July 10, 2022, More Than a Church, Luke 10:25-37 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Just one month ago, two churches in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, which is a suburb of Philadelphia, were given citations for violating the city’s zoning code. One of the churches is Christ Episcopal Church, a parish in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, and the other church, two blocks away, is called Mission First. The people of Christ Church and Mission First were charged with violating Pottstown’s zoning code because they had been engaging in activities that were outside the legal definition of “church”, so that the property was no longer being used according to its proper function as a church. The inappropriate uses that the people of Christ Church had been making of their church might sound familiar: once a week, they were holding a free community lunch for their neighbors. Together, the two churches were maintaining what they called an essentials pantry, providing foods and household items at no cost to anyone who needed them. And the churches were also offering free mental health counseling.
The town code enforcement officer sent a letter to the churches, stating, “I could not find approval for these uses in our records. … It is the opinion of this office that the use of the property has changed, and by definition, is more than that of a church.” And that opinion makes perfect sense, because the zoning board’s official definition of a church is this: “A building wherein persons assemble regularly for religious worship and that is used only for such purposes and for those accessory activities as are customarily associated therewith.”
We prayed in Psalm 25 this morning, “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.” And the lawyer that came to Jesus that one day was asking much the same question. Of course, we know he had ulterior motives; he was hoping to catch Jesus in some doctrinal faux pas, but his basic question was what all people of God seek: show us your ways, teach us your paths. What is the most important of all the commandments? What is the way of life?
It might seem odd that a lawyer would come to Jesus with these questions, because we think of lawyers very much as secular people, so much so that we sometimes think it remarkable when we find a Christian lawyer. But lawyers in Jesus’s day weren’t experts on things like zoning ordinances. They were scholars of Holy Scripture, of the Law of Moses, and of Rabbinic law. Lawyers in first century Israel were very much a part of the religious establishment. And the questions of lawyers dealt with matters of obedience to God, what we would think of as religious matters. And our particular lawyer on this occasion knew his stuff. When Jesus turned the question back on him, he got it right, “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.” But, being a lawyer, he wanted to pin down the particulars, so that he would prove himself to be in the right, so he asked Jesus one more question: “And just who is my neighbor?” And that’s when he got more than he had bargained for.
The story of the Good Samaritan is so familiar to us that unless we read it very closely I think we’re apt to miss the details. So bear with me as I fill it out just a little bit. We begin with an unlucky man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s coming from Jerusalem, so he is probably a Jew, but Jesus doesn’t really tell us anything about him. Apparently he was traveling alone. It’s not that long a trip to from Jerusalem to Jericho, traveling about 25 miles, east and a little north. But somewhere along the way he was robbed and beaten and left for dead on the side of the road.
And we all know what comes next. A priest comes along that same road, and a while later a Levite – holy and devout men of high status who prided themselves on living according to the strictest principles of the Law. They saw the man, but they passed by on the other side. Again, Jesus doesn’t give us the details we’d like to know. Some people have suggested that they might have assumed the man was dead. Touching a dead body would make them unclean according to the Law, so that they would be ritually unclean until sundown, and then they would have to go through a cleansing before they could participate in corporate worship the next day. But we don’t have any way of knowing what they assumed; Jesus doesn’t tell us. All we know, all Jesus tells us, is that they saw that man, lying there in his own blood on the side of the road. And they passed by on the other side.
This story is so well known that even people who don’t know anything about the Bible use the term Good Samaritan to refer to someone who does a kind act to another person. But when Jesus told the story, the mention of a Samaritan didn’t have that meaning at all. Samaria was a region in the midsection of Israel, between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south, and the Samaritans were a mixed race of people descended from Israelites who had been left behind when the Assyrians conquered Israel and carried most of her people off in 722 bc, and other ancient peoples who had moved into the land after the deportation.
Samaritans were despised by Jews as “halfbreeds,” even though their religious beliefs and their genetics were still fairly close. And for their part, Samaritans in general were equally biased against Jews. Race relations between Jews and Samaritans were definitely fraught in those days. Just two Sundays ago we read the story where a Samaritan village refuses to let Jesus and his disciples enter, and James and John offer to call down fire from heaven in retribution. Jesus’s choice of a Samaritan as the hero of his story was purposefully provocative. And it made for a really shocking contrast with those respected religious characters so clearly failing to love their neighbor. If Jesus were to tell the story today, maybe he would tell us the parable of the Good Muslim. He would certainly make his hero something that would raise the hackles and provoke the consciences of “good” modern-day American Christians.
The Samaritan, Jesus said, was traveling – he was fairly far from his home, and he probably didn’t feel entirely safe in this mostly Jewish territory. But he, unlike the priest, unlike the Levite, was moved with pity when he saw the man lying by the side of the road. And, moved with pity, he was also moved to action, caring for the man’s immediate needs and bringing him to a safe place where he could continue to heal. The man had been robbed; he had nothing to pay for food or lodging, so the Samaritan put it all on his tab, as it were.
The Lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” But after telling the story, Jesus answers his question with another question: “Which of these men in the story was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus turned the lawyer’s question back on him: loving your neighbor isn’t about asking who am I required to help; it’s about asking who needs my help? And the lawyer understood; the neighbor was the one who showed mercy. “Do this,” Jesus said, “and you shall live.” This is the clear message of the parable. The way of life, the way of obedience to the whole law, is to love our fellow man, not passively or theoretically, not in word only, but in what we do. Loving our neighbor means first of all noticing our neighbor’s needs, and second of all it means taking responsibility to care for those needs ourselves. This parable echoes the parable Jesus told about the sheep and the goats: “Whatever you do for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do for me.”
But being a good teacher, Jesus also added another layer to the message of this parable. It was no accident that he made the hero of his story a Samaritan, a man despised and mistrusted by pretty much everyone in his audience. By putting a Samaritan front and center, by making the Samaritan the man of compassion and integrity, and the respected figures of priest and Levite the ones who failed the test utterly, Jesus was redefining the term neighbor in the most challenging terms. He was breaking the categories of his listeners, prejudices and assumptions that had been ingrained in them from birth. He was teaching a new way of looking at people – not to classify people as bad or good because of their status or race or religious beliefs, or by whether they belong to “us” or “them” – but rather to look at all people as our neighbors with both mercy and respect.
And it seems to me, this parable has a lot of bearing on these charges laid against Christ Episcopal and Mission First, these sister churches in the Philadelphia suburbs who are accused of behavior outside the proper purview of “church” activities. According to zoning law, a church is a building inside of which people assemble for religious worship and “accessory activities” – by which, I assume we’re talking things like coffee hours and Bible studies. But according to God, revealed to us in flesh and blood in Jesus Christ, the church is the people, not the building. And the proper activity of the church is loving God and loving our neighbors, in worship, of course, but also in community meals, in providing for our neighbors in need. The church doesn’t just exist in a building; it exists along every roadside where we find our neighbors in need. Because whatever we do for the least of these, who are all our brothers and sisters, we do in service to Jesus Christ.
The zoning ordinances of Pottstown, Pennsylvania have declared that the use of a church building for the care of its neighbors is, by definition, “more than that of a church.” I believe that our Lord who taught us this parable of the Good Samaritan would call us out, then, here at St. Philip’s to seek in our life together to continue growing in being “more than a church,” loving the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind, and loving all of our neighbors as ourselves. +