The Nearness of God

Preached on 10 July 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, WA
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year C

Sometimes, when we hear a familiar story, we stop listening.  As soon as we hear the first few words our brain switches into auto-pilot.  It’s like driving to work every day; even if you’re half asleep you get to the end without having to pay attention to the details along the way.  We know how the story goes, we can think about the grocery list or the errands we need to run after church.  It’s not a conscious choice, it just happens.

But when that happens, we miss an opportunity to hear an old story with new ears; to hear a new message or notice different details.  After all, you’re a different person than you were the last time you heard it.  You’ve had new life experiences, met new people, grown in your relationships.  All of those affect how you experience a story; even one you’ve heard time and time again.  Have you ever read a book or watched a movie as an adult that you loved as a child?  That can really be an eye-opener, can’t it?

Preachers have the same experience.  What can I say that hasn’t already been said?  Do I have to say something new or is the familiar message ok?  What will be a life-giving or a life-challenging word to this group of people, at this time, in this place?

Today, we have one of those familiar stories.  Most, if not all, of you have heard the story of the “Good Samaritan” before.  Do you ever imagine yourself in the story?  Some people feel like the priest or the Levite but wish they were like the Samaritan or think they should wish that.

Perhaps your autopilot took you to the nagging voice in your ear or even on a guilt trip over the beggar you ignored yesterday.  I’ve never known guilt trips or nagging voices to help or motivate, however.

Today, I’d like you to back up a bit, turn off the autopilot and imagine yourself in the story in a different role than you usually assume.  So, just as a reminder, here’s a list of characters:
The Robbers
The Person they attack, rob, beat, and leave for dead
The Priest
The Levite
The Samaritan
His animal, who carries the victim
The Innkeeper
The Lawyer who asks, “who is my neighbor?”

Now listen to the story again through the experience of that character.

Read the story

What did you notice this time?

I wonder if the Samaritan had ever been attacked like that, and out of empathy couldn’t just walk right on by no matter what the risk to himself.

I wonder, have you ever felt like the person in the ditch?  Attacked – maybe not physically, but possibly verbally, or emotionally or psychologically – stripped, robbed, beaten, tossed aside.  Were there people who ignored you or avoided you, afraid to help or even get close?  Was there someone who went out of their way to help?  Did they offer more than first aid, continuing to see to your wounds, and caring for your needs?  Have you felt God draw near to you in a time of need?

I wonder if, when Jesus told the story, he saw the world broken, lying wounded in a ditch and God drawing near to us through Jesus to tend our wounds, and provide for our needs, like the Samaritan and the innkeeper?

This time, what I notice is the theme of nearness, not only in this reading but in all the readings this morning.  The nearness of God.

Did you notice that in trying to justify himself, the lawyer asked, “who is my neighbor?”  But at the end, Jesus asks who was a neighbor to the man in the ditch.
The lawyer wanted to establish boundaries; that there are people who are not his neighbor. So his question would be if he would be required to help the man in the ditch; is that person his neighbor?  But Jesus turned it around.  It was the Samaritan who was identified as the neighbor, who drew near, choosing, to be a neighbor to someone who was vulnerable and in great need.

It is in the drawing near, especially to the vulnerable, that we are neighbors.

In our Old Testament reading, we hear Moses talking to the People.  They are about to enter the Promised Land at last and he is offering his final words of wisdom.  He is reminding them of all that the Lord has taught them in their 40 years; reminding them that God has never abandoned them, providing for all their needs.  And most important, God has taught them how to live together in community; that if they follow God’s teaching, they will prosper, bearing good fruit not only their crops and livestock but in their own lives.  The teaching God offers is very near, Moses reminds, them it is in their mouths and in their hearts.

God comes near, showing us how to live.

As we leave here, today, and in the coming week, I invite you to continue to ponder the nearness of God.  How does God draw near in your life?  Do you find God’s word in your mouth and in your heart?  Do you find yourself on the road to Jericho?  Do you find God in your neighbor?  How do you draw near to God and your neighbor?

And in all you do may God bless you with neighbors.