Sermon: "Bearing Fruit"
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Deuteronomy 30.9-14; Psalm 25.1-9; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10.25-37
I suspect most, if not all of us, are very familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable is ensconced in our society; it is not unusual to hear someone referred to as a “good Samaritan.” Perhaps you are thinking this parable is somewhat overworked – that it is so familiar not much can be “mined” from it. I must confess when I first read some of the assigned lectionary readings, I often wonder what more I can say. Then I begin my research and I usually find a lot more can be said.
The readings from Deuteronomy and Colossians both speak of bearing fruit. Concerning Deuteronomy, a few verses before our reading, we find, “Moreover, the lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live . . . Then you shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil” (Deuteronomy 30.6, 8-9a; NRSV).
As Eleonore Stump points out, churches associated with the Reformation have some problems with the notion that we can choose to obey God’s law. On this view, as much as we may try, we are doomed to failure. We tend to think this way even though our reading from Deuteronomy also states, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. . . No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (30.11,14; NRSV).
Stump (http://liturgy.slu.edu/15OrdC071419/reflections_stump.html ) further observes that these verses call to mind the Shema, the Jewish prayer observant Jews pray twice daily which also comes from Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:4-8; NRSV). There is value in meditating on, and in talking about, God’s word. God’s word nourishes us and helps us to bear fruit. And each time we revisit a parable such as the Good Samaritan, in that we have grown, we are likely to perceive things we had not noticed before. This parable deserves a great deal of meditation.
In Colossians, the author reminds us that just as the gospel has been bearing fruit in the whole world, so it is bearing fruit within our own lives “from the day we heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God” (1.6; NRSV). And the psalmist implores God, “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me for you are the God of my salvation” (Psalm 25.3-4a; BCP).
In Jesus’ time, God’s word was studied in the Temple and the synagogues; it was recited and talked about. Much like today, people wrestled with how they were to apply God’s word. Considerable discussion focused on the question: Who is my neighbor. Properly understood, the Old Covenant was between God and Israel; hence, foreigners were not party to the covenant, and the terms of the covenant did not extend to foreigners. Nonetheless, the foreigner, the sojourner, was to be welcomed and accorded hospitality.
I suspect the lawyer, the student of God’s law, was fully aware of such questions. Thus, he stood up to test Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Today one would probably ask, “What must I do to go to heaven?” At first glance, this seems like an innocent enough question. But notice the egoistic orientation – what must I do? Just tell me, Jesus, what is the minimum I can do and still be OK? This reminds me of some of my students!
Jesus replied with a question: What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer was well versed in the law. He replied that one must love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus says he has spoken correctly – if he does this, he will live. Then Luke tells us that the lawyer, wanting to justify himself, i.e., to know that he was in the right raised the perplexing question, “And who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus tells the parable. A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, literally going down as the road descends well over a thousand feet and is full of twists and turns which makes it easy for robbers to lie in wait. The man is attacked, robbed, stripped, beaten and left half dead. A priest sees him but passes by on the other side of the road – after all, had he come in contact with the man, and had the man been dead, he would have had to return to Jerusalem and undergo a purification ritual. A Levite next passes by – he would also have had to undergo purification if the man were dead. Well, we have had a priest and a Levite pass by, what would logically come next? A Jewish layperson.
The story takes a twist – A Samaritan comes by! Remember Jesus had just been rejected by the Samaritans, and James and John asked if they might call down fire to consume them! This Samaritan was public enemy number one! If this were a modern day telling we would say the person who rendered assistance was transgender, or maybe a Muslim, or perhaps one of those rapists and murderers from south of our border! A Samaritan! Imagine that! The Samaritan saw him and was moved with pity; he poured oil and wine on his wounds, bandaged them, put him on his own animal, took him to an inn, and paid in advance for the innkeeper to take care of him. Then Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer would not even say “the Samaritan”; he replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
What is the minimum I can do to inherit eternal life? There is no minimum involved – there is a maximum which we must strive, with the grace of God, to meet – everyone is our neighbor! The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” As Pilch (http://liturgy.slu.edu/15OrdC071419/theword_cultural.html ) observes, “Jesus question is: ‘To whom must you become a neighbor?’” The lawyer realizes he must become a neighbor to anyone and everyone in need.
We are surrounded by many in need. Climate change and government policies are endangering many American farmers and their families. Once again, the people of New Orleans have experienced horrendous flooding due to the Mississippi River already being at flood stage and experiencing a storm surge. People in need are flocking to our southern borders as they flee drug related gang violence in search of more secure living conditions. Children are separated from their parents. Locked in cages, treated like animals, and denied the affection even a stray animal might encounter. Those conscientiously trying to ameliorate the situation by providing food, water, beds, and clean clothes as the gospel compels (such as Scott Warren, a geographer who has taught courses at Arizona State University, and an activist with No More Deaths) are being arrested and charged with helping border crossers evade authorities. The jury acquitted Warren, so now the government is pressing new charges related to harboring illegal aliens. His case may go to trial in November.
I believe the parable of the Good Samarian is a definitive statement of the fruit we are to bear – it is the fruit of love, mercy, and compassion. Admittedly, the problems mentioned defy easy fixes and quick solutions, but we are called to live out our Christian witness.
We can take pride in the actions of the Episcopal Church which “has responded to the reports of inhumane conditions for children and other asylum seekers in government custody in a number of ways . . . calls for donations and good from Episcopal dioceses on the border, prayers for those seeking safety, efforts to engage in advocacy, and pastoral messages from bishops around the Church” (Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs, Jul 3).
We can also take pride in Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s witness: “We are children of the one God who is the Creator of us all. It is our sisters, our brothers, our siblings who are seeking protection and asylum, fleeing violence and danger to children, searching for a better life for themselves and their children. The crisis at the border is not simply a challenge of partisan politics but a test of our personal and public morality and human decency.” (Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs, Jul 3).
Bear fruit! Ask yourself “To whom must I become a neighbor?”