This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, July 10, 2016, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, “Proper 10.” It was another hard week: the Requiem for Bp. Salmon and funerals for the previous week’s deaths, news of police killings in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, and the sniper attack in Dallas which killed five police officers and wounded several more. Sunday seemed to me a moment when we might all pause somewhat to take stock of things, and reflect on what sort of truths we really hold about the world at core.
Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers thy people who call upon thee, and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
The Good Samaritan. This parable seems especially appropriate for us after the last week: in which yet more terrible events have been in the news, and death and mortality have been on all of our minds.
I think we usually read the Good Samaritan as if we were the young lawyer, asking who is our neighbor, looking for encouragement about how to go out and love them according to the commandment of God. Jesus’ lesson remains as true for us as it did for that young man, ‘You, go and do likewise: care alike for friend and stranger, no matter what road you find them lying on.’
And yet after a week like this, full of funerals, violence, and unexpected bad news, we might justly start to read the parable as if we were the traveler: not that any of us have been victims of the week’s crimes, but simply that, as things fall apart, we begin to feel the weight of sagging hopes, and very real grief. In times like these it might be easier to read the parable through the eyes of the traveler: walking alone down the road, minding his own business, and suddenly ambushed as if from nowhere; now lying in the gutter, world upside-down, possessions gone, badly wounded. What does the parable say to us in that position?
We might be tempted to revisit all our favorite conundrums. Conundrums like, ‘How can this happen to me? I’m a good person, shouldn’t justice say I deserve a better shake?’ Or, if we’re more philosophical, we might start asking how a good God could allow this kind of suffering and pain in the first place. ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ It’s a convenient moment to reopen the old can of worms which philosophers and theologians call, “The Problem of Evil.” I won’t revisit the argument, because you probably know it already. Principally, it asks the question, ‘How can a good God and real evil coexist in the world?’
Sometimes I imagine the traveler lying there, considering his plight as so many people walk by. I think his thoughts would likely be similar to ours: no doubt he took stock of his relationships and his various projects. Perhaps he said a prayer or two for mercy, for ‘things done and left undone.’ Perhaps he railed at God for a while, trying to make sense of what had happened. Or perhaps he was simply too badly injured to think at all, and lay there in a stupor waiting for death. Whatever the specific content that ran through his head, I have to think most of it was concerned at least tangentially with this Problem of Evil, which occupies so much of your and my mental energy as well.
Is this it? Is the Problem of Evil really the great Achilles heel of the world’s religions, and especially of Christianity? It certainly seems to be wreaking havoc everywhere these days. And yet I cannot think it will have the last word.
It certainly doesn’t in the parable of the Good Samaritan. As we know, the Samaritan comes walking along and sees this poor man, cares for him, takes him to an inn, and makes sure to pay the bill himself. At another time in life we might be able to guess better what went through the Samaritan’s mind, but for now consider the traveler’s. He had given up hope, he was beaten and naked, lying in a ditch and waiting for death. Who knows how long he lay there? But then, just as much out of nowhere as the robbers who beat him, this Samaritan comes along to help. He didn’t have to stop, he could have kept going, passed him by, just like all the others. Justice would not have been bothered at any rate. But he did stop, and so the traveler’s life is saved.
I recently read a book review by Rowan Williams in which he reviewed three different new collections of fairy tales. At the beginning he observes that one of the distinguishing features of the genre is a kind of two-sided coin. On one side of the coin, fairy tales very often feature scenarios where the normal relationships which society depends on have broken down. Hansel and Gretel are sent away into the forest because their parents cannot afford to feed them any longer. Cinderella is destitute because the family who adopted her are cruel and jealous. Camelot falls because of treachery in the court, and Arthur sustains a wound which no doctor can properly heal. And yet, at the same time, on the other side of the coin, the normal relationships which undergird the fabric of society may be frayed or broken, but the whole created world seems to conspire to help the lonely protagonists.
Narnia is frozen over, but a family of Beavers help the Pevensey children, unlooked for and unasked. Hansel and Gretel kill the witch, and the trees and the birds lead them back home, where their father is overjoyed at their return. Sir Galahad, who features in two of our stained glass windows here at St. Michael & St. George (believe it or not!); Sir Galahad has no shield. But at just the moment he needs one, he stumbles across a monastery in a forest no one had ever seen before, which possesses an ancient, wondrous shield, that the community is pleased to give him. Harry Potter is trapped at Number 4, Privet Drive, and despite all of Uncle Vernon’s protestations, it seems the house itself conspires with Hagrid to make sure Harry gets his acceptance letter to Hogwarts.
The point of this whole catalogue is, as Rowan Williams points out, that if we’re going to talk about The Problem of Evil — especially if we’re going to claim it’s some sort of Achilles Heel of religion — then we also have to admit there is at least an equal, if not more troubling, Problem of Good. If there is a Problem of Evil out there, then there is also a Problem of Good.
There doesn’t have to be good in the world. The Samaritan didn’t have to stop and help. Jesus didn’t have to heal all those people, he didn’t have to offer himself to death on a cross, or rise from the dead. And yet he did. Why is there any good at all in the world? Nature could get along just fine according to brutal survival instinct. And yet, time after time in our lives, we see that the world simply refuses to work this way, the world refuses to fulfill our expectations of an all-encompassing, dog-eat-dog brutality.
The Samaritan didn’t have to stop, but he did. And from the perspective of the Traveler, that must have made an enormous difference. No longer could he get away with mere self-pity. No longer could he surrender meekly to the forces which threatened to undo him, as some kind of fatal inevitability. The gears of cruel fate were stopped by an act of gratuitous, unnecessary generosity. And for the Traveler, life had victory over death.
It is no different for each of us. Every time we might be tempted to throw up our hands and surrender to the Problem of Evil, the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us to recognize the even more significant Problem of Good. However dark the world gets, there are always sparks and flashes of unnecessary, gratuitous good. These flashes stop the gears of fate, and allow new possibilities of life and growth, beyond injury and death.
These flashes are windows into the purposes and nature of God, whose act of creating the world in the first place was gratuitous and unnecessary; whose gift of his Son was equally unnecessary, unbound, and free. The God we worship and the redemption he promises are not founded on any kind of Newtonian law of action and reaction. They are not subject to any Problem of Evil, no matter how systemic. Our God is generous and free, sneaking up on us when we least expect it, shining brightest when life’s clouds conspire to block out even the sun, always allowing the possibility for new life to spring out of darkness.
So what does that mean for the Samaritan’s Traveler? What does that mean for us? Obviously the Problem of Good did not prevent the Traveler from getting mugged in the first place. When we walk a dangerous road we ought to expect danger, and prepare for it accordingly. Only, when you find yourself lying in a ditch, battered and preparing for death, do not despair. Do not think that God has disappeared, or that the Almighty’s power has been bound by the evil you suffer. Likewise, do not think that he is the one who has afflicted you, that your suffering is punishment for some unknown sin. Rather put your trust in his generosity, in the profligacy of his grace and the freedom of his mercy. Look for the new life he offers, and be, yourself, its signpost for others.
Evil and pain will not have the last word. All the parables and the fairy tales are correct in this, that even when every system is broken and all relationships of trust are betrayed, Goodness is not extinguished yet. Creation itself conspires to bear witness to the final victory, as the very stones cried out in the earthquake when Christ hung dying on the cross. As Our Lord rose from the tomb and opened the gates of Paradise, so far we too may follow him. As on the cross he offered himself in a Great Thanksgiving to his Father, so in our own time of trial we too may offer thanks for the Problem of Good, by which we live, and according to which death itself is conquered and put to flight.
In the meantime, may we always be prepared to be surprised by this goodness of God, overflowing everywhere, bubbling up in gratuitous generosity, unlooked for and unasked, which nourishes and builds up the kingdom of heaven. Let this constant surprise lead us into lives of continuous delight, giving thanks always and everywhere for the goodness of God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.