Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 20 Sunday 9 October 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Today’s gospel is often read as an exhortation to gratitude: the punch-line suggests that Jesus values this courtesy being paid, not to him, note, but to God. There may be a little of the Victorian Sunday school lurking behind that assumption: manners rather than morality, let alone religion, faith or God, seem to the fore.
But things are not quite what they seem. The giving of thanks is indeed being commended, but we are intended to notice the particular person giving thanks, as against the nine who do not.
This, like so many moments in Luke, is a moment of reversal and inclusion. The Samaritan is the hated outsider, like a Muslim in a fundamentalist Christian conventicle, or a gay person in the Archbishop of Sydney’s vestry (oh, I forgot, he doesn’t have one of those). Not only does God’s grace extend to the Samaritan but, unlike the good Jews who have been healed, he is the one who gives thanks; he is the one who has understood the gift he has received, and the true origin of that gift, God. The gospel is for all, even for those who reject it (as the second reading reminded us); the invitation is especially warmly issued to those who are marginalized by the self-appointed guardians of respectability and morality.
The gospel is for all. A few details from the story clarify what that means. The Samaritan is not required to repent his allegiance or become a Jew. He is simply one of a group of needy people who ask for mercy. God’s grace is given prodigally and without strings. As the writer of the second reading says, ‘the word of God is not chained’; God speaks and acts unfettered by the purity, or lack of it, in the receiver.
And the second reading, from 2 Timothy, is a window into how boundaries were drawn in the early days of the church. It includes an early creed or hymn of faith, possibly used in worship; but even before this series of propositions is quoted we hear a yet more unambiguous and simple statement of faith:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel (1 Tim 2.8)
‘Remember’! That is, of course what we gather here to do, at the altar; remembrance is at the core of our great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist.
And at the altar it is also what we ask God to do for us: think of the cry of the penitent thief from the cross, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
All of this, thanksgiving, inclusion and remembrance, mindfulness, underlies our understanding of the Christian community, and what we call pastoral care within it. I’d like to think about that for a moment.
I had a friend who took on the management of a Jewish social services agency. Not herself Jewish she made an assumption about rabbis from her limited knowledge of church, which proved to be unfounded. The rabbis did not expect to provide or even oversee a network of what we would call pastoral care, or visiting people. That is not to say such care did not exist, but it was entirely the responsibility of each synagogue community. The rabbi was a teacher, possibly a scholar and, one hoped, a religious man. But he did not visit the sick or housebound, or ensure that they were cared for; that was the responsibility of the family, or the wider Jewish community if a family was lacking. I don’t know much about the working of mosques, but I suspect from the little I do know that they are more like synagogues than churches, not least because, again, they are places of teaching and a cerebral, word-based type of worship. Imams seem more like rabbis than priests to me.
Today’s gospel, by Jesus’ no-strings inclusion of the Samaritan and his commendation of the Samaritan’s thankful response, clearly implies that God gives his grace to our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters freely. It also reminds us that we may be shown up by them when they are more attentive to God, more thankful, more mindful and more caring.
Our Christian tradition claims to include a tradition of expressing our faith by pastoral care. Unfortunately it has often confused the outworking of this with holy orders, perhaps through the word association of shepherd / pastor and bishop / priest. We have a clear theology of pastoral care given us in scripture: ‘I am the good shepherd’, says the Lord, ‘and I know my sheep and mine know me’. Our distinctive revelation, our Gospel as Paul says, is that in his person Christ mediated the grace of God: healing, including, manifesting the love of God outstandingly on the cross, as he manifested the glory of God in the resurrection. But the identification of ordained ministry with the concept ‘pastor’ seems to have led to an assumption that pastoral care is the concern of the clerical caste.
Words to the contrary from Jesus abound: most famously, perhaps, the story of the sheep and the goats. This is pertinent because he is addressing not the pastors, but the sheep. You’ll remember that he rewards them for having cared for him; when they express puzzlement, not having consciously done anything for him, he replies
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Mt 25.40)
That is the pastoral vocation of every baptized Christian, spelled out with crystal clarity as a point of entry to the kingdom.
If we need further encouragement in this regard we need only to look at what a church is, as envisaged by St Paul. It is a body, comprising members, parts which are of equal significance and various function.
Here the call to ‘remember’ comes back into play. ‘Re-member’, suggesting putting the parts back together, is a false etymology, but it is exactly the sort of word-play that Jesus would have used. If the church is understood as a living organism, then remembering God and remembering each other involves these organic and healing links one to another: just as God’s remembering us makes us whole, so our remembrance of each other – for we do it for Jesus if we do it for each other – is what makes our community into a Christian community. I won’t labour the point, as it has often been made, famously by the great Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne:
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;…
Our generosity and readiness to accept that God’s grace is wider than our definitions of it, and our care of one another, is fundamental to our faith and our journey to heaven.