How many lawyers do I have here today? Raise your hands! No, I know who you are – you’re the ones who are cringing because the Gospel starts with what could seem like yet another lawyer joke…
Now, why might I say that? This lawyer is doing the very thing that lawyers are trained to do: to clarify the law by asking questions. But this lawyer is violating a cardinal rule for trial lawyers: Never ask a question unless you know what the response is going to be. In a trial, of course, you want to shape the jury’s perception of what has happened. So you pose questions that are narrowly drawn and designed to elicit precisely the response you desire. Thus, we have the infamous loaded question “have you stopped beating your wife?” There is no real desire to figure out a time line of when the beatings stopped – the intent is to make sure the guilt of the man as a wife-beater is established. And there’s no good way for the person to protest and say “but I didn’t!” That loaded question makes the image stick.
So maybe this lawyer thinks he already knows the answer: follow all the laws in Torah! Perhaps he’s looking for an “attaboy” from Jesus, since this lawyer is a good guy and he knows he’s already doing that. He knows his responsibility as a faithful Jew: to love and obey God, and to care for his neighbor.
But now the story turns a little, this familiar story, because the lawyer asks a follow-up question that is a doozy: “who is my neighbor?” At this point, my inclination is to think maybe his question is genuine, that he really wants to know. Maybe he’s tired of participating in petty arguments over land transactions and marriage contracts. Maybe those who are his neighbors expect him to side with him and use the weight of his learning to win the day, even if another neighbor has the same expectation in the same dispute. How far do we carry this whole “neighbor” business anyway?
And here’s where Jesus smacks us upside the head, by telling a parable, an illustration of who our neighbor is. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, the stranger who cares for someone wounded by the side of the road, when the wounded man’s everyday neighbors passed him by. Yes, we know about it, or think we do. But here’s the deal: The Samaritan is not just a nice guy passing by who isn’t a Jew, it’s as if a Sunni gave a Shiite a great big kiss. The Samaritans and the Jews are two groups of people who don’t get along at all. In fact each thinks the other is heretical, hateful, worthless. I’m telling you this just so you have a feel of how shocking this parable would have been to a lawyer, a man committed to following the proper order of things, which says that Samaritans are the enemy.
It’s sort of like a Trump adherent who’s also a Tea Party member running up to Hillary Clinton after she fell off a stage, giving her first aid and putting her in his own car to rush her to the ER.
Or like police officers under attack protecting those who were protesting excesses of other police officers in other places where African-American men were shot during routine traffic stops.
Or like a “Black Lives Matter” protester trying desperately to stem the bleeding of a downed Dallas police officer. We don’t see too much of that kind of crossing of socio-political boundaries in today’s culture.
So, too, in the ancient Near East, where there was a long tradition of “we keep to ourselves, away from those others, who aren’t like us.” Some of that was self-protective – Jews were regularly oppressed by other nations – Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans – and keeping together was a way to be safe. But it also morphed into something more, a pride in one’s identity that made others less than us.
And that’s where the story sets the stage for the even more important message: our identity is grounded not only in our blood, but in our religious identity, and the laws that are part and parcel of maintaining that identity. But if we get it backwards, where it’s all about the law and not about the reason for identity, we fail as people of faith.
So take a look at the last exchange between Jesus and the lawyer. Jesus, in good rabbinic fashion, asked the question “which of these three passers by was the true neighbor?”
The lawyer’s a smart guy. He gets it in one: “It was the one who showed the wounded man mercy.”
Mercy. We tend to slide past that word in this passage, but let’s sit with it a little bit.
Mercy. There can be no true dialogue between people of different backgrounds, different traditions, different laws, unless there is mercy. Unless we are willing to grant someone who is different the same mercy we would like given to us. Mercy: a disposition to show kindness or forbearance. Mercy: if one is in a position of power, to show clemency. Mercy: a virtue that is a spiritual practice.
I focus on mercy for a very particular reason, and it’s not the horrible stories in the news this week. Mercy is not something that is reserved for crisis: it is a manner of being, a way of looking at the world and at those round us. Even in how you look at a Trump supporter if you like Hillary, even I how you look at a Hillary fan if you believe Trump can make America great again. If you’re a Bernie fan…sorry, I got nothin’…
No, I’m talking about mercy because it’s a spiritual discipline that I pray you will all commit to in the days and months to come, as you move into life without Father Rick at the helm here at Holy Comforter. I know some of you are still hurting. I also know that some of you did your grieving over the months that you knew he would be leaving. But now the reality has set in.
Here’s what sometimes happens after a priest retires at the end of a long and fruitful season of ministry: someone who doesn’t like something that the priest did says “Finally we can change that one thing I didn’t like!” And then the person lobbies or pesters to IMMEDIATELY change it. The former priest’s chair is still warm, but it’s got to be changed now.
And then someone else, who really liked that one thing, decides that the person who wants change is THE ENEMY, and a whole bunch of pain and bad words and stress explodes. And your senior warden goes out to buy the industrial sized bottle of Advil…
But imagine how different it would be in times of stress and change if the guiding practice were one of mercy?
What if the person who didn’t like that one thing said “I really didn’t like that thing, and I hope that it will change. I know there’s a process where I can speak my mind and that we can, as a community, discern the direction in which God is moving Holy Comforter. And I will speak up when those opportunities occur. I can be patient and trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us all in this process, and I can also respect that mine may be one of many different points of view.”
And when the opportunity comes for that person to share his or her feelings, others who disagree will similarly practice mercy and say or think “well, that’s an opinion I didn’t realize was out there. I’d like to hear more before I immediately dismiss it, even though I feel differently.”
Nobody’s insisting they must have their way. Nobody’s calling people who feel differently colorful names. No parking lot conversations or FaceBook private messages, or rump caucuses. Mercy. Mercy, because God shows us mercy at all times, and we want to try to be a little bit more like the God who created us every day.
Mercy. Speaking up when appropriate and listening hard when appropriate: those are the two keys to the spiritual discipline of mercy. If someone is hurting because they haven’t been heard in the past, don’t ignore them – reach out. Bind their wounds of feeling ignored. Pour the healing oil of friendship and respect on their hearts.
I say this because you are embarked on the amazing pilgrimage to seek your next rector. There will be moments when showing mercy comes very naturally and times when it is a struggle. That’s why we call it a spiritual discipline, because we have to discipline ourselves to do it not only in the easy times, but in the hard times, too. This pilgrimage you’re on will take some patience and a whole lot of discernment. Right now you are still adjusting to life without Father Rick. In a little while you will welcome an interim rector who will help you get in the best possible shape for this process and for welcoming the next priest who has the privilege to serve you. I will be helping your vestry and the search committee – sort of a Rick Steves for the trip – so it is more like the spiritually transformative Emmaus Road walk rather than a 40 year wandering in the desert. I’m glad there will be some time after the 10 a.m.service for me to chat with you all, answer any questions you might have about how different this process will be from other transitions you may have experienced in the past, and to assure you that you are not on this journey alone. Your bishops and your diocesan staff are praying for you and with you at this time, and we will help you every step of the way. So whenever you get tired, or overwhelmed, or anxious, think mercy. Mercy for others on the journey with you, mercy for yourself as you recognize that none of us is perfectly merciful (except God!) You may be surprised how you will feel God’s love as you share God’s mercy with each other.
So my prayer for you in the time to come is this: May you feel the blessing of mercy shown to you and that you show to others. May you practice mercy in the hardest of times and may you receive it when you most need it. May God bless the Church of the Holy Comforter as the pilgrimage goes forward!