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Sunday, July 15, 2007

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Note: This is the entrance to Clarissa Falls, the "Five Star Resort" about an hour's bus ride from the works site where our Mission Group stayed. At the end of a long, hot, exhausting day in San Antonio, this place became a powerful image of Paradise (and the food was absolutely amazing!)

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Luke 10:25-37
VII Pentecost (10C)– July 15, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton

This is a powerful Gospel story to hear at any time. It is especially powerful to hear on the Sunday after the St. Paul’s Mission Group returned early yesterday afternoon from a week of intense ministry in Belize.

As you know, our mission was to build a community playground, refurbish the community center, and conduct a Wellness Clinic in San Antonio, a remote village in the northern part of Belize, nestled as it is between a small mountain range and amidst some ancient Mayan ruins.

Belize is a place of enormous contrasts – captured perfectly in one of the first images of this country one sees on descent from the airplane – the lush green of the forest trees amidst billows of dry, brown dust which rise up as traffic travels on the mostly unpaved roads of the countryside.

Here, in the country formerly known as “British Honduras” (until 1973), nestled to the west by the borders of Mexico and Guatemala and to the east by the beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean, there is incredible beauty and heartbreaking poverty.

Here, one may explore ancient Mayan ruins and deep caves far beneath the surface of the earth as well as surf the Internet. It is not uncommon to pass lovely homes with a shiny new Bentley parked in the driveway while a herd of long-horned cattle, goats, sheep and and chicken graze in the front yard.

Here, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Evangelical and Mennonite Churches and Mayan Spirituality seem to co-exist in the same town - often, in the same family.

On one street in one remote village, one may choose dine at a Chinese, Taiwanese, Mayan, Italian, Lebanese or Belizian restaurant and then walk a few steps to an Ice Cream Parlor and get soft-swirl ice cream (Chocolate and Vanilla twist) for dessert - but many of the homes in that same village have no electricity or running water.

Our American "power tools" were "rough and rugged and built to last," but we burned out three power drills trying to drill through the hard Belizian mahogany wood.

In San Antonio, there are families who live in thatched-roof grass huts with no running water or electricity which sit less than 400 feet from families who live in wooden, tin-roof houses with paneled walls that are equipped with satellite television and high speed Internet computers, bringing news of the world through CNN and BBC.

There are sharp contrasts even in the way neighbors live – and yet, neighbors they are, in the best, gospel sense of that word.

I’ll have lots of stories to tell about what I mean by that – and so will many of the children who were on this incredible mission trip. Suffice it to say, I think the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s gospel strikes an incredibly familiar note with many of us.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asked Jesus.

Jesus said to the lawyer, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer, no doubt being a good lawyer, answered correctly: “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."

And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

However, as it is with anything in life, the law lived in the abstract is far less powerful than the law lived in context.

So, the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” And, Jesus told the story we have come to know as The Good Samaritan.

While there are many, many aspects to be told of this wonderful story, I want to make only one point about this story this morning – the one point I think is important to make about our mission trip to Belize.

In our culture, a “Good Samaritan” is the term we use to describe a usually anonymous passer-by who happens on an accident or tragedy and renders help or assistance when others might simply walk past, “minding their own business.”

We hear this biblical term applied to someone who, perhaps, stops on a dark and raining night to help change a flat tire on the car of a woman with small children who have been sitting frightened and alone in their car which has been sitting on the side of the road as other cars whiz by in face-paced indifference. There are other examples, but you get my point.

While in Belize, we had several discussions about the nature of our work on this project. Someone in the group likened it to being a “Good Samaritan,” meaning precisely this cultural understanding of the story.

Which begged the question: Were we simply just good people, doing a good work of kindness? Or, was there something more, something of deeper meaning to this work of ours?

By the end of the week, we came to understand that yes, we are good people. And yes, we did do some wonderful acts of kindness and even mercy. But, there was much, much more to the story than what was on the surface.

We are good people who are also Christians, followers of Jesus, who tells us that, in Him, we are all of us neighbors: North Americans and Central Americans. Western European and Asian. Hispanic and Mayan. African and Caucasian.

In the midst of the diversity of our ethnicities and origins, in that remote village of San Antonio, we were all neighbors in Christ Jesus – each and every one of us. Each in our own particular and individual ways, we are trying to work out the pathway to eternal life.

Jesus says to us this morning that the one who shows mercy is the one who will get to heaven. “Go and do likewise,” he says to the lawyer in that ancient town.

“Go and do likewise,” Jesus says to us today, here in Chatham.

Some of you know that I am a big fan of the late Fred M. Rogers, who, for many years, had a wonderful little television program on public television known as “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” Fred Rogers knew something about the love of God that he wanted to make certain an entire generation of children learned.

Mr. Rogers once said, "Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people."

Ultimately, I hope the work we performed in Belize will be seen as an act of kindness and mercy. I hope we gave the children – and their parents in the neighborhoods of the village of San Antonio, Belize as well as our own children - a sense that they are loved exactly as they are, so that they can grow to be the healthiest of people.

Indeed, I hope they saw in the many and varied deeds and acts of kindness and mercy –
from the tedium of painting the outside of a community center, to the back-breaking work of lifting mahogany beams for the gym set, to checking blood pressures and caring for a seeming epidemic of skin warts, to playing an hour of soccer and American football with an open field of squealing children for an hour at the end of a long, hot day in the sun – that, in all of these many ways, they may see a reflection of the unconditional and abundant love that God has for them and, for each and every one of us.

It is in community, in the context of transformative relationships, with Jesus as our teacher and guide in acts of mercy, that we work out the pathway toward eternal life and and our salvation.

It has always been my vision that The Episcopal Church of St. Paul might be a place where everyone who enters this place will immediately know that the family of God comes in all sort and variety of constellations, and that neighbors are not just those who live on your street, or in this town. Our baptism makes us citizens of a much larger community of saints who have been, are here now, and are yet to come. We are uniquely called to "love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our strength, and all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves."

As we heard the writer of the Book of Deuteronomy (30:9-14)say, "Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. . . .No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe."

This is what we tried to do on our mission trip. The gospel truth - and the compelling irony - is that the real work of that trip will find its greatest success when we can live that law not only in Belize, but fulfill that law – with kindness and mercy – right here in the neighborhoods of the little village of Chatham.


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