Reverend Claire Ranna Sermon
Once upon a time, my family, like that of many of the families here in Silicon Valley, might have identified as spiritual but not religious, though be totally honest I’m not entirely sure about the spiritual part. Up until I was about seven years old, Sunday mornings were for Dunkin Donuts and cartoons, and Friday nights were for little league and The X Files. But as I entered second grade, my mom began to feel a yearning for a community of faith. We lived in Shaker Heights, Ohio, which meant, among other things, that a lot of her friends were Jewish, so as she set off in search of a spiritual home for herself and her three kids, we visited reform and conservative synagogues in addition to Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, and even one Baptist Church. I remember it as a time marked by those weird coloring books they used to give kids in the pews, and was glad to realize, based on their frequent appearance at social gatherings after worship, that going religious would not mean giving up donuts. In the end, we were either going to be Episcopalians or reform Jews, and it was only because at that particular moment in time in our particular town, the local Episcopal parish happened to have a stronger youth program than the local synagogue that we ended up getting baptized, and, by extension, that I stand before you in today in such fashionable neck-wear.
When I entered the formal ordination process in my early twenties, I found myself telling that story a lot: to my priest and my local discernment committee; to friends who were baffled by my Church habit; to Diocesan bodies and my Bishop. So it surprised me how shy I felt telling it soon after arriving at Yale Divinity School, sipping coffee one morning after worship with some classmates and our Dean. I was nervous that my new friends - who seemed, you know, super Churchy, as I’m sure I did to them – and even more so my Dean, would think I was over-emphasizing the role of chance in the development of my faith and making light of the role of choice. So I was tremendously relieved when my Dean responded, “well, that’s not too surprising. After all, Episcopalians have much more in common with reform Jews than, say, evangelical Christians. Look at how we interpret scripture, our social ethics, and our sense of
collective identity.” It may or may not surprise you that most Episcopalians would agree with him.
Between 1910 and 1915, a series of twelve books called The Fundamentals was published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. This undertaking was funded by two conservative brothers, the Miltons. It was a massive theological task and a triumph of modern marketing. The articles were accessible to the average reader, targeted a popular audience, and were crafted to be emotionally compelling. They spread like wildfire – the 20th century equivalent of going viral. Soon the inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth of Jesus, substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection, and the literal truth of Jesus’ miracles were widely understood as “the fundamentals” of the Christian faith in America.
The Episcopal Church never embraced the fundamentalist message, which reduces the rich and vast diversity of our tradition to a handful of intellectual presuppositions, as though “belief” is something that happens only in our heads and not our hearts, our hands, our homes, our hopes, and our hurts. At our best, we Episcopalians strive to live not by what two brothers a hundred years ago thought were fundamentals, but by the teachings of our sacred texts and in particular and that one radical prophet, Jesus, who was deeply shaped by his own Jewish heritage.
When I invited Rabbi Prosnit to speak at Christ Church a few months ago about Passover, he talked about “choice through knowledge” being a defining feature of reform Judiasm. Episcopalians have a similar way of talking about how we know what we know and why we do what we do. We call it the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason, saying the Bible and our history must always be interpreted through our learned experience and rigorous reflection. Which is all to say that, by bringing our whole selves to bear on the most important questions of our faith, we strive to be more concerned with God’s fundamentals than anyone else’s.
But there’s the rub: because God didn’t give us cliff notes and bullet points but a sacred collection of stories: vast and varied, contradictory and compelling, enlivening and enraging. More a library where we encounter one another and our not always endearing past with wide-eyed wonder than some rule book. And God isn’t only interested in our heads, but our whole and embodied selves. And given countless opportunities to teach his disciples the fundamentals of the faith, Jesus seems far less interested in what those around him thought than in how they
lived. Only once in all of the Christian Gospels does he even bother telling his disciples what to believe, and then it is a rather rudimentary, “believe in God, believe also in me.”1 In fact, when people asked him what is fundamental, what is the most important thing, the most important commandment, Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scriptures, a part we just read from in the book of Deuteronomy, the Shema,2 saying, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” And then he added from the book of Leviticus, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”3
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has been reminding our denomination of this since he assumed this role three years ago (if you had not heard of him before May 19th, you might now know him by his official-unofficial-title, “The Royal Wedding Preacher”) not only because this passage is so central to our faith and the heritage we share but because it is such a needed reminder in our world. It is timely, all right. And daunting. And all-encompassing. The invitation God sets before us is, well, it is just so big.
The temptation in my tradition is to overly-spiritualize this teaching, as though love is a virtue divorced from the sacred and ordinary stuff of everyday life. But when this commandment is stated in the Gospel written by Luke4, it is immediately followed by an illuminating sacred story, offering a glimpse into what it might mean to lead a good and Godly life, then and now. The whole scene is set up as a test. A lawyer comes to Jesus and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus points the lawyer back to law, asking what he reads there, and encouraging him to live according to the commandment to love God, neighbor, and self. In response, the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Which we might hear as, “to whom am I accountable? Who is near enough to me that their opinion, their wants, their needs, their hunger and their hopes, should matter to me? Who do I need to care about? Whose life and livelihood impinges upon my own?”
Instead of responding directly to the question, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man – a good and faithful Jew – was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he is attacked and assaulted, robbed and left for dead. First a priest, and then a Levite, happen to walk by, and both cross to the other side of the road, presumably to avoid ritual defilement. But
then a Samaritan – someone completely outside their social order, often standing in for the quintessential “other” – passes by, and he sees the wounded man, and he is moved with pity. So much so that he goes to him, bandages his wounds, puts him on his animal and takes him to an inn, where pays the innkeeper to care for him. Jesus then asks the crowd around him, “which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
It is both a searing critique and a compelling invitation, first condemning the hypocrisy of those who not only in spite of but because of their ideology, their religious affiliations and commitments, are unable to recognize a fellow child of God. In the Church, we have often been guilty of this. Christians justified slavery, anti-Semitism, apartheid, and a vast swath of other oppressive systems and structures with appeals to our faith. Today there are millions of people who claim to be disciples of Jesus who cross the road when they see a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ community, who refuse to welcome undocumented immigrants or even recognize their basic human rights for fear of defilement. It is the same story, unfolding today, and we have much to repent of.
And … and … there are, also, countless people of any and every faith, or no faith at all, who hear this story and are cut to the quick, who receive the invitation with a wearied but willing heart, who are compelled by the practice of mercy, the discipline of neighborliness, the cost of love, and who strive to live lives of such courageous witness and radical presence. People who choose the way of love, not just once and for all but over and over again.
I have had a tendency over the years to interpret this parable through the lens of the Samaritan, but tonight, I can’t help but notice the inn. The Samaritan’s actions mattered. His individual choices are important and instructive. But it was the inn that saved the wounded walker. It was the inn that provided refuge and rest, a place where the committed and compassionate person and the person most in need could turn, and re-turn. And that, I think, is a model of our witness, collectively, as Episcopalians and Jews, as Church and synagogue, as progressive people of faith in a secular, capitalistic, consumerist world: not only to go out and live lives of mercy, justice, and faith ourselves, but to welcome the wounded; light the lamps for the lost, the lonely, the longing hearts; put out the rug and the roast for whatever neighbor might be passing by. And perhaps in this we will come to more fully understand and live into the command to love our God with all our with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
1 John 14:1
2 Deuteronomy 6:5.
3 Leviticus 18:19.
4 See Luke 10:25-37