Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sermon: "I've Been to the Mountaintop"

July 11, 2010

“I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”

Luke 10:25-37

The morning sun had just poked its head over the horizon, when the man regained consciousness.
“Where am I?” he thought to himself, as a flood of familiar odors overcame him.
Wet grass, rotting vegetation, and the pungent aroma of animal waste.
It was then that the man realized that he was face down on the ground, most likely in a drainage ditch at the side of the road.
On the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho.

The man used what little strength he had left to roll himself over.
And as he did he screamed out in pain. It felt like a thousand knives were tearing through his body. Through his shoulder, his chest, and the hip that he must have landed on when he fell.
He tried to open his eyes but they were swollen shut.
His head was pounding, and as he reached up to touch his face he could feel the dried blood caked around his nose and mouth.

“How did I get here?” the man thought.
Did he fall? Was he hit from behind by a runaway cart, or an animal?
He was starting to remember. It was a man, or rather several men.
He recalled that it was approaching dusk as he came around a bend in the road and there they were.
First one then two then three more, leaping out at him from behind a large rock.
The men descended upon him and began pounding on him with their fists.
He instinctively covered his face and turned to get away, but one of his attackers pushed him to the ground and soon they were all kicking him as hard as they could.
What happened next was now a blur.

The last thing the man remembered was being stripped of his clothing and his belongings.
The cloak that his mother had insisted he take to guard against the chill of the dessert nights.
The sandals his wife had woven for him from the tanned leather she had purchased in the market.
The lucky pebble that his youngest child had slipped into his belt pouch the night before he left.
But worst of all, his attackers took the money purse he had hidden beneath his cloak.
Six months worth of wages that he had earned in Jerusalem, working for his cousin selling trinkets in the Temple court. The money was earmarked as the final payment on a fishing boat that he desperately needed to support his family back in Jericho.
And now it was gone.

His friends had warned him about the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho. A twisting, desolate mountain road that was conducive for ambushing.
“The Bloody Pass” is what the locals called it, as the road descends for 17 miles and 4400 feet from the hills of Jerusalem to the valleys of Jericho below.
Perhaps the trip to Jerusalem had lulled the man into a false sense of security. He had not met with any misfortune when he climbed the road six months before. Most likely because the robbers knew that Jerusalem is where people go to earn money and to buy expensive goods. It was foolish to rob travelers on the way up. It made more sense to wait for them to come back down.

As the man lay there motionless, feeling the heat of the morning sun on his face, he heard the distinctive sound of an approaching traveler on the road.
Finally, help had arrived.
The man turned his head and with shear will he forced one of his swollen eyes to open, just in time to see a man dressed in priestly garb cross over to the opposite side of the road.
Perhaps the Priest didn’t see him because he was too far down in the ditch.
The man began to moan softly, but the Priest continued on, never once glancing back.
Maybe the holy man’s hearing was failing him. He WAS advanced in age, but why did he choose to cross over to the other side of the road, right at that moment?
Perhaps he thought the man was dead and he feared becoming unclean if he touched his corpse.

The sun continued to beat down on the man.
An hour had passed before he heard the sound of footsteps on the road once again.
This time he recognized the approaching figure of a Levite, a member of the priestly caste who assisted in the Temple. This time the man did not have the strength to make his presence known, but again he pried open one eye and to his relief he saw the Levite looking right at him.
But that relief quickly turned to horror as the Levite too crossed over to the other side of the road and scurried off leaving the injured man alone once again.

The man could not believe what was happening. The Levite was heading towards Jericho, away from the Temple in Jerusalem. Surely his Temple duties were complete.
The man could understand the PRIEST wanting to remain pure at all times given his duties, but the Levite? Surely he could stop and help an injured man who was obviously still alive, and a fellow Jew at that!

It was then that the man realized that it was NOT obvious that he was a fellow Jew. All of his clothing had been taken; including the prayer shawl he had draped across his shoulders under his cloak.
The Priest and the Levite must have thought he was a clumsy drunkard, or a God-less Pagan, or worse, a Samaritan - One of those blasphemers from up north who dared to claim that they too are children of God, even though they refuse to accept the writings of the prophets, and deny the legitimacy of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.
These Samaritans even make the ridiculous claim that God resides in the Temple that THEY built on top of Mount Gerizim. Blasphemy! As if God would ever see fit to enter the filthy land of Samaria.

Now the man understood why the Levite and the Priest had passed him by.
He could have been anyone. Who could blame them for not stopping? Perhaps they were afraid that the robbers were still in the area.
Or maybe they thought the man was one of the robbers, posing as bait and just waiting for some unsuspecting fool to stop and offer help.
You can never be too careful on a road like this, the man thought.
Wouldn’t he do the same if he was passing through a bad neighborhood and saw someone in need? Only a fool would let down his guard and risk his life to help a stranger on the road to Jericho.
With a heavy heart, the man resigned himself to his fate.

Hours passed, and with his strength faltering in the noonday sun the man once again lost consciousness.

He was not aware how much time had passed when something made him stir.
Someone’s hand was cradling the back of his head while the other hand lovingly tended to his injuries. First washing the blood off his face with oil and wine and then bandaging the wounds on his body.
He could feel himself being lifted up and he was gently draped across the back of a sturdy animal. Perhaps a donkey or a mule.

The man drifted in and out of consciousness for what seemed like hours before the gentle rocking motion of the animal ceased.
Strong arms lifted him off the animal’s back, and the air cooled around him as he was carried indoors.
The chatter of voices and the scent of a simmering pot of soup made him think that he had brought to an inn. The stranger carried the man up to the second level and placed him on a soft bed, where he promptly fell into a deep sleep.

In the morning as he awoke, he heard a stranger’s voice summon the innkeeper. The next sound he heard was the tinkling of silver coins, and the stranger’s voice saying, “Here are two denari, take care of this man; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

With the voices of the stranger and the innkeeper receding into the distance, a young boy entered the room and began to redress the man’s wounds.
“Who was it that saved me?” the man whispered through his parched lips. “Was it the Levite? Or the Priest? Did they summon help? Or did one of them return after gathering supplies to dress my wounds and bring me here?”

“Neither,” said the boy.
“The man who saved you was not a Levite or a Priest, in fact he was not a member of any Jewish sect by the looks of his dress.
But you may ask him yourself. He said he would return once he retrieves the funds to pay for your care. But it may be awhile. He mentioned that he was passing through on his way home… to Samaria.


We don’t know how the man reacted to this news….To the realization that one of his most hated enemies was the one who saved him.
The end of the story is left to our imagination.
But then again, most of details in this version of the Good Samaritan tale that you just heard ARE imagined.

The author of the Gospel of Luke does not tell us who the beaten man is.
He doesn’t tell us how the man reacted to the actions of the Holy men who passed him by, or how he came to accept the help of the Samaritan.

When we hear the tale of the Good Samaritan, we typically enter the story from one of three familiar perspectives:
We have the hypocritical Levite and Priest who place religious legalism over compassion and walk away from the beaten man;
We have the traveling Samaritan, who defies the hateful stereotypes about his people and stops to help a stranger;
And we have the conniving lawyer in the story’s introduction, who prompts the tale by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” when what he is really wants to ask is: “Who is NOT my neighbor.”
Can I continue to hate my enemies AND STILL inherit eternal life?

In sharing the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches the lawyer, and us, two things:
1) We are to love and show mercy to all people, because all people are our neighbors.
2) We should not let our obsession with religious practices or beliefs get in the way of honoring God’s greatest commandment:
To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, AND to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

This is typically how we interpret the parable of the Good Samaritan.
We are to be like the Good Samaritan and show mercy to all, and we are NOT to be like the Levite and the Priest who failed to do so.

But unfortunately the parable of the Good Samaritan has lost its sting over the last 2000 years.
Most modern day Christians have a vague understanding that the Samaritans and the Jews did not particularly like each other and therefore for the Samaritan to be cast in the role as the righteous and merciful one was quite shocking for those listening to Jesus’ parable.
A first century Jew would be repulsed to hear that they were called to imitate the behavior of a Samaritan. To do so they would really have to dig down deep and fight against a life-long pattern of learned hatred and fear.

But in our time, the word Samaritan has taken on a whole other meaning.
The word has worked its way into our secular culture and has come to describe anyone who stops to help a stranger. In fact, the word no longer needs the qualifying adjective “Good” as the word “Samaritan” itself has come to mean “merciful,” “compassionate,” and “selfless.”
If a first century Jew heard us using the word Samaritan in this manner, he or she would cringe.

For us it would be like redefining the word “Nazi” or “Terrorist” to mean a person of good intentions and good will.
As in, “My car broke down on the highway last night, but thankfully a Good Terrorist stopped to help me.”

To garner the full effect of the parable as Jesus intended it, we need to turn it upside down.
We need to stop putting ourselves in the place of the Levite, the Priest, or the Samaritan by imagining who WE would be reluctant to help, and instead see the story unfold from the perspective of the person needing the help.

It’s time that we looked at the tale of the Good Samaritan from the perspective of the anonymous man in the ditch.
If we were the one lying by the side of the road who would be our Levite and our Priest?
Who do we imagine would NOT stop to help us?
Who do we imagine would be indifferent to our pain or delight in our misfortune?
Who is the last person that we could imagine caring about our well-being?
And now can we picture that person being our Good Samaritan?

We may fully believe that we are capable of extending love and mercy to our enemy, but do we believe that our enemy is capable of extending love and mercy to us?
And if our enemy offers us love and mercy, would we accept it?
Or would we think it was just part of a manipulative plan to harm us?

Just as it was healing for the Jewish people listening to Jesus’ parable to see their enemy as being capable of feeling love and mercy for a stranger, it is healing for us to see our enemy in the same way.

By reversing the perspective of the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can reflect on how the man in the ditch might have felt when he discovered that his only hope for healing was through a Samaritan, from a people he had been taught to fear and hate.
And we may ask ourselves, who are the people in our time that we fear and mistrust?
How might they be the source of our healing?

Martin Luther King Jr. alluded to the parable of the Good Samaritan in his famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, given on April 3, 1968 –t he day before he was assassinated, in Memphis, Tennessee.
King noted that the first question that the Levite and the Priest asked was,
"If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"
But when the Good Samaritan came along, he reversed the question and asked, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

We might extend King’s reversal of perspective by asking yet another question, “If we do not stop to help each other, or accept help from each other, what will happen to us?”

The parable of the Good Samaritan is the story of a man who was lifted up out of a ditch and in the process he caught a glimpse of the view from the mountaintop. He looked over and he saw the Promised Land.
He saw the potential that human kind has to look past their prejudices and their fear, and live out their lives in compassion, mercy and peace.

In telling us this parable, Jesus gives us the opportunity to put ourselves in the ditch.
To look up at the face of our enemy as they reach down to help us; to let go of the hate, fear, or judgment that we feel, and to begin the process of healing.
As we lift each other up, bind each other’s wounds, and continue on the road to Jerusalem, together.


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