Posted on September 2nd, 2012
Recently a parishioner had to give a eulogy at a relative’s funeral, and he called me for advice on what to say at a funeral. We had a laugh discussing what I’ll call the Seinfeld Temptation, where the preacher in front of a captive audience is tempted to celebrate Festivus, the Airing of Grievances. In that famous Seinfeld episode, George Costanza’s father explains that at Festivus, you gather all the family around and explain to them all the ways they have disappointed you in the last year.
Well on this, my last Sunday at Immanuel before my sabbatical, like George’s dad, ‘I’ve got a lot of things to say to you people!’
But what I have to say is not my problems with you. While this is hopefully not my last Sunday sermon at Immanuel but just the last one for awhile, I’ve been a bit haunted by what our circuit counselor, Pastor Meehan over at St. John’s Lutheran said to me about his own sabbatical: the work of the church goes on in your absence. People will be born and baptized, and people will die and be buried. People will come and people will go. My fear, then, is that for some of us this will be goodbye. That makes me feel like I have a lot of things to say to you; but really there’s just one thing that I need to say, what transcends everything else: That God forgives sins in Christ Jesus, and will bring you to the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.
Today’s parable is that message in story form, but this story is so often misused to say precisely the opposite of the Gospel, turning Christianity into a religion of law, works, achievement. But the story of the Good Samaritan that Jesus tells is not about what you do. It’s about what Jesus does for you. It’s about His rescue of you.
It’s hard to really describe the force of the parable, the shock value to the original hearers upon learning that the merciful man was a Samaritan. It’s like telling a group of Republicans a story where the people who don’t lift a finger to help are Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the hero is Michael Moore. It’s like telling a group of Democrats a story where those who refuse to help are Sandra Fluke and President Obama and the hero is George W. Bush. The audience is not going to like your story. It goes against all of their presuppositions, offends their sensibilities in a primal way.
The Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Jesus, whose parentage was suspect, was once called a “Samaritan” by his enemies. The enemies of Jesus were the original “Birthers.” Who’s going to believe a virgin birth? Far more likely that His father was a Roman soldier or a Samaritan, making Jesus a half-breed trouble-maker who wasn’t really one of them. The circumstances of His birth made Him ineligible for office; He could not be their prophet, their priest, their king.
But here is this Samaritan in the story doing what the Levite and the priest would not or could not. It’s a story where all the places you look for help, all the places you trust, fail you, and help comes from the outside. The parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t mean, “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people! Get your act together and be nicer.” For there is no salvation there. For every person you may have helped, there are others you have failed to help. For every kind word, there are vicious words you have spoken, words of gossip and slander. For every truth you have told, there are other times when you spun the story to your own advantage.
When Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” it is the same as when He says, “You must be perfect as God is perfect.” There is no salvation in the Law. There is no satisfying God by your behavior. For it is never enough. You don’t love your enemies. You don’t turn the other cheek. You don’t keep your thoughts pure when you see an attractive woman. You don’t rest in contentment when you contemplate what the wealthy have. You don’t give enough when you consider what the poor need. You don’t give enough money to the glory of God and the preaching of the Gospel, and when you do give, you are proud of yourself and happy to take the tax deduction.
Unpleasant would it be if our Lord Jesus gathered us together for an airing of His grievances. He’s got a lot of problems with you people. He’s got a lot of problems with me. But like the Samaritan in the parable, He doesn’t stop and yell at the man dying in the ditch, or say in His heart, “He got what he deserved.”
Our Lord Jesus is the Samaritan who stops to help. In the parable He helps with oil and wine. What is this? The oil is baptism, just as Carlos and Caroline, Natalia and Diego were christened with the oil of Christ today. Then He heals with the medicinal wine of the Supper, the blood of Jesus which cleanses us from all sins.
The fundamental message and attitude of God toward man is mercy. Even to His enemies, He shows mercy. “Let this same mind be in you,” St. Paul says, “which was also in Christ Jesus.” The Church is a mercy house. And thus our attitude toward each other is to be one of mercy.
The airing of grievances is what we do in Confession, where we air not the grievances we have with others, but acknowledge that God and our neighbor rightly have grievances with us poor wretched sinners. And in response, we are pointed to the Lord who put Himself in danger for us, who assumed the burden of the dying man, who became Himself the dying man, and in exchange gives us what is His – the oil and wine, the coins, the promise of full remuneration in the end. Whatever it costs, He pays. That is His mercy toward you. Grievances discarded, such that all He has to say to you is, “Carlos, welcome home; Caroline, welcome home; Natalia, I will be your God and you my child; Diego, you are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” And on and on it continues, through the roll of the baptized.
While I am away, little children, love each other. Say your prayers. Buy the Treasury of Daily Prayer, and use it. I’ll be using it right along with you, each day. Say the Creed. Count on God’s mercy. Show that mercy to one another. And should your last hour come, call on Pr McClean, who will bring you the Sacrament. Call on our God, whose angels will accompany you. God loves you all, and so do I, every one of you.