Is It Too Dangerous To Be A Good Samaritan?

I’ve been thinking about Good Samaritans.

The recent murders of two men on a Portland, Ore. commuter train by a man who was harassing a teenager and her Muslim friend wearing a hijab raises an important question.  In a time where sectarian violence is becoming more common; is being a Good Samaritan more dangerous than ever before?  In risking our lives to save others are we risking too much; putting some in unnecessary jeopardy because our sense of civic decency and religious pride cannot ignore a man with mental illness?  It’s a tough question to decide, in an instant, for what offensive behaviors one is willing to die.

Far from a simple question of situational ethics, the idea of the “Good Samaritan” is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and one that Christians cannot ignore.  The concept of the “Good Samaritan” emerges from Luke’s gospel.  It is a Christian story and for the most part, the secular world gets it wrong.  The “Good Samaritan” is an anti-hero.  His questions and motivation are not lost on today’s headlines.

As Jesus tells it, a man was traveling a dangerous road between two cities.  This road was known to be one where thieves, robbers, and bandits regularly plied their trade.  It was a dangerous path.  The man should have known better than to take this road.  It was, however, this quickest way to his destination. Somewhere along the road he was jumped, robbed, beaten, and left for dead.  No one intervened to stop his beating.  No one fought the robbers.  No one called the police.  He laid there, in the road, a corpse in the making.

While the man lay dying, on two separate occasions, two people walked by his half-dead body.  These people, while very religious, did nothing to help the man.  They valued their religious obligations over any duties toward people in need.

About this same time, a Samaritan was travelling along the road.  Samaritans were not do-gooders with first aid packs, civic heroes, or well-respected people.  The Samaritans were an ethnic group; a despised ethnic group.  The corpse in the making, his ethnic group hated the Samaritans.  The half dead man probably thought the Samaritans were sacrilegious heretics who worshipped a foreign God.  To most people, there was nothing “Good” about “Samaritans”.

And yet, the Samaritan stopped.  Remember the Samaritan didn’t see the initial attack.   There was no more physical violence.  There was emotional violence; that’s what the two religious guys did by ignoring the half dead man in the road.  Religious inaction is as bad as hate speech.  The robbers could have returned.  They did not.  The Samaritan picked up the nearly dead man, treated his wounds, and took him to a place where he could be cared for.  The Samaritan even paid his medical bills.

The Samaritan was “Good” because the dominant religious culture deemed him “bad”.  In last week’s attack in Portland, the Muslim women would be the modern day Samaritans.  If you want to apply the parable of the Good Samaritan: these women are the outsiders, the religious culture different from our own.  Secondly, the two men who died are also Samaritans.  I would also argue they are martyrs.  They stopped when no one else would, despite the danger (obvious or not), they came to assist someone in need. When Samaritans are assisting Samaritans, when we start to see each other as Samaritans; I can hear Jesus saying, “Now you’re getting it”.  It is notable that in Jesus’ story the Samaritan never responds with violence.  Like Jesus himself, the Samaritan counters the effects of violence with healing and compassion.  Death stops when Jesus gets involved.  Jesus (like the Samaritan) doesn’t have to kill others to be safe.

It has always been dangerous to be a Samaritan, good or otherwise.  The kingdom of God is full of Samaritans; outsiders and outcasts who are unrecognizable to the brick and mortar mainstream we call religion.  Look around at the Samaritans among you; they are in your congregations, in your pews, in your world, hiding in plain sight.   Welcome them home.  Tell them Jesus loves them, is proud of them, and their time is now.

Blessings,

Richard (the preacher next door)

The First Methodist Pentecost

Did you hear about the first Methodist Pentecost? No, I don’t mean the First Methodist Pentecostal Church. I’m talking about the first Methodist Pentecost. It’s a different thing. Believe me, it’s not the kind of thing you forget.

This was the time when Methodists from all over the world assembled in Jerusalem for the “World Methodist General Annual Conference of Wesleyan Gatherings and Associations since the Dawn of Time.” An annual meeting, Methodists from all over the known world converged on Jerusalem just fifty days after their individual celebrations of Easter. For some reason, this year was an extra special meeting. A commission of divinely appointed disciples was gathered in “the” Upper Room to wait upon the “Holy Spirit” for heavenly direction on a way forward from where we are now to where (some said) we ought to be. Are you sure you haven’t heard this story? I hate to repeat myself.

It was nearly 9:00 am when it started. Most of Methodism was still asleep in our nice jurisdictional factions. These “way forward” disciples were in their upper room praying and debating. They were hemming and some were hawing. A few were drinking coffee from expensive mugs while a tech guy worked out issues with HDMI plugs. It was a normal Methodist Sunday morning. Until, until the windows blew open and in flew John Wesley’s ghost who announced the arrival of the one, the only, the Hooooly Spirit!

Suddenly, the room was on fire with the kind of electricity only God can provide. The technology failed, the lights went dark, and the way forward disciples were forced to talk to one another. Their words went through, past, over and under each other and finally out the door. Into the streets, the Methodists below heard God’s roar. The disciples stumbled to their feet and one or two began to preach.

The lay folk and clergy clustered below didn’t know what to believe; because everyone was hearing what they wanted to hear.   (People aren’t used to hearing anything they genuinely agree with at any gathering of two or more United Methodists.) “Aren’t all these people doing the talking from that Way Forward Caucus?” said one man from Mississippi. How is it I hear what he says as if he is from Yazoo City?

Georgians, Texans, Floridians, Oregonians, New Yorkers, and Liberians too; heard what they wished and got what they wanted. They heard a gospel that looked, sounded, walked, and talked just like them. This can’t be. As Tex from Cleveland said to Dallas from Portland, “These people are surely drunk. There’s no way Jesus talks like any of us!”

Jesus was different, so they believed, a man far removed. If he talked like me or you, he might resemble others, of whom we certainly do not approve.

The first Methodist Pentecost was a bit of bust; the world thought we were a bunch of factionalized drunks. Or was that the other guys? I can never tell. These stories, I’ve told them so many times, they blend together so very well.

Frat Boys Buying Beer In a Food Lion on a Saturday Night Over Memorial Day Weekend (A Poem)

Frat Boys Buying Beer on a Saturday Night in a Food Lion on Memorial Day Weeekend

Hats turned backwards,
The vacant 10 yard stare,
Twenty year old males,
People are everywhere,
“Dude, what do you want?”
“I don’t know?”
“You?”
“Whatever, man?”
“What ‘cha drinking, bro?”
“If everyone’s getting Coors,
That’s cool with me.”
“Busch is cheaper by the case,”
“Duuude, so it seems,”
“So you’re cool with Busch?”
“Whatever hoss,
Did you see the frozen Pizza Supremes?”
“That’s what we’re eating?”
“Dude, the Miller Draft,
The taste is really clean.”
“Is that what we’re drinking?”
“I’ll drink what everybody likes,
But I’m not touching Bud light.”
“So what are we getting?”
“Something everybody likes?”
“You’re right, too many vegetables,
It’s a meatlovers night.”
“You’re sure?”
“That’s why we’re here.”
“Whatever bro.”
“Hey, what about our beer?”

–Richard Bryant

Are Common Serbian Woodpeckers Frightened of Bulgarian Scarecrows? (The 19th Letter)

29 May 1958

Beograd, Yugoslavia

Between the green leaved oaks lining the boulevard to the rear of the cathedral, to the left of the fourth shadow of the second grandest leaf, ninety two meters from the national library, where Dimitri Shostakovich is playing in my head.

Dear Comrade Milos, Twice Recipient of the Order of Marxist-Leninist Nature and Recent Guest Speaker at the All Republic Gathering of Socialist Ornithologists:

The seconds became minutes and then compile themselves into hours. I am afraid, like the time I encountered the darkness of my house without electricity, that eternity is unable to be contained by my words alone. Do you also fear time and the dark? Dear friend, does this mean we are getting old? In the hours since breakfast, I now feel even more alone and compelled again to write both questions and answers; as I am the only one who knows what I seek.

The juice, made from the Montenegrin apples was so fresh, do you not agree? The Kosovar woman who waited on our table reminded of both my second wife and mother. Perhaps it was because they were both kindly in the early morning way and provided me juices without asking?

Summer has arrived early this year. Don’t you think so? To be this warm in late May leads me to forecasts a warm summer. Tourists from as far east as Moscow and as north as Warsaw will come to beautiful Belgrade. Must everyone holiday in Dalmatia? Our work, dear friend, does not stop because every machinist in Prague needs a week’s leave.

I know you are busy for I can hear you at work. Might I propose both a question and idea? As our streets grow crowded and summer falls upon our beautiful land, shall we head east? It has yet to be proved that the Picus Virdius* migrates beyond the mountain passes. Could this not be the time, even the reason, to travel to Bulgaria? The lush Bulgarian cornfields, rolling for miles, are guard by hundreds of плашило. We call them scare crows. Bulgarian birds are frightened of these stick figures made to resemble Ottoman sultans and Nestorian heretics, and Russian generals. It is known, however, that images Ottomans, heretics, nor Russians frighten the common Serbian woodpecker. What say ye? Shall I call the station and purchase two tickets to Sofia? Perhaps Shostakovich will perform?

I do think this could be our opportunity to capture the elusive Serbian woodpecker. Unlike like the time we were in the place with the man who told us about the road that went to the other town that was near the city where the trees were that might have contained a single bird, I feel much better about this new plan.

If this is to reach you before tomorrow’s post, I must find make haste for the evening post.  I humbly await your reply.  And the arrival of my stamps.

Your friend,

Slava

*Picus Viridus-Common European Woodpecker

We Are Memorial Day (Poem)

Memorial Day 2017
Ocracoke Island, NC

Memorial Day is here,
This is the place,
Memories spotted well alive,
Where recollections,
Refuse to die,
Ignoring the need for introspection,
They come to collide,
With the amnesia floating in our brains,
We are Ocracoke,
Geologically placed,
On history’s front lines,
Geographically based
To fight the War of 1812,
To lay between Blue and Gray’s frantic lines,
To wait with Coast Guard and Navy Ships for U-Boats to arrive,
Sand beneath our feet,
Wind beyond the dunes,
Marking the place,
Claiming the time,
Telling the story,
Whispering the names,
Affirming this moment,
Removed from frames,
In sandy atonement,
This is Ocracoke, we are Ocracoke.
We Are Memorial Day.

–Richard Bryant

Ascension: A Story to Be Reenacted Everyday (Acts 1:1-11)

At one time he was here.  In the next moment, he was gone.  We are still in that next moment.  Following the resurrection, we have the testimony of witnesses and the disciples.  Paul tells us that some 500 people encountered the risen Christ.  Eventually, the days of physical resurrection came to an end.  Luke, the great storyteller of the early church, describes the culmination of Jesus’ post resurrection as the “ascension”.  If Jesus was not physically here, where would he go?  Jesus would go home.  Jesus could only go somewhere far beyond our understanding and comprehension.  Jesus would go away, as he said in John’s gospel.

How do you describe someone leaving?  The emotions one feels at the departure of a loved one are raw and conflicted.  You’ve been at those airport gates, just before the TSA check-in and watched someone blend into a crowd.  Perhaps you’ve even put a loved one on a train.  We’ve been dropped off at college and now we’re the ones dropping on our children off.  A daughter or son leaves home to marry and begin a new family; that’s also a way of leaving.  One moment someone is here, the next moment a room is empty.

The emotional mélange created by leaving, even temporary, tangles our feelings, fear, and hope in unexpected ways.  Departures, whether for a week, month, or two thousand years, mimic death’s finality.  For this brief time, we need to figure out how we’ll untangle these knots in our stomach and go on.  Imagine, trying to write these struggle in a way others could see, experience, and feel for years to come. This was Luke’s challenge and he did it the best way he knew how.

The beginning of the story was much easier.  Who can’t describe the joy and happiness present at the arrival of a new baby?  The story of Jesus’ birth almost wrote itself.  Jesus’ leaving, only a lonely hillside, was another matter altogether.  For a group of people still coming to terms with the resurrection, Jesus’ voluntary departure brought their hopes back to Good Friday levels.  They asked, “How will we live in a world where Jesus isn’t physically present?”

Isn’t that what we’re asking too?  How do we live out the Ascension today?  How can our lives speak to Jesus’ life even though he’s not physically present?  That’s what this passage is really about.  It’s not about Jesus throwing on jetpack and flying off into the clouds.  How do we embody Jesus’ presence even though, we’re told, he’s physically absent?  It’s one of the great contradictions of the Christian faith:  absence can be presence.

The Ascension should be reenacted in our daily lives.  Ascension living, like a riding a bicycle, shouldn’t be something we have to think about.  The Ascension isn’t a ritual; it’s a way of life.

Take a look at the first thing that happens in Luke’s ascension stories.  The disciples gather around Jesus.  The Ascension creates clusters, gatherings, and groups of disciples.  You might even call them communities of believers.  Today, what might we call a cluster, gathering, group, or community of believers?  I’d call it a church.  The Ascension helps form Christian community where there is none.  Most importantly, what is that community formed around?  At the center of the group is the risen Christ.  The Ascension forms intentional faith communities centered on the risen Christ.  That’s the beginning of an early church mission statement!

From disparate places, we have been brought into this community.  We don’t know how to talk about it. Our lives have been a blur.  Somehow, we ended up in this place.  Saved by an amazing idea that grace was the rescue we needed.  A seat was made at a table, bread was broken, the cup was shared, and we ate together.  Now we are here.

Once the disciples are gathered, Jesus empowers the disciples to be his witnesses in his absence.  This isn’t Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus doesn’t commission the disciples to go out into the world to proclaim anything.  The language isn’t near that formal.  While it lacks the official sounding prose of Matthew, it’s no less powerful or important.  This group, this cluster, this gathering is to go and tell Jesus’ story while he is away.  In very simple language, Jesus is saying, “In my absence, I want you to tell my stories, tell what we did and why we did it.”  That mission statement for the early church continues to take shape doesn’t it?  The Ascension forms intentional faith communities centered on telling the stories of the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ.  In two steps, Jesus has gathered a community around him and given them a purpose to work towards.  The Holy Spirit will aid them in their quest to be witnesses in an ever expanding area of concentric geographic circles; beginning with Jerusalem, next to Judea, then to Samaria, and across the known world.  Even before Pentecost, they are being transformed and empowered to work in Jesus’ absence.  His physical presence is not a barrier to his presence.  He is present in his witnesses, their stories, and His spirit.  Absence is presence.

There are always things left undone when people leave.  Some of the disciples (perhaps even a majority) were still holding up that Holy Week hope that Jesus will redeem Israel, one way or another, while he’s still present.  Acts 1:6 says, “As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, ‘Lord, are you going to restore the Kingdom of Israel now?’”  This was probably one of those moments Jesus thought, “How many more times am I going to have to answer this question before I get back to heaven?”  Jesus wants to put an end to their constant speculation and worry.  Again, this wasn’t a new question for him.  Here’s his reply:

“It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7)

Jesus says, “Oh and before I go, don’t go worrying you’re pretty little heads about the end of the world.  We’ve got that covered.  That’s for God to know and you not to find out.”  If we only took Jesus at his word when it comes to this one?  How many people have gotten wealthy they’ve convinced people they knew when the world was ending?  Countless others have died because someone convinced them that they too knew the end was near.  What does Jesus say, “It isn’t for us to know.”  Yes, it’s easy to get depressed by watching too much news and reading trashy theology books.  This is why Jesus warns us against it.  There’s a little known Dr. Seuss book called the Strange Shirt Spot.  In it, the Doctor says:

This spot! It was driving me out of my mind!

What a spot-what a spot for a fellow to find!

My troubles were growing. The way it kept going.

Where would it go next?

There was no way of knowing.

There is no way of knowing, Jesus says.  Be at peace with the ministry we are called to do today.

The last way the Ascension should be lived out and practiced in our lives comes back to a question of perspective.  Where are we looking?  What is our community focusing upon?  Do we have the right individual and church wide priorities?  Why do I ask those questions?  Look at the end of the reading.

“While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them.  They said, ‘Galileans, why are you standing here looking toward heaven?’”

You know that look, right?   You are staring blankly up at the sky after you’ve seen something that appears wonderful, out of place, or vaguely amazing.   Someone you didn’t notice is standing beside you.  They ask, “What you staring at?”  Mouth agape, pointing skyward, no words just grunts, and you hope no one sees the drool coming off the side of your face as you finally say in manly voice, “Yeah, that’s one of those new Marine Corps Ospreys.”

This is what’s going on here.  Luke says the disciples have just watched Jesus do his thing and two angelic type guys appear from nowhere.  “Why you staring up there?” they ask.  There’s no good reason to be staring at the sky.  The Ascension redirects our perspective and priorities.  Now that Jesus is no longer physically present, the Ascension helps us to look outward and around, and moves us off the mountaintop and back into our communities.  It would be a miserable existence to sit on a mountain, staring up at the sky, waiting for Jesus to return.  Jesus doesn’t call us to wait.  We’re called to be gathered clusters of believers who tell Jesus’ stories to the world who work actively instead of wait idly.  The Ascension is a story about the early church’s first steps after the resurrection.  It’s also a two thousand year old mission statement we are able to reenact in our lives and congregations.

A Morning Prayer for the Journey

Gracious God,
You are here with me now,
In all that I am, you are my very existence,
Within your life giving presence, I acknowledge this moment;
the blessing of time to respond and reflect on the call
to love you with all my body, mind, soul and my neighbor as myself.

In these quiet spaces, where your Spirit dwells,
I confess I have not loved my neighbor or you with my whole heart.

Forgive me.

I ask for the grace to abandon my own cares.
Where I will not hear, may my deafness be healed.
Where I will not see, may my blindness be redeemed.
Where I will not walk, may your Spirit push me toward love.

Now, I embrace the gift of today. These hours before me are your grace made anew.
Yesterday’s failures, foibles, and faults are but calls to forgive ourselves and others;
to reflect your love and to gather your grace for those who need it most.

Every aspect of my life is open to you, O God. From you, nothing is hidden.
You know my fears and hopes. You are with me when I laugh and cry.
Even when I feel you are absent, you are present.
I know your love never ends.  Nothing will separate me from your love.

Bless our journey.  I am grateful for the path before me and the people along our way.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen