescue! You think to yourself, they better not start talking about Jesus! But they don’t. They smile and dig out your tires, and they push your car while you give it gas. Now you’re free!
See in case nobody has warned you, somebody should. If we are going to do the work of caring and serving, we might find that our own hate becomes destabilized. Our enemies start to look like our neighbors, and our neighbors look like the ones we love. And it could be, this is what the Kingdom of God looks like! This is what getting up from the dead looks like.
If we’re doing it right, the work of the church will ask us to save somebody we’re supposed to hate. And I know… But just wait till you see who’s come to save your life!
Oh Hallelujah! Amen.