A Sermon for Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN by The Reverend Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
Sunday, July 10, 2022 – Proper 10 / Year C / Track 2
In the name of God whose healing love is in our mouths and in our hearts. Amen.
We are walking that treacherous road from Jerusalem to Jericho today. We see and will continue seeing bodies of children in classrooms, women’s bodies, bodies with ovaries, differently-abled bodies, Black and Brown bodies, same-gender-loving, gender-non-conforming, and gender-expansive bodies, all stripped of their human rights, robbed of their dignity, beaten down by colonial evil, and left for dead, if we do nothing. The Parable of the Good Samaritan invites us to imagine ourselves in each of the characters – the robbers, the victim, the priest, the Levite, the Good Samaritan, and the inn-keeper – to discern what we are going to do after we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this sacred lesson in how to embody mercy, love, and compassion for victims of “the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” As my parents’ old Dione Warwick vinyl record used to preach, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love / It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love / No not just for some, but for everyone” (1). Today’s sermon delves into the wisdom of four teachers of love – theologian, philosopher, and civil rights guru Howard Thurman, Black Feminist justice organizer Adrienne Maree Brown, French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, and the Netflix series Heartstopper – each teach us why and how to go and love our neighbor as ourself.
My colleagues, my friends, Circle of the Beloved, my graduate suite-mates at the University of Toronto, my recent house guest, and now all of you know that I am besotted with the Netflix series Heartstopper (2). Based on young adult fiction author Alice Oseman’s webcomic, Heartstopper is her beautiful coming-of-age romantic comedy and, I would argue, a theological text on how to love a person who is very different to who you are. The Gen-Z characters of Heartstopper show the world how to love our white gay neighbor, our Black transgender neighbor, our straight Asian neighbor, our bookish asexual neighbor, our Black and white lesbian neighbors, our bisexual jock neighbor, our straight fathers, mothers and sisters, our African and Indian gay teachers, and even our beloved pets. This generation wants absolutely nothing to do with the hatred and suspicion that the colonizers’ barriers produce. Like Circle of the Beloved, this generation deeply desire to build kinship across lines of difference. In her book, The Church Cracked Open Stephanie Spellers quotes a young adult involved in community organizing for racial healing who states, “Our workplaces, social hangouts, and even families are much more diverse than the church. Why would we go to church, where we and our friends would not feel comfortable because of its homogeneity? I feel like God is more outside the church than inside” (3). This is why we, the church, need Howard Thurman’s wisdom today.
Theologians have noted that “Thurman strove throughout his life to melt away the persistent if not pernicious obstacles or barriers and differences that divide us from our undiscovered brothers and sisters” (4). Thurman loved the Parable of the Good Samaritan which is central to his religious thought and experience. “The parable, Thurman declares, breaks down the barriers that divide us, the lines that every culture draws between those who belong and those who do not…” and “insists that we all – every single one of us – are related to one another. Being a neighbor goes beyond sharing things in common, whether kinship, race, or creed” (5). The historical culture within which Jesus’s scandalous parable was told believed that a Samaritan was to be hated, feared, and dehumanized. And yet, it is the one their culture taught them to despise most who comes near the stripped, robbed, beaten, and left-for-dead victim; who sees his body and is moved with pity; who pours wine and oil on his bruised and battered body and bandages his wounds; who brings him to an inn; stays to take care of him overnight; then pays the innkeeper enough money for two months of lodging, saying, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend” (Luke 10:33-35). Thurman believed that to truly understand this Parable “involves much more than just intellectual assent; understanding [The Good Samaritan] must lead to concrete action in the world, because truly understanding Jesus’s radical message creates in us a profound moral obligation” that not only challenges us to act; it demands that we do something (6). Jesus says, “Go and do” mercy, “Go and do” love, “Go and do” compassion. And Adrienne Maree Brown helps us to know how to go and do love.
In her bestselling book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds Adrienne Maree Brown applies the wisdom of Black science-fiction author and MacArthur genius Octavia Butler to teach us about the power of fractals: “that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale” and “to see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a first place we can practice justice, liberation, and alignment with each other and our planet” (7). We see in the Good Samaritan what Brown describes as the science of emergence which is “relational, adaptive, fractal, interdependent, decentralized, and transformative” (8). Jesus’s short story of how the least likely person embodies God’s mercy, love, and compassion has moved generations to “go and do likewise” in their own fractals of love enacted. Fractals of mercy create larger patterns, because Brown writes,
When we speak of systemic change, we need to be fractal. Fractals – a way to speak of the patterns we see – move from the micro to the macro level. The same spirals on [your fingertips] and on sea shells can be found in the shape of galaxies. We must create patterns that cycle upwards. We are microcosms… every member of the community holds pieces of the solution, even if we are all engaged in different layers of the work (9).
We get in our own way when we allow our egos, our illusions of self-importance and unhealthy comparisons to blind us from seeing who needs God’s mercy, love, and compassion, and we blindly “pass by on the other side” of a fellow human being’s trauma, woundedness, and pain. The Good Samaritan is spiritually mature and self-differentiated enough to know exactly who he is and how to embody the mercy he would want to receive if he was found battered and half-dead in a gutter.
French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, through his intense and intimate friendship with Étienne de La Boétie teaches us how love requires us to be who we are and be that well so that we can liberate others to be who they are and be that well. In one of his most celebrated essays, Montaigne reflects on how his and Étienne’s souls became bound to each other. He writes, “In the friendship I speak of, our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell you why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because he was he, because I was I.”
Just as I am. Just as you are. Just as our neighbor is. Just as we all are in our multiplicities of difference, we all have to ask whether we will choose to come near and see one another’s wounded bodies, minds, and spirits? Will we be moved with pity, pour wine and oil on bruises and bind up wounds, and carry one another and our neighbors into places of healing and sanctuary? Will we care for them and ensure that we come back in two months’ time to be a witness to how God’s mercy, love, and compassion brought some small and mighty fractal of healing into this cruel, violent, and deeply wounded world? As followers of Jesus who is God’s love made flesh dwelling among us, we must go and practice daily acts of love in small, intentional, and powerful fractals of mercy and compassion, just as we are, in all of our sacredly different ways, because “What the world needs now is your love, sweet love / No not just for some, but for everyone.” Amen.
- Stephanie Spellers, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2021), 16.
- Howard Thurman, Sermons on the Parables, eds. David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), xxxvii.
- Ibid., 47.
- Ibid., xvi.
Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 52, 53.
- Ibid., 56.
- Ibid., 59 and 63.