Who is a good Samaritan today?

The Good Samaritan

Luke 10.25-37

busy_samaritan

My grandfather used to say – he never knew how ignorant he was until his family grew up and told him. Well, I didn’t realise how ignorant I was until I encounter this story… the story of the Good Samaritan. Since, it has to be said that, in the past I have always taken the term Samaritan for granted. In truth, it meant to me little more than a good friend in time of dire need; I knew also of that wonderful organisation of listeners to people in distress and with thought I would recall the biblical people as long forgotten as the tribes of the Old Testament.

So nothing done, I just had to research the Samaritans and the land of Samaria for this morning. It turns out that their history is a complex one as was their reasons from breaking away from main stream Judaism around the time of the Babylonian exile. Then, about a thousand years later, many converted to Islam in the middle-ages. As a result today there are only 800 followers of the Samaritan religion. Yet despite that small number their modern story connects well with the Good Samaritan of Christ’s parable. For their homeland of Samaria is in the central inland bit of the Holy Land. Nowadays, we would say it is in the occupied West Bank. As a result we can make the Good Samaritan story much more poignant for ourselves – here and now – by thinking of Jesus teaching us of the Palestinian rescuing the beaten up Israeli. Quite an object lesson that would be I am sure you will agree!

Nevertheless, to get the full sense of a current meaning to the Good Samaritan we must leave Israel-Palestine and return home. Since, even here in ‘we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns’ Scotland, we surely cannot deny that there are divisions, there are ‘them’s and us’, and there are indeed ‘oors and theirs’. And so if we were to rewrite the Samaritan’s, Jew’s and inn keeper’s stories we could fill in the blanks with our own dislikes, prejudices and ‘just can’t stands’. Worse still if we were really being honest we could recount the parable for people that leave us outwardly accepting but inwardly uncomfortable of. The people that leave us feeling a tad two-faced as well as a smidgeon prejudiced.

To make my point I turn to a story towards the end of a church-initiated Conference about multi-faith relations.  One

of the speakers asked those attending if they would be willing to pray for someone of another faith, for example if a Muslim

asked for us to pray for their family. A minister in the audience put his hand up and said ‘yes, of course I would be more than happy to do that—I’ll pray for anyone’. Then, the speaker asked the

minister if he would be happy to ask a Muslim to pray for him. An uncomfortable silence followed.

However the sharpest point of the Samaritan story is less to do with reminding us that all humans are our neighbours and more to do something even more challenging. Because the story does not refute the idea that there are saintly people and bad people, courageous people and cowardly people even wise and silly people. Quite the reverse, it affirms that humanity is a spectrum of spectrums. But, it also illustrates that it is daft to try and predict people’s character and behaviour by their labels. Since, we surely would have ticked for the good column the priest and Levite whilst possibly putting the heretical foreigner in another box entirely. In essence, this story makes us more and not less ask the question who is my neighbour and then be startled by the answer.

When we were visiting France many years ago, we meet a lady who had grown up in Glasgow after her father came to Britain during the war. She related to us a story of her Grandparents who had remained behind in occupied France. In this story a most unlikely Good Samaritan featured. Because, she told us that her grandparents had had two German officers and their batman billeted on them. The ‘German brass’ were very harsh on the young soldier and, as a result, the French couple rather took him under their wing. After all, with their son away, they must have recalled he was someone’s son as well.

One night, he came to them alone. He said yesterday I heard you listening to the Free French Radio. This was indeed a very serious offence. Now, the lad went on – I am not going to say anything – but those two certainly would. The radio went into the river that night.

Who then was that young enemy soldier’s neighbour? Who was that French man and woman’s neighbour? Who indeed in this crazy mixed up world is having mercy on us?

Now go and do likewise!

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Want to study the reformation for free?

If you have ever wanted to know more about the 16th Century Reformation and is lasting effect today, why not try the free course at the Khan Academy. It reviews the whole history of that era in a non-partisan way by exploring the personalities, politics and theologies involved. There is also the opportunity to comment and ask questions of this ‘sea-change’ that still influences Christian witness here and now.

 

Here is its link:

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/history/1500-1600-Renaissance-Reformation/protestant-reformation/a/an-introduction-to-the-protestant-reformation

 

Good studying !

Read if you are in a dark place!

Carlyle Marney was one of the great preachers in the Southern states of America during the time after the Second World War. He was a mentor and role model to many ministers. One of the stories attributed to the rich legacy he left behind took place on a seminary campus where he was invited to be the speaker for a distinguished lectureship. One of the students asked, “Dr. Marney let us hear you say a word or two about the meaning of the resurrection.” It was a fair question and an appropriate one from a future preacher to one who was already a great practitioner of the art of preaching. However the young  students were taken aback by Marney’s response. Dr. Marney replied, “I will not discuss that with people like you.” Continue reading

Poem for times of trouble

I found this on my Facebook page today:

 

We who were once far off,9994-sunrise-at-orvieto-umbria-italy-free-landscape-and-scenic-desktop_531x331
who wandered as if
in a wilderness,
searching for water,
desperate for shade,
now rest in your embrace,
feast on your word,
drink from a well
that will never run dry,
and have found the place
we were searching for,
as Christ has brought us home.

Dealing with mixed feelings

 

Luke 19.28-40a150

Tell me – how many cheers do you give today. And that the answer to that depends on whither you greet this morning with unalloyed joy or with mixed feelings. Certainly Christ greeted the Jerusalem crowd with the latter. As a result, our lesson this morning speak volumes for many of us here – many also who are just out there – many who have mixed feelings about entering. Continue reading

My house in Umbria


9994-sunrise-at-orvieto-umbria-italy-free-landscape-and-scenic-desktop_531x331

For on Tuesday on returning home from a series of Church meetings, I caught the second half of that great film – My house in Umbria. This is a bitter-sweet comedy which nevertheless deals with some very dark themes indeed.

It starts with a terrorist bomb going off on an Italian inter city train. The foreign survivors of the bombed carriage all end up recuperating in a chaotically rustic pension ruled over by a somewhat fey and often tipsy Emily Delahunty played by Maggie Smith. The main plot revolves around a small American girl who has been orphaned by the atrocity. She is destined to return to the States with her desiccated and self-absorbed uncle.

In time, it is revealed that the gentle young German student, Werner, who is so attentive to the child – almost like a brother – is in fact the bomber.

At the film’s end, with the child entrusted to this rag-tag group’s care, they walk in the warm Italian sunset and Maggie smith’s character says to Ronnie Barker’s, I forgive even Werner. Shocking the others, they ask why. And she replies we all need forgiveness.

It seems then by the good action of offering forgiveness, they could give to each other their brokenness as well. And as a result they found peace, they found acceptance, they found even contentment.

Now as we approach Easter, let us do the same.

A Man for all Seasons

Matthew 5.17-20

Matthew 5.1-10

‘The past is a foreign country’, L. P. Hartley reminds us at the beginning of The   Go-Between; ‘they do things differently there’.  Put simple if we do not study the past we are not only doomed to repeat its mistakes we also do not learn what doing things differently could mean for us. Now this is the 450 year of the reformation in our wee Scotland and nearly 500 years since Luther posted his 95 articles on a door in back of beyond Germany. Yet these small acts dare I say in small places ripped Europe up more quickly than Hitler did when he invaded Poland.   Since we are talking about a time when being on the wrong side, having the wrong theology or worshipping in the wrong way could mean death. Indeed, the 30 years religious war killed possibly 30% of the German population alone; German total casualties from Second World War being around 11%. The Reformation too has had a much longer effect that the political upheavals that divided Europe with a concrete wall last Century. Since its differing ideas are still a barrier to unity in the Christian church even today. Nevertheless, the 15th century of the reformation has much in common with our 21 st Century and therefore has much to say to us despite the controversies it still stirs up. So let us proceed but let us proceed gently.

Now I would not say that Erasmus was gentle but he certainly had a spirituality around him that made him try to be a peace maker. Born in Rotterdam in 1466, he lived in the years immediately preceding the Reformation and throughout it. Yet despite the violence, disorder and oppression it engendered, he remained a voice of rationality, calm and moderation. He indeed remained true to beatitudes.

And this scholar was well placed to do so. For, he was a towering intellect of his age and the key figure in the then humanist movement. Humanism back then I rush to say had little to do with today’s fig leaf term for militant atheism. Rather it was product of the renaissance when the individual citizen started to emerge from behind both the totalitarian control of the church and princes. It was the germ of every human being having the right to think for themselves. It was the embryo if little more of universal human freedom.

And Erasmus found these discoveries of human individuality in the classical works that brought back to life the thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome. He re-found in the ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew the true text of scriptures that had been less well translated many centuries before. Moreover, he pushed forward the brand new way of mass communication which was the printing press.

Since by Erasmus day, the church had both mired itself in corrupt practices and had allowed a very dry academic approach to the bible and theology reign. The latter is often typified, probably apocryphally, as theologians arguing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Instead, Erasmus and his colleagues such as Thomas More looked to scripture having a genuine impact of ordinary people’s lives – their problems, their fears and their aspirations. That’s why in a sermon, he once preached:

I would like to hear the farmer sing scripture at the plough, a weaver keep his shuttle time to it and the traveller find his journey better by its stories.

And what was Erasmus’ line of attack. It was to offer a new and more accurate version of the New Testament in Greek which then could be translated into people’s own languages. In other words, he wanted everyone to be able to read the bible for themselves or at least hear it read in the vanacular.

However, his vision would have been hopelessly optimistic until the invention of the printing press and its use of paper some 50 years earlier. Now texts no longer needed to hand copied onto expressive animal skin parchment. Now hundreds if not thousands of copies could be produced quickly and cheaply. Now new ideas could and did spread like wildfire across Western Europe.  Because, who can doubt that it is the printed word that has changed the average human lot than most other invention.  Erasmus view then was if the ploughman and milk maid were going to learn to read – it should be to read something worthwhile – something that will edify their common humanity and something that will draw them nearer to a personal savior in Jesus Christ.

Well ultimately Erasmus failed in his attempt to reconcile the reformers with the then only church. In fact, he himself never broke with that church and is often seen as neither fish nor fowl. Yet his legacy to us all is immeasurable. For, he provided the tools for both the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation. More to the point, he contributed hugely to the developing sense of an individual relationship with a personal God who stands above yet in total fulfliment of the law.

However, he also leaves us with one very relevant challenge to us here and how. Since, we too are now in a highly individualistic age. But we are also in a similar age as to that of Erasmus in terms of new forms of communication. Becuase just as the printing press utterly changed human history there is little doubt that Television and the internet are doing the same. Erasmus example then asks us – how do we use them for the good of our common humanity and enjoyment of God?

Interestingly, Erasmus, although a lifelong scholar, spent less time in universities than he did the printing shops of Europe. Because as the new technology spread to places like Oxford and Venice, printing presses became like polytechnics today. Since each needed master printers, editors, reviewers and typesetters versed not just in their own language but also Latin and Greek and maybe Hebrew. Here then were the factories of communication that feed those hungry for fresh and true word of God.

Therefore let us too not reject new ways of communicating. Instead, let us embrace them with vigour, enthusiasm and gratitude. For, arguably, Christianity in Britain has made a lamentable shambles of it use of TV. But let us not make the same mistake over the web and new ideas of Christian education such as interactive learning, games and newer forms of worship. For, not to join the future is to be lost in the past.

On the other hand, if do set our hand to the presses of this age, we will be faced with a hard task yet one that is undeniably in the lord’s service.  For as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is acutely points out – the task confronting the Churches is the bearing witness to Christ in a society that  wants to portray Christian faith as ‘an obstacle to human freedom and a  scandal to the human intellect’. But that is precisely the great ecumenical challenge to the Christian Churches in modern Britain and to every Christian.

Let us then take up that gauntlet, reform and press on…..

Amen

 

Martin Luther – Here I stand!

Texts:

Romans 1.11-17

Galatians 3.26-4.7

When they are on the goggle box, we all love court room dramas. And our next turning point in the Reformation has one. It happened during a legal sitting of the Holy Roman Emperor who was the overlord of broadly the Low Countries, Germany and Spain. For, you see, Martin Luther had been called before this diet to make his case in 1521. He had been promised safe passage there but this had been breached in the previous case of Jan Hus and he rightly could fear the flames of a heretic’s death. So in his first appearance at the diet of worms – yes the schoolboy howler of the diet of worms, he was naturally very nervous. And so when he was asked to recant his views, he must have been strongly tempted to do so. Yet he managed to ask for a night to think it over. The emperor granted that and next morning he returned with renewed courage. In fact, he stood his ground of basing his theology on the rational discovery of truth through Scripture. Albeit probably he did not use the words later put into his mouth – here I stand, I can do no other. Nevertheless, it was that stance which was the starting gun for the reformation.

But what were these views that a devout man would risk the funeral pyre for and spark a European conflict of such dimensions that were not paralleled until the 20th Century? Moreover, what is the relevance of Luther’s theology today?

Well, without troubling you with a history lesson, Luther was reacting to both the thinking and practice of the church of his day. In general terms, the church considered that while we needed God’s help to get into a right relationship with him, some seeds of goodness lay within us. It’s a bit like serving a long prison sentence and then being given the generous offer of paying a large fine to be released. You dig out the old credit card and pay up from your own financial resources. Luther however, had a life long struggle find his wallet. In other words, year upon year, he fought to come up to the righteous measure of God; to meet God’s unwavering law as he saw it. But he felt a constant failure and feared God’s wrath at not being able to find any goodness within himself. Then he chanced on our Romans reading from today. He came to the conclusion, that nothing we can do can give us the right relationship with God.

But don’t worry – Luther knew a man who could. And that man was Jesus of Nazareth. For it is Christ –  who is external to us – that supplies all that is needed to get right with God – to be saved in the parlance. Returning to our prison analogy, we would be released not by our own payment but because the fine had been paid by someone else on our behalf. All that we would need is faith – faith in the man who had bailed us out – faith in Christ Jesus.

Well, assuming we too want to be in the right relationship with God, what did Luther mean by faith?

Certainly, he meant more than what many people claim is their faith today. Since, we can all hear the facts of Jesus’ life; listen to his words and even marvel at his needs. Yet unless somehow we actually go beyond an intellectual acceptance of Christ’s life and death and resurrection it is not saving faith. Instead, we must integrate the person beyond the parables into our heart of hearts. And we do that best by coming to complete submission; submitting to the truth that Jesus was born for us personally and submitting to he who alone who puts us right with God on an individual level. Put simply no church or minister can do that for you- only you can give in and find the living and saving Christ for yourself.

However, it goes beyond even that. For faith, to Luther, also meant trust. Now I don’t know about you but I am a nervous flyer in commercial aircraft. Pilot a glider or a light aircraft I can do – but when I enter the door of an airliner I feel the same as Luther at his can of worms. In other words, I have faith that the Boeing 737 before me can take me to London but I still have to have the faith to get into the contraption. So too it is with saving faith. We must not just believe that Jesus can get us right with God, we need also to rely that he has done so. That means taking risks in that faith. It means get out of the boat and walk impossibly on the water in that faith. It means truly living each day in that faith.

But Luther didn’t even stop there. Since for him there was a third and final aspect to being saved through faith. Because he saw faith not just putting us right with God and giving us a new dimension to living. Rather he saw faith uniting us with Christ. In his words faith bring union between Christ and the believer.

And that is pretty powerful stuff. This is the idea too of Paul that we heard of in Galatians. For, through faith, we cast aside slavery to rules and regulations, required practices and things we must do to get in with God. Through faith we forget worrying when we do fail. Indeed, through faith we will fail less often. Because through faith we are not just wiped clean and set free, we are adopted into the family of God.  And it is as his heirs alone we inherit a forgiven life eternal.

C S Lewis once wrote – In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know I am a very nasty man. I look at some of the things I have done with horror or loathing. Well, deep down I suspect most of us feel something like that from time to time. For that is the very nature of our mixed up humanness. Yet Luther, even if we spoke nearly five hundred years ago, shows us the way out of that pit of despondency. For, he said – have faith and invite Christ into that dark inner place. Countless Christians since have trusted rightly in that presence of Christ to get them through of the mess, over the chasm and out of the boat. And even in these Godless days, Christ still says to you and me; come brother, come sister – I will make you right  with God – I will make you free – Indeed, I will make you forever.

Amen

Called to Believe

Called to believe

Texts

John 20.24-29

2 Corinthians 4.16-5.10

In a vain attempt to come across some modern unbelievable things, I rather stupidly pumped the words – unbelievable things – into the internet. And so I encountered the cat with four ears, the fact that earth worms taste like fried bacon and art made in latte coffee. I also learned that the average pencil can draw a line of 35 miles or write 55,000 words, that a hedgehog’s heart beats 300 to the minute, and that coca-cola would be green if no colouring was added. All these then are unbelievable but apparently true.

So what about a man who was killed by asphyxiation after being skewered through his wrists and hung up before being stabbed in his stomach to make sure he was dead. Finally, he was buried for nearly 48 hours before he appeared alive. Now, is that believable or unbelievable?

Well what we do not need to believe because is it certain is that this single unbelievable event caused a tiny band of frightened people to found a world religion that has shaped world history for nearly 2000 years and has 2 billion followers today. A number of believers which, I hop,e we count ourselves amongst here and now.

Nevertheless, we are still left wondering – How do we believe something that seems essentially unbelievable?

Well, the answer is to ask a different question and that is – why is it we find this event- unbelievable?

And the answer is, of course, because we do not hear of such a happening in our everyday. We ourselves have never seen such an event. Moreover, we are all sceptical of any claim made in the name of religion today. For, we do live in an age that does not really have faith in that which it cannot touch or see or maybe even buy. As a result, most people will say, when it comes what is their spiritually certainities – I only believe in my own senses.

Yet on the other hand in every other walk of life we must take much on trust. If it were not so, we would not be able to use paper money. We would doubt that men had landed on the moon. We would be left asking – did the First World War actually happen? In fact, can we really be certain that wee Johnny went to school last week just because he told us so. In other words, society cannot function for a second without a degree of trust. You cannot even stand up in your pew without a significant amount of trust in many things and people.

In essence then – believing in the resurrection event comes down to who or what we trust. Thomas, for example, was a very modern man. He did not trust the testimony of his fellow apostles. As he said – he would only trust his senses of touch and sight. And as a result, Christ met that need and Thomas believed – Thomas was blessed – Thomas became a believer.

Paul was different. Paul needed less his physical senses satisfied than for his searching soul to find union with the spirit of Christ. That requirement too was satisfied by the encounter on the road to Damascus. Thus Paul believed – Paul was blessed – Paul became a believer.

The risen lord therefore knew on both occasions what was needed to engender trust even certainty and he provided it. He provided it not through compulsion or to a set of evidential rules or a human agenda. He simply provided because it was asked for – it was in his gift – it was within his loving grace.

Therefore, I ask now – what do you require to believe – what is the barrier to your faith – what is stopping you fully meeting your call to be believers? For, if you confess your requirement in your heart – Christ will bless and gift and grace. He will provide the trust necessary. Is it a bible passage? Is it a happening in your life? It is a sense of love or peace or guarantee that has eluded you for years? Whatever it is then just ask and God will provide. For, trust me, he wants you amongst his followers – he wants you now as an apostle. He wants you to be a blessed foundation of the future church.

Yet the secular world out there is asking why is it so important that you believe that a 34 year old man was murdered, buried and was resurrected? Miraculous it may be – they might claim – but on its own, it is miraculous only for him yet irrelevant to us.

And that just isn’t true. For within that miracle is the grace to trust something else. Indeed within the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the means to meet our overwhelming requirement. And that is to be certain that our lives not just have meaning but that we will have continuation.

Indeed, it is very belief that Paul writes of in his letter to the Corinthians. Since, maybe as a result of the thorn in his own flesh which he makes reference to elsewhere, he feels his frailty, he creaks in his bones and he fears his mortality. And so rather in a reversal of Thomas, he says I will only believe my immortality when I can put my finger on it. And Christ then answers him and says look and see and know and believe. For, just as you trust that I am alive, so will you live.

During our first session of the Emmaus course, I think we came to a startling conclusion. And it was this – belief is better than certainty. For certainty comes from touch and sight, but leaves no room for the greater things beyond our puny faculties. Certainty also leaves no room for opportunity and wonder and discovery. But above all, certainty leaves no room for grace. For it was pure generosity that Christ came to earth, died and rose again. It was pure generosity he met the needs for Thomas and Paul to believe and so founded the Church in which we can trust. And it is pure unadulterated generosity that he provides us the knowledge, faith and hope of eternal life that our senses can never give. Since, unbelievable as it may seem, that trust alone is ever the believable blessing of God. And for that,we ever give him thanks.

Amen