The following sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.
It is a pleasure to be here with you all this morning. As some of you know, I began my ministry here and served as an associate pastor of the church for about five years. This community has also been a part of my ongoing journey with the New London Homeless Hospitality Center. Donations from this church got our program going and financial support and volunteer hours from this congregation continue to be a vital support for our work. I am grateful to this remarkable church on so many fronts.
As I prepared for today I found myself looking back over my own history with FCCOL. My involvement here actually began 20 years ago when I first came looking for a church after moving to Lyme from New York City. I had always felt a draw to the spiritual life but was also, quite honestly, deeply conflicted about Christianity.
I had been taught since childhood that being Christian meant believing certain things about God and more specifically believing certain things about Jesus. Many of these “mandatory” beliefs were real stumbling blocks for me. In particular I could not find a way to worship a God who required the sacrifice of a beloved son to repay some past transgression. Also high on my list of things that didn’t make sense was the idea that simply saying one accepts Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior was the key to salvation. These are just the top of a long list of problematic beliefs I had been told were critical to calling oneself a Christian.
So I came to FCCOL as an uneasy seeker. I was lucky to find a vibrant worship community but also privileged to have the chance to learn from David Good who was the senior minister when I came. To shorten the story considerably, David helped me to see that there were multiple ways of believing and introduced me to a whole new progressive theology that made so much more sense. David shared book after book with me and I read each with intensity. I came to see that there is a way of believing that made the Christian tradition persuasive.
But it has slowly become clear to me that there is a problem defining Christianity as primarily about beliefs…even if those beliefs make sense. I, and many other observers of the religious scene today, have increasingly concluded that believing (even things that made sense) has been very much overemphasized in our Protestant tradition. Beliefs matter…beliefs can be very helpful on the spiritual path but they are secondary to what for me has become the more compelling goal—a practice based spirituality.
What matters most in a practice based spirituality is not so much what we believe but what we do. Not the talk we talk but the walk we walk. Not what we think so much as how we act in the world. Not so much the clarity of our mind as the fullness of our hearts.
I don’t think this idea is actually anything new. I think we find it everywhere in scripture. Our reading today is a case in point. The focus of the story is a man left for dead on the side of the road. The story says nothing about him and as his clothing has been stolen there is nothing to identify who he is—he could be a Jew…he could be a gentile…he could be rich or he could be poor. The only thing we know for sure is that he is hurt and in need.
Three characters come face to face with this man in need. The first two are people who believe all the right things—a priest and a Levite. They know the scriptures…they know the commandments…they know the rites…their religious beliefs are high on their priority list. And yet despite believing all the right things…despite being models of conventional religion… they choose to walk by the man on the side of the road.
Onto the scene comes a Samaritan. Jews hearing this story in the time of Jesus would be immediately on guard. Samaritans were the ultimate outsiders. To the Jews of Jesus day Samaritans worshiped idols, refused to acknowledge the temple in Jerusalem, provided refuge to lawbreakers and failed to follow the laws of Moses. And these different beliefs made them the greatest enemy of the Jews. Jews would not talk with Samaritans and Jews would add days to a journey to avoid even setting foot in Samaria.
And yet, despite believing all the wrong things about God….the despised outsider does the right thing and cares for the man by the side of the road. His believing may have been wrong but his practice was right. Jesus makes absolutely clear to his shocked audience that what matters is how the Samaritan responded to the man in need not the Samaritan’s beliefs about God. What is most important, I hear Jesus saying, is not belief but action. The emphasis on action continues into Jesus’ instruction to the lawyer “go and do” likewise. The lawyer had come to debate theology and Jesus turns his question around into an admonition to act.
What I would like to explore a bit today is why the action of stopping for the man at the side of the road is more important than all the right beliefs and perfectly executed rituals the priest and the Levite might undertake with great devotion. Share why, I propose, it matters more what we do then what we think. Why the path to a deeper spiritual life must be grounded in a commitment to action.
I would begin by saying that Jesus does not hold up the Samaritan’s actions as a model because the Samartitan had some rules based obligation to stop. Much contemporary religion sees the spiritual life as some sort of a business deal. Good deeds get added to the plus side of the ledger and sins to the negative side. The balance in your account determines your fate in the end. In this way of thinking, the Samaritan was right to stop because of some future reward he would receive for his act. But I think this way of reading the story is too shallow.
Instead, I would propose that stopping arises not out of an obligation but is rather the natural consequence of a deep connection to the true wellspring of the spiritual life.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 26 [Jesus] said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" 27 [The lawyer] answered, "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." (Luke 10)
In the lawyer’s own summary we can see immediately the true center of the spiritual life—love. Love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. It is love to which we are instructed to give all our hearts, soul, strength and mind.
If that is true, what we need is not so much schools of theology as schools of love. And that, my friends, is what I think we have in the life, teaching, death and ongoing presence of Jesus Christ. The Jesus of history and the living Christ of the present are not objects of worship. Jesus and Christ are not something that we are expected to believe things about. Rather the Jesus of history and the Christ present today in every molecule of creation are doorways through which we are invited into the life of love…guides inviting us to learn the doing of love.
Now the love to which Christ points is something much bigger than the concept of love we often use in everyday life. Spiritual love is not mainly a feeling and it is not reserved for a few. Spiritual love is not limited by our personal preferences—the love we see in Christ will extend to people we don’t like. And the love we see in Christ has no boundaries and, at its best, encompasses all of creation. In the gospels we see this over and over as Jesus extends his love past every boundary of class, custom, geography and religious belief. We see it in the wide-open welcome Jesus offers to all including so many people who had been labeled as unworthy by the society of his day.
We see this love without limits in our story today. The man laying beaten by the side of the road was probably a Jew. If he had encountered the Samaritan in the market place he might have treated the Samaritan as an enemy. But, for the Samaritan, who is living out of the center of love, these barriers, and even personal preferences, mean nothing. In the ordinary way of loving we can have a small circle of “loved one” and leave everyone else on the outside. In the Christ like way of loving, everyone and every aspect of creation is within our circle of care. For the Samaritan, the beaten man was naturally within his circle of care. This is what love does.
In our common way of thinking, love can have a strong self-serving element. We often value love because it lets us feel better about ourselves. This kind of love is a bargain, I give to you and you give to me. When that bargain no longer works in our favor, we move on. But the love of Christ is completely other focused. The objective of spirit filled love is the well being of the other. The goal of spirit filled love is to act in ways that bring wholeness and life to others. This doesn’t mean that we don’t benefit from this kind of love but our own needs are not the focus.
In the gospels we see this over and over. The action of Jesus is building up…making whole…bringing new life. He does this reengaging the excluded—the lepers, the poor, the sick, the outcast--back into the community that can give them life. He does this by healing the sick in mind, body or spirit wherever he goes. He bringing back together what is broken. The way of Jesus is the way of self giving so that others may have life. As John has Jesus say in one of my favorite passages in scripture, “I came that they might have life and have it in abundance”.
We see this in our story today. While the story is short, the most words are devoted to detailing the acts of healing: the Samaritan poured wine and oil on the man’s wounds, he bandaged them, put the man on his horse, took him to an inn, invested what was needed to secure the man’s care and returns after a few days to be sure all is well. The Samaritan does not simply stopping the bleeding…does not just get the man to a safe place and leave. This is over the top selfless care for another…relentless rebuilding what is broken. This is what love does.
In our common way of thinking, love is a feeling we have…something that can live in your mind…that can be stored up as intention without action. We can imagine, for example, that it is possible to love the earth and yet do nothing to preserve and protect it. But when you look deeply I think it is clear that by its very nature love is something you do. Love is most deeply an action…a verb not a noun…not something you have and hold but something that you share and give away. Love is one of the few things that you create more of by giving it away.
In our story today there is just one clue to the Samaritan’s emotions. He felt pity. But notice that this was not a static emotion rather the story says he was “moved” by pity. The feeling of connection to the stranger by the side of the road moved him to action. This is what love does.
So if this kind of expansive love is the goal of the spiritual life…then the spiritual life must be about doing love. By its very nature a faith that is pursuing love must, therefore, be focused on practice…must be nurturing the heart as much as the head…must be continually manifest in actions that advance the ways of life for all of creation. Such a faith has room for beliefs for mind and heart are tied together. But such a faith keeps a keen focus for the tangible fruits that emerge from any set of beliefs.
Living this kind of faith committed to the doing of Christ like love is a challenge in a world filled with divisions…a world where watching out for number one is almost a mantra…a world that presses hard upon us with so many demands.
But I am increasingly convinced that doing the work of love is the deepest calling and expression of the spiritual life. I do not mean to minimize the challenges. We face the reality that thousand or even millions lay beaten and dying on the side of our modern road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Not only our neighbors but the very plant we inhabit has been beset by bandits of many types leaving so many and so much of creation around us half dead by the side of the road. It is a very real and very difficult task to figure out the specific work of love any one of us is called to undertake at any particular time.
It is easy to be overwhelmed. But if we go back to the nature of love we will find support. I have recently been very moved by the work of the Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr. I cannot do justice to even a few of his insights today but I want to try to share one part of the path he lays out. Essentially for Fr. Rohr (and many others) we can love as Christ loved only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be fed by the immense, unlimited, unconditional love that is the foundation of the universe. Father Rohr has reimagined the doctrine of the trinity to help us with this.
We all have a surface knowledge of the teaching that God is mysteriously one while also being three: what we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For Father Rohr this paradoxical teaching proposes the radical idea that that at the very heart of God is relationship. God can only be one by being in relationship. And what is true of God Father Rohr says is true of everything that God created. The universe…our lives…the natural systems we live in are all defined not mainly by parts but by the relationship between those parts.
And the energy that creates these relationships…that makes the many one… that provides the energy that gives life, is love. A mysterious, self giving, whole making, life giving, unlimited, unconditional love is continually moving…acting…flowing between the various manifestations of the holy. Love is, for Father Rohr, always on the move and always doing the work of whole making.
In an image I just love, he describes this triune God as like a waterwheel. Love spills from the Father into the Son and from the Son into the Spirit and from the Spirit back into the father. There is a very famous icon of the Trinity called the Rublev icon. It shows three figures sitting around a table of welcome. In large part their features are exactly the same and yet small details indicate that one is the Father, one the Christ and one the Holy Spirit. Their gestures and their gaze create the feeling of circulating love. Unique and yet one. Distinct and yet bound together in an endless flow of love.
And in the icon there is also clearly a fourth seat at this table of welcome. That seat is intended to draw each one of us into this flow of love. Everyone, the icon implies, is invited to be part of this flow of love…receiving and passing on…receiving and passing on…receiving and passing on. I think the point is that we can do the work of love only if we are open to being filled by the love coursing through the universe. There is no need to earn this love—it is universally available. There are no requirements and no limits to this love—it is always flowing freely. Nothing can stop this flow of love. And yet this love is offered as invitation not mandate. Love does not impose itself on the unwilling but stands ready to enter any willing heart.
So how can we “go and do likewise” as we walk a road littered with victims? You may be surprised to hear me say that I think the process actually starts with a kind of believing. We need to dare to believe that God is love…that the love of Christ is planted deep in every heart….that we are endlessly invited to drink from the waterwheel of love…that love never ends….that we are created to love. This act of imagination and the desire to welcome this love opens the door to recognizing the presence of God as love that surrounds us and lives within us in every moment. And as we know love we will be able to do love. We may know and do in small incremental steps but once we have primed the waterwheel the process has started.
For each of us that doing of love will look different. This is not a contest and it is not a race. What we can do today may be quite different than what we can do tomorrow. But whatever doing we are called to it will carry the marks of love—it will bring life to ourselves and to others, it will have the marks of peace…it will build up and it will serve.
The roadside is crowded with the wounded. But the powerful flow of love that cascades through the universe provides more than sufficient energy fo
r the work of healing. Our task is to open our minds and hearts to that love letting it flow through us as acts of love that bring life.