Harwich Soundings – September 15, 2017

Harwich Soundings – September 15, 2017

Dear friends,

Since we’ve been considering Jonah, a reluctant prophet in recent sermons, the following thoughts on ‘the prophet’ seem pertinent.   Offered by Richard Rohr in his daily meditations, I lift them up because this vital Biblical role is relevant in our current times, and because we all get annoyed by the prophets’ work/word from time to time.   This is partly due to the ways prophets tell the truth, truth that implicates us.  I’m no prophet, but at times I seek to preach the gospel prophetically.  Because it’s uncomfortably clear that Jesus’ gospel does speak to/confront the world’s ways and our lives prophetically.  May the Holy Spirit help us discern the times and receive the word of God spoken through the prophets.

Blessings,  Ed

Signs of a Prophet
Thursday, September 14, 2017

Over the next few days I’d like to share thoughts from my friend, author and peace activist John Dear, who lives here in New Mexico. I believe he has been a prophet of nonviolence for many, many people. John offers twelve signs to help us identify a true prophet.

First, a prophet is someone who listens attentively to the word of God, a contemplative, a mystic who hears God and takes God at God’s word, and then goes into the world to tell the world God’s message. So a prophet speaks God’s message fearlessly, publicly, without compromise, despite the times, whether fair or foul.

Second, morning, noon, and night, the prophet is centered on God. The prophet does not do his or her own will or speak his or her own message. The prophet does God’s will and speaks God’s message. . . . In the process, the prophet tells us who God is and what God wants, and thus who we are and how we can become fully human.

Third, a prophet interprets the signs of the times. The prophet is concerned with the world, here and now, in the daily events of the whole human race, not just our little backyard or some ineffable hereafter. The prophet sees the big picture—war, starvation, poverty, corporate greed, nationalism, systemic violence, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction. The prophet interprets these current realities through God’s eyes, not through the eyes of analysts or pundits or Pentagon press spokespeople. The prophet tells us God’s take on what’s happening.

Fourth, a prophet takes sides [the “bias toward the bottom” or the “preferential option for the poor”]. A prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. . . . A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless. Indeed, a prophet is the voice of a voiceless God.

Fifth, all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are concerned with one main question: justice and peace. They call people to act justly and create a new world of social and economic justice, which will be the basis for a new world of peace. Justice and peace, they learned, are at the heart of God; God wants justice and peace here on earth now. And the prophet won’t shy away from telling us that if we want a spiritual life, we must work for justice and peace.

Sixth, prophets simultaneously announce and denounce. They announce God’s reign of justice and peace and publicly denounce the world’s regimes of injustice and war. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., they hold high the alternatives of nonviolence and disarmament and lay low the obsolete ways of violence and weapons.

Seventh, a prophet confronts the status quo. With the prophet, there is no sitting back. The powerful are challenged, empires resisted, systemic justices exposed. Prophets vigorously rock the leaky ship of the state and shake our somnolent complacency. . . .

Eighth, for the prophet, the secure life is usually denied. More often than not the prophet is in trouble. Prophets call for love of our nation’s enemies. They topple the nation’s idols, upset the rich and powerful, and break the laws that would legalize mass murder. The warlike culture takes offense and dismisses the prophet, not merely as an agitator but as obsessed and unbalanced. Consequently, the prophet ends up outcast, rejected, harassed, and marginalized—and, eventually, punished, threatened, targeted, bugged, followed, jailed, and sometimes killed.

Ninth, prophets bring the incandescent word to the very heart of grudging religious institutions. There the prophet confronts the blindness and complacency of the religious leader—the bishops and priests who keep silent amid national crimes; the ministers who trace a cross over industries of death and rake blood money into churchly coffers. A bitter irony and an ancient story—and all but inevitable. The institution that goes by the name of God often turns away the prophet of God.

Tenth, true prophets take no delight in calling down heavenly bolts. Rather, they bear an aura of compassion and gentleness. They are good and decent, kind and generous. They’ve learned to cultivate joy and now exude joy. . . .

Eleventh, prophets are visionaries. In a culture of blindness, they offer insight. In a time of darkness, they light our path. When no one else can see, the prophet can. And what they see is a world imbued with God’s purposes: a world of justice and peace and security for all, a world where all of creation is safe and at rest. The prophet holds aloft the vision—it’s ours for the asking. The prophet makes it seem possible, saying “Let’s make it come true and we shall be blessed.”

Finally, the prophet offers hope. Now and then, they might sound despairing, but only because they have a heightened awareness of the world’s darkest realities. These things overwhelm us; we would rather not hear. But hearing is our only hope. For behind the prophet’s unvarnished vision lies a hope we seldom understand—the knowledge that God is with us, that the kingdom of God is at hand. To realize that hope, we must trust ourselves to plumb the depths and trust God to see us through.

Reference: John Dear, The Beatitudes of Peace: Meditations on the Beatitudes, Peacemaking and the Spiritual Life (Twenty-Third Publications: 2016), 117-119.

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Harwich Soundings – September 4, 2017

Harwich Soundings – September 4, 2017

Dear friends,

Blessed Labor Day!  I was taken by a piece from the selected writings of Evelyn Underhill cited in a devotional resource I’m using.  It’s about ‘God’s calling’, which, when we respond positively, becomes at least some of our life’s labor.

Yesterday’s sermon addressed Jonah’s running from God’s call for him to preach judgment to wicked Nineveh.  He didn’t agree with God’s ‘theology’ and decided not to participate in what God had in mind by calling him.  So he fled to Tarshish and ended up on a three day sojourn in the belly of a great fish.

Underhill writes:  “St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles…He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks.  St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops.  Nothing was further from their intention.  St Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his hermitage on the Farne; but he did not often get there.  St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St. Ignatius.  At a few hours’ notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again.  Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt decisively called.

In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life.  Yet in all, we recognize not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement.  Things like this—and they are constantly happening—gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life of man does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to his own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be.”      (Underhill, cited in A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God, 313)

How does this selection speak to your experience?  What has your experience been of God’s call in your life?  The call may be really big, as in a life vocation; or contextual and limited to a season of life, or in the daily grind, to a particular decision.  A bottom line in all this is our faith response to what we discern to be God’s will for us.

“Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.”    (Romans 12:2—CEB)

Grist for the mill….

Blessings,  Ed


  • An offering for UMCOR’s work in the Harvey disaster will be taken next Sunday.
  • Administrative Council meets Sunday after worship
  • Tattoos on the Heart book study begins Monday, September 11, 2-3:30.  Books available in Fellowship Hall.


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Harwich Soundings – June 8, 2017

Harwich Soundings – June 8, 2017

Dear friends,

Hard to believe it’s June 8.  Schools will soon be out.  It was 48 degrees on Tuesday.  Warmer today.  Cool or warm, God is God and is for us.

I was struck by this from Robert Corin Morris:  “The God we worship not only fixed the borders of the sea and rested on the Sabbath but also voluntarily chose the confines of the flesh so that every one of its limitations might become the dwelling place and doorway to abundant life.  The Infinite was confined in swaddling clothes and subjected to the same path of bridling and taming the wilderness of desire as we are.

His Way is one of disciplined body and soul, of desire restrained only so it may find its deeper and more life-giving goal.  This Way opens our souls to grow into the likeness of the Love and Justice, the Courage and Patience, the Wisdom and Radiance in whose image we are made.  Such love, in the end, learns to desire only the Good, and is free from hindrance to choose it.”  (“This Far and No Farther: The Life-Giving Power of limitation”,  Weavings, Nov-Dec2010,Jan2011)

There’s something about accepting/embracing limitation that resonates with the soul while also pricking it.  It’s certainly counter-cultural, as is most of Jesus’ truth.  How do you find your life by losing it?  Does that include suffering and dying?

The realm of the gospel is surprise and, paradoxically, abundant life.  A verse from Pues Si Vivimos comes to mind:  “When we are living, it is in Christ Jesus, and when we’re dying, it is in the Lord.  Both in our living and in our dying, we belong to God, we belong to God.”   (UM Hymnal, 356)

I bear unwanted news:  Dusty is back in the hospital diagnosed with two brain tumors and cancer activity in her abdomen.  She’s in good spirits while awaiting prognosis and treatment options.  Her sister is with her.  She’d love a call or visit.  Also, our little Finn has an infection and seems to be responding to treatment.  We’ll see him today.

Prayer is a powerful spiritual practice that counters the onslaught of terrible happenings, and can lend us freeing perspective.  Keep praying!

Blessings,  Ed

PS  Cindy Farrell-Starbuck will fill in for Dusty…her hours to be determined.


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Harwich Soundings – May 26, 2017

Harwich Soundings – May 26, 2017

Dear friends,

I just came across this blog and think it’s fitting to share with you all.  The Sacrament of Holy Communion is such that it grows on us, or we grow into a fuller grasp of what it means over time.  It’s like how we grow into the meaning of our baptism for all our days on earth following Jesus (and maybe we keep growing into eternity.)

This testimony is a powerful word in my own journey of growth as a member of Christ’s Body who shares his body and blood.  May you also be blessed and changed by it.

Blessings,  Ed

Lessons from a condemned man’s last meal
May 18th, 2017
by Jake Owensby

Ledell Lee ate his last meal on April 20. Officials of the Arkansas Department of Corrections executed him by lethal injection at 11:44 that same evening.

The last meal is a customary ritual for death row inmates. The condemned can ask for whatever they want. State prison systems vary on how far they will go to accommodate these final requests.

For instance, the state of Virginia has a 28-day rotating menu of fare like hotdogs and chili. Prisoners can request a meal from that rotation. The chef in Texas tries to prepare at least an approximation of what’s been ordered. For instance, he grills a hamburger steak for the frequently requested filet mignon (see this article in Slate).

At least one news outlet reported that Lee had rejected a last meal. But this was not accurate. As most journalists pointed out, Lee requested and received Holy Communion.

I read somewhere that Lee was not making a statement. Maybe he didn’t intend to send a message, but he did anyway. It’s one of the central messages conveyed every time we kneel at an altar rail.

Take the time to look at the fragile, sacred, distracted, harried, wounded, relieved faces to your left and to your right. Each of these women and men, teens and children brings their life—their entire life—to Christ.

In the past week or month or year or decade words have passed their lips that battered someone else’s soul. They have been indifferent to suffering or resentful of another’s success. They have let down friends, betrayed themselves, cheated on taxes or spouses, put career before family, and thought themselves better than someone else.

And here they are. At the breaking of the bread. Taking Jesus at his word that he wants them there. To mingle his life with theirs so that they can become who they truly are.

If you want to know who somebody really is—who you really are—gather for the breaking of the bread. As Sr. Helen Prejean recently tweeted, “People are worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

People are worth the love that Christ pours into them.

Communion gradually erodes one of our fondest habits. We sometimes reduce people to a single story. In the case of convicts, we reduce people to the worst story we can tell about them. We see them as the antagonist of a single damning narrative.

We see a “them” in contrast to “us.” It’s okay to heap contempt on one of them. To punish or even to execute one of them. But we hesitate to do the same to one of us. After all, we are part of the same story. Their story may be sad and worthy of some sympathy, but it’s not our story.

Holy Communion opens our eyes to see that we are all part of a broader story. A story that includes us all. The Gospel writer Luke illustrates this point in the Emmaus Road story.

Cleopas and an unnamed disciple are fleeing Jerusalem on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion. What is for them a stranger, and for the reader the risen Christ, joins them as they walk along. They simply don’t recognize him.

Who they see when they look at and listen to Jesus is shaped by the story they’re telling. The presumed Messiah has just been executed. Sure, some women scrambled back from the tomb babbling on about an empty tomb and an angel saying that Jesus is risen. But they didn’t buy it.

Jesus turned out to be a loser. For daring to hope that he was the Messiah, they were losers, too. They should have known better!

Jesus talked to them about what the Scripture says about the Messiah, encouraging them to rethink the story they were telling themselves. Once they reached Emmaus, they sat down to eat. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. In the breaking of the bread they recognized him.

And they recognized themselves. They rushed back to Jerusalem. As people of the resurrection. They weren’t just the ones who had doubted and fled and deserted their friends. In the breaking of the bread, they remembered the story that Jesus tells about them.

Who they are is not what they make of themselves. Who they are is what grace makes of them. And so it is with each and every one of us.

In 1993, Ledell Lee bludgeoned his neighbor Debra Reese to death with a tire iron. Police apprehended him while he was spending the $300 he had stolen from her. Twenty four years later, at the age of 51, Lee made the Last Supper his last meal.

All the company of heaven—angels and archangels and all whom we love but see no longer—gathered with him in his cell. And so did we, whether we realized it or not.

When any of us gathers at the breaking of the bread the entire Body of Christ gathers with us. There is, after all, one Body of Christ. What befalls one, befalls all. There is no us and them. There is us.

Lee was the first of four death row inmates Arkansas executed in April, from a proposed group of eight. They were in a hurry. Their supply of lethal injection drugs was expiring and replacements may be impossible to get.

That’s the story the Arkansas Department of Corrections is telling itself. No wonder they cannot see what Lee is inviting them to see: That we are all one in the story of grace. No one is reducible to the worst story we can tell about them.

The Holy Meal is at the center of our common worship. That meal tells us the story of grace again and again. I pray that we will eventually get the message.

Jake Owensby is the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana. This piece first appeared in Jake’s blog “Looking for God in Messy Places.”

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Harwich Soundings – February 16, 2017

Harwich Soundings – February 16, 2017

Dear friends,

Most of us have a lot to learn about Islam.  It’s an urgent, enormously relevant undertaking.  So, in an effort to deepen our understanding, the following article offers insight in how the three Abrahamic faiths can learn from each other.

What Jesus Can Teach Today’s Muslims
Mustafa Akyol
Feb. 13, 2017  (NY Times)

What is the trouble with Islam? Why are there so many angry Muslims in the world who loathe the West? Why do self-declared Islamic states impose harsh laws that oppress minorities, women and “apostates”? Why are there terrorists who kill in the name of Allah?

Many in the West have been asking these kinds of questions for decades. Answers have varied from claiming that there is no problem within Islam today, which is too defensive, to asserting that Islam itself is a huge problem for the world, which is unfair and prejudiced. Luckily, more informed observers offered more objective answers: The Islamic civilization, once the world’s most enlightened, has lately been going through an acute crisis with severe consequences.

One of the prominent minds of the past century, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, also pondered the crisis of Islam, in a largely forgotten 1948 essay, “Islam, the West, and the Future.” The Islamic world has been in a crisis since the 19th century, Toynbee wrote, because it was outperformed, defeated and even besieged by Western powers. Islam, a religion that has always been proud of its earthly success, was now “facing the West with her back to the wall,” causing stress, anger and turmoil among Muslims.

Toynbee, with the insight of a great historian, not only analyzed the crisis of Islam but also compared it with an older crisis of an older religion: the plight of the Jews in the face of Roman domination in the first century B.C. The Jews, too, were a monotheistic people with a high opinion of themselves, but they were defeated, conquered and culturally challenged by a foreign empire. This ordeal, Toynbee explained, bred two extreme reactions: One was “Herodianism,” which meant collaborating with Rome and imitating its ways. The other was “Zealotism,” which meant militancy against Rome and a strict adherence to Jewish law.

Modern-day Muslims, too, Toynbee argued, are haunted by the endless struggles between their own Herodians who imitate the West and their own Zealots who embody “archaism evoked by foreign pressure.” He pointed to modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as an “arch-Herodian” and the “Central Arabian Wahhabis” as arch-Zealots. He predicted that the Zealots would ultimately be defeated because they lack the sophistication to use modern technology. Had he lived today — and seen, for example, how effectively the Islamic State uses the internet — he might revisit that optimism.

Over the decades, a few Muslim intellectuals have taken note of Toynbee’s analogy and argued that Muslims should find a third way, something between Herodianism and Zealotism. It’s a reasonable argument, but it neglects a lot of history.

These would-be Muslim reformers, like Toynbee, ignore that the first-century Jewish world wasn’t limited to the Herodian-Zealot dichotomy. There were other Jewish parties with intellectual, mystical or conservative leanings. There was also a peculiar rabbi from Nazareth: Jesus.

Jesus claimed to be the very savior — the Messiah — that his people awaited. But unlike other Messiah claimants of his time, he did not unleash an armed rebellion against Rome. He did not bow down to Rome, either. He put his attention to something else: reviving the faith and reforming the religion of his people. In particular, he called on his fellow Jews to focus on their religion’s moral principles, rather than obsessing with the minute details of religious law. He criticized the legalist Pharisees, for example, for “tithing mint and rue and every herb,” but neglecting “justice and the love of God.”

Christians, of course, know this story well. Yet Muslims need to take notice, too. Because they are going through a crisis very similar to the one Jesus addressed: While being pressed by a foreign civilization, they are also troubled by their own fanatics who see the light only in imposing a rigid law, Shariah, and fighting for theocratic rule. Muslims need a creative third way, which will be true to their faith but also free from the burdens of the past tradition and the current political context.

Would it be a totally new idea for Muslims to learn from Jesus? To some extent, yes. While Muslims respect and love Jesus — and his immaculate mother, Mary — because the Quran wholeheartedly praises them, most have never thought about the historical mission of Jesus, the essence of his teaching and how it may relate to their own reality.

A notable exception was Muhammad Abduh, one of the pioneers of Islamic modernism in the late 19th century. Abduh, a pious Egyptian scholar, thought that the Muslim world had lost the tolerance and openness of early Islam and had been suffocated by a dogmatic, rigid tradition. When he read the New Testament, he was impressed. As a Muslim, he did not agree with the Christian theology about Jesus, but he still was moved by Jesus’s teachings, which were relevant to a problem Abduh observed in the Muslim world. It was the problem of “being frozen on the literal meaning of the law,” he wrote, and thus failing “understanding the purpose of the law.”

Some other Muslim scholars noted the same problems as Abduh.  But no Muslim religious leader has yet stressed the crucial gap between divine purposes and dry legalism as powerfully as Jesus did. Jesus showed that sacrificing the spirit of religion to literalism leads to horrors, like the stoning of innocent women by bigoted men — as it still happens in some Muslim countries today. He also taught that obsession with outward expressions of piety can nurture a culture of hypocrisy — as is the case in some Muslim communities today. Jesus even defined humanism as a higher value than legalism, famously declaring, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Can we Muslims also reason, “The Shariah is made for man, not man for the Shariah”? Or, like Jesus, can we also suggest that the Kingdom of God — also called “the Caliphate” — will be established not within any earthly polity, but within our hearts and minds? If Jesus is “a prophet of Islam,” as we Muslims often proudly say, then we should think on these questions. Because Jesus addressed the very problems that haunt us today and established a prophetic wisdom perfectly fit for our times.

Mustafa Akyol, a contributing opinion writer, is a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College and the author, most recently, of “The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.”

In confusing times, the third way practiced by Jesus (and others) offers direction and hope.  Keep the faith.

Blessings,  Ed

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Harwich Soundings – February 2, 2017

Harwich Soundings – February 2, 2017

Dear friends,

I wonder if we’re not living in an incredibly fertile period in which to follow Jesus and call ourselves Christian?  Fertile because in the chaos of these early days of a new Administration it seems like all hell is breaking loose.  The soil of our national soul is being vigorously roto-tilled on all sides…terrible divisions and injustices exposed with each pass of the tractor.

And to Christians, our souls are getting a crude yet defining dose of gospel truth…the challenge of which confounding truth I don’t think I’m up to.  But then again, it’s not all up to me, for (again confounding-ly) I’ve been claimed by the gospel and its original purveyor, Jesus.

So, this morning I read the final short chapter in Will Willimon’s Fear of the Other, which a dozen of us are discussing in a small group.  I think it’s really a sermon Willimon probably preached before he launched into writing the book.  It’s a sermon I wish I had preached, because like good gospel preaching it turns things on their conventional head and insists that our assumptions may be wrong, or at least mis-placed.

Then I came to the office and opened email to find a piece in Patheos in Scot McKnight’s blog…a sermon by Jason Micheli titled  The Parable of the Good Deplorable.   I’m copying it below…and though it’s lengthy, keep reading.  It watered the soil of my Christian soul with liberating truth.  (Did I mention that usually ‘liberating truth’ is also ‘confounding?)

Boy, do I ever have a lot of growing to do in terms of how I see the Other.

Be blessed for who is are is the only blessing you can give to another,

The Parable of the Good Deplorable, by Jason Micheli

In front of a crowd of 70 (Or 140, who’s to say how big the crowd really was?) this lawyer tries to trap Jesus by turning the scriptures against him:

“Who is my neighbor?” he presses.

It’s the kind of bible question they could’ve debated for weeks.

Read one part of Leviticus and God’s policy is Israel First; your neighbor is just your fellow Jew.

Read another part of Leviticus and your neighbor includes the illegal immigrants and refugees in your land.

Turn to another bible text and the illegal aliens who count as your neighbor might really only include those who’ve converted to your faith. Your neighbors might really only be the people who believe like you believe.

Read the right psalms and ‘neighbor’ definitely does not include your enemies. It’s naive, sing those psalms, to suppose your enemies are anything other than dangerous.

So, they could’ve sat around and debated on Facebook all week.

Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.

About a man who gets mule-jacked making the 17 mile trek from Jerusalem down to Jericho and who’s left for dead, naked, in a ditch on the side of the road.

A priest and a Levite respond to the man in need with only 2 verbs to their credit: See and Pass By.

Like State Farm, it’s a Samaritan who’s there.

For the man in the ditch.

Jesus credits him with a whopping 14 verbs to the priest’s puny 2 verbs:

He comes near the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, bandages him, pours oil and wine on him. Puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes out his money, gives it, asks the innkeeper to take care of him, says he will return and repay anything else.

14 verbs is the sum that equals the solution to Jesus’ table-turning question: ‘Which man became a neighbor?’

Not only do you know this parable by heart, you know what to expect when you hear a sermon on the Samaritan, don’t you?

You expect me to wind my way to the point that correct answers are not as important as compassionate actions, that bible study is not the way to heaven but bible doing.

I mean, show of hands:

How many of you would expect a sermon on this parable to segue into some real-life example of me or someone I know taking a risk, sacrificing time, giving away money to help someone in need?

How many of you all would expect me to try and connect the world of the bible with the real world by telling you an anecdote?

An anecdote like…

On Friday morning…

I drove to Starbucks to work on a sermon for which I had zero interest. As I got of my car, standing in front of empty storefront windows, I saw this guy in the cold.

I could tell from the embarrassed look on his face and the hurried, nervous pace of those who skirted past him that he was begging.

And seeing him there standing, pathetic, in the cold, I thought to myself:

‘Crap. How am I going to get into the coffee-shop without him shaking me down for money?’

I admit, I’m not impressive, but it’s true. I didn’t want to be bothered with him. I didn’t want to give him any money.

‘Who’s to say what he’d spend it on or if giving him a handout was really helping him out? I know Jesus said to give to people whatever they ask from you, but Jesus also said to be as wise as snakes and I’m no fool. You can’t give money to every single person who begs for it. It’s not realistic. Jesus never would’ve made it to the cross if he stopped to help every single person in need…’

I thought to myself.

But mostly, I was irritated.

Irritated because on Friday morning I was wearing my clergy collar and if Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, was going to thrust me into a real-life version of his parable then I was damned if I was going to get cast as the priest.

I sat in my car with these thoughts running through my head and for a few minutes I just watched.

I watched as a Starbucks manager saw him begging on the sidewalk.

And passed by.

Then a Petsmart employee saw him begging.

And passed by.

Then some moms in workout clothes pretended not to see him.

And passed by.

When I walked up to him, he smiled and asked if I could spare any cash.

‘I don’t have any cash on me’

I lied.

I asked him what he needed and he said ‘food.’

Motioning to the Starbucks behind us, I offered to buy him breakfast, but he shook his head and explained: ‘I need food, like groceries, for my family.’

And then we stood in the cold and Jamison- his name’s Jamison- told me about his wife and 3 kids and the motel room on Route 1 where they’ve been living for 3 weeks since their eviction which came 2 weeks after he lost hours at his job.

After he told me his story I gave him my card and then I walked across the parking lot to Shoppers and I bought him a couple of sacks of groceries- things you can keep in a motel room- and then I carried them back to him.

It wasn’t 14 verbs worth of compassion but it wasn’t shabby.

And Jamison smiled. And said thank you.

And then I took his picture.

Tacky, I know, but I figured otherwise you’d never believe this sermon illustration fell into my lap like manna from heaven.

I took his picture and then, having gone and done likewise, I said goodbye and held out my hand to shake his.

See, isn’t that exactly the sort of story you’d expect me to share?

A predictable slice-of-life story for this worn-out parable right before I end the sermon by saying ‘Go and do likewise.’

And, I expect, you would go.

Feeling not inspired. But guilty.

Guilty knowing that none of us has the time or the energy or the money to spend 14 verbs on every Jamison we meet.

If 14 verbs x Every Needy Person We Meet is how much we must do, then eternal life isn’t a gift we inherit at all. It’s instead a more expensive transaction than even the best of us can afford.

The good news- and the bad- there’s more to the story.

I shook Jamison’s hand while, in my head, I was cursing at Jesus for sticking me in the middle of such a predictable sermon illustration.

Then I turned to go into Starbucks when Jamison said: ‘You know, when I saw you was a priest, I expected you’d help me.’

Then it hit me.

‘Say that again’ I said.

‘When I saw who you were,’ he said,’ the collar, I figured you’d help me.’

And suddenly it was as if he’d smacked me across the face.

We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable is hidden right there in plain sight.

It’s so obvious we never notice it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the 72 disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered ‘round to hear about their Kingdom work.

Every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew.

And so when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye.

When Jesus says ‘So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,’ NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’

When Jesus says ‘There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch so he crossed to other side and passed on by’    EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘What’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’

Ditto the Levite.

No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve thought the priest and Levite compassionless hypocrites.

No one would’ve been offended by their passing on by.

No one would’ve been surprised they passed on by.

No one would’ve been outraged.

As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking.

The priest had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest.

Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then (according to the Mishna) the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as contrary to everything we know of God.

But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way.

As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.


If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then- no matter how many hospitals we name after this story- the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.

If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway.

Helping someone in need is not the takeaway.

A little context-

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. Looted it.

And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just strangers. They weren’t just opponents on the other side of the Jewish aisle.

They were Other.

They were despised.

They were considered deplorable.

Just a chapter before this, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. And the disciples’ antipathy towards them is such that they beg Jesus to call down an all-consuming holocaust upon the village.

In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’

‘The one who showed mercy’ is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth.

You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch.

The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story.

The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

We’ve gotten it all backwards.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need.

It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.

The good news is that this parable isn’t the stale object lesson about serving the needy that we’ve made it out to be.

The bad news is that this parable is much worse than most of us ever realized.

Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need.

You don’t need Jesus for a lesson so inoffensively vanilla.

No, Jesus is saying that even the most deplorable people- they care for those in need.

Therefore, they are our neighbors.

Upon whom our salvation depends.

I spent last week in California promoting my book, which if you’d like to pull out your smartphones now and order it on Amazon I won’t stop you.

On inauguration day I was being interviewed about my book, or at least I was supposed to be interviewed about my book. But once the interviewers found out I was a pastor outside DC, they just wanted to ask me about people like you all.

They wanted to know what you thought, how you felt, here in DC, about Donald Trump.

And because this was California it’s not an exaggeration to say that most everyone seated there in the audience was somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky. Seriously, you know you’re in LA when I’m the most conservative person in the room.

So I wasn’t really sure how I should respond when, after climbing on top of their progressive soapbox, the interviewers asked me “What do you think, Jason, we should be most afraid of about Donald Trump and his supporters?”

I thought about how to answer.

I wasn’t trying to be profound or offensive.

Turns out I managed to be both.

I said:

“I think with Donald Trump and his supporters, I think…Christians at least, I think we should be afraid of the temptation to self-righteousness. I think we should fear the temptation to see those who have politics other than ours as Other.”

Let’s just say they didn’t exactly line up to buy my book after that answer.

Neither was Jesus’ audience very enthused about his answer to the lawyer’s question.

As bored as we’ve become with this story, the irony is that we haven’t even cast ourselves correctly in it.

Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. I wish. How flattering is that?

Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the man in the ditch and to see a deplorable Samaritan as the potential bearer of our salvation.

Jesus isn’t saying that we’re saved by loving our neighbors and that loving our neighbors means helping those in need.

No, Jesus is saying with this story what Paul says with his letter:

That to be justified before God is to know that the line between good and evil runs not between Us and Them but through every human heart.

That our propensity to see others as Other isn’t our ideological purity.  It’s our bondage to Sin.

“All people, both the religious and the secular…Paul says All people….both the right and the left- Paul could’ve said- both  Republicans and Democrats, both progressives and conservatives, black and white and blue, gay or straight, all people are under the power of Sin.

“There is no distinction [among people], Paul says, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None is righteous, not one.”

“Therefore, you have no excuse…In judging others, you condemn yourself…you are storing up God’s wrath for yourself.”

Paul says.

“No one is righteous, not one.”

So, if you want to be justified instead of judged…

If you want to inherit eternal life instead of its eternal opposite…

Then you better imagine yourself as the desperate one in the ditch…

And imagine your salvation coming from the most deplorable person your prejudice and your politics can conjure.

Don’t forget-

We killed Jesus for telling stories like this one.

Maybe now you can feel why.

Especially now.

Into our partisan tribalism and talking-past points, our red and blue hues and social media shaming, our presumption and our pretense at being prophetic-

Into all of our self-righteousness and defensiveness-

Jesus tells a story where a feminist or an immigrant or a Muslim is forced to imagine their salvation coming to them in someone wearing a cap that reads Make America Great Again.

Jesus tells a story where that Tea Party person is near dead in the ditch and his rescue comes from a Black Lives Matter lesbian.

Where the confederate clad redneck comes to the rescue of the waxed-mustached hipster.

Where the believer is rescued by the unrepentant atheist.

A story where we’re the helpless, desperate one and our salvation comes to us from the last type of person we’d ever choose.

When Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to spend 14 verbs on every needy person we encounter.

He’s telling us to go and do something much costlier.

And more counter-cultural.

He’s telling us to see that even the deplorables in our worldview, even those whose hashtags are the opposite of ours, even they help those in need.


They are our neighbors.

Not only our neighbors.

They are our threshold to heaven.

It’s no wonder- I suppose- why we’re still so polarized.

After all, we only ever responded to Jesus’ parables in 1 of 2 ways:

Wanting nothing to do with him.

Or, wanting to do away with him.

Cited on “Jesus Creed”, Jan 29, 2017 @ 10:16 by Scot McKnight


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