This was the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 11 July 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday after Pentecost were Amos 7: 7 – 17, Colossians 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 10: 25 – 37.
In preparing today’s sermon I read an interesting interpretation of today’s Gospel reading. This interpretation of the Good Samaritan story is told in light of today’s values, mores, and society’s view of service and compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden. In other words, the Good Samaritan is viewed as a villain rather than the hero.
Indeed, the heroes of this story as told in today’s terms are the Pharisee and the Levite because they respected the rights of the individual and held true to their own values. As the writer pointed out, if the Pharisee had even thought about helping the individual, the very act of helping would have made it impossible for the Pharisee to perform his own job since he would have been ritually unclean. In light of this, it was more important for the Pharisee not to help one individual because he would then be unable to help others. The Levite is similarly applauded because he held to the community standards as laid out by the community leader, the Pharisee.
Not only is the Good Samaritan not considered the hero, there is even the suggestion that he was the one who beat up and robbed the individual so that he could stage the rescue and bring attention and glory upon himself. ("Living the Word" by Samuel Wells, Christian Century, 29 June 2004)
We would hope that people see this interpretation as a scathing indictment on the view of society towards those less fortunate. Yes, there are those who take advantage of the situation to gain a few extra dollars from individuals. This past week, I received a phone call from an individual in Peekskill who said he needed a large sum of money to pay his rent. This individual had AIDS and was unable to find employment. Everything he said was designed to make me feel guilty should I not help him.
And when I explained that I could not provide him with what he wanted, he proceeded to call me a hypocrite, a liar, and a fraud. He also made allusions to the hypocritical nature of the church that would say one thing but would not help an individual down on their luck. This attack on my soul might have worked except later that day I found out that he had called every other Methodist minister in the area and tried the same tactics.
But against this obvious scam, there are those who I encountered in my walks to and from Grand Central Station to Union Square where I used to work. These people were not interested in a large amount of money but just needed something to eat. My deal to them was I would buy them something to eat. And in just about every case, the person accepted my offer. I know of other pastors in this area who have arrangements with local restaurants when they receive similar calls. If it is a true call, the person shows up; if not, then the person is likely not to appear.
The question that we must ask ourselves each day is how we should react if this were to happen to each of us? How would we react if we encountered someone injured or in need of help? The point of the story of the Good Samaritan is that we are supposed to help those in need and not use our position in life as an excuse for not helping. Yes, in this day and age there are scams and we may or may not be the victim. God gave us the ability to think so that is what we should do, not simply blow off the individual in need just because we are cynical.
The problem is that cynicism has become the norm rather than the exception. We question anyone who seeks to help. It is no wonder then that the political process in this country turns people off. Politics today is more cynicism and being negative than it is a desire to help and foster good.
Now, I cannot offer any solutions to national politics; it is not the purpose or nature of the pulpit to do so. But, this attitude that serving is not for me, the cynicism that people do it for their own purposes and not for the good of the body extends into other areas as well.
This church community is faced with at least three crisis in the coming months. One, the financial, is pretty well documented. The solution to the problem is found in solving the other two problems. The first of the other two problems is that we have a list of forty-six individuals who, if nothing happens between now and the Church Conference, will be dropped from the membership list. They will not be dropped if they become active again (by participation, service, or financial contribution) or if the congregation votes not to drop them. Keep in mind that this latter solution will only be a temporary one because the congregation would have to vote on their status again at the next conference. It would be far better to get them active again. It should also be pointed out that we have begun a list on one-year inactive members. Copies of both lists are in the fellowship hall.
The other crisis, which getting people active again in the church will help to resolve, is to fill the vacancies on the church council. Now, at this point I have not, in my role as Chair of the Lay Leadership Committee, asked anyone to serve or to continue to serve. In part, I have not asked anyone because there really aren’t a whole lot of people to ask. Even with all the members on the two inactive lists, we still have 34 members on the active list. But of those 34, 22 do not come to church on a regular basis, maintaining their membership through financial contributions or service. In one or two cases, I do not even know who they are. This leaves us with twelve people who are active members in terms of presence and/or service. And because most of the twelve have served long and faithfully, it would be unfair to ask them to serve again (unless they want to do so).
If we were to fill all the slots on the PPRC committee, the Board of Trustees, and the Committee on Lay Leadership along with the slots on the Church Council and Finance Committee, we would need thirty two individuals. If we went with a minimum number of people for the PPRC, Trustees and Lay Leadership committees, we would still need twenty-three people. No matter how you look at, if we do not get many of the inactive back into activity and if we do not get those who live in this area active as well, we are not going to be able to provide the leadership for this church. If we cannot provide a leadership group that represents all the members of the church, then it will be very difficult to do anything else.
What is interesting is that many people have said that they would come but other things get in the way. Wasn’t this the reason why the Pharisee and the Levite did not help that unnamed person on the side of the road? Weren’t there other reasons that took precedent over helping someone?
Look again at the reading from the Old Testament. The people of Israel have gotten away from God and God has decided that enough is enough. No longer will He tolerate their indifference, their lack of service to the Lord. As you read Amos again, note that God is giving away the land of Israel; he is selling the property to someone else.
And instead of directing their anger at themselves, the Israelites attack the prophet. But Amos tells them that he is just a simple shepherd like his father; he is not a prophet so they shouldn’t get angry with him. It is God who has made the decision to give the land away. Now, I did not deliberately pick these readings for today; they were decided a long time ago and it is only because it is the 6th Sunday after Pentecost that they are read today.
Like the Israelites of old, this congregation must hear the word of God and hear it clearly. The call to service, the call to help others begins with service to the church and it begins here. We can no longer say that we will not serve because to do so is to let the prophet’s words come true. That was the one thing about the prophet’s words in the Old Testament; the people always had the chance to repent and return to God.
Now, less you think that this is only a sermon of gloom and doom, of terror that will come, keep in mind that we also have Paul’s words to consider as well. And they are words of hope for this day. There is hope for those who hold onto their faith; there is hope for those in whom people can see the presence of God.
There is one other reminder about service. We celebrate communion today as a reminder that Christ gave His life so that we could live. Perhaps, as we come to the table this day, we should stop and ponder where our lives might be if Christ had been a little more cynical about His Father’s call to minister to us.
We know that there was no cynicism in His words; we know that He gave His life so that we might live. And now He is calling us, calling us to reach out to the homeless, the oppressed, the sick, the needy. He is calling us and asking that we reach out to those not here today and to ask them to come back. He is asking, "who shall serve this day?"