“On the Road”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
10 July 2022
Sometimes the Revised Common Lectionary provides difficult texts for ministers and congregations to grapple with, and sometimes it delivers just the right scripture. Today’s reading is Luke’s telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. How many of you know this parable? Some of you could probably recite it from memory — or at least deliver the punch line. Let’s see if you can help me fill in the blanks as I read this familiar text.
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain _________[eternal life]?”
Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your _________ [neighbor as yourself.]”
Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is ___________ [my neighbor]?”
Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a _______ [priest] was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and ________ [went on his way.] Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and __________ [crossed over to the other side of the road] and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with ________ [compassion]. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated __________ [mercy/compassion] toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and _______ [do likewise].”
For the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us…Thanks be to God.
This is an important text, and I want to do it justice by not delivering a sermon that conveys the same message some of you have heard since childhood: Be good to strangers and be merciful to those who are injured.
The parable is not a guideline for how to be a good citizen of the empire by being quiescent and nice…it is a countercultural wisdom tale about subversive behavior in the kingdom of God or in Beloved Community, which we hear about both in our strategic plan and in this year’s Leadership Council theme, which is “extending and embracing Beloved Community.” That concept, developed by Josiah Royce and picked up by Dr. King is not about being nice, it’s about getting real and grounding our behavior not in self-interest, which is the American Way, but for the good of all God’s people — whether Jew or Samaritan. It also means speaking the truth in love, even when it’s uncomfortable.
This was a spicy parable for the people who heard Jesus tell it, because they likely thought that the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. Imagine if this parable was set in the Donbas region of Ukraine. An Orthodox priest passes along a war-torn street and sees a man injured on the side of the road, but he is on his way to say the liturgy, so he crosses to the other side of the road. Then a Ukrainian paramilitary is rushing to get a message to his commanding officer, but when he sees the injured man, he also crosses over. But then a Russian soldier sees the wounded Ukrainian man and picks him up, dresses his wounds, and brings him to a small hotel and pays for his care and lodging.
That is what a Jewish audience would have thought about a “Good” Samaritan. A very unlikely hero.
Over the last 20 years of my ministry at Plymouth, I have seen a handful of unlikely heroes in our midst. People who, among so many other acts of compassion, start a kindergarten in Ethiopia. A busy young mother of two and an attorney who makes time to chair our Strategic Planning Team and to be Plymouth’s incoming moderator. An older couple who could have rested on their laurels enjoying their retirement years, but instead chose to invest their time and money in starting girls’ schools in Angola. An old soul who embraces life in spite of a crummy cancer diagnosis and persists in celebrating life and sharing joy with others. Deacons who care so much about your experience of worship and your health and safety that they cleaned all of the restrooms after every in-person worship in the pit of the pandemic. Teams who pursue immigration justice and stand against gun violence. I could go on…there are many examples I don’t have time to cite.
We are a congregation that is filled with unlikely heroes. I have learned so much from some of you about what being Beloved Community looks like: not caring for self-interest, but doing what is right, even when it is costly.
Some translations of this parable use the English word “mercy” as the primary motivation of the Samaritan. But it isn’t “mercy” is it? Mercy is what an authority figure can bestow upon a victim or a wrongdoer. It isn’t mercy that drives the Samaritan or any of the unlikely heroes at Plymouth…it’s compassion. It is acting after sensing the pain, the need, the possible opportunity of others.
My mentor, Marcus Borg, wrote, “Jesus disclosed that God is compassionate. Jesus spoke of God that way: ‘Be compassionate, as God is compassionate.’ Compassion is the primary quality of the central figures in two of his most famous parables: the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. And Jesus himself, as a manifestation of the sacred, is often spoken of as embodying compassion.”
Marcus went further than that in saying that Jesus replaced the core value of ritual purity in the Judaism of his day with the core value of compassion. The problem is that over the last 2,000 the church universal has a pretty miserable record of showing compassion, especially to people with whom they disagree. Whether it is a Crusade or an Inquisition or quiescence during the Holocaust, many Christians are unable or unwilling to operate out of a sense of self-risking courage to be compassionate.
Courage is an underrated Christian value, and it is a precondition of compassion. Without courage, we won’t keep looking at the wounded man on the side of the road, who could be dead or contagious or violent. Our courage enables our compassion by giving us the drive to risk and to move ahead.
But if compassion is at the heart of God, if it is embodied by Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, what keeps us from making it our universal rule of faith? I think sometimes we lack courage. This is true for me and perhaps for you, too: We sometimes get so comfortable with our low-risk lives that we don’t want to rock the boat, or we are overwhelmed by our own fear of illness or death, or we spend our energy on petty complaints that are of no real consequence. Like every church, we’ve experienced some conflicts over the years of pandemic that matter have distracted some of us from being either faithful or compassionate. When we lack courage, when we let fear get the best of us, we resort to pass-through communication, triangulation, and gossip.
Twenty years from now our petty squabbles will be forgotten…but the acts of courage and compassion wrought by members of this church will persist in the lives of people within the church and far, far beyond it. Yours are the examples that warm my heart and the hearts of others. They are the living testaments to courage that inspire me and inspire others to be courageous.
Churches around the country are in a time of transition and rebuilding, and it will take patience, wisdom, and grace to be church in the coming years. That is why the concept of Beloved Community is so critical for Plymouth to remain vital and healthy.
Since I’ll be away for a month of vacation and three months of sabbatical, I thought I’d leave you with three invitations from this parable:
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian