Sermon - 14th July 2013
The good Samaritan
Scripture - Leviticus 19:18, 33-34; Luke 10:25-37
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Tribes & Neighbours
We don’t realise it – until we think about it – but we’re quite a tribal society really. Of course we don’t think of ourselves in tribes in the same way that Africans or some Arabs do. Our tribes tend not to be based on family connections but on looser affiliations – but those links are still very strong.
When I moved to Manchester, in 1996, I quickly learned of the intense rivalry between supporters of Manchester United and Manchester City. It’s quite tribal really – people support their team through thick and thin, pay extraordinary amounts of money to see them play, even dress themselves, or their children, in the team colours – they may even buy the kit for themselves. Sometimes politics – particularly Labour and Tory politicians – are described as “tribal” and it’s not normally a compliment! I suppose the gang culture we see in our inner cities is yet another way of tribalism coming to the fore – kids associate with each other for protection, identity, power, and protection but, in doing so, become threatening to those outside their gang or tribe.
Neighbourhoods can be a little tribal: there may be a certain set of shared values or interests depending on where we live. A friend of mine looked at identity on the Isle of Dogs in London in the early 1990s. The Isle of Dogs is the area where the midwives on “Call the Midwife” worked. In the 1990s the Docklands were developed – having fallen into disuse – and much new housing was built there leading many young rich professions – often called Yuppies – to come and live on the Isle of Dogs. They existed uneasily with the settled community there who lived, in the main, in council housing and who had much more modest incomes. The newcomers felt a bit like pioneers and settlers, the settled community felt excluded and invaded. There was only one supermarket on the Island and that is where the tribes met – young professionals, High Court Judges and working class poor people.
I’ve felt part of a tribe too. Growing up, I was raised as a Roman Catholic and that can feel a bit tribal; you grow up with a sense of identity which, even having been in a Protestant church for over 25 years, means that I find the Protestant tribal badge uncomfortable despite my own theological positions. [MCC: When I was younger I also felt very much part of the LGBT tribe. I remember going to Pride marches in London when, for one day of the year - we really were everywhere. It was very powerful, particularly in an age of intolerance. It feels different now in an age of greater inclusion.]
I suspect most of us are less tribal than that with our own neighbours as, in the intervening 20 years, we’ve become rather less neighbourly. Let’s try something – how many of you know the names of your next door neighbours? What about the names of others on your street?
I live in Hulme and, until the start of the year, I didn’t really know the names of any of the folks that live in the 12 houses that make up my street. As a result of a spate of burglaries over the Christmas and winter period – 4 of our 12 houses were burgled – a group of us started to work together to make the street safer through some basic DIY stuff like anti-climb paint, anti-intruder strips and by putting pressure on the management company to make certain aspects of our development more secure. As a result I probably know the names of most of the people who live on our street – well I did, but many of the people who live on our street are students or young professionals and some have moved on already. So I don’t know my neighbours well but I, and a few others on our street, felt a sense of mutual obligation.
Interestingly the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1930s speaks a lot about this idea of neighbourliness. Most Germans either didn’t see the Jews as their neighbours or, if they did, they didn’t see that they had any obligations towards them due to the propaganda that the Nazis spread.
So this brings us to our story. It’s a famous story and one which has deep resonances even now for us. It’s all about tribal loyalty and extending views around neighbourliness.
The Priest and the Levite were good people. I don’t mean they were morally good – we haven’t much evidence of that! - they were professionally good. (Clergy are always assumed to be good because of our profession!) They worked in the Temple, the centre of Jewish worship; they were leaders of the Jewish tribe; they would have known the Law and their obligations under it yet, for reasons we can only guess at, they ignore the man in need. Yet the one who helps is, literally, from a different tribe and was considered to be from, almost, a different faith.
The Samaritans worshipped God on their own mountain, not in Jerusalem. They were racially different from the Jews of Jesus’ day and so were seen as dodgy outsiders. They were related - just - to Judaism, but they weren’t really, well, kosher. Yet it's this outsider that Jesus holds up as an example of obedience to the Law, the one who transcends tribal boundaries and who shows what it truly is to be a good neighbour.
This whole episode in St Luke starts off with a lawyer asking what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. He is asking, in effect, what God requires of him. Jesus turns the question around and checks out what the lawyer thinks. The lawyer knows his Bible, he knows the whole of the Law could be summarised as loving God and loving neighbour. Our Old Testament reading, from Leviticus summarises this nicely – and develops it.
Leviticus is one of those books that we tend not to read too often. It’s a collection of laws, and laws don’t’ make exciting reading. The laws are concerned often with things that don’t concern us – kosher food laws, laws about what crops can be grown, laws also around sexual behaviour which don’t seem to resonate with contemporary societies. Often the laws urge punishments that we would find degrading and inhumane.
But running throughout Leviticus is the record of one society’s efforts to love and obey God. Interestingly, in today’s short passage from Leviticus, love of God is also expressed in loving others and, in particular, with regard to the foreigner. Some Bibles translate this as foreigner, older ones as “alien” which in an age of science fiction sounds a little odd! We might say migrant, asylum seeker, refugee, as well as foreigner. Interestingly, considering the later struggles of the Jewish people to keep themselves racially and religiously separate from the surrounding nations, here in the heart of their Law is an admonition to treat the foreigner with the same respect as a native-born Jew.
Jesus takes this idea and turns it around. The foreigner, the migrant, the outsider isn’t, in his story, someone to be helped but someone through whom God’s love and mercy is seen. It isn’t so much that Jesus’ hearers had to recognise that the Samaritan was their neighbour, but that this neighbour behaved as a better person than they did. God’s love and mercy was found on the margins. Those at the centre – who should have been aware of the command to love - are condemned, whilst God is at work outside the mainstream with the Good Samaritan. The one outside the tribe is the better neighbour than those who are within it.
I don’t know about you but I continue to be impressed by the new Pope. He is saying a lot of interesting stuff but the way he is acting is making an even bigger impression. He’s refused to move into the papal apartment in the Vatican preferring, instead, to stay in the guest house for visiting clergy. When presented with some silly costume to wear he muttered “No thank you, father, carnival is over”.
He has made a lot of noise about the poor. Last week he visited the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. This island is 80 miles off the coast of Africa and is the most southerly point of the European Union. Its location means that many people from Africa flee to it and claim asylum. They have been treated very badly by the Italian authorities who did a deal with Libya to send all the asylum seekers back to Libya. The pope praised the people of Lampedusa who have opened their hearts to these poor people and he talked about the “globalization of indifference” in the West.
I think the pope is onto something – we can easily become indifferent to the plight of those on the margins of our society – and the way we treat those who have fled here for safety clearly shows this. Manchester, and the towns that surround us, are places where many asylum seekers are dispersed whilst the torturously long process of evaluating their claims takes place.
Now I don’t need to remind Methodists/MCC folk of the duty to care for those on the margins – after all that was the key facet of Wesley’s/Troy’s own ministry. But perhaps we need, like Jesus in the story, to turn the tables a bit.
Of course we have a duty of care to those who are amongst us who are poor, who are destitute, who are desperate – this is part of what the Good Samaritan story is all about – recognising the obligation we have to our neighbours and recognising that the most unlikely of people are our neighbours.
But I think it’s more than that: it’s recognising that these most unlikely people – asylum seekers, migrants, the poor, the destitute, the Samaritan - can be instruments of God’s grace and mercy. Perhaps they are even more likely to be so than those nearer the centre of society. I think of some of the asylum seekers in my church (this congregation) who go out of their way to help others, to put some money in the collection – even when they have nothing – who keep hope and are an example to the rest of us. I think of my friend Shakhura, a legal case worker who works only with asylum seekers and refugees, who is a devout Muslim and who does superb work with cases where people have been persecuted for their Christian beliefs, and who does her best work with cases of lesbians and gays who have fled to the UK for safety. I know Shakhura well – she is incredibly devout in her faith but the key to her faith is to obey God and she knows that the Qu’ran is clear that God is about justice. This isn’t so far from the teacher of the law knowing that God wants us to love him and love our neighbour.
As we ponder this passage anew, we need to think of our own responsibility to be Good Samaritans and also to recognise that God is at work on the margins of our world, on the margins of the church, on the margins of what is acceptable. More than this, God is more easily found on the edge with the poor, the humble, the excluded, the stranger, the outsider than He is at the centre with power and privilege.
God of the margins,
Help us to see you at work in our world,
Not in the centre of power and influence,
But on the edge:
With the poor,
The asylum seeker and refugee,
Help us, loving God, to both serve you on the margins
And hear you speaking to us from there,
Disturbing our comfortable lives,
And helping us see our world as it really is.
All this we ask in the name of your Son,
Who had nowhere to lay his head,
Our friend and brother.