Tenderness and Mischeviousness
Pentecost VIII July 10, 2016
A sermon preached by The Rev. Stina Pope Fierceness at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
When we look at the story of Amos, it’s rather interesting. He is a foreigner, an alien, who arrives in the king’s town, and makes prophetic statements that are not supportive of the king or the nation. It was quite inflammatory, if you look at it. And of course, it is immediately reported to the king. What’s the big deal? This Amos is like a street corner preacher. Who cares what he is saying. What they knew, and what we are beginning to understand is actually true, is that what you say really does start things moving. It is not neutral. So when Amos starts using his “prophet voice” and says that things don’t look good for the king and his minions, the king is more than annoyed, he is afraid. He sends the high priest out to get rid of Amos. So the high priest comes out and tells him to go home and to do his prophesying elsewhere.
Amos tells the high priest that for him, doing the prophesying is not like having the “job” of being a prophet – which in those days was actually a job that you could inherit from your father, just like other jobs. No, he says, I am a herdsman, and a tender of sycamore trees.
Did you know that you can actually eat those pods that grow on the sycamore trees? You can grind them up into flour and make a kind of poor man’s bread out of them. It’s not very good, but it will keep you alive. What he is saying by telling the high priest that he is a herdsman and tender of the sycamore trees is that he is a poor man without inheritance. He has no influence, no power, no money, no nothing – except for the Word of the Lord. The high priest cannot threaten him, because he has nothing to lose. So, after the high priest has had his say, there is the final lambast: your wife will be a prostitute, etc.
The Word of the Lord has come to Amos, God has held up a plumb line against Israel, and the assessment is not good. God tells Amos to testify against Israel, to prophesy, and he does. God has used his plumb line, and the king and country have been found to be too far out of line. There is only one thing to do when a building gets too far out of line: you tear it down and start over. There is no fixing it beyond a certain point.
This concept of the plumb line would have been well known in Jesus’ time, as well as this prophecy, because it came to pass.
So let us go over the story of the Good Samaritan. We remember that the Samaritans and the Jews hated each other. It was a kind of cold war mentality. That’s the background. In our story for today, a legal expert comes to ask Jesus a question. Now you know what lawyers are like. They want to make sure that all of the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted, everything done in triplicate and your signature on every page. Good lawyers love the law. They study it incessantly. They want to know where the edges are.
There is one more wrinkle here. In Jesus’ time, there was no distinction between civic and religious law. That is, a “lawyer” or legal expert would have been what we would call a canon lawyer. That is, they were lawyers not just for what we would go to a lawyer for, that is, to take care of buying and selling, wills and inheritance, fraud, and so on, they were also lawyers for religious matters. For them, the civic and religious matters were not separated. There were two general areas, answering the two big questions: how do I keep in right relationship with my neighbor, and how do I keep in right relationship with God. But, as Jesus shows us, they often overlap.
So the lawyer wants to know how to be in right relationship with God. Jesus’ answer is to be in right relationship with one’s neighbor. The lawyer then asks the fateful question: And who is my neighbor?
Then we get the story of the good Samaritan.
It is a complicated story, because Jesus specifically addresses the issue of those people who think they are obeying the law. These are represented by the first two people who go by the man who looks like he might be dead. He certainly has blood on him. There are laws about blood. If you touch blood, you are ritually unclean. There are even stricter laws about touching people who are dead. If you are ritually unclean, it takes time, effort, and usually money, to be made clean again under the law. The laws are understood to keep people safe, and in right relationship with God. So the first man sees a bloodied man laying by the side of the road. He is a priest. If a priest touches a dead man, he cannot do his job at the temple. He carefully crosses the road, and goes on his way. The second man is a Levite. He too has temple duties, not as important perhaps as the priest, but still, he has a family to support. He too, crosses the road to make sure he does not defile himself.
Then a Samaritan comes. You can imagine the listeners almost gasping, ready to hear that perhaps this hated foreigner would search the man’s body in case there might have been something left by the robbers. That would have been a normal story.
But Jesus does not tell normal stories, does he? He makes the hated one into the hero. He goes overboard, just to make the point, in case anyone missed it. The Samaritan spends an enormous amount of money on this stranger, and cares for him like one would care for a son.
And then the punchline: Jesus turns back and asks the lawyer, So! You asked “who is my neighbor?” Tell me now, who was “a neighbor” to the man in need? The poor lawyer has no wiggle room here. It is abundantly clear that the hated Samaritan is, but he cannot even bear to say the word. “The one who showed mercy,” is the answer. Jesus then says to the lawyer, and to us. “Go and do likewise.”
This is our plumb line. This is the story that we need to measure ourselves against, over and over again. If we do not, perhaps we also will be torn down and rebuilt.
Who is our neighbor? Who is the one that might get us into trouble if we help? That’s an interesting way to think about this, isn’t it? Who is the one that we are supposed to leave alone because of our other commitments? A good friend of mine shocked everyone when she took a homeless man into her one bedroom apartment so that he would have a safe place to sleep. For her, it was clear. He needed a place to stay, she had extra floor space. He could sleep in his sleeping bag on her floor and roll it up in the morning. People were concerned that he would steal from her, or abuse her. She was not worried about him hurting her, and the things that meant anything to her were not worth anything in the pawn shop. It is more than I could do – but here’s the deal. We are not called to do what she did. We are called to do what we are called to do, not what someone else is. It is “our” neighbor that we have to respond to, not hers. The question is only this, are we going to go across the street to avoid dealing with this potential neighbor, using good excuses for our behavior, or are we going to follow Jesus into this strange new territory of hope and love? If we do follow him, we will certainly find that our relationships lead to God. Rob Voyle suggests that what we ask ourselves, both personally and as a group, is this: What is Love calling us to do? Love, he says, is not a “sentimentality nor a tolerance for evil..[but rather] compassion: tenderness, fierceness, and mischievousness. Fierceness is a single minded pursuit of a just future.” He goes on to distinguish fierceness from anger. “Anger is what we experience when we look back on a past injustice.
Fierceness is what happens when we transform that anger into a fierce pursuit of a just future. Without that transformation, anger, focused on the past, will lead to hatred and a desire for revenge and retribution. We cannot fix the past but we can create a new future.”
I think the tenderness piece is not difficult for us to comprehend, or to enact. So that leaves mischievousness. The story of the Good Samaritan is mischievous. It is a way of making people look at what they are doing without yelling. It is clever, fun without being silly, and done with great purpose.
We need to hold on to this, to integrate this into our mission statements. In the face of our tolerance of police brutality towards people of color, and acts of revenge, our tolerance of guns and frontier mentality, our tolerance of violence at all levels, we need to cultivate fierceness, the fierce pursuit of a just future, imbued with tenderness and mischievousness. What would happen if the vestry put this into the mission statement? What would happen if you put it into your personal mission statement?
Because, if you are going to follow the way of Jesus, there is no place for hate. If you are going to follow the way of Jesus, there is no place for indifference. If you are going to follow the way of Jesus, there is no place for self-justification. If you are going to follow the way of Jesus, there is only a place for love.