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Sermon: Cathedral Eucharist - 10 July 2016

Sunday 10th July 2016
Cathedral Eucharist
Colossians 1: 1-14
Luke 10: 25-37
Download Recording (MP3, 14.4M) Download

The kindness of strangers: Are good Samaritans the exception or norm?

So ran a headline on the BBC news website only 10 days or so ago.  Uplifting stories of strangers intervening to offer practical help or even save a life catch our attention. Some of those momentary encounters cost very little; some might seem undramatic, others heroic; human instinct, just doing my job, being in the right place at the right time. In the face of fear, visible intentional support of the other strengthens bonds of community.

The BBC article drew on social psychology to explore what happens when we witness an attack, an emergency or person who's taken ill. Our minds go through rapid, unconscious, calculations in an instant. Is it dangerous? Can I help? Will others step in? What's my responsibility. 'The longer you leave it', says Professor Levine, 'the harder it is to make a decision'. We might walk on by.

But if one person acts, others join in. We are most likely to intervene, the article suggests when we 'feel some sort of group kinship with the victim, even something as superficial as wearing the same football shirt'.

 A sense of shared identity; a sort of group kinship.

We are different from one another: what we eat and our accent; the languages we speak and what we wear; our name, our family. What matters, is how we respond to difference. Our identity is shaped in relation to others; we recognise shared concerns or passions, a common humanity.

The imperative to strengthen bonds of recognition across difference is vital to our national life; to take a stand against racism and prejudice; working together because our liberation is bound up with the other. We face generational and regional divides; we've been confronted by normative judgements about motherhood and competitive claims about having a stake in our future.  All this is disrupted in today's reading. We are too look beyond difference and see the stranger as an intimate, our own familiar friend.

Perhaps the familiarity of the story makes us complacent; we disconnect it from the challenging questions which surround it.

Can we do anything to inherit eternal life? Perhaps it's a trick question; inheritance is itself a gift. We can't do anything to earn it. Yet it is bound up with relationship or kinship; with the nature of love.  In inviting the lawyer to answer on his own terms, we're taken to the heart of the commandments. To love God and neighbour.

How can we love the other as they are unless we're not first filled with the love of God? Look around you: loving one another in our difference is a demanding task, even when people are quite like us. It's more than following Jesus as an ethical role model.  The energy and motivation to love deeply, consistently and compassionately flows from the Spirit at work in us.

If Jesus raises the bar on our loving, then the lawyer wants to know the terms and conditions: he wants clarification, who qualifies?

The laws of Leviticus talks of commitments to two kinds of 'neighbour': your own kith and kin, one in your own family line; the stranger, the alien in your midst.   Rather than give such a definition, Jesus tells a story which stretches our imaginations.

We imagine what it is to be attacked, wounded, abandoned, and vulnerable; we consider the rules, duties and fears which constrain us; to contemplate the outsider, despised, who risks everything in compassion for an other.

On seeing a semi-clad, battered and unconscious man, what should the priest do?  There are no ready markers of identity. He goes through the same subconscious calculations as we do: weighing the risks and responsibilities; thinking through consequences. The demands of ritual purity are heavy; he might face punishment.

The Levite grapples with his own conscience. The one going ahead of him, didn't stop. Does he know better? Would acting undermine or insult the priest? He's a by-stander, a passer by; he keeps going. 

The one who is moved with compassion is a stranger. This is the tipping point of Jesus' story.  He acts with hope and care. He responds without judgement; human vulnerability is a sufficient marker of shared identity.

He uses all his resources: oil, wine and cloth to bind up wounds; he takes time and energy; disrupting his journey and using his own transport. He commits his money to care for this unknown yet in intimate other.

He risked his life. It was not safe for a Samaritan to seek help. His response extends beyond the act of rescue to an open ended and costly commitment. There are no limits.

He binds up and he brings healing balm.  He cleanses and saves. He restores life.

This sounds like a description of the very nature of God.

In the Samaritan, Jesus points us to himself, God with us: the healer who draws all people to himself.

The scholar Kenneth Bailey invites us to see this story afresh through Middle-Eastern eyes, saying: 'in this parable the Samaritan extends a costly demonstration of unexpected love to the wounded man, and in the process Jesus again interprets the life changing power of costly love that would climax at his cross'.

In so doing, he reframes the question for all who walk in his steps: not who is my neighbour, where do I draw the lines in loving; rather to whom to I become a neighbour? 

Like the Lawyer, we realise we can't earn eternal life, it is pure gift.  Yet we can become a neighbour; in Christ and the power of the Spirit we can manifest the boundless love of God.

If our lives are woven into God's story, the ethical demands placed on us mean looking beyond language, race, religion, gender, marital or economic status.  As synod enters into shared conversations about sexuality today, we are acutely aware that as a church we too are learning to respond to the other with compassion; we learn humility in facing those we've wounded, we've stood alongside, we've disagreed with. We pray for them today.

What Jesus' teaches is more than 'kindness to strangers'; he calls us to narrow the gaps that separate others and to attend to a shared identity and group kinship in God. 

Bridging that gap is manifested in the church's commitment to education as a means of reducing inequality and fear of the other. But is also manifested in our lives, moment by moment. We aren't called to be by-standers but a responsive pilgrim people. Our nation needs channels of mercy not hate. In the train station, supermarket or office, we are called acts of courtesy which bring dignity; in speech and action challenging all that dehumanises.

We are to embody the promises of God: we who take bread and wine, become one in Christ. As his body, we are called to generous self-giving. By the power of his Spirit worship and service are one.

That's Paul's point in his letter to the Colossians:  his letter is full of faith, hope and love; patience and joy; grace and strength. Our fruitfulness is rooted in the truth of the Gospel and unending prayer for each other. Nourished by God's goodness, we can bear the radical claim of love. Amen.