July 3, 2016 – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proclaimer: Rev. Martha Kearse
Summer Sermon Series: STORIES TO LIVE BY
Sermon: Door Frames
Scripture: Luke 10:25-37; Deut. 6:1-9; Psalm 90:1-6
Once upon a time, there was a little boy who loved doors. In particular, he loved to open doors and run through them. When he was very small, still a toddler, he opened his front door. His parents had left it unlocked, working on the silly assumption that since he was only two feet tall, he would not have figured out how to turn the knob, pull the door and walk through. And yet he did. Some minutes later, when his parents realized he was not in the house, they rushed out of their door and down onto the sidewalk, just in time to find a nice couple pulling up in front of their house and letting their toddler son out of the back seat of the car. He had left the house, wandered down the sidewalk to the very busy street at the end of their road, and apparently was hitchhiking his way to Tijuana when they found him. After extensive therapy, his parents recovered enough to put a bell on the door (they considered putting one on the boy) so that they would at least hear him when he went on the lam.
Doors are very powerful things in the life of a child. Parents control doors—teachers control doors. There are keys and locks to doors which are difficult to obtain when one still cannot reach cabinets and table tops. As children grow older, doors take on even more significance as they learn the realities of doors to rooms they cannot enter, such as the door to the teachers’ lounge, and doors which they can control, such as the door to their rooms. Children’s literature abounds with powerful doors and the conflicts arising around them. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, poor Alice is forever shrinking herself and then growing again in order to get keys to open the doorway to a beautiful garden—which, it turns out, is beautiful but plagued with Queens and Kings who love to chop off people’s heads. In the Narnia Chronicles, the children find numerous doors, in wardrobes, in hedges behind the school, and even in the picture of a ship. These doors take them out of their own world and into another, equally challenging but magical world where their adventures bring them in contact with the divine. And in the movie “Tangled,” which tells the story of Rapunzel, Rapunzel wishes for a door so that she might leave the tower where she has been trapped for her own “protection.”
When you were a child, did you ever hear these words:
“Full Name of Child, you open this door right this instant!”? This statement contains an enormous dilemma because opening the door is what you have been told to do, and yet if you do open the door, well, let’s just say that grace rarely followed such a command. Keeping the door closed for those last moments of control over one’s own life becomes the most important, most nerve-wracking thing ever done. Did you ever walk through the door of a classroom in a new school during the middle of the school year? That’s a tough threshold to cross. All those kids looking at you like you might have antenna while they work on geometry, for goodness sake, which you didn’t have yet and might as well be in Mandarin for all the good it’s going to do you to try and do these problems. Ever have an older sibling close the door on you with someone else in her bedroom? Ever stand at the door of a dorm room while you watch your new roommate arranged her collection of whiskey bottles on the top of the dresser? Doorways change things—they define things. Doorways are the place where we decide who gets to come in and who is barred. They provide protection and exclusion, welcome and invitation, all at the same time.
Our story today has no doors in it. It is a story we’ve heard many times—the story of the man who is beaten badly, robbed and left naked and dying on the road. We know the sequence of events by heart—a priest sees him and crosses to walk by on the other side. A levite (or deacon) sees him and crosses to walk by on the other side. And then a man from the wrong tribe comes by. He is a man with whom the dying man would have had no contact in a regular situation. In the world of the story, this passer-by is an outcast, not welcome and unworthy. It is no accident in this story that it is not the priest or the levite who helps the wounded man. It is no accident that the wounded man is not a Samaritan himself, nor is it incidental that it is not the Jewish man who shows his superiority by helping him. Everything in this story is dead wrong. In Jesus’ story, the Samaritan, the unclean, unwelcome, impure and improper man is the one who stops, who touches this wounded and naked man, binds his wounds, then takes him to an inn where he pays for his care and promises to come back if any further charges need to be paid.
In our world, we pay a great deal of attention to the “what” of this story. In our culture, Good Samaritans are people who help other people. They do charitable deeds and care for others. I have no argument with that interpretation of the story, but I would point out the context in which this story is told. Interestingly, while the story of the Good Samaritan only appears in the Gospel of Luke, the context of this story appears in all three of the Synoptic gospels. In all three, Jesus is in conversation with a lawyer about what one must do to achieve salvation. In one gospel, Jesus quotes the scriptures from Deuteronomy and Leviticus about loving God and loving one’s neighbor. In another, it is the lawyer who quotes the scriptures, although in both passages, the scriptures are affirmed. These are the agreed upon rules of the faith: the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength; in addition, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Luke, however, takes another step in exploring this conversation which was available to him from several sources. Luke also has access to the parable of the Good Samaritan. And he inserts this parable here after having the lawyer ask this question: who is my neighbor?
What I’d like to submit to you today is that this story, although it does outline some behaviors to model, such as compassion and going the extra mile, is set up, not as a tale about WHAT to do, but rather as a tale which explains for WHOM we should be doing these things and with WHOM we should be interacting. The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” On its surface, this question, really, is a pretty dumb question. Do you know who your neighbors are? I do. I have had some interesting neighbors in my ‘hood. In my thirty years in Charlotte, I’ve had neighbors on whom I have called the police, and I have had neighbors who called the police on me (one time—long story). I have had neighbors on the sexual predators list and neighbors who looked after my children countless times when they had forgotten their keys. I’ve had a few I have disliked, many I have not known at all, and a few who became our family friends. Those are my neighbors, right?
Why would Luke have the lawyer ask this question? Rhetorically speaking, there is only one reason: he wants to answer this question with the parable of the Good Samaritan. And if the parable of the Good Samaritan provides the answer (which, if we read the final conversation after the parable, we find it does), then we have a problem. Because the answer which the Good Samaritan provides to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is this: your neighbor, whom you must love as one of two provisions in scripture which explain how you will achieve salvation, that neighbor is the guy you hate more than anyone else you can think of. And this neighbor, which you hate, you’re going to need to touch him. Physically touch him. And care for him. And you will need to go above and beyond in your care for him. And all of this is regardless of his care for you, his thanks for your care, his ability to take advantage of your care and his reciprocation of your care. Worse than that, he’s going to touch you, care for you, save you. So, um—good luck?
During our week on Johns’ Island in South Carolina, we came to care very much for Benjamin Johnson, the homeowner with whom we worked. He came every day and worked with us, and bought a very fine lunch of fried chicken and dirty rice for us on the last day. He is a sweet man, raising his children with the help of his sister and his mother—hard-working and good natured, in our experience. And as we worked on his house, there was a fair amount of kerfuffle about doors—there were at least two rooms which, when their walls were raised, appeared to have been crafted without the benefit of a door. So our resourceful leaders made doors. One day, after the doors had been tacked in, one of them fell out of the frame and onto the ground with a terrifying crash. We picked it up, dusted it off, and nailed it back in. On the last day, after we dedicated the house, Ben told us we were always welcome at his door—that we could come by any time for a meal or to spend the night or for whatever we needed. His door will be open to us.
It is also no mistake that people of faith have been nailing a copy of the Shema to their door posts for a long time. Door posts are significant to the people of Israel—the blood of a lamb on their door posts saved them from the angel of death and was an immediate precursor to their freedom from slavery. And the Deuteronomy passage contains the instruction to write the words on our hearts, to tell them to our children, to talk about them with each other, to bind them on our arms and to our foreheads. We are to put them on our doorposts, because these words define who we are as a people. The Mezuzah, which is the scroll on which the Shema has been hand-written in Hebrew, is placed inside a long box, on which is sometimes written the shin for Shaddai, another word for Lord. The box is nailed to the door post facing in, with the implication that God is being invited inside the door, into our homes, to affect the lives we live there and out of that home.
It is this passage which is invoked before our story is told and the idea of allowing God to permeate everything we do is attached to every action of the story. This story can be heard as a story without any metaphoric quality at all. Whether the Samaritan has a Mezuzah is not told; what is told is that the Samaritan is the one behaving in the manner proscribed on the Mezuzah—those behaviors are the very definition of what it means to have God’s love written on our doorposts and wrapped around our arms. This story is the story of what happens when the word of God is written on a heart, when it has defined the household from its place on the door post. The story offers a challenge to our very way of life: who crosses our threshold? Who is invited inside our door? Who is our neighbor? The parable of the Good Samaritan is not, unfortunately, a loop hole which says that if we do charitable acts for other people, we are like the Good Samaritan, and therefore in compliance with the commandments as laid out in our sacred text. I would say to you that the question of the parable is not what, but who, and the who remains very much a problem for us.
I know we judge the priest and the levite in this story, but how many of us would pull over to the side of the road to help someone naked and obviously wounded. We’d call 911—and probably feel good about our good deed. “I probably saved that guy’s life.” We may do many good deeds in our lives which do not touch us or require anything significant of us at all. But this is not a story that is merely about deeds. This story is about physical contact. It’s about the introduction of another human being, permanently, into our lives. This story is about having the love of God on every surface of our being, so that no matter what door we walk through in the morning, that love is the first thing on our minds, the first call of our day.
As a species, human beings are into homogeneity. We like the people we are around to be like us. And everything in our culture reinforces this tendency in us. We are encouraged to fear each other, to worry about anything that is different, anyone who is not like us. We are taught to fear everything from headgear, such as a young man in a hoodie or a woman wearing a hijab, to age, or skin pigment or mental health. Fear is the currency of our politics and the fear of other human beings is traded in before our eyes on a daily basis. If we are to fight that fear, if we are to be the ones who are ready, at a moment’s notice, to love whoever we encounter with the love God has shown to us, then we will need to consciously absorb that love on a daily basis. We will need to see it on our foreheads when we look in the mirror. We will need to read it on our arms as we go about our daily tasks. We will need to have it written on our doorposts, so that when we walk into our houses we know that God is there, and when we walk out through those same doors, we take God with us on the journey.
I was going to print out copies of the Shema for everyone to have today, but it turns out that it is not that simple. You can’t just be handed a Mezuzah; you have to earn it. The Mezuzah must be copied by hand in Hebrew, with no errors of any kind. It must be prepared on certain kinds of paper. The upshot is, I can’t give it to you. I can only go searching for it myself. What I can do is let you know that you can search for it as well. The presence of God, who is love itself, is available to each of us no matter what door we have walked through in the morning. The presence of God, which is healing and renewing; the presence of God, which is forgiving and understanding; the presence of God, which is joyful and patient; the presence of God, which empowers each of us to be the hands of God, and offer the love of God to each other—that presence is within these walls and behind these doors. But it is also out there. It is also behind the doors of your home. It is over the threshold of your office and on the soccer field with your children. Each one of us has access to boundless, abundant love and each of us is called to use that love to fight our fears, to step beyond our own boundaries, to touch other human beings and allow ourselves to be touched by them.
Doors are powerful things—they let people in and they keep people out. And this parable is meant to niggle at us, to challenge us, to make us uncomfortable with our own narrowness, our own fears. If we decide to follow the path of the Good Samaritan, we choose to live our lives with an open door.