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Sunday, July 14, 2019

Me and Mr. Bobby McGee

A Sermon preached for Pentecost V
Proper 10 C - July 13, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

As I started to write this sermon, I thought a good title might be “Oh, no! Not another sermon on The Good Samaritan”. 

I’m sure, over the years, you’ve heard this story many times and heard even more sermons on it. I know I have. And, they all follow the predictable path of the classic genre of the “story of three”.

Whether you are like the first hearers of the story or you have heard the story a hundred times, everyone listening knows that the first two characters would get it wrong, and the third would get it right. 

We can boo and hiss at the Priest and the Levite who passed by the poor man, left for dead on the side of the road, and cheer for the Samaritan, the unlikely hero, the half-breed, unholy, despised outsider who stops to rescue the man, administering to his wounds with the medicine of his day – wine for antiseptic and olive oil for soothing comfort.

And then, the Samaritan went even beyond that. He brought the poor half-dead man to the local community center – the inn – and paid the innkeeper to tend to him and promised to return and pay whatever other expenses were incurred in his care.

Yay! Hooray! It’s a great story with a great theme and important message. But, I’m betting that maybe – just maybe – we’ve all heard the story of the Good Samaritan so many times that we’ve missed some of the subtleties and nuances. We haven’t checked for the backstory.

Let’s start with the Priest and the Levite. 

So, why do you suppose they did they not tend to the man left half-dead on the side of the road? Well, one answer may be that they were, in fact, heartless and cold. But, if we consider their positions a bit more closely, we discover something less sinister, and actually, a bit more pragmatic.

At that time, priests were considered mediators between God and humankind and officiated at the Temple rituals. Some duties of the priests were mostly to take care of the Temple and to raise sheep and lambs for the daily sacrifice. 

Priests had to be without physical blemish or defect and wore distinctive clothing whenever they were in attendance at the altar or entered the Holy Place. Their clothing had to be clean and pure before they could approach God.

A Levite was a member of the ancient tribe of Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah, and the grandfather of Aaron and Moses. The task of the Levite became to accompany the Divine Presence and serve in the Temple. His role as teacher and spiritual example was to lead and, thereby, accompany others back to their spiritual purpose.

It would be easy to dismiss both of these two characters as more concerned with things temporal than things eternal. We might consider them proxies for our modern experiences with some clergy who seem aloof and apart and think they are better than the hoi polloi, the people.

That may be so. But, it is also true that, at that time, in that day, the strict rituals of the Temple would have prohibited them from going near or touching a dead body. That task would have been assigned to the women who would have had to bathe the dead body and prepare it for anointing by the Priest who was, most likely, a Levite.

No excuse, of course, but that’s not the point of the story, is it?

Jesus would have known the demands and requirements of the day. The lawyer to whom he was telling the story might also have been sympathetic to the cause of the Priest and the Levite. And, he would most likely have been shocked that the hero of the story was the Samaritan.

But, that’s not the point.

The point is to answer the question asked by the lawyer who came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Today, we might ask the question, “How do I get to heaven?” 

Since the man was a lawyer, Jesus asked him what the law says. And, of course, the lawyer gets it right,  

"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.”

Good job, says Jesus. 

But, the lawyer wanted to justify himself and asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And, Jesus told him the story which we’ve all heard hundreds of times.

So, let me pause here and bring back a contemporary cultural memory. 

Way back in the 80s, you may have heard about a man named Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers. To me, he is one representation of the Samaritan in the story. 

Now, the Samaritan was despised by ancient Jews. They lived up in Samaria, which was north of Jerusalem, where there was lots of trade and commerce and so, intermarriage. 

And, with intermarriage came what was considered racial impurity. The Samaritans were considered the ‘mongrels’ but since they rarely came to Jerusalem for High Holy Days, there were also considered apostates and outsiders.

Okay, so no, Mr. Rogers wasn’t a Samaritan in that way. He was, in fact, an ordained Presbyterian minister. But, his ministry was with children and that wasn’t considered a fast-track position.  I mean, he didn’t want to be pastor of a premier congregation or had any ambition to rise in the ranks of the hierarchy of the church.  

 Must be something wrong with that guy, right?

Not only did he want to work with children, he had an idea about how to do television programing for children that didn’t involve cartoons or clowns and loud music and didn’t treat children like little, stupid adults. He wanted a television program that respected children fed their intelligence and fired their imagination and taught kindness and respect by being intelligent and imaginative and kind and respectful to them. 

Clearly, there was something wrong with him.

There’s a great story about Mr. Rogers that, I think, is a modern version of the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

The first year of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the public broadcasting affiliate in Pittsburgh granted Fred Rogers a shoestring budget. 

The set crew was made up of camera and sound and set directors who had been fired from other programs, mostly because they were a motley crew of alcoholics and drug addicts who had a spotty attendance record and were considered unreliable.

Mr. Rogers never once talked to them about their addictions or their behaviors or their work record. He always treated them with kindness and respect and was genuinely interested in them, engaging them in conversations about their families and their interests, asking them about their hopes and their dreams, and quietly encouraged them to pursue them.

At the celebration of the first anniversary of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which was a sudden, unexpected success, there was another, hidden success on that set. 

Every single last one of that crew was clean and sober and in 12-Step Recovery Programs.  They came to work in clean jeans and ironed shirts and wore a tie. They took pride in their work and it showed. 

Mr. Rogers never asked, “Who is my neighbor?” 

He asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Every time he got on TV. He sang it, in fact. 

In fact, he sang, "Won't you please, won't you please? Please won't you be my neighbor?" 

He assumed everyone was a neighbor. He wasn’t asking ‘will” you be my neighbor. He was asking ‘won’t’ you be my neighbor.  Won't you please be my neighbor?

He was saying, “We already are neighbors, no matter where you’ve been or where you live now or who you are or what you look like or who you think you are or. Let’s be in relationship with each other.”

Mr. Rogers knew and lived what Jesus taught. It’s not about the rules or laws or expectations people place on your life. It’s about going beyond the word of the law to the spirit of the law. It’s about exceeding expectations and moving straight on to aspirations. It’s about going beyond human kindness and generosity and being lavish and wasteful in kindness and generosity.

Why? Because we already have the greatest gift. We have life eternal. We are promised a place in heaven. As we learned in last week’s Gospel, our names are written in the heavens.

So, what have we got to lose? What’s the line from that Janis Joplin hit?: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” You and me and Mr. Bobby McGee are free to take the risks to move beyond the letter of the law and into the spirit of the ones who wrote the law.

We are free to move right past what is expected of us and move right into being more of who God aspires for us to be, as individual people, as people who say we are Christians, and as a nation which claims that we - every man, woman and child, no matter where we live or move or have our being - we ALL are “endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights”. 

And, those unalienable rights which every human being is born with would be “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

We are free to take the risk of showing kindness and mercy, especially to those our culture and our times tell us don’t matter. 

And, as Christians, we are free to be lavish and wasteful in expressing mercy and kindness and generosity. 

Our names are already written in heaven.

So, here's your assignment for this week: Take another look around your neighborhood. Around this church. Around the world.

Maybe like this story of the Good Samaritan, you've made some assumptions. Maybe things are not as predictable as you once thought.

Maybe there's more to the story than you know.

Instead of asking, “Who is my neighbor?” what if you asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” 

What if you and me and Mr. Bobby McGee were like the Good Samaritan and Jesus and had nothing left to lose because we already know that, no matter what others may think of us, we know how the story ends and we know we have life eternal and that our names are written in the heavens?  

What if we took that risk today - especially today - when it has been announced that the government will be rounding up some of our neighbors who haven't met a quota or filed the right paper or properly worked the system when the system is broken and stacked against them and all they want is to share in a piece of the dream, not for themselves but for their children and grandchildren?

What if you took the risk of moving past polite hello's from across the street and actually tried being in relationship with your neighbor? 

What if you took the risk of doing the unexpected? What if you took the risk of being kind and generous, even though our culture and our world says to follow the rules and hold on tight and not let go of what is familiar and what is safe?

How might that change the world you live in?

How might YOU be changed?

Let’s look a little more closely at the Good Samaritan.

And, as Jesus says, “Go thou and do likewise. “


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