Rev. Paul Mitchell
July 10, 2016
There are two different occasions that are considered by pastors to be the hardest on which to preach. One is the pastor’s first Sunday. The temptation is to try to get it all in at once – to demonstrate the prowess of the pastor and perhaps justify her or his presence. The other is on the Sunday after a significant traumatic event in the life of the congregation or the world. So here we are on my first Sunday with you following one of the most convulsively violent weeks I can remember. At our clergy transitions workshop last month, our bishop shared a story that he loves to tell.
“A monk was traveling back to his monastery. As he crossed an open field, he was suddenly confronted by a fierce Samurai warrior. With his hand menacingly poised above the hilt of his sword, the warrior blocks the monk’s path, and asks three questions in staccato fashion. “Who are you? What are you doing? Where are you going?” Somewhat stunned by this unexpected turn of events, the monk regains his composure and responds with a question of his own. “How much does your shogun pay you to stand guard here and ask these questions of travelers?” The samurai, slightly taken aback by the monk’s question, replies, “Two bags of rice each month.” The monk smiles and says to the samurai, “I will pay you three bags of rice each month, if you ask me these same three questions every day.”[i]
“Who are you? What are you doing? Where are you going?” These first three weeks with you I plan to address these questions one at a time – probably not definitively, once and for all, but by way of introduction. They are the questions of identity, mission, and vision. Every church, every follower of Jesus, indeed every person needs to wrestle with these questions – thus the high value that the monk places in them. I’m guessing we will come back to these questions again and again as we struggle with our relevance and vitality as individuals and as an organization.
I’m guessing that at least a few of you are here today largely because you want to ask me the question – in one way or another – “Who are you, Pastor Paul?” I could bore you or entertain you with a list of facts and accomplishments, shortcomings and failures, hopes and regrets. All of those things would tell you something about me. But they probably wouldn’t help you a whole lot to know who I am. I’m sure that those stories will tumble out as time goes on. Likewise, people have told me many things about you. To name them would be to invite you to nod in agreement and recognition, or to fold your arms in dissent and protest. Mostly, what I have been told about you is good – so don’t worry. And some of the things I have been told about you may not be flattering – but also don’t worry.
So I have a cloud of information about you that has been helpfully offered to me – some of it contradictory. I intend to keep that cloud off to the side as I seek to know who you are. A new pastor is an opportunity to start a new relationship, choosing to become more like who you are. One hopeful sign that I have been given is that you have been recovering in recent years from the traumatic discovery that you – as a congregation – were not who you thought you were. Part of that recovery process has been to admit to yourself that you do not need to become someone that you are not, but to become ever more of who you are. That’s a good path to be on, and I rejoice in joining you on that path.
Now, I am a planner. I need a plan. Once I have established a plan, I can usually be nimble and adaptive. Having a plan helps me to think through what’s important to me – which in turn helps me to respond to change – either to accept or to resist contingencies as they arise. So I have a plan for the first six months of worship. I’ll share more about that next week when I talk about the second question, “What are you doing?” But I had a plan for these first three weeks, and it’s uncanny how well it aligned with the Gospel texts from the revised common lectionary – which I will typically follow as Pastor Kathy did. It’s also uncanny how the lectionary always seems to hold some good news for today. Let me say that the phrase “good news” can be understood in many ways. For me, “good” does not always mean pleasant or comfortable. Instead, I take it to mean “fitting” or “appropriate” for the time and place in which we find ourselves.
My plan for today was to start off easily with pleasant and comfortable good news. However, as you get to know me, you will know that it’s hard for me not to name the elephant in the room once I have seen or smelled or bumped into it. It was not my plan to start off talking about racism, violence, and the devastation of our little blue marble in space. And yet, in order to keep the main thing the main thing, I must. After all, do we not follow the Inclusive Other – the Prince of Peace – the Risen Gardener? This past week has been a difficult week for us in many ways – following many difficult weeks. Black men have been killed by police officers. Police officers have been killed by snipers. It seems to come so fast that we cannot even breathe between incidents. I have been nauseated, sleepless, and distressed. If the “Good News” is not good news – then what is it?
So, today, we have heard the “good news” through the parable of the good neighbor – the fitting or appropriate neighbor. It is probably one of the most well-known parables, and we have heard it preached time and again. We love it, because none of us imagines our self passing by the wounded victim on the side of the road. I’m sure that every single one of you can tell me what it means. And yet, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of a few things.
For instance, when we think of the story, we often overlook that it is meant by Luke to be Jesus’ explanation of what is required to inherit eternal life. The lawyer’s succinct interpretation of the Law of the Covenant is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” It all boils down to that. Simple enough, right? Easy? No! Despite our profession as followers of Jesus, we cross over to the other side. With genuine warmth and understanding, I dare say that there are a number of residents on the island who have crossed over to the other side in order to avoid coming too close to those who are lying on the side of the road – perhaps even some of you. Don’t get me wrong. I too have crossed over roads or waters to avoid the unpleasant task of being a fitting or appropriate neighbor.
We think of the neighbor as being somehow someone who is like us – someone who we know, who shares our circumstances, who lives next door, who would do the same for us. And yet Jesus chooses to illustrate mercy through the foreigner who is understood by Judeans and Galileans as apostate, vile, and unclean – fundamentally different. And that mercy is embodied in someone who would most likely be rejected, if not spat upon, by the man whom he aids. The Greek word translated as “mercy” means “the emotion roused by undeserved affliction in others, and containing an element of fear as well as mercy.”[ii] The Hebrew word it translates “denotes an attitude arising out of mutual relationship, e.g., between relatives, hosts and guests … those in covenant relation. It is an act rather than a disposition, with trust as the basis….”[iii]
In other words, Jesus is saying that the “other” – the stranger who adheres to different ways – is a partner to be trusted, without expectation of reward, in establishing the Beloved Community. Neighbors are good who see each other and do not pass by on the other side. Do you hear that this means reciprocity? If means looking into the eyes of the other and seeing the reflection of yourself. It is the basis of identity – of knowing the answer to the question, “Who are you?”
Beloved – I hope you don’t mind if I call you that – here is the question, “Who are you as followers of Jesus?” – as seekers of the eternal life that I would call the Beloved Community? We have years to find out if the bishop and cabinet prove to be right in sending me here, and yet it is an urgent question. It will take a while for the question to become “Who are we?” and for the “we” of that question to expand to include neighbors whom we might fear. Furthermore, it is our urgent business to understand the role we each and together play in perpetuating the systems of oppression that lead to terrorism, violence, and the degradation of creation.
Beloved, we have work to do – together. It’s hard work, but it’s good work. It’s the work of conversion. It’s the work of reconciliation. It’s the work of compassion. It’s our work as followers of the one who worked and walked and wept with us. Let’s get started.
[i] James Havin and Madeline Mobrearty, Lifestyle Wellness Coaching, 76.
[ii] Geoffrey W. Bromley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testatment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 222.