Sermon Text: The Test
Know what my worst seminary class was? Philosophical theology.
Know what my best was? New Testament.
Know why? Stories!
Stories are interesting. Stories are accessible. Many people, like me in seminary, feel out of their depth with heavy, conceptual language. But all people tell stories and listen to them. Everyone has stories. Everyone IS a story.
The center of our religious tradition is a man of a thousand stories. We have the stories — the stories Jesus told and the stories people told about him. They are written down in the gospels, of course.
The story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan is not only just about the most famous story Jesus told — it might be the most famous story EVER told. Most everybody knows the story of the Good Samaritan, whether they are religious or not.
And unlike the philosophical concepts I struggled with in advanced seminary classes, the message of the story Jesus told is so clear. It’s so easy for anyone to get. Be KIND, for cryin’ out loud!
The priest and the Levite in the story were not just being jerks. OK, they WERE jerks, but they got that way because of their religion. They could not tell if the man beaten by robbers was dead or alive. And if he was dead and they touched him, they would become ritually unclean and therefore unable to do their jobs for a week while they went through ceremonial cleansing.
They were pious — they knew the importance of their religious practice. But they were pious in the wrong way, Jesus says. The worship of God would have gone on even if they were temporarily unable to do their jobs. But the right thing to do would have been to care for the wounded man by the road.
Does religion make you more or less of a jerk? That’s an important test of your religion.
The lawyer started this conversation by giving Jesus a quiz. Jesus turned the tables by telling a story which becomes a quiz. Does your religion make you kind?
And Jesus does not make it easy. Here’s a little thing you may not know about Samaritans. Back about the time Jesus was a little kid, there was already bad blood between the Samaritans and the Judeans. One midnight, during the Passover festival, a very important religious celebration, some Samaritans snuck into the Jerusalem Temple at midnight. They vandalized the place by spreading around bones of dead people. This was a searing religious violation. And it’s one of these bad guys Jesus uses as a good guy.
The lawyer passes the quiz, and gets the point. Jesus seems to be saying this: The most important thing in life is to be kind. The second most important thing in life is to be kind. And the third most important thing in life is to be kind.
Now, are we humans born kind? Well, both science and spiritual traditions agree: we are born with a capacity to be kind. We are even born with a tendency to be kind.
But there are big barriers to kindness. Both science and spirituality agree on that, too. First, there is a natural self-centeredness we have from birth. It is work to learn to take the perspective of other people.
But the second and more disturbing barrier to kindness is tribalism. Studies have shown that infants as young as 6 months old show preferences for their own race and against members of different races. Certainly Jesus is working against this tribalism by choosing a Samaritan as the good guy in his story.
Kindness is complicated. It turns out we are wired for both kindness and cruelty.
We have work to do in training children to be kind, and in learning to be more kind ourselves. Kindness is a skill and a habit. Both science and religion say that we have the obligation to work on it.
I think that stories help us do just that. Stories get into our hearts and percolate there.
I know that in general, I am a kind person. The people who know me well confirm that.
But I also know that I could and should do better. The people who know me well gently help me see that, too. Just from my week of vacation, I’ve decided on a kindness project. I learned that there is something I can work on and do better on that will make me kinder.
The people of this church family are kind. I know you well, and I can confirm that. But the people of this church could and should do better. I know you well, and I can confirm that, too.
Maybe you can take on a kindness project. No one else needs to know. Show it, don’t tell it.
We have work to do in training our children to be kind, and in learning to be more kind ourselves. Kindness is a skill and a habit. Both religion and science say that we have the obligation to work on it.
I think stories help us do that. Stories get into our hearts and percolate there.
You know, like the stories Jesus tells!