Sermon: October 1, 2023

The Parable of the Good Samaritan. I suspect that everyone here this morning has heard this parable before, or at the very least heard the phrase “Good Samaritan.” It is a well-loved and well-worn story. Robbers rob and gravely injure a traveler, most likely a Jewish man as Jesus does not tell us his ethnicity, and they leave him on the roadside to die. A priest traveling from Jerusalem to his home in Jericho passes by, sees the wounded man but does not stop to help. A Levite, an assistant to the Temple priests, also was traveling from Jerusalem to his home in Jericho having finished his duties in the Temple. He too saw the dying man on the roadside, and he too passes by. Now those listening to Jesus tell this story so many years ago would have been expecting a third traveler to pass by, and indeed a third does pass by, but not the person the listeners would be expecting. They had likely heard parables like this one before, and the third traveler would normally have been a regular Jewish man who held no special status and played no role in the Temple. This ordinary man would have stopped to help the dying man. The moral of the story would have been simple in this case, be like the regular Jewish man who stopped to help his fellow Jew, and not like the priest or the Levite. Case closed, end of story. And many Christians have read the story like this too.

However, Jesus, in Jesus-fashion adds a twist to the story. The third person to pass by is not a Jewish man. He is a Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews did not like each other in Jesus’ day. There is a long history to their dislike that goes back hundreds of years. Both Samaritans and Jews see themselves as the true inheritors of God’s covenant and the other as heretical. And yet, in Jesus’ telling of this parable, a Samaritan man stops to help his enemy, a Jewish man. A Samaritan man risks his safety (this road was notoriously dangerous) and expends great energy and resources to save a man who was his enemy. Certainly, Jesus is encouraging us to behave as the Samaritan man did. Jesus is encouraging us to help those in need. And Jesus is stretching our definition of who our neighbor is to the very limit. Our neighbors are not just members of our tribe, our group. Our neighbors are also our enemies. We are to extend love not only to those who are like us, but also, we are to extend love to those we do not like. Jesus is also showing us that those we consider to be outside our group, those we don’t like, even those who we consider to be our enemies, might have something to teach us. That was probably a hard pill to swallow for those listening to Jesus that day. I think it is a hard pill for us to swallow too.

And, because this is a parable, there is another lesson within that I want to highlight. We tend to demonize the priest and Levite and cast them as the bad guys in the story. But are they really? We aren’t told much about them, but I have to think they at least had pity on the dying man they passed. I am sure they had very rational reasons for not stopping. “It is too dangerous. If I stop and am killed, what will happen to my family?” Or “He is dying and there is nothing I can do to save him. Better not add my death to his.” Or “I do not know how to treat his wounds. I will let someone more qualified than me know when I reach Jericho. They will come back and care for him.” Or “He’ll be alright. When he comes to, he’ll get himself back to Jericho.”

We are told what the Samaritan man felt. He felt not pity but compassion. Unlike pity, compassion is an emotion that instigates action. Compassion forces one to stand up and do something. When we have pity or sympathize, we do not place our bodies, time and energy on the line. Not only are we to see those outside of our tribe, even our enemies, as our neighbor, we are also to have compassion for them. We are to feel the emotion that forces us to stand up and do something. And we might best learn how to do this from someone we would least expect or least want to be our teacher. Jesus isn’t trying to tell us that all priests and Levites are bad. He is trying to get us to break out of the boxes from which we view the world. He is trying to get us to seriously ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and then to have compassion for all our neighbors.

I think we have all heard sermons before telling us that all people are our neighbors. I know I have preached such a sermon in the past. And it is true. I don’t think that is news to us, though I think it is often difficult for us to live out this reality and to have compassion for those we don’t like. And, on this last Sunday in which we are focusing on the Season of Creation, I think this parable encourages us to expand our definition of neighbor beyond humanity to all nonhuman creatures and the very Earth itself. While I don’t think I consciously see the Earth or nonhuman creatures as my enemy, I certainly don’t love nonhuman creatures and the Earth as I love myself. I certainly can behave as if nonhuman creatures and the Earth are my enemy.

If we expand our definition of neighbor to all creatures and the Earth itself, then in this parable, all creatures and the Earth are the man who is dying at the side of the road, and we are not the Samaritan. At best we are the priest and the Levite, and we are very possibly the robbers who attack the man as he passes by. We are certainly doing a lot to harm all creatures and the Earth through the way we live. I read something very startling the other day. Did you know that in the past 75 years we have used as much energy and resources as all humanity used in the previous 6,000 years. Wow. That is an eyeopener.

And we are also the priest and the Levite. There are so many things that keep us in the place of pity and out of the place of compassion. Fear, apathy, hopelessness and a desire not to see the costs of our actions, and an unwillingness to see the need for change are at the top of the reasons why we have pity but not compassion. So how do we move from pity or not seeing the problem at all to a place of compassion? Well, I want to share with you some insights from a book I’ve recently read by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, environmental activists. The book is Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in with Unexpected Resilience and Creative Power.

Macy and Johnstone argue that there are three stories of our time. The first is “the Great Unraveling,” or the coming apart of all the systems of our world, both human and nonhuman. The second story is “Business as Usual.” The core assumption of this story is that things aren’t too bad, and we can carry on our business as we usually do. As long as the economy is growing and my investments are doing well, then we shouldn’t worry about anything else. They say that most of us live in both these stories. We have moments when we recognize that the world is unraveling and we feel despair and hopelessness, but we push these moments aside and move into business as usual where we pretend that nothing at all is wrong, and life does not need to change. And living in these two stories is making us miserable and causing the downward spiraling of the Great Unraveling to proceed unchecked.

Macy and Johnstone offer us a third story they call “The Great Turning.” This is a story of active hope in which we become active participants in the process of moving toward our hopes and, where we can, realizing them. In the story of the Great Turning, we shift our sense of who we are and who we want to be. We change how we relate to one another and to the Earth. We show up and play our part. And as we do this, we join with others who are also showing up to do their part. We become the Samaritan man who was no longer boxed in by the definitions of neighbor he had previously known. We become the Samaritan man who felt compassion and was compelled to show up for the dying man on the side of the road and who then joined with the innkeeper to help the wounded man heal.

But how do we do this? How do we shift from a place where we despair, feel hopeless, or pretend that nothing bad is happening? How do we overcome our apathy and fear to get to a place of compassion and action? Well, Macy and Johnstone have some ideas for us. First, we must truly face the problems facing us. We must take in a clear view of reality and acknowledge what we see and feel. The priest and the Levite could walk by the dying man because at some level they denied what was really happening. We have no indication that either were bad or evil men, so, in order to walk by a dying man and do nothing, they must have kept themselves from seeing his true state. This is probably the hardest step to take, because it is scary. Will we look at reality and be so terrified by what we see that we are paralyzed by this fear? Will we feel such despair that we lose all hope and do nothing? Perhaps, but I think not. Macy and Johnstone believe that when we truly face the mess we are in, we will realize that business as usual cannot go on, and we will be moved to action. We will feel compassion for the Earth, nonhuman creatures, and ourselves and we will be have to do something. And they give us some ways to get to that action.

After we have looked without flinching at what is really going on around us, Macy and Johnstone ask us to identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move. You could begin this work by finishing the following sentences. Looking at the future we are heading into, what I deeply hope for is. . .. Some things I love about creation that I want to protect and care for are. . .. When I imagine the world, we will leave to those who come after us, I hope it looks like. . .. If I were freed from fear and doubt, what would I do? If I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I most want to do for the healing of the world? Does the way I live my life support the changes I hope for? As you consider these statements and questions, you will begin to feel compassion for the creation around you and you will begin to get a sense of where you are being called to act. The problems we face are enormous, and no one can work to fix all of them, but each of us is called to do our part, no matter how small it might be. What action are you being called to take to bring about the Great Turning?

And finally, Macy and Johnstone ask us to take steps to move ourselves and our situation in the direction that we hope will become reality. Maybe you love the wetlands that surround your home, and you hope they will always be there for future generations to love and appreciate. As you come to understand what threatens them and how much you love them, your love and compassion will compel you to act on their behalf, both in your personal life and in the wider world. You will join others who also love these wetlands and together you will be stronger than you were alone. Maybe you want to see young people embrace a life focused not on consumerism but on connectedness with all creation, so you volunteer in the schools or the nature conservancy to teach or you write a children’s book telling this story. These are only two examples of the countless ways your seeing and compassion can lead to changes that will lead to the future you hope for.

The priest and the Levite most likely thought of all the reasons they could not help the dying man. The Samaritan man allowed himself to identify with the man, feel compassion, and then acted to do what he could. He picked up the man and shared his resources with the innkeeper so that the innkeeper could also join in the healing. When we look at the unraveling taking place in our created world, we can focus on all the reasons why we can’t act. Or we can allow ourselves to be touched by the suffering of the creation around us and allow that compassion to compel us to act in the ways we can, and we can join with others who are doing the same. I leave you with the words of Greta Thunberg, the young woman who has and is doing so much to bring our attention to the great unraveling going on all around us: “It is never too late to do as much as we can.” Amen.