Saturday, July 9, 2016

Times That Try Souls


TEXT:            LUKE 10:25-37


ONE SENTENCE:   The essence of the Gospel – allowing love to overcome categories and tribalism – is still the best medicine in a world of suspicion and mistrust.

            “These are times that try men’s souls.”
            Those were the memorable first words of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, The Crisis, published on December 23, 1776.
            Paine had barely been in the American colonies two years, yet he had already come to know the dynamics of his day.  He had already rung the firebell of revolution with his earlier pamphlet, Common Sense.
            Indeed, those were days that tried men’s souls.  As are these days.
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            A few years ago, I read contemporary historian Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland.  It was a detailed, day-by-day account of the United States in election year 1968.
            It was breathtaking in its sweep.  It brought to mind details of that dramatic year which had long-since passed from my memory.
            There were the big events: Johnson’s renunciation of a presidential bid; Martin Luther King’s assassination; Bobby Kennedy’s assassination; riots in the streets of the cities; the Vietnam War; and the dramatic and tightly fought election that year.
            I recall that year as clearly as any in my life.  I guess you could say I came of age.  The movie Wild in the Streets made the song Born to be Wild an anthem for a generation.  If you can imagine this, I embraced it as my theme song.
            All that is to say that 1968 was a tumultuous year.  It was the pivot-point of an entire nation.  And things did not get better.
            1968 was followed a tide of cynicism.  The war continued.  People became more estranged from one another. Watergate ensued.  A president resigned office.
            As Queen Elizabeth termed one year, our annus horribilis of 1968 was not the end, but a continuation of an era of bad feelings.
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            I needn’t dwell on the difficulties of the past week.  There has been too much pain, much grief, copious amounts of horror, and a rising tide of estrangement.
            And I have been reminded of 1968 – and not for good reasons.  It is an uncomfortable feeling.  It seems portentous.  I am wondering what will be the next shoe to drop.
            And I am wondering what we, as people of faith can do.
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            Into this week comes the gospel lesson – the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
            Jesus is asked a simple question:  “Who is my neighbor?” The question raised a pertinent point –for then and for today.
Keep in mind that the world in which Jesus lived was a tribal world.  There were Jews. There were Samaritans.  There were the people of other nations and faiths.  The account of Pentecost Day from the Book of Acts describes them: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene… Cretan and Arabs…
            The tribalism of that culture ruled the day.  In fact, tribalism still animates the conflict of the Middle East.  Lawrence of Arabia encountered in the early 20th century.  In many ways, it is the dividing force – even today – in Jesus’ part of the world.  Suspicion of the other.  The stranger.  The person who, for whatever reason, is different.
            Jesus tries to lance that cultural boil.  He tells a parable that describes a priest passing an injured man on the roadside – and walking on the other side.  Likewise, he tells of Levite – a member of a sacred caste of Jews – passing the injured man as well.  Neither man gave aid or comfort to the injured man.
            But there came a Samaritan – an other; an unclean person; one to be shunned by people of faith – who tended the wounded man, who took him to a place of rest, healing and refuge, and saw that he was cared for.
            Jesus ends the story with a question:  “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  When the lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy,” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
            Go and do likewise.  Wise words for our time.
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            Years ago, when I was just a boy, my family would gather around a piano in my great-grandfather’s house, just down Hardy Street from here.  When my aunt was there, we would join together as she played some of my great-grandfather’s favorite hymns.
            It was a cringe-worthy moment for a teenage boy, but I now cherish those memories.
            My great-grandfather was a staunch Methodist and I suspect we sang hymns from a long-past hymnal.  One of his favorites, which we would sing, would be Give Me that Old Time Religion.
            The hymn likely emerged from the Black Gospel and Southern Gospel traditions in the late 19th Century.  My great-grandfather loved it and its very simple message:

Give me that old time religion,

Give me that old time religion,

Give me that old time religion,

It’s good enough for me. 

            Call me naïve – which I may well be – but I think we need today the old time religion expressed in Jesus’ parable today.  If we could stop seeing one another as the other we could structure our world, our culture, and our society on what our founders described as a more perfect union.
            We have heard this message preached.  We have heard the story again and again.  And the fact is that G. K. Chesterton was right: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
             Christianity is hard,  It is demanding.  It is so much more than a feel-good, personal experience.  It requires us to intentionally alter our normal, cultural methods of relating to one another.  We cannot simply embrace what we could call cultural Christianity -- without having have lives transformed -- and expect a different world.
            It is time to truly try Christianity – to read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest the teachings of Jesus, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
           We need to rise above and move beyond the tribal culturalism which infects our society.  We need to be transformed – to be counter-cultural.  We need to show people that we see them not as a class, as a uniform, or as some projection of our own fears and biases, and that we see them instead as brothers and sisters of the same God.
            Perhaps if you and I can do it, our transformation of perspective and behavior will affect others.  And bit-by-bit, we will begin to change the world.


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