Friday, July 29, 2016

The First

I am the only woman pastor in the small city of Shawnee, Oklahoma. There used to be another woman minister, but she has moved on to a new call. So I'm it. When people here find out that I am the Presbyterian minister, some look surprised or confused. Others do not hide their disapproval. Some folks in other churches embrace my ministry because they like me, but that does not change their mind about a woman never being in their pulpit. I am the only one. It is a lonely place to be.

Because I spent several years serving in ministry but without my own call to a church, I stood in many different pulpits. I was often the first ordained woman to be in that position.The congregations I faced ranged from open hostility at a woman leading them to uncomfortable but trying to hide it. I understand what it means to be a woman in a man's job. I understand what it means to be put into a position of standard bearer for my gender. At one church I was the second ordained woman to serve them, but the woman before me was greatly disliked. I was told, "I had given up on lady pastors, but you're good."

While living in Richmond, Virginia in 1991, I called my parents and told them that I was discerning a call to seminary, to ministry, and that I was applying to the Presbyterian seminary in Richmond. My parents were thrilled. I think they cried. My parents are PK's (pastor's kids), and I come from a long line of ministers on both sides of my family. I asked my dad if he thought my Grandfather Busse would be proud of me. He said, "He would, but he would be spinning in his grave because you are a woman."

One of my oldest and dearest friends is also a PK. Her father was ordained, and her mother went to divinity school when we were in high school. I had no use or time for church back then. I definitely did not see ministry in my future, but I was thrilled for my friend's mom to be ordained. I was told by members of my family (not my parents) that her ordination was wrong. It went against scripture and God's will. She can certainly serve God, they told me. But why can't she just be a missionary or a teacher?

When I was a little girl I drank from two ceramic mugs that were originally given to my older sister and brother. They were red and white. One said, "Future Miss America." The other said, "Future Mr. President." I never questioned which mug was given to which sibling. Although the stereotypes about women's roles were being questioned and confronted in the years of my childhood, the strict categories those mugs represented still existed. They permeated my world. But deep down I knew that they were wrong.

I have not been a Hillary Clinton supporter. Along with my family, I worked on the local campaign for Barack Obama in 2008. While I don't completely dismiss her record and her accomplishments -- her work and advocacy for children is a great accomplishment -- I was not convinced that she would be the right choice for president in this election either. Along with many others, I decided to support her more out of my fear of a Trump presidency rather than on the merit of her abilities. But last night, as I watched her accept the nomination for President of the United States of America, I cried. I cried as I did when President Obama was nominated and elected. I cried because another wall has fallen. I cried because I feel as though one more step has been taken on the road to equity and true representation of half of this country's and the world's population.

I realize that there are many questions about Hillary Clinton that were not answered last night. I know that she struggles to present herself authentically, which is something that President Obama and our amazing First Lady have done with grace and elegance over the last eight years. While I have not always agreed with the decisions that President Obama has made, I have been unwavering in my belief in the strength and goodness of his character, and in his good intent and purpose for our nation and this planet which we share. I have not always agreed with Hillary Clinton's decisions in the past, and I imagine that will hold true for her presidency. But I do believe that she wants to continue the good that President Obama has done. I believe that her intent and purpose for this country truly is a more perfect union for her grandchildren and for all of our children.

So while I don't think she can accomplish everything she promises -- no president can -- I will hold her accountable to her promise to listen; to listen to those who are marginalized and those who are forgotten; to listen to the voices of people who, as Jon Stewart said, just want to take their place at the table. I hope that she will use the power of her position to help dismantle white privilege and the systemic injustice that it fosters. While I know that sexism has thrown barriers in my path, the color of my skin has not. It has to stop. White people have to acknowledge it in order for it to stop. I pray that Hillary Clinton will make that a priority.

Most importantly, I hope that she will be a role model of determination and empathy for my daughter and my son, just as President Obama has been. How grateful I am that my children have grown up during his presidency. To borrow from the First Lady's speech, how grateful I am that Phoebe and Zach take for granted that skin color, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, faith, creed, etc. are not the factors that disqualify someone from holding the highest elected office or any office, any position, anywhere, anytime. Not only do they take this reality for granted, they live it. They testify to it everyday: at school, at home, in church, and in the world through their friendships, through their words, through their actions.

I may have started this election season thinking only, "Anyone but Trump." But now I not only want Trump to be defeated, I want Hillary Clinton to be President. I want her to be given the chance. Being the first is harder than most people in the majority will ever understand. I am proud today. I am proud that she is the candidate. No matter what happens, this is a victory. The words on that mug from my childhood are being rewritten: Madame President Now.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ask. Search. Knock.

Luke 11:-13
July 24, 2016

"Marco." "Polo." If you ever find yourself in a swimming pool with my kids and me, you'll probably hear us saying those two words, that name, over and over again.

"Marco." "Polo." For those of you who may not be familiar with this particular pool game, Marco Polo is like a water-logged hide and seek. Only the person who is "It" has to keep his or her eyes closed. The way It finds the others is by calling out, "Marco." The other players respond by saying, "Polo." Then It follows -- or tries to follow -- the sound their voices till he or she can catch one of them.

Marco Polo is the epitome of a simple game. I don't know when it came into being, but I've been playing it since I was a kid. I taught it to my kids as soon as they were old enough. We still play it when we go swimming. We played it just last week.

It is simple, but I've instituted a few rules over the years. The other players, the Polo players, have to make sure that It, or the Marco player, doesn't get hurt. Don't let It walk into the side of the pool or ram into someone else. When the kids were much younger and we would play this at the public swimming pool, I would always tell them, "Don't let mommy tag a person we don't know." There is nothing more awkward than grabbing a child you think is yours, only to open your eyes and discover it's not. There are other implied rules; when It says "Marco," the other players must respond "Polo," no matter how close It may be. You can't get out of the pool in order to get away from It. And It can't surreptitiously open her eyes to sneak a peek on the location of the other players.

Other than those few rules, when you play Marco Polo, you know that at some point you're going to be wandering blindly around the water, hands outstretched, trying to follow the different voices responding to yours. At some point "Polo" will be cried so close to you that you'll take a splashing leap and try to grab onto some part of that person; a hand, an arm. Even touching their toe is a win. "Marco." "Polo."

I probably shouldn't admit this, but sometimes when I pray I feel like I'm "It" in a game of Marco Polo with God. I sit down to pray but I'm blind. I can't see anything around me. I'm groping in the darkness, calling out, "God?" I think I hear God reply, "Amy." God must know how to throw his voice, because I splash toward one side only to discover that God is on the opposite one. I keep calling, and I keep tentatively moving forward, hoping to touch even a toe. Yet when I do think I hear God answering, I can't get to that voice fast enough before it's gone.

Yet hearing God's response, even if I can't quite follow it, still qualifies as good when it comes to praying. Because lately it seems that the times when my prayers feel most like a game of Marco Polo, it is because I'm calling out "God," but getting no response at all. God seems to have gone under the water or left the pool entirely. Yet there I am, still calling, still stumbling through the water, blind and searching, and God feels nowhere to be found.

In light of this metaphor, it would seem that God has a remarkable sense of humor and timing. Because this passage from Luke is probably the last thing I wanted to read or preach today. One commentator wrote that when the disciples said to Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray," there is an implication that the congregation is asking the same of the preacher.

"Teach us to pray."

It would be simple enough to approach this passage by comparing it not only to our version of the Lord's Prayer has evolved, but also in comparison with Matthew's version of this prayer. Or we could talk about the different kinds of prayers. Just peruse our bulletin and you'll see several. There is a prayer invoking God's presence with us. A prayer confessing what we have and what we haven't. There is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts and eyes and ears to God's Word. We pray to dedicate. We pray to petition. We pray for intercession and for thanksgiving.

However, I think that what makes Luke's telling both unique and challenging is not the form of the prayer, but the parables that follow. Jesus did not just give the disciples words to recite and a prayer template to memorize. He told them a story that at first appears to be about what it takes to make prayers heard and answered.

A person has an unexpected guest late at night, but he doesn't have enough food in the house. So the person goes to a friend, knocks on the door, and asks for three loaves of bread. But this friend's response isn't all that friendly.

"Don't bother me! The door is locked. We're all in bed. I can't be bothered to get up and get you anything."

But Jesus said that if the first friend was persistent, his friend would get up and give him what he needs -- not out of friendship, but just to get the guy off his back.

Then Jesus said, "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened."

Then he continued with the analogy of a child asking a parent for a fish and getting a snake, or wanting an egg and getting a scorpion. Even we who are evil give good gifts to our kids. Won't God, the heavenly parent, give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

What? That's often been my initial response to this particular parable. What? Is Jesus saying that in order to get our prayers answered, we have to annoy God until God finally gives in? The Greek word translated as "persistent," would be better translated as "shameless." Does this mean that Jesus instructed the disciples to be shameless in their prayers? Was this analogy that Jesus used a description of the character of God? Or was Jesus actually describing the character of humans? If we're persistent and shameless enough, even the worst example of a human might finally answer our need. How much more so will God, who is the opposite of that, answer our prayers if we just shamelessly persist in praying?

But that begs another, harder question. How many of us have prayed and prayed and prayed, persistently, shamelessly, asking God for help, for healing, for life, and the opposite has happened? Does that mean that our prayers are not persistent and shameless enough? Are we praying wrong? We ask, and we get a painful answer. We search, but we still feel lost. We knock, and the door never opens.

The explanations that are given in those circumstances don't help. Sometimes the answer to a prayer is, "no." That may absolutely be true, but when a parent has prayed for a child to live and that child dies, it's hard to find any comfort in the "no" of God. Or we're told or we tell others, "God must have had another plan," or "we're just not meant to understand God's will." Again, this may be true, but there is no solace in it. So for some, praying becomes an exercise in futility. Foolishness. Empty words poured out to empty space. God has left the pool, but I'm still calling out, "Marco."

Yet maybe there is something else being said in this parable. Maybe Jesus was trying to teach his disciples -- and us -- another lesson about prayer and God. If we see prayer as a cosmic grocery list of our needs, hopes and wants, then when our list isn't met, when all the items aren't checked off, we feel abandoned by God; let down by God. But maybe the real nature, perhaps the real purpose of prayer, is not just to tell God what we need, but to be in constant, persistent relationship with God. After all, how do you build relationship with someone? Do you just go to that person and say, "This is what I want"? Or, do you spend time with that person, talking, listening, sitting in silence, even arguing, in order to strengthen and build that bond between the two of you?

I think it's the latter. It's not that there isn't a place for prayers of petition. That is a large part of our prayers of the people. But when we offer up our joys and concerns, are we merely praying that God will give us what we desire, or are we finding strength and comfort, courage and hope, in our relationship with God and each other -- no matter what the outcome might be?

As I said earlier, the timing of this passage must mean God has a sense of humor, because I am struggling to pray these days. I am struggling to believe that God hears and responds to my prayers -- to any of our prayers. I say that because there seems to be no end to the pain and suffering of the world. The mass shooting in Munich, the terror attack in Nice, the shootings of civilians and the shootings of police. The anger and vitriol in our politics, and the decided lack of  civility in our discourse, publicly or otherwise.

I am just world-weary, and I feel as though lately I live in a haze of grief and despair. Praying has been hard, to say the least. Yesterday morning, I woke up, trying to work on my sermon, but feeling lost as to what to say or write. I checked into social media. A friend posted an essay by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, an author, a post-trauma specialist and a psycho-analyst. The title of the essay is "We Were Made for These Times," and her first sentence is "My friends, do not lose heart." She goes on to to write a beautiful, powerful response to the suffering, hatred and fear that seems to be a looming cloud over us these days.

One quote from the essay is, "There will will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate."

I've read the essay and that quote many times now, but I have also stared intently at the picture that goes with the essay. It is of a person's hands, both dirty and grimy, nails shorn with dirt and oil around them. Both hands are wrapped in ace bandages that are as dirty as the hands themselves. The hands look as though they are in prayer. Most of the time when we see pictures of hands in prayer, they are more like a Precious Moments statue. Perfect little hands, folded perfectly. But these hands in this picture are real. They are bruised and battered. They have worked and suffered. But they still pray.

Maybe that is the persistence that Jesus taught. Maybe that is the shamelessness. Maybe praying is not about getting or not getting, finding the right way versus the wrong way. Maybe praying is about working and working and working to be in relationship with God; no matter how hard it is sometimes, no matter how tired we are, how fragile our faith. So ask. Search. Knock. Persist shamelessly in prayer, because it keeps us in relationship with our God who persistently and shamelessly loves us.

Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"


Monday, July 18, 2016


Luke 10:38-42
July 17, 2016

Many years ago, I heard a sermon by a preacher and teacher from California. He pastored a church in a low-income neighborhood where poverty and homelessness lived on the church's doorstep. The church provided several outreach ministries to their neighbors; one of those ministries was a weekly meal. Most of the folks who came to the meal ate and left. But one man took a liking to the people, the minister and the church. He started attending regularly. His name was Jim, and he was homeless. As we well know, when you're homeless showering and washing your clothes are luxuries. Dirt and grime clung to Jim -- to his skin and hair and clothing. He never smelled very good. But the people in the congregation welcomed him. They never reacted to how badly he smelled or the dirt and filth on his clothes. They never shied away from shaking his hand or sitting next to him in worship. Jim sensed their genuine welcome, and became a joyful and faithful part of their lives. He sang off key, loudly. He made sure to shake every hand during the passing of the peace. And Jim always wanted to engage the minister, the one telling this story, in long conversations about God and grace and salvation. Not only did Jim attend church faithfully on Sunday's, he would also drop by at different times during the week to say, "hello," to anyone who happened to be in. The people who were there, the secretary, the janitor, and the pastor, would always take the time to chat with him.

But one day the pastor had gone into his office and closed the door. It had been a stressful week. He had more work to do than usual, and he was behind. So he was trying to finish up reports, outline his sermon and get ready for his next meeting when there was a knock at his door. Before he could say, "come in," the door opened. It was Jim. The pastor admitted that his heart sank at the sight of Jim standing in the doorway. He was too busy. He had too much going on. He didn't have time for a long, drawn out conversation with Jim that day.

He opened his mouth to tell Jim that, but Jim spoke first.

"Pastor, I just wanted to come by and pray with you."

The pastor sighed and agreed, although he was frustrated by this interruption. He and Jim sat and bowed their heads, and Jim began to pray. He thanked God for this kind man who did so much for him and for the all the people that he led. He thanked him for always taking the time to listen and to care for the people who came to him in need. Jim thanked God for the ways the pastor taught him to be more faithful and more prayerful. As Jim prayed, tears filled the pastor's eyes. He didn't feel like an adequate teacher when it came to being faithful and prayerful. He realized that this was the first time he had prayed all day. It was the first time he had prayed more than just a quick grace before eating in several days. If anyone was being an example of faithfulness, it was Jim. Jim was teaching him, not the other way around. The pastor had been so distracted by all of his duties, that he had forgotten to pray. Prayer should have been the foundation on which every other responsibility was grounded. Instead he had let it become an afterthought. He was worried and distracted by many things, but there was need of only one thing. Jim had chosen the better part.

This pastor was distracted. So was Martha. What I am about to say I say every time we encounter this passage in our lectionary: the court of public opinion on this story gives Martha a raw deal. Marthas are necessary in this world, and they are definitely necessary in the church. If every Martha in a congregation were to sit down, the church would stop running. One of the last worship services I attended when I was at the CREDO retreat three years ago was led by two of the faculty members who were not ordained ministers. The woman who preached gave one of the best sermons on this passage that I have ever heard. Standing in front of the communion table, she looked out at this room full of ministers and said, "In your churches, all of you preside over the meal that we share at this table, but do you ever think about the person who sets the table before you get there?" I have presided over the Lord's Supper in several churches, and I guarantee you that every table in every church was set by a Martha.

So I reiterate. Martha gets the short end of the stick. I've also said this before: Martha was doing what was expected of her. She was supposed to serve. Welcoming Jesus into her home and giving him an honored place at the table was not Martha's way of vying for the Emily Post etiquette award. Martha was obeying the Law of Hospitality. She was doing what she was supposed to do - serving.
What was the problem then? Luke puts great emphasis on service and serving. Last week's story about the Samaritan was an example of that. The Samaritan served. The Samaritan did. Jesus ended his parable with the words, "Go and do likewise." What was the difference between that and Martha? The difference, as I see it, lies in Martha' s distraction. There was no joy in her service. She was worried. She was anxious. She was probably thinking about twenty different things at once. She was distracted. She was so distracted by her service that she put her guest of honor on the spot.

"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."

Asking your guest to confront your sister does not embody hospitality, does it? But that's where Martha's distraction and anxiety over serving took her. In trying so hard to be hospitable, she did something greatly inhospitable. Preachers often interpret Jesus' response to her as a reproach, as scolding. But as someone who has had to both calm an anxious person and also been that anxious person, I don't think Jesus was scolding her as much as he was trying to get her attention.
"Martha, Martha, listen to me. Look at me. You're worried and distracted by way too many things. Only one thing is really important. Mary's recognized that one thing and she is paying attention to it. I'm not going to stop her or take that away from her."

Contrary to the popular understanding of these sisters, I don't think Jesus was saying that Mary was the good one and Martha was the bad one. You see this even in the art inspired by this passage. Martha is standing off to the side, bowl in hand, staring sullenly at Jesus and Mary, while Mary is sitting at Jesus feet with her head illumined by a halo. However, Jesus was not comparing sister to sister, as though they were in some competition and Martha was the loser. It seems to me that Jesus was trying to refocus Martha on what was necessary in that moment.

What was necessary? Jesus said that Mary had made the right choice. She was sitting at Jesus' feet, listening to him, learning from him, being with him. Jesus was in their home, and she took advantage of that opportunity to really be in his presence. There's a part of me that thinks had Mary gotten up and helped her sister do what was required, they both could have had the chance to really be in his presence, but I may be missing the larger point. That is that sometimes we just need to be in the presence of the Lord. But here's the thing, we also need to do. We are also called to serve. Last week's story about the Samaritan and this week's story about Martha and Mary are side by side for a reason. They complement each other. The Samaritan is about the doing. Mary is about the being. Do. Be. Do. Be. Do be do be do. (I couldn't help myself.)

Yet I think there's another connection in these two stories that can be easily missed. Both the Samaritan and Mary chose the thing that was necessary and needed. A man was robbed and beaten and left half-dead by the side of the road. That would not have been the time for the Samaritan or anyone else to choose to sit and be in the presence of Jesus. On the other side of that coin, if Jesus is present in your home, sitting at your table, speaking of the kingdom of God, there is no detail of the dinner that is more important than being with him.

We who seek to follow Jesus need to do both. We need to be in his presence. We need to serve others. The question is what distracts us from doing one or both? What are we distracted by in this congregation? Are our worries about the building, membership, the future pushing us to follow God more closely or are they distracting us from doing just that?

The concerns about our building and our declining membership and our future are legitimate. There is no dispute about that. We will continue to address those concerns and wrestle with them and pray for discernment for our future together. But at the same time we cannot let them distract us from being the church, from being people who seek to be in God's presence and who seek to serve God's children. Those are the things that are needed and necessary. This broken, hurting world needs us. This broken, hurting world needs us. So may we be like Mary and may we do as the Samaritan, free from distraction.

Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Some Samaritan

Luke 10:25-37
July 10, 2016

Thursday night, as the reports were coming in about a sniper targeting police at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Phoebe had a good friend over. They hadn't seen each other in a while, and their animated laughter was a sharp contrast to the news of the tragedy unfolding in Dallas. Phoebe came in and told me she was going to give her friend a ride home. I responded with my usual caution for her to drive carefully. But then I added, "Come straight home." I repeated that a few times before they left.

That doesn't sound all that strange or out of the ordinary. What parent doesn't send their teenage driver out of the door with those kinds of words? But when I told her to come straight home, it wasn't because I was afraid for her safety behind the wheel, it was because I was just afraid. I was gripped with a fear for her that went far beyond my concern that she might get distracted or give in to the temptation to text while driving. I was afraid for her and for her friend because I was sending them out into the night and into a country I no longer recognize. It's not that I don't know or recognize racism. I do. But never before have I felt that we were teetering on the edge of a full-blown race war.

I was afraid for Phoebe, for her friend, for my son, in a way that I never have been before. And I realized that I was getting a taste of what my friends who are black feel when they send their kids out into the world. It's what they feel when they say goodbye to their spouses in the morning, and when they get in the car to go to work or grocery shopping or just out. Will they be targeted because of the particular melanin that determines the color of their skin?

The horrific violence of this past week, the senseless deaths of two black men and five white police officers, has been almost more than I can bear. It's been more than most of us can bear. It adds to our collective heartache over the massacre in Orlando, the one year anniversary of the massacre in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, and the daily violence that seems to have become the norm. And into this heart sickness comes this familiar story found only in Luke's gospel: The Good Samaritan.

To say that the story of the Good Samaritan is a familiar one is an understatement. Hospitals and nursing homes and clinics bear this name. There are Good Samaritan laws. When a stranger helps someone out in a time of need, that person is referred to as a Good Samaritan. When a stranger returned Zach's lost wallet this spring, I wished that I could meet that Good Samaritan so I could thank him or her. The Good Samaritan is a story we all know ... well. However the problem with a story so well known as the Good Samaritan is that we make assumptions about it; we domesticate it. It is a good story about helping other people whether we know them or not, and that's it. Maybe if this story came from another source, that would be the total of its meaning. But this isn't just a story. It is a parable. It is a parable told by Jesus. Jesus didn't offer these parables as bedtime stories. He told them to make a point. He told them to make people think. He told them to surprise, and yes, shock his listeners. His parables weren't pablum. They packed an intellectual and emotional punch. The parable of the Good Samaritan is no different.

My source for this sermon is Amy-Jill Levine's book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. Many of you will recognize her name from her lecture series you've watched in your Sunday School class. Levine is professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt. Fluent in both ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek, Levine begins each chapter on her chosen parables with her literal translation of them. Our modern translations tell us that "a lawyer" stood up to test Jesus, and "a man" was going down to Jericho, and "a priest" was going down that road, and "a Samaritan" came near him. But the literal translation is "some." I understood this as not just a quirk in the language, but that Jesus was making the point that the man who was robbed could have been any man. Just as the lawyer and priest could have been any one in their professions. And the Samaritan could have been any Samaritan. Nowhere, in our translations or in hers, is the word "good" used. It's a title that we've added to this story. But as Levine points out, using the word "good" is condescending. It's like describing a Muslim or a Jew or a person of color as a good Muslim, Jew, person of color, implying that while most of their ilk are far from good, this one is.

So some lawyer stood up to test Jesus wanting to know about eternal life. Jesus used the Law -- supposedly the lawyer's speciality -- to answer his test. What does the Law say? The lawyer responded by quoting the Law.

"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."

"That's correct," Jesus told him. "Do just that, and you've got it!"

But the lawyer wanted to justify himself. He wanted to prove himself, which is never a good thing when your purpose was to test Jesus. So he pushed Jesus more and asked, "And who is my neighbor?" Levine points out that what the lawyer really wanted to know was, "who is not my neighbor?" Where are the boundary lines between who is my neighbor and who isn't? I get that I have to love my neighbor, but who do I have permission not to love? Jesus answered with our parable.

A man, any man, every man, was going down the 18 mile, steep, rocky, treacherous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by a gang of armed robbers, who beat him, stripped him, and left him to die. A priest, any priest, was traveling down that road. He saw the man, crossed to the other side and kept going. A Levite, came along a little later and did the same. Then a Samaritan, came after them. But when he saw the man, he stopped. He cared for him on the spot. Then he put him on his animal and took him to an inn. He tended to the man there. The next day he had to leave, but he gave the innkeeper money to take care of the man promising that when he returned he would repay the innkeeper whatever he spent out of his own pocket.  Jesus finished his story by asking the lawyer. "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" "The one who showed him mercy."

What really happened in the parable? It would have been no surprise to the people listening that the man was robbed. It was a dangerous road. Robberies were common. What about the priest and the Levite? They were part of the clergy of that time. Why didn't they stop? One reason, and it is a reason I've given, is that they could not touch a potential dead person because it would make them unclean. But the Law allowed, demanded even, that someone who was hurt must be cared for no matter what. The Law also demanded that a corpse should be treated with the utmost respect. So the priest and the Levite had a duty to help. As far as being unclean, they were traveling down from Jerusalem, away from the temple. Purity restrictions would not have been pressing. The truth is, they failed. They failed. They saw a person in desperate need and they failed. Perhaps they were afraid; afraid that it was a trap, afraid that they would be harmed. Whatever the reason for their fear and hesitation, they failed.

That failure most likely shocked Jesus' listeners. But then came the kicker. Levine describes something called "the rule of three." That means that when two subjects are listed, like the priest and the Levite, then the expectation was that third subject was next. They would have expected to hear about a third person finding the beaten man on the road. But they would not have expected the one who showed up: some Samaritan. A person no Jew would have expected to stop and offer aid. If Jesus would have said that a fellow Jew had stopped to help, they would have smiled and gone on their way. But it was a Samaritan, and their jaws dropped.

As I see it, it's about perspective. For that audience, the shock was that a Samaritan stopped. Today, it would be if a Christian audience heard that a member of ISIS stopped to help a Christian, or vice versa. Or, considering this past week, it might be that a black man stopped to help a white cop, or vice versa. From any of these perspectives, the person stopping to help would have stunned the listeners. It surely stunned the lawyer. Who was the neighbor? The one, the unexpected one, who showed mercy.

Looking at this parable through this lens of shock and surprise makes me realize that far too often I have been that priest and that Levite. I've failed to act out of mercy because I have been paralyzed by fear. I have to reckon with my sin of failure, and I pray not only for forgiveness but that I won't let that kind of failure happen again. However, what concerns me more today is our collective failure. I'm not pointing the finger of accusation at our congregation alone. I'm thinking of the Church with a capital C.

In his response to the violence of this week, our denomination's newly elected Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson wrote that racism is "a cancer" in our country. It is a cancer of injustice, and historically the Church has responded more like the priest and the Levite than like the Samaritan. Nelson called on our denomination and on the Church as a whole to step up and lead the way in eradicating this cancer. This cancer of racism, along with all the other "isms", is contrary to the gospel and contrary to the kingdom of God. We are called to love as the Samaritan loved, to be a neighbor as the Samaritan was a neighbor.

It is a fearful task, I know. Yet in a few minutes, we will come to this table together to share a meal which followers of Jesus have been sharing for centuries. Before we actually partake of the bread and the cup, I will lift them up before you and call on us to take them in remembrance of Jesus. This kind of remembrance is not just an honoring of him or a memorial in his name. We are called to remember Jesus, to remember what he said and what he did and what he sacrificed. We are called to eat the bread and drink the cup, not merely because of tradition or ritual or expectation, but so that we may gather up our courage and find the strength to do what he did; to speak truth to power and put our lives on the line for the sake of God's children.

I believe that through remembering him, we will find that strength and that courage. We will live up to our calling to be a neighbor, to show mercy, to go and do likewise.

Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"