St. Paul’s – Proper 23 – 10/9/22
Do you have a motto like a quote, or a line you use as a touchstone? A go to quotation? Something you return to to get your bearings… to remind you about what’s really most important,… where your values are. The kind of person you want to be. Words to live by…. Something to post on your bathroom mirror or put in your pocket, so it’s there whenever you need it. One of the best I’ve ever come across. Popularized by Alex Haley, the writer of Roots and the autobiography of Malcolm X is this. Find the good and praise it. Find the good and praise it. I love the pairing of those two verbs, find and praise. First, find. Seek out the good. Look for the good. Pursue the good, no matter what the circumstance or situation. Find The good. And then the second move so it’s not just look on the bright side. Find the good and praise it. The word praise comes from the Latin word for price or value. Which is why when we assess the value of a house or a jewel, we appraise it. We acknowledge and declare it’s worth and organize our lives accordingly. If it’s valuable, we treasure it. We prize it. To praise is to prize. These words are close cousins… to lift up… to build up… to acknowledge worth. Not for the sake of the jewel. The emerald is lovely weather, you praise it or not. But rather for our own sake. So we can orient our lives in a way that makes sense. Putting first things first. Valuing the actually valuable. Prizing what’s worth prizing. And letting go of whatever we should let go of. Find the good and praise.
Two weeks ago we said the church is a mission of mercy. Last Sunday we said it is an adventure that requires Faith. Courage. Boldness. Today we come to the third part. The adventurous courageous mission of the church often takes the form of praise. Finding the good and appreciating its value. So we can arrange our lives with wisdom, and grace. Sounds good, right? All in favor of Praise. Please say, aye. But here’s the twist for Jesus… There’s a danger lurking here… slithering in the grass. As it turns out, praise can bring us together or tear us apart.
Remember a couple of weeks ago, we touched on how the church is not a group first. Because at its core, the church is a mission, not a membership… a verb, not a noun. Jesus and the gospel writers are so often interested in blurring the supposed boundary lines around the movement that was following him. Think of the Magi at Christmas. The outsiders… the Persians. You know, from another culture, another religion, present day, Iran. The Outsiders who notice what the Insiders overlooked. Or the Roman Centurion at the foot of the cross. Who recognizes and testifies that Jesus is the son of God. Or probably the most famous of all, the so-called Good Samaritan. Someone Jesus’ Jewish listeners would have considered an adversary who takes care of an injured stranger on the side of road. A Samaritan. A non-jew who exemplifies what Jesus says is the essence of the Jewish law.
So how do you draw that line? Are the Magi, the Centurion. The Samaritan. Are they insiders? Members of the group? Not quite. They are clearly outsiders by many measures. But are they really outsiders? Not quite. They are exemplars, right? Jesus puts them at the center of things. They are at the vanguard of the movement. Consummate insiders really. The Magi see what everybody else misses. The Centurion declares the truth as the disciples abandon Jesus and flee. The Samaritan does what the priest and the levite failed to do. The Insiders act like Outsiders…The Outsiders act like insiders. The roles are mixed up. The lines are blurred. So the whole project of group formation gets scrambled. It’s as if Jesus says don’t think so much about group formation, who’s in, and who’s out. But rather think about, who sees what’s really going on? Who speaks the truth, who acts with genuine mercy, and follow their lead. Don’t get distracted by who’s in what group. I mean, the argument of the entire New Testament is that God’s salvation arises in the context of Judaism. And in the end, it’s not limited to Jews. It’s also for Gentiles. Which is to say, it’s open to everyone. That’s the overall dynamic of the New Testament. To reach out and include… not close up and exclude… to find the good and praise it. Whether it’s embodied in a Jew or a gentile, a Samaritan or a Pharisee, a Muslim or an atheist or a humanist or God forbid, a Christian from a part of
Christianity that you don’t like. None of that matters. Find the good and praise it and follow it. Don’t get bogged down in group membership. Stay open and prize the good wherever it may be found.
Jesus makes this kind of point repeatedly. Both in explicit teachings and across the broad choreography of his public Ministry. Take the Gospel of Luke for example, where at one point Jesus explicitly turns his face toward Jerusalem toward the cross and the empty tomb in chapter 9. He arrives in Jerusalem in chapter 19. So 10 chapters more or less. Jesus’ final journey. His climactic approach. With lots of teaching, lots of final words along the way. And where does Jesus start this last momentous pilgrimage? He starts in Samaria.
Now, Samaritans were descendants of generations of intermarriage between on the one hand Jews left behind during the exile in Babylon. And on the other hand, Gentiles who were settled in Israel by the conquering Assyrians. Samaritans shared a common heritage with Jews but they were also quite different. Imagine Roman Catholics and Protestants in early, modern Europe with their mutual bigotries and suspicions, the appetites for vengeance. There are similarities only sharpening their contempt. Jews and Samaritans were likewise enemies. And one of their key points of contrast, one of the practical lines that made it clear which side you were on came down to praise. They disagreed over the location of the sanctuary….The holiest place in the world where God was to be worshipped. Samaritans insisted it was on a mountain in Shechem and Jews insisted it was the Temple mount in Jerusalem. Perhaps for this reason, when Jesus and his entourage pass through Samaria on their way to Jerusalem, the Samaritans deny them hospitality. A great insult in the ancient world. This enrages the disciples who promptly asked Jesus with good Christian charity, no doubt…. They asked if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume them. Jesus immediately rebukes the disciples for their zealotry. And then in the very next chapter he casts a Samaritan as the hero…in a parable about following the Jewish law… about showing mercy… about how to love your neighbor as yourself. Now, this alone is a powerful challenge to the disciples and by extension to us to resist the clannish group formation that so often characterizes religion. The temptation to find the good and praise it in ourselves, in our group and thereby to look down on everybody else with contempt and even call for violence…..sound familiar?
And against this self-praise, Jesus pushes us to find the good and praise it. Wherever we find it. Even and especially in the actions of those we regard as adversaries.
But Jesus isn’t finished. There’s more. Near the end of his journey to Jerusalem, he returns to the same theme just in case we missed it.
In this mornings gospel….a group of 10 people with leprosy… carefully keeping their distance…. according to custom… cry out to Jesus. Calling him master and asking for mercy. Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priest and they find themselves healed along the way. Only one, a Samaritan, returns and gives glory to God for what Jesus has done. Jesus commends him. Highlights that he’s a Samaritan and then celebrates his devotion saying your faith has made you well. So we might ask what is it precisely that Jesus celebrates about the
Samaritan’s faith here. It’s not revering Jesus…. for all 10 call him Master. It’s not obeying his instruction for all 10 do what he commands setting out toward the priest to be officially reconciled to the community. And it’s not theological correctness. For Samaritans and Jews disagreed over many religious matters, including how and where to praise. So, if it’s not reverence obedience or orthodoxy that distinguishes the Samaritan, what is it? What’s different about him? It is that he pivots rather than simply going to see the priest. He stops, pivots and returns to Jesus with thanks and praise. And when Jesus exalts him as an exemplar of faith, he thereby completes the striking portrait he began at the outset of his journey to Jerusalem with his famous Good Samaritan parable.
Just as that parable dramatizes what it looks like to follow the second dimension of the greatest commandment—loving your neighbor as yourself. Here, what we might call the thankful Samaritan dramatizes what it looks like to follow the commandments first dimension—you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind. What does loving God in this way actually look like? It looks just like thanking and glorifying God for being the one from whom all blessings flow. It looks like having the insight and the nerve to stop, pivot, return and praise. To illustrate the essence of Jewish law, Jesus paints a diptych. A pair of pictures, featuring two Samaritans, one merciful, the other thankful for God’s mercy.
What we prize can divide us. We can and do pick fights over where and how to praise. Over what to prize the most… over whose ideas are the closest to reality. In short, we pick fights over religion again and again and again and Jesus will have none of it. Imagine a Jewish teacher, a rabbi who puts two portraits of Samaritans up in the front of the sanctuary for all to see…and to admire… and to learn from… to find the good and to praise it. It would be like entering a St. Paul’s/St. James/St. Stephens today and walking up to the altar and seeing two portraits, one of a Hindu, the other of a Buddhist or one of a Muslim and the other of an atheist. And of course, if you think about it, we already have this situation today. When we walk into Christian churches and see portraits of a Roman Centurion or Magi from present-day Iran or a Samaritan, tending to a wounded traveler, on the side of the road…many times in our stained glass windows. and certainly in our gospel readings….None of these are Christians, not in the conventional sense. Anyway, again and again and again, Jesus calls us to find the good and praise it outside of Christian quarters. To seek out and lift up and celebrate people who are not Christian. Who nevertheless exemplify, what we prize most…mercy and faith. And the good sense to pivot, return and praise. That’s who Jesus is. That’s what Jesus does. And that’s what Jesus calls the church to be and to do. To praise not in ways that divide but in ways that reach out and help knit the world back together. The churches mission of mercy requires courage, it requires faith. And it often takes the form of engaging outsiders and adversaries, finding the good and praising it.
In the book of Acts, also written by Luke, We find the story of the rise and establishment of the church after Jesus’ departure. When the Risen Jesus commissions the apostles, he seems to picture Samaria as a kind of first step. A threshold to the wider world the God of grace means to save. You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem Jesus says and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the Earth. It’s a striking formulation and a challenge to all of us. God’s saving love is for everyone….for the whole wide world. And the road to the ends of the earth, goes through Samaria. It goes through the local neighborhood. It goes through reconciliation with and learning from the supposed adversaries, right next door. Find the good and praise it.