Sunday, July 10, 2022

Sermon: “We Trained for This!”, Deuteronomy 30:9b-14/Luke 10:25-37 (July 10, 2022)


Now that summer is well underway and we seem to have moved into 90˚+ days for good, we’re collectively on the lookout for ways to keep cool until fall. Of course, most of us rely heavily on central air conditioning these days, but the best methods of beating the summer heat have always been the ones where efficacy and recreation intersect. Stocking up on popsicles, spending weekends boating, challenging friends to a water gun fight, and running through a sprinkler are all time-tested ways to stay cool while having fun. But perhaps the most popular and refreshing summer pastime of all is going for a swim.

This probably explains why so many teenagers wind up getting jobs as lifeguards during their time off from school. It can be an especially lucrative gig because not just anyone can fill the role; it requires special training to become certified as a lifeguard. In addition to strong swimming skills, a professional lifeguard needs to take written and practical tests to make sure they’re prepared for emergency situations AND they usually have to have CPR, First Aid, and AED certification as well. The job really entails much more than working on a tan and yelling at kids not to run.

Although none of us goes to the pool or beach with the expectation that we’ll wind up in danger, it’s nice to know that there’s a well-trained professional on duty just in case. But there’s also a certain amount of trust involved, that the lifeguard will, you know, use their training if it becomes necessary to save your life. Can you imagine if you found yourself drowning, and the lifeguard decided to go on break at that very moment? Or if they concluded that saving you wasn’t worth the personal risk? Your only hope would be if some altruistic soul happened to be walking by and was willing to jump in and try to save you, relying only on the meager swimming skills that they picked up at summer camp in the third grade – not the most reliable alternative.

Of course, none of us expects to ever wind up in this strange situation, but it’s essentially what happens in today’s reading from Luke – albeit in a landlocked Biblical setting. We can’t fully appreciate the parable of the so-called “Good Samaritan” without understanding the roles of its characters in context. The priest and the Levite who pass by the injured man aren’t just average Joes out for a morning stroll. These are Jewish religious authorities. You know, the ones who spend their entire lives studying Torah and the God of justice, compassion, and mercy that it describes. If anyone knows all the “right answers,” it’s them. As far as the legal expert is concerned, these men have the best training possible.

Samaritans, on the other hand, would be seen as polar opposites of Jewish religious authorities. Although the two groups have shared ancestry, the Biblical Jews and Samaritans despise each other. From the perspective of Jesus’ Jewish audience, Samaritans are WORSE that unbelievers and Gentiles – they’re blasphemers. They call themselves “Children of Israel,” but don’t consider themselves Jews. They only accept the first five books of the First Testament as scripture, rejecting the prophets and other Jewish traditions, and they intermarry freely with heathens. By Jesus’ time, the rift between the Israelites and the Samaritans had become so pronounced that they would each go to great lengths to avoid passing through one another’s territory. From a Jewish perspective, the Samaritans had access to the right “training”, but they got it entirely wrong, allowing it to be corrupted irreparably as their culture evolved.

Jesus doesn’t tell us WHY the priest and Levite pass by the man on the side of the road, but we can certainly speculate. Maybe, we assume that the religious authorities cross to the other side of the road for the same reason we might cross to the other side of the road today: to avoid whatever’s in our path, because we don’t want to make it our problem. Or maybe they do it for a different reason: to avoid risking the ritual impurity that comes with touching a dead body (never mind that they’re travelling AWAY from the temple). We just don’t know for sure. What we DO know is why the Samaritan stops: he is moved with compassion. He’s in enemy territory and by all accounts has no obligation to the man. As far as Jesus’ audience is concerned, his understanding of the Law is deeply flawed, to put it mildly. Yet HE’S the one who acts to fulfill the most important commandment contained in that Law: to love his neighbor.

The priest and Levite, as the religious “life-guards”, had all the right credentials and the right education. Just like the legal expert that was trying to test Jesus, they knew all the right answers. But when push came to shove, they chose not to USE their training; they chose not to act. It was the rank amateur, who could barely do a competent spiritual doggy-paddle, that chose to jump in and save the man. His official training in the Law was completely defective, and yet even the legal expert had to admit that he was the one person in the story who managed to fulfill it.

It's humbling to be reminded that our scriptural knowledge and religious understanding isn’t sufficient to make us righteous. A lifeguard can pass all the required certifications, but if they don’t jump in the water when someone’s in trouble, none of it matters. All the training in the world is meaningless if we don’t use it to guide our actions in faithful obedience to scripture’s command to love our neighbors – even those we loathe – as ourselves.

It’s even more humbling to realize that religious knowledge isn’t the only – or even necessarily the best – path to a life that is pleasing to the Lord. Sometimes, people with little to no understanding of God are the ones who do the best job at living righteously. It’s only when we’re able to recognize this and learn from them that we’re finally able to put our training to good use. The Hasidic Jewish community has a famous story that conveys this very idea. Upon learning that God created everything for a purpose, a cheeky student asks the Master why God created atheists. The Master sagely responds,

God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all – the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right. This means that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say “I pray that God will help you.” Instead, for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say “I will help you.” [1]

Compassion is obligatory for people of faith. This is not a complicated concept. In the words of Deuteronomy, “This commandment…is definitely not too difficult. It isn’t unreachable...[it’s] in your mouth and your heart, waiting for you to do it.” It’s what you’ve been training for since the first day you walked through the doors of a church. So why is there EVER a time that we’re less prepared to show compassion to our neighbors than those who don’t have that same training? Why do we hem and haw and dicker about logistics when our divine charge is clear? The point of being a people of God is not to keep ourselves happy, healthy, and safe, but to serve as a “lifeguard” to the world, jumping in to help whenever we’re needed. We shame God when we avoid our responsibility towards others for any reason.

Over the course of their work this past month, General Assembly has discussed and debated and discerned and prayed over many, many things. The path to agreement on anything in a denomination of well over a million members is often a circuitous one, but I’m grateful that in many cases this time around, our delegates chose to use their training instead of getting caught up in the concerns of the priest and the Levite. We voted to become a sanctuary and accompaniment denomination, making the commitment to assist and support immigrants to our country, regardless of legal status. We voted to approve up to 12 weeks of paid family leave to support clergy as they seek to balance care for their congregations and care for their family (which will now go to the Presbyteries for a vote). And, in recognition that the church has badly failed our human kindred in the past, we voted to create the Center for the Repair of Historical Harm. (If these acts of compassion make you uncomfortable for any reason, I encourage you to think about how the priest, the Levite, and the “Good Samaritan” would have voted, and what the Jesus of this parable would think about it.) I, for one, am proud of and grateful for the hard work undertaken by our denomination, although there is still so much left to be done.

The Priest and Levite in Jesus’ parable knew their responsibility to others according to the Law, but they stopped short of living it out. Let us not make that same mistake. When we find ourselves shying away from compassion, whether out of fear or self-centeredness or apathy, stop. Hear the words of the Law that lie waiting on your heart: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Remember the lesson of the Neighborly Samaritan – the “blasphemer” who managed to live this commandment better than even the teachers of that same Law. Challenge yourself to learn from the compassion of righteous atheists and “heretics” and choose the good of others at every possible opportunity.

The next time you find yourself by a body of water this summer, give thanks for the lifeguards whose training teaches them the best ways to rescue someone in danger (because it’s truly not safe to execute a water rescue without it). But also take a moment to give thanks for those whose desire to help others isn’t based in skills or knowledge, but in nothing more than the compassion in their heart. Pray that we might learn from their example, because compassion for our fellow human beings is the greatest calling that God has placed on our lives. We trained for this, friends. All that’s left is for us to do is jump in. Amen.


[1] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, vol. 2.

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