Lectionary: Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
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En el nombre dil Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Santificador. Amen.
Our lectionary today includes a lot of emphasis on what we should do as God’s people. In fact, we started our worship with a prayer asking God to help us know what things we ought to do, then give us grace and power to do them.
What are the things we ought to do… ?
As history demonstrates – the rules change as those in power change. They also change as people grow in wisdom, grace, and faith, as evidenced by the ordination of women and LGBTQ people and the federal law allowing same-sex marriage.
There have always been those among us who must know and clarify every instance in which any specific rule does or doesn’t apply, and we end up with 10 commandments morphing into nearly 700 rules to live by. There are also those who utilize the rules to thin the herd so to speak: if you disobey the rules, you’ll be cast out of our community, or worse yet, cast into eternal damnation.
Don’t’ get me wrong: I’m not purporting we ditch all rules or that living in faith or freedom means living with no rules. On the contrary, I believe that rules, customs, and traditions help communities live together in peace with fairness and provide a foundation upon which communities can evolve and grow from generation to generation - especially in the context of the church.
What I don’t believe is that obedience to rules or traditions can lead us to eternal life. That path can only be found in the heart, which is what (I think) Jesus was demonstrating in today’s gospel.
The lawyer in this story asks Jesus: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by asking what the law says. The lawyer, familiar with the law, answers correctly quoting from Deuteronomy (6:5): You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Jesus affirms the lawyer saying, “Right… do this and you will live.”
I want to pause here and notice that Jesus did not say you will live eternally, which was what the lawyer had asked. We’ll get back to this later.
Luke says that the next question the lawyer asked was to justify himself, that is, to affirm for himself that he is doing it right - according to the law. Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan.
You all know this story, so we don’t need to go deeply into the details of it. Because in the end, the lawyer sums up Jesus’ point: the one who showed mercy was the one who was a neighbor.
The power of this story is in these three details:
1) The man who did it right was a Samaritan. As we discussed two weeks ago, Samaritans were considered racially and spiritually impure by the Jews, and they couldn’t interact with or touch Jewish people, as that would make the Jewish person unclean too.
2) The other characters in this story, who did it wrong, all responded to the dying man in keeping with the law which prohibited them from touching a dying man, lest they become unclean themselves;
3) The impure Samaritan had to violate the law in order to show mercy since he too should not have touched a dying man AND he should not have touched a Jewish man. Jesus didn’t identify the dying man as Jewish, but what if he had been? By the time someone could know this, it might be too late and the poor man would be unclean and dead!
You can see the conundrum. So Jesus clears it up in typical rabbinical fashion – by asking a question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor…?”
The obvious answer is the one who showed mercy. This answer points to two important things. First, when we show mercy we are prioritizing the other over ourselves. Their need becomes more important than our obedience to the law. Second, action is required. The Samaritan didn’t think mercifully, he acted mercifully. He didn’t offer thoughts and prayers, he offered aid.
This brings to my mind the man arrested for bringing water to thirsty refugees at the border or the many cities in which people are being arrested for feeding the homeless, and looks ahead to the ICE raids scheduled to begin today.
So the question is: how do we know what we ought to do?
The answer can be found in the story from Amos and the epistle to the Colossians. In Amos, God provides the prophet with a vision of a plumb line, which is, of course, a vertical reference line: heaven to earth. From now on, God says, this is us. “I am setting this plumb line in the midst of my people… I will never pass them by again” because I will be among them. The thing about a plumb line is, it can only offer a true vertical reference when it is free from restriction or obstruction.
In other words, God must be free to be God among us in order for us to be in right relationship. This ties in to the great commandment: we are to love God with all we are – heart , mind, soul, and strength. This kind of love isn’t about having strong feelings about God (there’s a different Greek word for that) but about giving God preference over ourselves. The word ‘love’ used here refers to our will. To love God in this way is to choose to acquiesce to God, to accept God’s will without protest, and to cherish God with reverence.
The other important point in the story in Amos is that the plumb line is in the midst of a community. This isn’t about our individual relationship with God but our relationship as a community of God’s people to God. Does the community choose to put God’s will ahead of its own? In order to do that we must let go of our individual and corporate ability to influence an outcome we might honestly think is best for the community, trusting that God has a plan that is more than we can ask or imagine. (Eph 3:20) In community then, if we hinder the free movement of the plumb line, we are a stumbling block.
The letter to the Colossians reminds us that there will be moments the community needs to endure together, with patience, and the author prays for their strengthening, wisdom, and understanding. It makes you wonder if they were a church in transition, doesn’t it? ;)
So, the question we’ve been pondering is: how do we know what we ought to do?
I noticed that there is a thread that runs through the whole lectionary: the presumption of a prayerful relationship with God. When we pray to God we remember to get out of the way of the plumb line. Praying is the means by which we live in right relationship with God, one another, and ourselves.
Praying also puts us in the presence of God – which is eternal life - this life and the afterlife in the eternal presence of God. We don’t inherit eternal life, as the lawyer questioning Jesus assumed. We accept it. It is a gift from God. Being in the prayerful presence of God is the only way we can know what we ought to do when we face a circumstance that takes us beyond the limits of the law, custom, or tradition.
As we transition culturally from a generation that goes to weekly church services out of duty or obedience to the rules to a generation that dismisses (some even abhor) the institutional church and its rules, it’s important to remember that the body of Christ is now as it has always been – a community of people in whom God in Christ dwells.
As the body of Christ, then, it is important for us to let God be God among us; to pay attention - together, listen - together, and respond - together - to God’s call to us as a community because every church in every generation is faced with situations that cause us to have to look beyond our rules, traditions, and customs in order to respond with love; in order to grow in wisdom, grace, and faith.
Do this, as Jesus said, and we will live. Amen.
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