PUS IN THE TWITTERFEED
A sermon preached at S.LUKE'S QUEEN'S PARK BRIGHTON July 14th 2019
The famous story of the good Samaritan
“And who is my neighbour exactly?” asks a lawyer who, Luke says, wanted to disconcert Jesus and also wanted to justify himself.
Apart from Priest and jazz drummer, I must confess to being a qualified solicitor myself, although I have long since ceased to practise. But I must say I did meet a few smart-alecs in the legal profession who like to trip people up and to justify themselves (or at least justify their excessive fees.)
But luckily it doesn’t really matter who asked the question or why - it’s just a peg on which to hang one of Our Lord’s most famous and beautiful parables. And this one, like all His best stories, is powerfully ambiguous. Is it supposed to be about shaming us into being good neighbours to those who need help and not passing by on the other side or is it really a thinly veiled attack on racism, on chauvinistic prejudice against foreigners, riff-raff, asylum seekers, ethnic minorities?
Who is the neighbour and who is the victim? Is the despised and saintly Samaritan in fact both? And who, outside the story itself, has been a good neighbour to all of us? Let’s get thinking.
This is a particularly topical and sensitive issue for British society in July 2019.
Because we are so divided, so polarized, everything is black or white, right or wrong, yes or no, no ifs no buts. Those who disagree with us are the enemy, to be shouted out, never listened to. Liberal and open-minded are now almost dirty words. Intelligent discussion is a waste of time.
We are becoming more blatantly rude and cruel towards each other than ever before.
One obvious technical cause of this is the availability and anonymity of the internet. Social-media sites like Twitter enable people to vent their vilest inner feelings, to squeeze out the pus, in print. But Twitter is just a platform. It is the vilest inner feelings themselves and the pus to be squeezed which are truly shocking.
Hate-filled violence of the tongue. Leading to hate-filled violence on the street by religious fanatics and political fascists. Shameless populist leaders whipping up resentment against foreigners in general and refugees in particular.
So you see how acutely relevant Christ's story of the Good Samaritan becomes. Because it's no good trying to impose political correctness. And legislating against racial or sexual or religious discrimination is only part of the answer.
Christ was never a lawyer. He always appeals direct to the heart and the only way He has ever succeeded in changing us for the better is by sending us the Holy Spirit, as He promised, to lead us into all truth.
And look how busy the dear old Holy Spirit has been over the years.
We have been led into the truth that slavery is repugnant to God’s act of creating each one of us in His own image.
We have been led into the truth that men and women are equal partners in all spheres of life.
We have been led into the truth that the colour of our skin is not a ground for discrimination and that sexual orientation is genetically determined and not a matter of sinful choice.
Of course progress grinds to a temporary halt every so often (pus on the line) when bigots preach hatred or hi-jack the name of religion to justify terrorist violence. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, and taking the long and gentle view, believe it or not, we’re getting there. We are inching nearer to God’s ideal of accepting that all human beings are our equals and our neighbours.
And then there is Christ's own teaching this morning that we should specifically go out of our way to help a stranger in distress.
Of course the story is a story - the incident probably never actually happened - but it is deliberately extreme and dramatic in order to stir our hearts and consciences.
Use your imagination. Suppose a little old lady who was savagely beaten outside a supermarket for the week’s pension in her handbag was rescued, tended to, comforted and taken off to the A&E in a minicab at his own expense by a virtually destitute illegal immigrant from Afghanistan?
But maybe such an extreme example is wasted on us. An awful lot of people seem incapable of achieving even the most basic levels of charity and goodwill towards others.
ITV thinks their series Neighbours from hell makes good, voyeuristic viewing. You tut-tut about tragic, idiotic and long-running disputes over fences and hedges bankrupting the parties involved in legal costs.
And I’ll never forget my late father telling me about a bomb hitting a house in his street during the war. The occupants were buried under the rubble and the firemen were frantically appealing for volunteers to help get them out alive, while all the time the woman next door who had narrowly escaped disaster kept obsessively sweeping the debris back across from her front path which she intended to keep spotless.
One of the main problems these days is that, while Jesus wants us to be good-neighbourly on a personal, hands-on, eye-contact basis, we find it much easier to salve our consciences by settling for charity at a safe distance. Too much fund-raising and not enough little acts of kindness. Too much sentimental Pudsey and red-noses. Too much glitzy celebrity SportRelief.
Of course vast sums of useful money are raised in these campaigns but don't stop at a credit card. And don't buy those stupid lottery tickets that’ll never win anything and just pay for admin and bureaucracy.
Christ would always rather we actually DID something practical for someone in trouble or need. Or at least gave them the precious gift of time and attention, like the Samaritans, those tireless volunteers who take their name from the hero of today’s gospel.
To be a real Good Samaritan is a risky business. You don’t just scribble your signature, put your chequebook away and move on. You don’t know where it will end. A little act of kindness may lead you into another and then another and finally even a caring relationship may blossom. And then you might start the whole adventure over again with another needy person. And so on. And what then?
Well, eventually you might find that, when you re-read that old commandment to “love you neighbour as yourself”, it looks different. You suddenly realize that you’ve stopped defining your neighbour as the other with yourself as the centre of everything but instead you are finding your own position by starting from the other.
That is precisely how Christ turns eveything around in His gospel. This volte-face, this metanoia, this standing of worldly, selfish principles on their heads is the only thing that can start us in the right direction for our return to God.
We should listen very carefully to what Christ says - and thank God S.Luke has recorded this parable in his gospel because it doesn’t appear in any of the others - because Christ is the image of the unseen God.
Or as Archbishop Michael Ramsay used to say: “God is Christlike and in Him is there no unchristlikeness at all.”
And we should not just listen very carefully to what Christ says but we should also look very carefully at what He did in His short life in Palestine because, when He came down from heaven to earth, he identified with injured humanity, He took pity on us, He bound up our hurts and our wounds and He paid for our healing and redemption.
Does that ring a bell?
Yes, He was the Good Samaritan to you and to me and, as he said to the smart-alec lawyer, He says to you and to me: Go, and do likewise yourself.