What follows is a transcript from a sermon I gave this morning at a First United Methodist Church in a small town in East Texas. Before I share that, I’d like to share a little about what the Spirit was doing this morning.
This particular church in this particular town is very entrenched in the worst of the cultural mindset of East Texas. People from East Texas are generally very friendly and very neighborly… but, they’re also very tribal and, unfortunately, some of them are very racist. As I was meeting with the pastor of this church, he was sharing some stories of some of the horrible ideas and attitudes that run in his church. For instance, there are no black people in the congregation. The pastor’s administrative assistant is black, and much of the church has been trying to get him fired since he came – even though he does a rather good job. At the time of my sermon this morning, many of the congregants were turning that anger towards the pastor for defending the administrative assistant. Racially insensitive comments are the norm. More blatant racism – such as the common use of the word “nigger” – is less normal, but still very present.
So, this morning, in this entrenched, almost toxic church, I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan. My prayer and my hope was that there would be just one person in the congregation who had been marginalized, who would be given hope as a result of the Word.
What happened instead could only be the Spirit. Instead of one marginalized person being touched, dozens of entrenched, tribal, racist, small-town East Texas Methodists – mostly elderly – had tears streaming down their face and were at a loss for words. I brought nothing to this sermon except for my own experience and a decent speaking voice – the rest was only the unadulterated message of Jesus.
I watched that church change in front of my face. I do not know if the change will last, on a large scale. But, I hope and pray that the change will be permanent for a few.
Here is the sermon:
My name is Michael Brian Woywood. I am 31 years old. I have long hair, as I hope that all of you can see. I have two piercings in my left ear and one in my right. I have a tattoo on my left bicep to commemorate my time as a combat medic in the US Army. I smoke cigarettes. I drink alcohol. I devote much of my time to speaking and writing in support of persecuted and oppressed people in our country and around the world. Most of these people are not Christians, and I often find myself at odds with the corners of our worldwide church where doctrines of fundamentalism have slowly but surely overtaken the Gospel message of Jesus.
If anything that I’ve just told you makes you uncomfortable or less inclined to hear what I have to say, I hope that you’ll look past it. Because I am a living testimony to the power of God. I have journeyed from fundamentalist Christianity into agnosticism, into dedicated atheism, and back to where you see me now – here, in front of a church, preparing to preach the word of God. And, if God can use me – and He does, often in spite of myself – He can use any person in this room. It only requires a willing heart, and a daily act of dying – dying to ourselves, to our ambitions, our dreams, our hopes, our failures, our struggles.
I do not apologize for my journey, for my appearance, or for my convictions, and I must warn you that it is not a gentle message that I bring today. It is not a message of comfort or easy religion. It is a Jesus message, a fervent call to better action, a message straight from the mouth of the Master. I will do my absolute best to rock the boat this morning, because that is what I see my Savior doing every time I open the Gospels. I see this Man, this radical Rabbi, this Son of God, shaking the foundations of the religion into which He walked. I see His followers shaking the foundations of every culture that they belonged to throughout history. And, so, if while listening today, you feel the boat of your assumptions, your preconceived ideas about religion, your commitment to personal or cultural status quo being rocked, I implore you not to be upset that you’ve lost comfort. Instead, I invite you to come out onto the water with Jesus. This is how He always calls us – from a place of comfort, to a place that often looks like turmoil, but is always, ultimately, a place of peace.
Let us pray.
*Prayer for Understanding*
I LOVE the Gospel According to Luke. There are a couple of reasons for this profound love, which I will explain to you.
First, I love how Luke addresses his Gospel. “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
Luke addresses this Gospel to Theophilus. Many of you may know the secret nature of this name, but I love telling people what they may already know. Theophilus is a combination of two Greek words: Theo, which means “God” and Philo which means “friend” or “beloved”. While there is a lot of debate in academic theology over whether this was an actual person or not, here’s my take: Luke is writing this for us. He is writing his Gospel for the “beloved of God” or “friend of God” throughout the ages. No other Gospel does that: John launches directly into expansive Christology, Matthew writes for a primarily Jewish audience, Mark is biographical… but Luke wants us to know what happened. It’s a timeless form of address, and it instantly hooks me.
The second reason I love the Gospel of Luke is something that I couldn’t articulate for a long time. Then, Reverend Sheldon pointed it out to me when he said, “I call Luke the Gospel of the least, the last and the lost.” That’s it. That’s the other reason I love it: more than any other Gospel, the Jesus presented in Luke spends His time ministering to the least, the last and the lost. Everyone from pious Jews to Roman centurions are vying for Jesus’ attention, but He focuses on “the least of these.”
That’s where this morning’s message starts, with a story that Jesus told dealing with the least, the last and the lost. The story begins in Luke chapter 10, verse 25, and it goes all the way until verse 37.
*Read the Scripture*
There are four characters in this story, and I think they each represent something unique. I’m going to spend a lot of time on the first two characters in the story, and this is where we start to veer away from easy religion.
The first man to walk down the road after the assault was a Temple priest. In my quest to tell you things that you may already know, let me share this with you: the Jewish religion was bound by the Levitical/Mosaic Law. There are more than 650 individual laws in the Levitical/Mosaic code. So, a Jewish Temple Priest was required, on any given day, to know and observe over 650 ritual laws in order to remain righteous and “clean” before God. Now, there were different levels of “unclean” – some uncleanness only required ritual purification, while others required death by stoning. But, the Temple Priests were commanded to avoid all uncleanness, especially when performing or preparing to perform their Temple duties.
The second man to walk down the road in Jesus’ story was a Levite. Levites, as the name suggests, descended from the Hebrew Tribe of Levi – the brother of Moses. As you probably know, Levi (or Aaron) was the very first high priest in Judaism. So, his descendants were a priestly tribe – every member of the tribe of Levi took some part in the work of the Temple. They were keepers of the Law, experts in the Law – after all, their forebear wrote the Law. So, if anyone knew the Law down to the letter, it was a Levite.
Yet, they both passed by a broken and bloodied man on the side of the road.
Let’s talk about what this meant in Jesus’ day. He’s talking to an expert in the Law on who qualifies as a “neighbor” in the Greatest Commandment. And, He immediately casts these paragons of Jewish society – a Priest, who actually made the atoning sacrifices, who went beyond the veil of the Temple, and a Levite, a keeper of the Law – He casts them into an unflattering light. Can you imagine the shock with which His Jewish listeners must have responded to the way He toppled the pillars of their system?
I imagine that it’s similar to the shock that we must feel when we see cars with Christian bumper stickers or fish decals drive past a homeless veteran on the street corner without even slowing down. It might be similar to the horrified disdain we feel when people sleep on the doorstep of churches at night, only to be asked to leave by the faithful in the morning. Or, when we gorge ourselves at church potlucks and chain restaurants, but won’t lift a finger to feed a starving child on our own streets, much less in countries where starvation is a way of life.
So, perhaps it’s not hard to imagine the shock Jesus’ Jewish listeners might have felt. We can very easily transfer this story to our modern era. We can imagine that the Temple Priest is a member of our clergy, and the Levite a member of our Body. After all, the Bible says that we are members of the Priesthood of all believers. Most Christian folks read their Bible, which many of us consider our Law. So, a Methodist Elder and a member of the Methodist Church see a man, broken and bloodied, on the side of the road… and they pass him by. Not only do they pass him by, they pass him by on the other side of the road. Are we hearing what the Lord is saying to us? The clergy and the lay member don’t even pass close enough to see if the man is still alive. They simply decide that it’s not worth their time. I imagine that they turned their heads, perhaps held their noses. They might have even felt rather sorry for him, as they left him to die in the sun and the heat and the sand.
I mean, it’s not as though they didn’t have their reasons. After all, among the 650+ Levitical laws, there were strictures against coming into contact with human blood and coming into contact with the dead. So, this wasn’t just simple callousness – this was callousness in service to righteousness. “I can’t touch him,” I imagine they said. “He’s broken. He’s bloodied. He will make me unclean.” I imagine they said that, because we have our reasons today, even in our wonderful, caring United Methodist Church. “I can’t touch him,” we say. “He’s an unbeliever. He’s a drug addict. He’s an alcoholic. She’s a slut. She’s had an abortion. He’s gay.” We can’t touch these people for reasons that are very valid to our personal and cultural status quo. They’ll soil us, they’ll make us unclean, they’ll interfere with our personal devotion and piety and righteousness.
Do you hear what the Lord is saying to us? While we obsess and wring our hands over how closely we follow the Law that we’ve created in the four walls of our churches, there are people bleeding and breaking and dying in the streets and alleys of our cities. There are spirits in despair, minds in turmoil, bodies ridden with diseases that can’t be cured for lack of money or access to care, families who are being torn apart by abuse and addiction, countries that are being ravaged by war, widows and orphans sleeping in the shadows of our steeples… and we are walking by them on the other side of the road.
I do not exclude myself. I am not innocent of this. When I was a young medic on my first tour in Ramadi, Iraq, there was a large explosion from a roadside bomb just outside the Combat Outpost where I was stationed, and 3 people died horribly by fire. A few days later, we rounded up a large group of Iraqi men between the ages of 15 and 45, and detained them in horrible conditions, in a room far too small to accommodate them. One of those men was an insulin dependent diabetic, and on the second day of his detainment, he began to suffer the symptoms of critical insulin shortage. I was the medic on duty at the time, and so I was called into the detainment area. The man had soiled himself and lost control of his bladder, and he was shaking uncontrollably and begging for his medicine. And, I looked at him, then looked at the guard and said, “I don’t care. Let him die.”
I had my reasons. I didn’t want to dirty my hands with his feces, with his urine, with the stink of his unwashed body. And, I was convinced of my own rightness, convinced that if he had not planted that bomb himself, that he knew the person who had. So, I drowned out his pleas, I turned my back, and I walked away. And it left a stain on my conscience that I have never been able to get out.
So, I do not speak to you from a place of ignorance. I know what was running through the minds of the Priest and the Levite in this story, because I have closed my eyes and hardened my heart for reasons that seemed good to me at the time. The Lord has been speaking to me through this parable in all the years since that incident, and I believe that He is telling us this today: we can become so insulated, so wrapped up in the cloak of our personal holiness, that we completely miss the point of righteousness before God. It was not for nothing that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law; I have not come to abolish it, I have come to fulfill it.” The Priests and Levites of the Jewish Temple system were so intent on keeping to the letter of all 650+ laws that they missed the fact that every single one of them could be summed up in the Greatest Commandment: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Compassion was always at the heart of the Law. Mercy was always at the heart of the Law. Sacrifice was always at the heart of the Law; not the sacrifice of lambs and goats on the altars of the Temple. God told Israel through the prophets that those sacrifices stank. The sacrifice at the heart of the Law, the sacrifice that Jesus spoke about and showed and fulfilled the Law with, is the sacrifice of self for others. Knowledge of the Law and adherence to the Law could not save a broken and bloodied man, much less a world. Knowledge of every one of the 66 books of the Old and New Testament never saved a single person, much less a city embroiled in violent crime. Personal devotion and piety never saved a soul, much less a starving child.
It is mercy, love and compassion which saves us: the mercy of God, the love of our Savior, and the compassion that each of us are called to show through self-sacrifice. I’ll return to this point in a few moments.
I want to move on to the 3rd character in our story: the man who stopped. This man was a Samaritan. The term Samaritan has become so colloquial, that we tend to think of a Samaritan as simply being a “nice person.” Allow me to shatter the illusion, if any of you are holding to it. Samaritans, in the context of their relationship to Jews, were not “nice people.” Samaritans were heathens. Samaritans were heretics. They were apostate tribes of Jews that lived in the Northern part of Judaea. They did not hold Jerusalem as the holy city. They did not adhere to the Levitical law. They desecrated the Jewish temple. They did not share in the ancestral memory of the Babylonian Exile. They were involved in violent conflicts with the Jewish people in the time of Jesus. There were laws in place to prevent any form of contact between Jews and Samaritans.
It was that bad.
But, the Samaritan stopped. He saw a man dying on the side of the road, and he acted with compassion that escaped the more pious members of the community. He did not concern himself with cleanliness – there were no religious laws holding him back. He stopped, and he bound up the man’s wounds. He put him on the back of his beast of burden, and he walked beside him until they came to an inn. Once there, he took the man to a room, he continued to care for him, and then he gave the innkeeper money for his stay and for any more expenses the care of this man might incur.
The Samaritan didn’t show simple compassion; he showed radical compassion. At any point on this journey of caring for a wounded man, he could have stopped and still been a model of righteousness. But, he didn’t stop. He bandaged the man’s wounds, and it wasn’t enough. He carried the man on his beast of burden, while walking beside it, and it still wasn’t enough. He bought the man a room and continued to care for him, and it still wasn’t enough. Not until he had ensured that not only would this man live, but that he would be made whole, did he go on his way.
We are called to this radical compassion. We aren’t just called to stop at the side of the road; we’re called to carry the burdens of the broken and bloodied of our world. We’re called to go the extra mile, and then the one after that, to make the bodies and minds and spirits of the wounded whole again. It’s not easy. Sometimes, we have to walk beside them on a long and dangerous road. Sometimes, we have to give of ourselves, our time, our wealth to see the act of compassion through. And, more often than not, the world will never know our names.
This radical compassion requires that we put down our pride and our political power. It requires that we lay down our rights and worry more about our responsibilities. It requires us to actively rebel against a culture that says, “ME! ME! ME!” and “MINE! MINE! MINE!” It requires us to look to the nameless, faceless huddled masses on our streets, in our restaurants and coffee shops, in our places of business, in our churches – and give them a name, a face. It requires us to take up their burdens as our own, to live in their hardships, to be the hands and feet of Christ in a world that is broken and bloodied.
It is not a coincidence that Jesus used a Samaritan to show us this radical compassion. If He had used a whore or a Roman tax collector, it would have been less controversial for His listeners. Instead, He pointed to a heathen, a heretic, an avowed enemy of the Jews as having a better understanding of the spirit of the Law, as being closer to righteousness before God, than the Law-abiding Jews.
It makes me think of how many times I have seen non-believers, or people of differing faiths, lead the way in this world in practicing radical compassion. The Church should be the vanguard of defending the defenseless, of giving hope to the hopeless… and yet, we’re not. On the issue of compassion and service, we have too often lost the moral high ground to people who do not call Jesus their Lord, people who do not hold to any God. I don’t know all the reasons, but I do know one: the moment we decided that the Church was anything more or less than God’s halfway house for the wounded body and spirit, we stopped being the true Body of Christ.
The third character in this story, the Samaritan, is a powerful reminder to us that one need not call Jesus Lord to be close to the spirit of Christ. The spirit of Christ can be seen in the atheist veteran of war, who cries for the children ravaged by a war that he participated in. The spirit of Christ can be seen in the Muslim who shows radical compassion to the homeless man who yelled out epithets and slurs toward him – and then returns those slurs with a job interview and a place to live. Or the gay Christian, who does call Jesus Lord, who is ostracized and lambasted in the media with lies, who continues to come into the Church that hates her, to serve. These people are Samaritans of our time, people that we have told time and time again, “You don’t belong. You are unworthy,” but who still take up the cause of radical compassion, who have shown more care for the people of this world and the world itself than many Christians have shown.
We need to learn humility. We need to learn to recognize the spirit of Christ wherever it is shown. As our Savior said, “Who do you think was the neighbor to the man?” The expert in the law answered, “The one who showed compassion.” We need to seek out those people in our world who are showing compassion, and stop worrying about their creed or worldview, but instead partner with them in doing the work of Christ. We need to stop telling them about Jesus and start showing them Jesus. When we reclaim our reputation for radical compassion, for sacrificial service, for unconditional love, we will be a more powerful witness for Christ than a thousand sermons could ever be.
There has, in recent months, been a video campaign called NALT Christians. NALT stands for, “Not All Like That.” The video campaign is geared directly towards our brothers and sisters in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered community, and it’s message is: not all Christians hate you. Not all Christians will judge you. Not all Christians will ask you to leave the church for being honest about who you are. The movement has bourne powerful fruit: the video testimonials of Christians in “traditional” churches who have become affirming of our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community has sparked an outpouring of love, forgiveness and renewed commitment to service from members of our Body that have experienced judgement, criticism and hate.
In keeping with our message this morning, I recommend a new movement for Christians: Yes, We Are All Like That. Yes, we are all practicing radical compassion. Yes, we will love you unconditionally. Yes, we will work with you to make the world a more gentle place. Yes, We Are All Like Jesus, and we will partner with the Samaritans of our world to spread the message of love and grace, to heal the broken-hearted, to bring an end to war and disease and poverty and hunger and all forms of prejudice and oppression and injustice. We will no longer define ourselves by what we are against, but by what we are FOR.
The man from my story, the Iraqi man who was dying in front of me, lived because a better man than me saw past what the man looked like, and who the man was, and what he smelled like, and he showed radical compassion. When that man asked me, “Why didn’t you help him?” in the hardness of my heart, I replied, “He wasn’t my patient.” My co-worker looked at me and said, “Michael, they are ALL our patients.”
This brings me to the fourth and final character of the story: the man who was broken and bloodied on the side of the road. Jesus never told us who this man was, other than saying, “A certain man…” This man could have been a Jew, a Roman, a Samaritan, an Assyrian, an Arab, or any number of people. In our time, the broken and bloodied – the least, the last and the lost – come in many different varieties. They can be men or women, children, elderly. It could be a clean-cut, clean-shaven, well-dressed man, or a dirty, beaded homeless person. It could be a single mother or a stereotypical “soccer Mom”. It could be a hopeless drug addict, an alcoholic, a prostitute, a stripper, a tatted-up, overpierced metalhead. They can be of any skin color, any nationality, any social or economic standing, any religion or creed. They are all broken, bloodied, least, last and lost. And, as we pass them by on the road, as we hear their desperate whimperings for help, for healing, for compassion… we must remember that we serve a risen Lord who was once broken and bloodied on our behalf. And, just as we struggle to become Jesus in the persons of the priest and the Levite, as we struggle to see Jesus in the Samaritans… we must also find Jesus in the broken and bloodied on the side of the road. We must know that whatever we do for them, or fail to do for them, we do or fail to do for Him. We must cease to be a people who look upon those beneath us as being a burden or a drain on society, and we must say as He said, “How blessed are the poor in spirit. How blessed are they who mourn.” And, we must comfort them. We must wash their feet and head. We must anoint them with fine oils. We must serve them as He served us. We must see Jesus in the most unlikely places, in the lowest places, in the darkest places. It is only His love that brings them light, that brings them peace, that brings them hope.
It is not enough to simply bind up their wounds and leave them on the side of the road. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most powerful prophets of our time, spoke on this parable and left behind a powerful sentiment: “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” We must dedicate ourselves, every day, to see the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in Heaven. We must find these structures and systems and attitudes that produce broken and bloodied souls, and we must dedicate ourselves to changing them. Not only with the power of our vote or our speech, but with the only power that Jesus ever showed us – the power of God, made complete in sacrifice.
When Jesus finished the story, He asked the expert in the law, “Who was a neighbor to the man?” And the expert in the law answered, “The one who showed compassion.”
And Jesus’ response is the challenge that I leave you with today, “Go, and do likewise.”
So let it be.