Friday, 13 July 2007

Saint Crispin's Church, Fallowfield.

St Crispins Main Entrance.

St Crispins High Altar.

I have the pleasure of going to St Crispins, a Forward in Faith Church in south Manchester on Sunday to preach at their 10 am Solemn Mass. St Crispins is a fine church in the Anglo Catholic tradition, maintaining a witness in a very challenging area, but always has a warm welcome to newcomers like myself! Contrary to yesterdays Papal Document concerning 'Protestant' churches (or ecclesial communities), we in the CofE can clearly trace our Sacramental Priesthood back to the early Church and we maintain Catholic faith and witness wherever we are. Visits to places like St Crispins remind us of how vital is our oureach and our expression of the Catholic Faith as expressed in our Church.

It is Good Samaritan Sunday (again), so I have been a good Samaritan and am here providing a rough copy of my sermon for you to read/crib/copy and paste!

Blah, Blah, we all know this one……… Even people who have never been to church know this story. They even have laws in the US–"good Samaritan laws"–named for this story. Those are the laws they had to invent to protect well-meaning people who stop to help others in distress only to find themselves up to their ears in litigation because the person they tried to help had a solicitor with a lot of time on his hands.
So when we hear this story it probably does not have the same bite as it did the first time it was related. Now it is probably true with stories as with relationships, that familiarity tends to breed contempt. Not necessarily the kind of contempt that creates cynicism or ridicule. But the kind of contempt that believes we already know what this story means without having to think about it very much. In this particular case we have come by our point of view honestly. That is because almost from the beginning the church has pushed us in the direction of a kind of friendly contempt. It did not do this out of meanness. It did this by assigning this story a title, namely "The Good Samaritan," that programs us toward the message by announcing it right from the start.
Well, I don’t know about you, but whenever I sense that I am being hit over the head with the answer even before I have started to investigate the problem, I get just a bit annoyed. Maybe the devil just gets into me, but I tend to resist going where I think some-one else wants me to go. I know that Jesus did not give titles to his parables. Only the church in its infinite wisdom did that. So I think I am safe in saying to you that Jesus did not call this story the "Parable of the Good Samaritan."
Keep in mind one thing about parables. Virtually every one that we have preserved contains some shock, some offense to its original hearers. And if we are to recover the insight, we have to recover something of that offense as well. In the case of this parable, it would have been within the realm of acceptability if Jesus had designated the anonymous wounded man as a Samaritan. Then he would have become the object of a decent Jew’s concern. But to his original audience it would be a terrible shock that he instead makes a Samaritan the principal actor in his story. They would have been appalled and angry.
In order to understand this we have to recover a little bit of ancient history, but information that all of Jesus listeners would have readily known. After the glory days of the Kingdom of Israel under the leadership of the great kings Saul, David, and Solomon, the kingdom split into two parts: a northern kingdom (Israel) with its capitol in Samaria, and a southern kingdom (Judah) whose capital was Jerusalem. In 722 BCE the Northern Kingdom was attacked and succumbed to the warlike Assyrians who soon after began a program of colonization. Over time Jews and Assyrian colonists became assimilated. They married one another and began to combine their different religious traditions. The offspring of these mixed marriages were Samaritans.
Over a century later the southern kingdom also was attacked, and fell to the armies of Babylon. The sacred Temple in Jerusalem was sacked, and many of the Jews were taken into exile to become servants to the Babylonians. There they maintained their ancient traditions in the face of great persecution and efforts by the Babylonians to force them to relinquish their faith. After 85 years of this Babylonian captivity, the armies of Persia too overran their captors, and their leader, Darius, allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. There they went and eventually reconstructed the great Temple of Jerusalem.
To those who had survived the Babylonian captivity, Samaritans were a great symbol of compromised faith (peter and paul and james, etc). They were universally despised as traitors to the authentic faith, as religious syncretists, and as half castes (which was a great problem to a 1st C Jew), a type of those tragic peoples throughout history who can identify clearly with neither one culture nor another. So Jesus in telling this story deliberately makes use of the structures of racism in his world. He deliberately plays upon the racial and religious prejudices of his hearers to conjure his message. If we were to look for current analogies, we would have to look at the bitterly divided communities of Northern Ireland or the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be as if in telling this story to us he might have made the one who behaves in such a caring fashion someone like Osama Bin Laden. Then what would we have had to call it? The Parable of the Good Terrorist?
Now we come to an important realization. How many times have we heard this story as an invitation to emulate this so-called "Good Samaritan?" But if Jesus deliberately chose the most improbable kind of person imaginable to carry the weight of his most significant message, then we would have to conclude he certainly has not made it easy for his audience or for us to make this leap. That is, he does not allow any of us to make an easy identification with the supposed "hero" of the story.

Let us assume that Jesus does intend to draw us into the story so that we see ourselves in some way. But if that is so, how do we get in, to begin to associate ourselves? It cannot be, given the prejudice of his original audience, that he assumed the point of entry would be the Samaritan. So where is it that he believes we might identify ourselves?
There is a law in storytelling, in myths, fables, fairy tale, and children’s stories of all kinds. We tend to identify with the character about whom we know the least, into whom we can pour all of our own feelings. If we apply this law to this parable a surprising conclusion begins to emerge. Jesus intends to draw us into the story by our identification not with the priest or the Levite, and least of all with the Samaritan. Rather we are drawn in by identification with the one figure in the story who is truly anonymous, the unnamed wounded man. And that is truly fascinating, because if this is the case, then it turns the interpretation of the story completely inside out.
But think for a moment if it is not true. Each one of us has been beset by muggers, gangs and thieves. We have been treated unfairly by people who, themselves sometimes seem to be treated better than us. We have been denied a position or the recognition we have believed we deserved. Some of us have been betrayed by one whom we loved and believed that we could trust. Those are wounds–wounds to the soul that no amount of denial or excuse can ever completely close.
And let us be honest about this. Let us never forget that we too have inflicted wounds, that we too are robbers and thieves to others. We too have walked by on the other side in the face of terrible hurt. We have grown callous or indifferent in love. We have betrayed the trust of another. And those too are wounds, not only to others but also to ourselves, to our own souls as well. And so it is true: each and every one of us has been beset by robbers and thieves. And the only interesting question is this: what will we do with that knowledge?
There is one final question with regard to this story. Why is it that the Samaritan is the one who shows mercy, and not the others? Remember how this began: the lawyer asks Jesus "Who is my neighbour?" He is asking a question about the neighbour as an object. All through the story we assume we are being asked to consider the wounded man as our neighbour. But at the end of the story Jesus turns the question back upon itself by using the word "neighbour" as a subject: "Now which of these three proved neighbour to the man?" Nothing in all Scripture is quite so well oiled as this turn around from neighbour as object to neighbour as subject. And when the lawyer identifies the Samaritan as the one who showed mercy, Jesus says to him simply: "Go and do likewise." That is, stop trying to decide who qualifies by law as ones for whom you are responsible, just be a neighbour by showing mercy.
But in telling the story with these specific characters Jesus also points us in the direction of what allows us to do this. It is not just that he enjoins this lawyer or any of the rest of us to just be a decent person, to be kind whenever we have the opportunity. That would be of little interest. No Jesus uses the Samaritan, this mistrusted and despised person to carry the message. This person responds because he too is a wounded man, the victim of class and racial hatred, hated, a pariah, an outsider.
One of the facts of our city, a part of the Manchester experience (although it will not feature in the International Festival, but then again, nor will we) , is that we hardly ever go a day without meeting up with several destitute people asking us to share with them our spare change. Like most of you sometimes I share something with them; most of the time I do not. I am never quite certain what kind of help I am offering. And, furthermore, how are we to discern? The Sunday Times last week devoted much of it’s style magazine to poking fun at people worse off than ourselves, how much individual help can we give when as a society, we do not want to know the good Samaritan? And do you know how much a pair of socks costs in Harvey Nichols?
Compassion for another proceeds not from our strong side, or our decent side. It proceeds from that part of us that has been wounded, that part about which we might even feel ashamed. "Charity" as we usually understand it means the response of the relatively strong for the relatively weak and needy. Often charity in this sense makes the giver feel good but the recipient feel terrible and resentful. Then we wonder how it is that they can be possessed of such ingratitude.
But there is no room in Jesus’ teaching for charity of this kind. To be a neighbor signifies the outpouring of compassion. And compassion always proceeds from that part of us that has been wounded, feels alienated, even despised. That is the part of us that is able to reach out to another’s hurt and pain without being superior or judgmental. That is the part that ministers an authentic power of healing. That is to say, we are all Samaritans; we are all potentially wounded healers.
And so this parable says to each of us: Do not despise the wounds that you have suffered, or even the ones you yourself have inflicted. It is there where your real humanity lies. Neither deny on the one hand, nor cultivate on the other. Fort it is possible to nurture our grievances in such a way that we turn in on ourselves in bitterness and self-pity. Do not despise what you consider to be weak and unworthy in yourself. For as Jesus reminded us, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
That is the image of a wounded healer. It is the image beautifully portrayed in the passage we read earlier from the writing of the prophet Isaiah, the description of the Suffering Servant:
Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.But he was wounded for our transgressions,He was bruised for our iniquities,Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,And with his stripes we are healed.
And this also ties in with our first reading, we are all part of the body of Christ, the Church on earth, we, the pope, Bishop Martyn, the Methodists down the road and the slightly more independent churches, we all look the same way, we all hope the same way and we are all vital limbs of the body of Christ. And we are wounded, and the body is wounded, but that is because it has to fight for us, and because, in the end, it wins the battle, but we will be wounded more before we get there.

The other Gods were strong, but you were weak,
The other Gods rode on horseback, but you used a donkey.
The other Gods had thrones, but you had a cross of life,
And to our wounds, only your wounds can speak,
And no other God has wounds, but you, from which came the life of the world.

May the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the wounds of His Passion protect you and those you love, now and evermore. Amen.