Matthew 6.1-4, 21.28-32

Luke 10.29-37

Quiet Witness

(Summertime On Demand – III)

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

It happened, once again, at a wedding I officiated a few weeks ago.  (And just for the record, this was not the Napier wedding.)  I was in one of two parallel lines for the bar when someone in the other line leaned over and said to me, “Haven’t you ever read the holiness laws of the Old Testament?”  I thought, “Here we go…” And he went on to say, “I could go on talking to you about the Old Testament laws all night.” Now friends, I confess I had no idea what he was talking about, so there were a lot of things I could have said in that moment.  There are 613 laws in the Levitical Holiness Code, one of which has to do with consuming alcohol, and none of which have to do with a minister getting a beer at a wedding reception.  But rather than get into a theological debate with a fellow wedding guest and spoiling the rest of my evening, I paid for his drink, leaving him momentarily confused, and walked away.

I’ve reflected with you before on the weird ways people sometimes respond to clergy in various settings, and I know you get it, because some of you have wondered the same thing about yourselves.  As you know, this summer I’m preaching on sermon requests from the congregation, and a few of you asked roughly the same question, and two of you used that same word, “weird,” when asking it. One of you asked, “How can I bring God into my life daily without being ‘weirdly religious?’”  Another asked, “What can we do as an individual, without appearing pushy or weird, to present ourselves as Christians?” In a day and age when so many high-visibility people who call themselves Christian embarrass both themselves and the wider church with their less-than-Christlike attitudes and assumptions, particularly attitudes and assumptions about others unlike them, trying to live authentically as a person of faith in any kind of overt manner too often lumps us all in together.  This is why I get weird looks when people find out what I do for a living, and it is why some of you wonder how you can live out your faith in an authentic way without having people look at you sideways and slowly moving away...

You can probably guess my response from this morning’s sermon title and our gospel readings.  From the Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of practicing your piety before others... When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be seen in secret - and God, who sees in secret, will reward you.”  Here is what I take away from this passage: Live a life of faith. Give yourself to others. Care for each other. Honor God. We can do all this and more without calling attention to ourselves. Don’t worry; people will come to know who you are and why you do the good things you do.  They will. No need to sound the trumpet while you’re doing so.

Don was a Trustee at a former church.  He was a bank president, and a quiet, self-facing man.  He and his wife were in church nearly every Sunday, friendly though not gregarious, an easy-going couple.  One morning after church Don told me he was being honored by the local Rotary, and would I please come to their annual dinner as his guest and offer a brief invocation?  I said sure, I’d be glad to. The night of the dinner, I sat with Don and his family, and it turns out he was being honored as the Rotarian of the Year, and the emcee introduced him with a long list of things Don did for the community, of which most people in the room, myself included, were largely unaware.  His work for community affordable housing was described. He helped fashion scholarship packages for needy high school graduates. He built a low-interest loan to expand a local food pantry. He was a quiet mover for the local United Way. He helped broaden and deepen the reach of the local Y and helped craft creative solutions for the city’s homeless shelter.  And it was clear to me that he did all of this because he was a person of faith. He never talked about his faith, though he was proud of his church and all the work we did with some of the same population and agencies. And to my knowledge he never talked among his church family about all the work he was doing in the community. For Don, it was just a natural extension of who he was and what he believed.  If anyone ever gave alms in secret, behind closed doors along the lines of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, it was Don.

If talking about your faith feels kind of weird, then listen to that, and don’t talk; do.  Don’t talk. Just do. People are much more interested in who we are and what we do than they are in what we say, or in our particular system of belief, whatever that may be.  People are better persuaded by who we are and what we do than by what we say. Ralph Waldo Emerson had a perfect way of putting this when he wrote, “Let what you do speak so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”  Let what you do speak so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

The parable that Charlene read from Luke this morning is a familiar one.  Any one of us could probably tell it from memory and get it right. A Jewish man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him and left him for dead.  A priest and a Levite, who is also a kind of priest, saw him lying there and crossed the street to avoid him. A Samaritan, sworn enemy of the Jew, stopped, bandaged him, went out of his way to bring him to safety and paid for his care out of his own pocket.  Now most often you and I tend to focus on this third character and so we call the parable “The Good Samaritan.” But I think we can also focus on the first two characters and call this the parable of the Pathetic Priest or the Lazy Levite. And it is important to remember that the priest and the Levite were representatives of the church of Jesus’ day who went out of their way to avoid their neighbor in need.  So maybe if Jesus were to tell the same parable today we might be calling it the parable of the Misanthropic Minister.

Here is how the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King remembers this story:

“I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem.  We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as I got on that road I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.’  It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is... about twelve hundred feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, about fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about twenty two feet below sea level.  That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as ‘The Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over at that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they thought the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure.  And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the... Samaritan came by, and reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

Note that the Samaritan is defined by his actions, not by his words.  The same is true of the two sons in Matthew 21. One told his father he would not work in the vineyard, but changed his mind and did; the other said he would and did not.  Words are secondary to action. Let what you do speak so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.  Our witness to God, who we are, why we do what we do, does not need to be loud or in any way flashy.  It’s all right if our witness is a quiet witness.

Still, there is a way to talk about and share our faith and belief without sounding weird, or too weird, anyway.    Don’t talk about yourself; talk about your church. Talk about our United Church of Chester. We’re fortunate that Chester is small enough that many people already know who we are and what we do, but if not, and if you feel compelled to speak, here’s what you can say.  “I go to the church that collects and distributes turkeys at Thanksgiving.” “I go to the church that helps fill backpacks for local school children.” “I go to the church that welcomes people of every persuasion.” “I go to the church that’s raising funds this fall for the Chester fuel assistance bank.”  Or talk about our United Church of Christ: “I belong to a church that is working to halt climate change, a church that advocates for the planet.” “I belong to a church that was first to ordain an African American, the first to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly gay minister.” That’s what people will want to know, it’s what people want to hear.  I’ll talk more about this later on this summer when we wonder about how the church remains relevant in a changing world. But for the time being, let me just say that in today’s culture, people don’t care much about what a church believes, our doctrine, our creed. Folks want to know what we are doing to make our neighborhoods, our community and our world a better place to live.  And a number of them will want to be a part of it. The Samaritan did.

Amen.

 

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