A sermon preached by the Rev. Robert L. Tate on Sunday, July 10, 2022 at The Church of the Ascension, Saranac Inn, NY.
Today is a very special day at Ascension. The Gospel passage appointed for today is one of the most powerful stories Jesus ever told: the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And today we reflect on the Good Samaritan in the context of the Baptism of Everett Baer and our renewal of our own Baptismal Covenant with God. To understand the parable of the Good Samaritan you need to know several things.
First, to Jews in the time of Jesus, a Samaritan was considered a mixed race foreigner, who spoke a different language and practiced a different religion. Jews shunned Samaritans. Samaritans avoided Jews. Second, the priest in the story refers to a Temple priest, as distinct from a local rabbi. Jesus constantly fought with the Temple Priests, powerful, wealthy religious leaders whom he considered collaborators with the Herodians and the Romans. Third, a Levite was a descendent of the tribe of Levi, who were given special religious roles assisting the Temple priests. They were only slightly less powerful than the Temple Priests. Finally, the lawyer in the story refers to a Pharisee, an exceedingly devout Jew who was very scrupulous in observing every one of the hundreds of rules in the Jewish religious code. A typical Pharisee would have considered himself better than ordinary Jews and would have despised any Samaritan as a heathen.
The Pharisaic lawyer sarcastically addresses Jesus with the title “Teacher,” meaning “Rabbi,” knowing that he is only a self-taught itinerant preacher from Nazareth. The learned Pharisee is essentially saying, so “Rabbi,” where did you study theology and what credentials do you have to be teaching us anything?”
And yet this pompous, arrogant Pharisee asks Jesus the absolutely right question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, sensing a trap, says “You know the law better than anyone. Answer your own question.” And so the Pharisee, showing off, quotes from scripture: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus responds. “You have given the right answer, do this and you will live.”
But the Pharisee presses on, “wanting to justify himself.” The Pharisee wants to argue with Jesus that there is nothing wrong with the way he is living his life. He is indeed self-centered, arrogant, and bigoted, and thus feels the need to prove to Jesus that he is fully obedient to the commandment to love God and love neighbor. “And who is my neighbor?” challenges the Pharisee.
Rather than stepping into his trap and answering his question, Jesus tells him a story. It is a simple story. An ordinary Jewish man on the Jericho Road was robbed and beaten and left for half dead. A priest saw him and passed by on the other side of the road. Then a Levite. But a Samaritan saw him and was moved with pity. He put healing oil and wine on his wounds, bandaged him, got him to an inn, and took care of him. The Samaritan went even further, taking all of his own money and giving it to the innkeeper, then promising to return and pay whatever more it cost to take care of the Jewish man.
The end of the passage is anti-climactic. Jesus asks the Pharisee, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers. The Pharisee responds, “The one who showed him mercy” Jesus says to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The point here is that the Pharisee wants to narrow down God’s commandment to love God and love neighbor. The Pharisee says, “Of course I love God. I obey all the religious laws. Of course, I love my neighbor. Just ask my next-door neighbors. Just ask the people I work with, the Priests and the Levites in the Temple.”
Jesus, by contrast, wants to expand God’s commandment to love God and love neighbor. The Temple Priest and the Levite pass by on the other side of the road, too important, too busy, too preoccupied to help their fellow Jew who is in such need. But the despised Samaritan is the true neighbor. Why? Probably because he knows all too well what it means to be in trouble, to be in pain, to be ignored. And so he is moved to stop and get involved.
Jesus is clearly suggesting that that our neighbor can be anyone, especially if they are in need. Our neighbor may not, probably will not, resemble us. The color of our skin. The religion we practice. The neighborhood where we live. Our politics. Yet we are called to be the kind of neighbor, like the Good Samaritan, who goes out of the way, takes a risk, stops, helps out, and then goes the second mile, promising to keep on giving and healing and sharing whatever we can far into the future. That, according to Jesus, is what it really means to love God and to love our neighbor.
Let me share a personal parable of the Good Samaritan. Ann and I live in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is the poorest of the ten largest cities in the United States. The greater Philadelphia area, including Camden, Northern New Jersey, the Main Line, and Chester, is one of the most racially segregated urban areas in the United States. Some of the greatest income and wealth inequality exists in our city. There are some of the most affluent suburban enclaves in the nation within just a mile or two of some of the worst areas of urban blight in the nation. And everything in Philadelphia has to do with the politics of race. The soaring gun violence, the homlessness, the opioid crisis, the crime, is predominantly concentrated in the poorest minority populated neighborhoods in the metropolitan area. Neighborhoods where people are afraid to go out of their homes. Neighborhoods where the police are afraid to get out of their patrol cars.
I have working as a priest trying to address these issues in Philadelphia for over 25 years.
About a year ago, one of my friends suggested that to better understand the racial challenges of the city and the country, I should read The 1619 Project, published by the New York Times. I knew about the book and the project. It was being castigated in the conservative media for being a prime example of elitist, liberal, critical race theory. It was being touted in the liberal press. But for some reason I procrastinated. I felt I knew the story of slavery and Jim Crow in America. I had taken the anti-racism training in the Episcopal diocese. I had worked in inner city parishes. I was already doing everything I could. Besides, I had recently retired. It was time to let someone else fight the good fight.
Sound anything like the Priest passing by on the other side of the road from the robbed and beaten man?
Then last winter my Bishop put The 1619 Project on the recommended reading list for all clergy in the Diocese and said he wanted us all to read it before the next clergy conference. So, mostly out of a sense of duty, I bought a copy and started reading it. I couldn’t put it down. Chapter after chapter went into more depth than I had ever encountered before on the relationship between our nation’s history of slavery and the problems with race with which we have been wrestling ever since in every aspect of life: economics, politics, music, law, religion. Reading the book was transformative for me. I found myself understanding the complexities of the racial dynamics of my daily life in Philadelphia and of my life as a US Citizen in profoundly new ways. Reading that book and several others, engaging in new conversations with fellow clergy and others about race, helped move me in some new ways from being the priest crossing the road on the other side into at least trying to be more like the Good Samaritan who does everything he can to help his robbed and beaten neighbor.
That is my personal parable of the Good Samaritan story. I would be interested to hear yours.
In a few moments we, the people of the Church of the Ascension, are going to do an awesome thing. We are going to baptize Everett Baer. But even more important than that, each person here will be invited to renew your Baptismal Covenant with God. The occasion for this is the Baptism of Everett Baer. Everett doesn’t understand what is happening to him. We do.
In a few moments you are going to be asked to make some absolutely outrageous statements of faith, and some seemingly impossible promises.
I know a Bishop who, when he gets to this part of the service, always says: “Pay close attention to the questions in the Baptismal Covenant. Think about your responses. I don’t want you to commit perjury when you answer the questions. But I do want you to notice that every question is answered by saying ‘I will, with God’s help.’”
So let us proceed to renew our own Baptismal Covenant with God as we baptize Everett into the Body of Christ.