Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Conditions for Repentance: Jeremiah 2

Jeremiah 2:4-13, Luke 14:1, 7-14

Last week I began preaching on the prophet Jerimiah and suggested that it is important for us to listen for what the prophet spoke about because God puts the words into his mouth.  The first chapter of Jeremiah is very much about establishing the importance of this very point – Jeremiah is important and listening to his voice is important.  His words which are God’s words will include judgement and hope, words that are uncomfortable to hear because in them we hear God contending with people and their behaviour.

As we move now into Chapter 2 and through to Chapter 6 of Jeremiah what Jeremiah is doing is setting up the conditions necessary for repentance.  He begins to outline what it is that the people had done wrong – which largely boils down to their decision to forget about God.

But here’s the problem when people are wrong sometimes, and probably a lot of the time, they don’t know that they are wrong. 

Essentially what Jeremiah is saying is that back there in time you made some bad decisions and now you are not even aware that they were bad decisions.

Last week I emphasised the point that when we listen to these ancient stories we are listening to the living voice of God still speaking through them so in theses chapters of Jeremiah one of things that I think that we are hearing is the same thing.  That at some point in our lives just like the Israelites we have passed the sign “Wrong way. Go Back”

We do as individuals, we do it as communities and we probably even do it collectively as humanity.  We make bad decisions, wrong decisions.

Now as the author Kathryn Schulz points out often we don’t realise that we are wrong, we ar3e completely unaware that we have made a wrong decision and it is only when this is pointed out to us that we become aware and we might then regret our decision, or in our context as Christians admit our fault as we confess our sin.

Sometimes our wrong decisions can have big impacts on ourselves and on others and sometimes they are smaller.  And there can be no doubt that our decision making have layers of complexity or that sometimes we can oversimplify the decisions.

Sometimes there is clearly a right way or a wrong way when we are making a decision.

If we make the wrong decision though it may be realised immediately or it may be we think we are still right and it may take us days or months or even years to realise, that is to say if we ever do!  Yet the decisions we make and our awareness of them can change us.

Let me share a story about a time I did something wrong.  I was at the National Assembly meeting of the Uniting Church.  There were about 400 people in the room and we had been debating a sensitive issue for a few hours.  Now in our meeting we were given the option of holding up an orange card, for agreement, or a blue card, for disagreement or concern, and we were coming to the final vote.

The last card I had held up was blue but now we were to make the final decision and the President of the Assembly called for us to hold up our cards and there was a sea of orange cards waving in the air and I thought to myself finally we have arrived.  But then the President said wait we still have one blue card and holding my card aloft still I looked around the room for the blue card as gradually I saw more and more eyes turning to the corner of the room I was in.  The person next to me nudge me and pointed at my card, oops – not the orange card I thought I was holding.

It was at that point I realised I had accidently grabbed the wrong card and waves of embarrassment washed over me as I changed my card whilst the whole meeting watched on.

Now this accidental choice may not have been deliberate but it still had consequences and I still feel a sense of shame and embarrassment when I think about this simple mistake.  Of course, sometimes our decisions are more intentional but all of us can make decisions that are unknowingly or knowingly wrong and it is not until they are pointed out that we might feel that sense of regret and sorrow over the decision.

I would want to say though often life is more complex than simple right and wrong decisions and when we are given a decision to make we have multiple options.

Often as Christians we might think there is only one “right” choice to make from the multiple options but I am not sure that is the case.  We can seek God’s wisdom and try to make the best choice from the options yet just as one there is only two options there can be options we take that later on we might regret.

The prophet Jeremiah is trying to help the people realise that some of their decisions, especially in relationship to God have been wrong ones.

They passed the sign!

They forgot about God’s love and grace and generosity.  The made their own cracked cisterns rather than delighting in the living water of God.

Jeremiah is exposing the need for repentance and declaring that though they might think they are right the people have been wrong.  They have chosen a path that leads away from God and into themselves.

As we listen to this story and we remember our own lives and the history of humanity we confronted to consider our own journey through life.  This is why we confess our sins each week – even though sometimes we may not even know what those might be.  We confess that we passed the wrong way go back sign.

We do it in our own lives.  We do it as parents, as colleagues, as spouses, and as friends.

And sometimes we do it as communities, even as congregations.  If we look back through the history of this congregations there is no doubt that we would find moments in which we ask, ‘Did we forget God?  Did we take the wrong pathway?’  We certainly have done it as the church through history.

I remember meeting a young Baptist guy about 20 years ago who was doing his doctorate on the idea of confession and repentance because he was struggling with the fact his grandparents had been involved in running aboriginal missions in which children were taken from their parents.  When many of the people involved were doing what they were they believed they were doing something right, not wrong.

The reading that we had from Jeremiah does not resolve the problem that he is naming for the Israelites or for us.  Yet listening to the gospel reading for the day we do get a sense of how we might respond.

In Jeremiah we find a God who judges, who contends with the people for forgetting him.  A jealous God.  But here in Jesus we find a God who is encouraging humility, encouraging us not to see ourselves as better than others.

This is not about self-hatred or self-deprecation, it is about acknowledging that we are people that are like the Israelites.  We pass the sign wrong way go back and we do not even see it.

Yet in the story we are also reminded that Jesus took the lowest seat of all on the cross and later was exalted as he was raised from among the dead and then ascended.  The promise of God is that this journey from the humble seat to the exalted one is promised to you and I as well.

So have we been like God’s people of every age.  Do you and I pass the wrong way go back sign?  Yes.  Do we hear the voice of God declaring our predicament? Yes. Do we find hope in Jeremiah’s promise of the Messiah and the coming of Jesus? No doubt we can.

Jesus presence in the world and his presence now through the power the Holy Spirit is a source of hope for us. Let us then consider our decisions, and the directions we have taken, and let us find hope in the one who stays with us even when we pass the sign wrong way go back. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Whose voice?

A sermon on Jeremiah 1:4-10

When we as people come into the presence of the prophets, we come into the presence of people chosen by God to speak into our midst as human beings.
We come into the presence of people that God chose and set aside to be a mouth piece.
We come into the presence of God speaking to humanity.
Speaking words of judgement and of hope.
Words of destruction and reconstruction.
Words that may be difficult to hear.
But words that we should heed.

On most Monday nights I watch the ABC show Q&A.  Last Monday night one of the audience members asked, “Who should we listen to?” 

In the context of the clamour of competing voices can we hear a clarion call from within the cacophony?  So many experts, so many opinions, so many ideas?

In trying to navigate the complexities of life whomever else we may choose to listen to, by being here this morning you are publicly declaring your desire to listen for God’s voice.  We come to listen for a voice that comes from beyond the constriction of our created existence.  We come to listen for the Word which gives us hope in the midst our struggles.

We come because we are bent double like the woman in the story we read from Luke. We are bent double with the weight of problems that afflict our lives.  Some of us are bent low with physical infirmities and illness.  Some of us are bent low from broken relationships and the disconnection that has occurred between us and people that we love.  Some of us our bent low with anxiety and worries, real or imagined.  Some of us our bent low with our pride and our greed, though we do not know it or acknowledge it.  Some of us are bent low with the constant bombardment of images of suffering from across the globe.  And, some us are simply bent low with age and the weariness of life.  Bent double like the woman we come unobtrusively, hoping to hear a word that helps us see beyond our present experience to the God who made us and who loves us.

Who should we listen to?  Whoever else it is that we might choose to give some authority in our life where it be politicians, populists, or professors we come to listen for God.

We come to listen for God’s eternal Word speaking to us, into our midst.

And today as we come we hear ancient words spoken to the prophet Jeremiah coming to life.  Not dead words but the living Word of God spoken to a boy whom God had been chosen from before the time he was even in the womb.


“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.””


But the boy’s response is full of doubt and uncertainty, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

“I am only a boy.”  Jeremiah’s response to God’s revelation is an excuse, an avoidance, an exit point – I am only! Only a boy!

As a preacher it is very tempting for me to head down the pathway of asking about the times you and I have used our excuses in life.  “I am only” “I am just”.  But this would be to turn us all into little Jeremiah’s. I don’t think that is the point of the story.  The point is not to begin to compare ourselves to Jeremiah and somehow be challenged to be more like him.  No!  I think the point of the story is to think about why we should listen to Jeremiah’s voice: because it is God’s words that he speaks.

God responded “Do not say I am only a boy; for you shall go to all to whom I send you and you shall speak whatever I command.”  Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.”

When Jeremiah speaks we should take heed because Jeremiah speaks with words that God has placed in his mouth.

Now Jeremiah lived around 600 years before Jesus, It was a time that many of the Israelites pursued the worship of other gods.   The King at the time was Jehoiakim who is said to have been a godless tyrant.

Knowing this context it should come as little surprise that the words that Jeremiah is to speak are ones of judgement and destruction. God declares to the boy Jeremiah:

“Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

The ancient world was full of violence and whilst we might struggle with the implication that God is involved in a violent deconstruction of the nations and the kingdoms we should listen to words of judgement in the context of a world at war; in the context of a world in which the weak and helpless are all but ignored.

How alike is the world that we live in now?
Are there still people who are voiceless, powerless, disenfranchised?
Do we not see images of suffering within our communities and across the globe?

It would seem to me that our violence as humanity is a perpetual reality and though I would challenge the notion of God’s violence in the prophecies I would want also to remind you of our human predilection to violence.

How can this violence be turned on its head? How will the cycle of violence be interrupted?

Jeremiah’s prophecies do not contain all of the answers and the consequences of the violence of Israel and its ambivalence towards the widow and the orphan will be violence. 

But, and this is the important but, perpetual violence is not the goal.  For Jeremiah is to build and to plant as well – to give new life, to nurture the growth.

Part of the growth that Jeremiah nurtures is the vision of the coming Messiah – hope for an interruption to the violence of humanity that has eternal significance.

We believe that Messiah to be Jesus of Nazareth and through his life, his death, his resurrection and his ascended ministry we believe God is seeking eternal peace for the creation, the shalom and Sabbath rest for all people.

In Jesus we see God sharing in the deconstruction and reconstruction of nations and kingdoms and of all creation.  In Jesus God is building and planting the new creation.  This is ultimately the hope that Jeremiah is speaking to his people and that God continues to speak to us now.  God’s future transcends the violence of death and destruction and is about nurturing something new.

This is the voice of hope, the voice of good news that we come to hear.

This is the voice of hope that the woman who was bent double was hoping to hear.

We know the story.  Jesus was teaching in the midst of the synagogue and Jesus saw her and saw her in her need.  And Jesus reached out and Jesus healed her.

And she rejoiced and the people rejoiced and gave thanks to God.

Now of course there were those who wished to challenge Jesus healing, who were upset by what they saw as a breach in protocols around the Sabbath.  But Jesus response reminds them of God’s grace and goodness transcending the rules and the need for healing to come.

Jesus actions and his words remind us that God sees us who are bent double with the woes of life and that God shares our suffering and desires fulfilment in our lives as well.  Though we may have to wait, though it may not be our turn yet to receive that healing, we listen with hope to the miracle of the women and we celebrate God’s faithfulness by giving thanks and praise to God.

When we as people come into the presence of the prophets, we come into the presence of people chosen by God to speak into our midst as human beings.
We come into the presence of people that God chose and set aside to be a mouth piece.
We come into the presence of God speaking to humanity.
Speaking words of judgement and of hope.
Words of destruction and reconstruction.
Words that may be difficult to hear.
But words that we should heed.

In the midst of our afflictions, our ailments, our violence God is building something new, God is planting seeds of new life, those who are bent double are straightened up with hope and we listen for the voice of God, of Jesus and of Jeremiah who speak from beyond the constriction and confinement of our created existence full of God's peace and love.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Seeking a better country

In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews begins with that well known definition of ‘faith’.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” 

This definition of faith is a definition that reminds that having faith does not mean that we have arrived but I think unfortunately, especially in Churches like ours in the West, we have fallen into the trap of thinking exactly just that.

Our lives are very comfortable, we have great freedom in our culture, we can come to this property that we own and sit in our regular pews week by week to worship God.  All of these things point to the idea that we have settled down, we have made our home.  And to be frank the sentimentalism and over attachment that we have to our properties and bank balances is a sign of exactly this problem.

But when the author of the letter invites the Hebrews to reflect on Abraham he reminds them that these early proponents of faith “confessed they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” who were “seeking a homeland” and desired “a better country”.  These people were on a journey and so are we are.  As faith takes hold of us we are not being encouraged to settle down but to join the pilgrimage!

The question is then ‘what does it mean to be on this pilgrimage of faith?’  I want to address three aspects of this question for us to consider as a congregation that arise from the readings this morning.  The first is to do with the timing of our arrival.  The second and third are to do with what we are to be doing on the way.

In the readings that we heard from Luke’s gospel this morning spoke to us about our destination which is less about our destination and more about God’s will.  Jesus reminded his listeners that ‘the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ 

Our destination as Christians is not so much a place that we reach but the timing of the fulfilment of God’s coming kingdom and we won’t know when that is going to occur. 

It’s like we are a bunch of kids whose parents have gone out.  Left with the responsibility of looking after the house while mum and dad are out we have choices to make.

Will we order pizzas and get a video; will we break into the drinks cupboard and invite some friends around for a party; will we do the chores we were asked to do?  What are we going to get up to and what will happen when we hear the crunch of our parent’s tyres in the driveway?

Jesus’ challenge is there for people to contemplate because he is inviting people to be prepared for his return.  We don’t know when we will arrive at our destination so the imperative is to live as people who do what we were asked to do while we wait for Jesus return, for our waiting is an active waiting not a passive thing.

The brings me to speak about the second point I wanted to raise from the readings and it has to do with the church in the Western world in general and so specifically our congregation as well. 

Between the Psalm and Isaiah there was some tension about the life and worship practices of the Israelites.  In the Psalm God declares “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you,” but then in Isaiah the Lord declares “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?... I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams… I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats… bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination.”

There is no doubt that we are called as God’s people to gather and offer worship to God, to offer our sacrifice of praise.  So why does God mount this tirade against the cultic practices of the Israelites.  The answer is that despite the worship practices there seems to be a disconnection between the worship and the daily life of the people.

Now I would point out that Christian worship is distinct in a number of ways to the worship that we find in the Old Testament.  Primarily in as much as we are now participants in God’s coming kingdom achieved in Jesus Christ. Despite this it is no less important that there is a connection between what we express in our gathered worship and our lived faith journey day by day.

So how the connection is going?  A few years ago I was at a breakfast with Tim Costello and Steve Chalke an English Baptist Pastor.  One of the things that Chalke said has stuck with me.

He told the gathered group that around 60 to 70 years ago in England the Church was very much the centre of the community.  The Church ran hospitals and schools and orphanages and helped the poor and basically provided much of the social infrastructure of the society.  Things changed though and the government started to develop welfare systems and provide the social infrastructure that had once been provided by the Church.  The consequence of which was that this task of the church in the community became either regulated or lost completely. Many Christians became detached from their sense of service.

The end result in Chalke’s opinion has been that Church people have become a bit like shut-ins who get together and sing songs that are largely irrelevant to most of the culture around them (modern ones or ancient ones!) and argue among themselves about things that no one else cares about.  Why? Because, he says, they have become bored.  Now whilst I think Chalke is probably overly harsh I believe he does have a bit of a point. 

When we lose the other out workings of our faith and disconnect the relationship with God that we celebrate on Sunday with our day to day life and the problems of the world we are missing the point.  What Chalke describes is not simply the problem that as congregations we have settled down but that in settling down we have ceased being interested in going out.

As congregations like ours struggle harder and harder to transform our worshipping life and make it more relevant, it has to be said that unless this is accompanied by a closer engagement with the world around us then I suspect we won’t get very far at all.  When we think about following Jesus and being the church and serving I believe we are called to think of our Christian service as far broader than greeting at the door or doing the readings or even leading a prayer.  Our pilgrimage of faith is a day by day thing and we are called to live our faith in every setting we find ourselves.

This brings me to make a third point about how we are to live on this pilgrimage of faith.  I want to raise for us a couple of issues here.

Firstly to say that at the beginning of Isaiah we hear that Isaiah saw the vision in the days of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.  Isaiah then speaks the word of the Lord to the rulers.  In other words religion and politics do mix.

Going back to the reading from Hebrews if we are seeking a better country or if we are seeking to bring signs of the coming kingdom into reality in the world this means engaging seriously with the social and political issues.  This is particularly pertinent as we weigh up how to vote.  Whilst different church groups and individuals may have different agendas in their engagement with politicians the idea that our faith is lived politically is an important one.

Now as we are aware we have just had a federal election and I am aware that many of you have particular political allegiances.  I do not believe it is the place of the church to support a particular party, despite some comments to the contrary, I do not believe that the Uniting Church has a particular political allegiance.  What we are called to do though is to weigh up what we are being told by any party with the good news of our faith.  This means remembering that our first allegiance as Christians is to Jesus Christ not the political party to which we may belong.  More than that as we listen for the prophets in our midst we should listen for what they might be saying to those in power.  Just as Isaiah spoke to the kings long ago so too there are people who bring the Christian message in confronting ways before our political leaders.

The second issue I want to raise here is that our pilgrimage of faith calls us to do what the Lord challenges the people with in Isaiah.  In the prophecy God is less concerned about sacrifices and more concerned that the people “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.”  These groupings come up often in the scripture and they represent to us all those in society who are disadvantaged and ostracised.  This is where the rubber hits the road – being the people of God means helping these people and this as Jesus points out is a personal thing.  Jesus said to his audience “See your possessions and give alms.”  The call to serve those who have less than us is a gospel imperative and just as much an expression of our faith as coming to worship on a Sunday.

As a congregation we do this in small ways and I am aware that many of you as individuals also engage in issues of social justice and serving others.  The question remains before us constantly as to how we might continually connect in relevant and real ways with the community around us and the world at large in our faith journey.

Ultimately we cannot see the fullness of God’s kingdom yet, we hope for something that is yet to come, this is what drives and inspires us.  As you consider God’s goodness in giving you a foretaste and share in the coming kingdom I want to invite you to think about your own faith and our faith as a congregation.  Are you feeling that you have arrived?  Have you settled in and become too comfortable in this building and in your favourite pew?  How is God calling us to be his people here and now and how will respond?

I think that there are exciting signs of God’s faithfulness in our midst and that rather than slowing down we are being challenged and called to do more. 

In the silence I want to invite you to listen for Gods challenging Word to you on this day.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Give us this day...

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Week by week, around the world, congregations follow Jesus instruction to pray the Lord’s Prayer.  I believe that there are times that we say and do things in our faith and over the years of doing and saying them one of two things can happen.  Firstly, through repetition and deeper understanding the words become our own and so we as we say them they deepen our faith and commitment. Or, alternately, familiarity breeds contempt.  Repetition of the words creates an immunity or boredom sometimes exacerbated by ignorance and often resulting in rejection. 

In considering the words of the Lord’s Prayer which are not simply Jesus instruction but are also filled with rich meaning I want this morning to simply focus on one line of the prayer.

Give us this day our daily bread.
Give us this day our daily bread.

In reflecting on these words I want to bring three things to your attention. 

Firstly, the literal sense of the words as they have been translated into English. 

Secondly, a sense of meaning that is grounded in Jesus statements in John’s gospel “I am the bread of life” and “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

And thirdly, a context of meaning found in the Eucharistic practices of the church.

Give us this day our daily bread are words which when understood simply at face value appeal to God for the basis sustenance of life: food.  My earliest recollections of praying this line of the prayer are to do exactly with that.  I understood that we prayed to God to provide for us our basic human needs.

This in itself is an act of faith.  In praying give us this day our daily bread we look to God as the one who ultimately can provide and does provide all things.  This line of the prayer reminds us that all things come from God and regardless of our human efforts and systems of society not one thing exists or is available for us but by God’s will.  As words standing alone in their basic meaning they are words which should humble as we share in praying words that Jesus prayed and as we realise that the world and all that is in it belongs to God.  We look to God for what we need.

I have little doubt that this basic meaning is meant to be a part of our understanding of Jesus words but when we look deeper than the English translation and consider the wider context of not only the prayer but the whole of Jesus life there is more to be said.

When tempted by the devil to turn stones to bread Jesus declares “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt 4:4, see also Luke 4:4)  Jesus understanding was that whilst bread may be important for our physical sustenance we have greater need than this.

On this point it is interesting to note that in the Egyptian Coptic Church’s translation of this passage and of the Lord’s Prayer the phrase is translated something more like, “Give us this day the bread of eternal life.”

What might we think of as the bread of eternal life?  The answer is given to us by Jesus in John’s gospel, chapter 6.

“The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

And when asked, what is this bread?  Jesus answer is.

“I am the bread of life”

“I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

Combine these statements with the words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ might also be said ‘Give us this day, and every day Jesus’.  The statement in the prayer operates on more than one level.  In appealing for our daily bread we appeal to God to give us Jesus, every day. 

This raises the importance of saying these words immensely and as we say them week by week in church with this understanding they ground us in the reality of our faith.  Not simply that God provides for our physical need in bread but that God has given the bread of heaven Jesus Christ and this is what we need more than all else.  In the gathering of the worshipping community we receive this bread as we hear the good news of Jesus Christ proclaimed as we eat the bread together in communion.  We receive the bread in word and sacrament.

This leads me into my final point.  This prayer has Eucharistic significance.  The Lord’s Prayer is placed within the setting of the communion service I believe because it points us to God’s coming kingdom and also to the bread with which we are fed upon the way: Jesus Christ himself.

One of the great sadness that I have for the Protestant Church in general is the loss of understanding concerning Jesus presence feeding us in the celebration of the Eucharist.  We have been guilty of reducing our understanding of what we are doing as mere remembrance of what Jesus did and often this is further exacerbated by the individualism of our faith whereby we see taking the elements as something merely occurring between me and God.

Yet in celebrating together, being fed with the bread of eternity, we are not disparate people coming as lonely individuals before our God.  By no means!  We are made to be what we are companions in Christ.  The word companion comes from two words ‘with’ ‘bread’ and literally companions are those who break bread together.  As we are fed at this table we are bound not by respect or love of one another nor even are we stifled by our incapacity to respect and love one another.  At this table we feed on the bread of eternal life and in breaking this bread with us the Lord makes us one.  Companions in Christ!

As a final aside on this particular point the prayer is “Give us this day our daily bread.”  For me there is an argument here for more regular celebrations of the Eucharist.  The great reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin live in a time when the Lord’s Supper was celebrated 4 times per year with the laity. It was they who argued first for weekly communion for the people not just the priests.  A few hundred years later, John Wesley in his revival is said to have celebrated communion almost daily.  The appeal for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer I believe points us to celebrating the Lord’s Supper each time we worship together.  In the first version of the Leaders Book of Uniting in Worship the assumption was that communion is celebrated each week.  There is something for us to dwell on here.

Give us this day our daily bread. 

Provide our physical needs for us day by day.
Give us your Son day by day.
Feed us with the bread and wine offered at your table day by day.

As we think again on these words this day, as we feed on him by Word and sacrament, I pray that we all this day may come to a deeper understanding that we are truly companions in Christ and this will inform your congregation here in the days and the weeks and the years ahead until Christ comes again in all his glory.  Amen.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Jesus and the Lawyer. A new sermon on the Good Samaritan.

Luke 10

You know I don’t think the lawyer in this story from Luke chapter 10 is a bad bloke.  I don’t think he is very much different from any of us.  Most of us at some point have asked the question that the lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  We are all worried about what happens after we die and we all want a sense that we are in control of the outcome.

In this sense the lawyer is not a lot different to you or me. And the lawyer is not doing anything abnormal in entering into debate with Jesus.  Part of the ancient culture of the Jewish people was for teachers and religious people to test each other through debating their ideas.  We still this do this in academic circles today.  When the lawyer gets up to test Jesus the lawyer is behaving normally as a religious leader of his day.

The nuance for us to remember is that in the Old Testament the word for a legal adversary in a debate is the word Satan.  This means that when the lawyer, or for that matter you and I, enter into debate with Jesus we become the legal adversary, we become Satan.

This little matter aside, the lawyer’s question is about him being in control of the outcome “what must I do?”  Now Jesus answer to the lawyers question follows what is often referred to as the Socratic Method.  He answers a question by asking a question.   And the question he ask directs the lawyer to the Torah, the law.

The biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out the twofold subtlety of Jesus questions.  Firstly, Jesus does not simply ask the lawyer what is written in the Torah but how he reads it.  This implies that Jesus’ understands the lawyer will give preference to particular texts.  And secondly, and possibly more importantly, as Levine points out “the Torah is not much interested in eternal life or life after death.  It is much more interested in how to live in the present.”  Jesus shifts the conversation away from life after death to life now.

The lawyer’s choice of Deuteronomy 6:5, part of what is commonly known as the Shema Yisrael. This is placed alongside Leviticus 18:18.  These are possibly some of the best know Biblical passages and Jesus affirms his choice.  “You have given the right answers.”  The lawyer’s understanding of the belief system in which he is embedded appears to be without fault.

Yet the lawyer is not finished because having answered rightly we are told he wants to justify himself as he asks “Who is my neighbour?”  Levine points out this a more subtle way of asking, ‘Who is not my neighbour?’  The lawyer is interested in a question that most of us would want to ask who can I ignore, who can I not offer help to?

This is a difficult matter for all of us who recognise the limits of our personal resources and have probably unconsciously been seduced into the lifestyle of wealth and prosperity of the Western world.  Sometimes our acts of charity are dominated by similar questions: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ ‘Who is more deserving of my help?’ ‘How much can I spare to give?’

Jesus response is the well-known parable which is often read is isolation from debate between Jesus and lawyer.  When read in isolation it is often turned into a moral tale that suggests that we should be like the Samaritan – that we should help others in need regardless of their culture, race or religion.  And, in itself this is not a bad lesson and has spawned many Christian societies and groups who use the name as inspiration for their charitable activities.

However, there is more to the parable than this somewhat obvious and simplistic reading of Jesus’ story.  The parables always have an edge to them and this parable is told as a way of leading the lawyer and, no doubt, Jesus listeners into a new understanding of God, themselves and the world in which they live.

Now at the beginning of the sermon I suggest that the lawyer is in many ways just like any of us and as Jesus begins the parable he speaks of a person, in Greek anthropos, travelling down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  This person once again is a generic figure.  I appreciate Levine’s description of this person: “The person lacks identification; he could be rich or poor, free or slave, priest or lay, naughty or nice… The man is ‘some man’ or everyone.”  It could be anyone amongst Jesus listeners: his disciples; the lawyer; other religious leaders; the crowd gathered; and, it could be any of us.

The randomness of the attack the person is disturbing and we might pause to wonder at why this has occurred – it appears senseless and Jesus does not seek to explain the violent act.  He simply names that it occurs.

However, I would want to point out that such an act potentially robbed the person of far more than any money or goods that he was carrying.  So often when we encounter suffering, whether it is at the hands of violence, or through illness, we ask the question, “What have I done to deserve this?”  We make a correlation, and probably an unhelpful one, between the suffering we are encountering and our perceived goodness as a person.  We are robbed of our sense of being a person of worth and value, and we are also robbed of our sense of invulnerability, and safety in the world.  Our very identity and sense of worth and purpose is put into question.

The person is left helpless and vulnerable by the side of the road robbed of his goods, his dignity, his self-perception and even his hope.

Now I do not want to dwell too long on the Priest and Levite who pass by yet a couple of points need noting. 

First, is that often the behaviour of these two men is explained by the need for ritual purity.  In her excellent reflection on this Amy-Jill Levine points out the imperative contained within the ancient Jewish tradition that would have required these men to act and absolved them from the ramifications.  Levine points out that after the 9/11 attack in New York Jewish people stood vigil until such a stage that all the dead and wounded had been removed such is their respect for those who are injured and have died. Levine goes on to described the sermon by Dr Martin Luther King who suggested that these two men passed by on the other side because they were afraid.  They possibly simply wondered would the same thing happen to them if they hung around.   

During the week after the  shootings that occurred in the US. I saw people interviewed who had been part of the rally at Dallas  where 5 police were shot.  One was asked what they did when they heard the shots fired.  His answer reflected his incredulity at the question “I ran”.  Not many of us will run towards a place where we think there is danger and it may simply be that these two mean were fearful.

The second point to make about these two passers-by is made in relation to the one who comes next. It is a point I have been making on this passage for about a dozen years now.  If Jesus was simply attacking the religious establishment the next person to turn up would have been another ‘regular’ Israelite.  But Jesus’ parable has a sharper edge than this for the lawyer because Jesus’ is trying to shift the lawyer’s perception of his own identity and worth.

The next person come down the hill from Jerusalem is a Samaritan.  Now the history of the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans was one littered with animosity and violence.  In the previous chapter of Luke Jesus and his disciples were not welcomed into a Samaritan village as the passed through a region.  James and John suggested that they could ask God to reign down fire on the village and consume it as punishment.  To coin Levine’s phrase Jesus response is that you do not respond with bombs to a refusal of hospitality.  There is no doubt though that this person would have been perceived by the lawyer and anyone listening that the broken and bleeding person and the Samaritan were enemies.

As we know the Samaritan sees the person, he comes near to the person, and does everything that he can to restore the person to life.  The Samaritan transcends fear with compassion.

If we skip to the end of the story Jesus’ question of the lawyer is “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the person who fell into the hands of robbers?”   This question is the great reversal for the lawyer because the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbour?”  is taken out of his hands.  The lawyers neighbour is not the one who he has the power to choose but the one who comes to his aid.  What Jesus effectively does is identify the lawyer with the person who had travelled down from Jerusalem.

Now one of the ancient readings of this parable which has survived the test of time is to say that if the lawyer is the person who has attacked then Jesus is the Good Samaritan’.  The lawyer cannot do anything to inherit eternal life because he is helpless and bleeding and it is Christ who comes alongside us and picks us up from our broken and bleeding state and does whatever it takes that we might be healed.  This is a lesson we can hold on to.

But, today, I want to highlight three important lessons Jesus is teaching the lawyer about his own identity if he is connected to the person who was attacked.  The first: the lawyer is like every other person.  The generic anthropos, the person who travelled down from Jerusalem, could be anyone and the lawyer is an ‘anyone’ as well.  So often, as people, we like to create systems of importance and self-importance.  Jesus is saying to the lawyer you are like everybody else.

Second: when the person is attacked Jesus is suggesting to the lawyer that he is not as in control as he might think.  The lawyer is in need of mercy and help.  The lawyer’s own sense of self-righteousness and identity is challenged as his mortality.  At the beginning of the encounter Jesus had shifted the conversation away from life after death and the threat to the person’s mortality in this parable reminds us that life is valuable gift worthy of salvaging from the brink and living.

Third: when the person is helped by a Samaritan there is an interruption to the cycle of violence and the succession of hate and hurt perpetrated between Jewish and Samaritans.  In the act of compassion that transcends the ancient prejudices the possibility of reconciliation and renewal appears on earth as it is in heaven.

These three lessons are lessons for all of us: all of us share in a common humanity; every one of us is need of mercy and help as we struggle to find identity in our lives; and, the age old hatreds and prejudices can be overcome when enemies are willing to transcend their fear and help each other and restore each other to life.

When Jesus says to the lawyer go and do likewise we might hear his injunction to go and act with a compassion and mercy similar to that of the Samaritan but we should also hear the challenge for the lawyer to be changed in his self-perception.  Eternal life is a gift not his to control. Jesus invitation is for the lawyer to see himself as part of the hoi polloi alongside others, to understand that the lawyer himself is in need of mercy, and that we cannot choose our neighbours but need to come to understand that even our enemies are neighbours.

The truth of Jesus parable especially in terms of our tendency to define who our neighbours are not has played out in the last few days and weeks in terrible and tragic ways. 

This last week has been NAIDOC week in Australia and touring the Northern Territory I was reminded again of the ancient aboriginal culture that was robbed of its identity and place when Europeans arrived.  We are still on a journey towards reconciliation and reparation with our aboriginal and islander brothers and sisters.   

In the US the terrible shooting by police and of police highlight an ongoing cycle of violence that needs to be interrupted.  How can people cross the boundaries of race and culture to stand together to bind the wounds of that hurting nation?

In Baghdad, Iraq, 292 Muslims were killed in a suicide bombing.  This is on one level a confrontation between different strands of Islam. 

In our own election, and in the rhetoric around Brexit, as we see people struggle for identity the language of xenophobia and difference has emerge as a strong aspect of our discourse.  The fact that more than 1 in 10 Queenslanders voted for a party that has clearly racist policies is disappointing and reflects the confusion people have when we try to define who we are by saying who are our neighbours and who are not our neighbours.

These complex issues of humanity are contained within the lessons that Jesus is giving the lawyer and to understand the hope of this story means that we have to drive ourselves to read on in the gospel.  For it is only in reading on that come to see Jesus not only as the one who comes down to us, as Paul says in Philippians emptying himself to be one of us, but also as one who himself is lifted up on a cross broken and bleeding, fully identifying with the loss of identity and purpose in the helplessness of death.

If we are to be anything like the Samaritan, we must first understand that we are like the lawyer.  We learn that we are part of the common people, in need of mercy, and who must learn that even our enemy is our neighbour and as we do so we also learn the lesson from 1 John “We love because God first loved us.”

Yes, the lawyer, Jesus legal adversary, Satan, is not a bad bloke – he is just like you and I.  But in the story his enemy saves him and it is in this that we can find worth and identity and purpose and meaning – God’s message is a life-giving, life-restoring message as God offers to each one of us healing and hope.