The readings for today can be found here.
Click here to listen to a recording as you read.
There’s a brilliant movie called Groundhog Day – a comedy that stars Bill Murray as a TV weatherman in Pittsburgh who is asked to go and film a segment on the famous weather predictor, Punxsutawney Phil.
Now, for those who didn’t grow up in Western PA like I did or perhaps don’t know about this legendary icon, Punxsutawney Phil is a groundhog who is dragged every February 2 from a little home they’ve built for him and he is supposed to predict how much longer winter is going to last based on whether or not he sees his shadow.
It’s a charming tradition about hope – hope for transformation into spring.
And the tradition speaks to the theme of the movie – hope for transformation.
Because Bill Murray’s character, who only cares about his own needs and treats everyone else as if they are mere objects in his world finds himself in a loop:
He wakes up each morning to the same Sonny and Cher song on the clock radio in the same B&B in Punxsutawney and runs into the same people doing the same things. He repeats the same day over and over and over and over again, only he’s the only one who experiences this loop.
It’s quite funny for a while, as you might expect. But eventually the story takes a dark turn as this obnoxious man becomes utterly hopeless. Hopeless that he will never ever see the next day, that no matter what he does he will always wake up to the same day, see the same people, having no real agency in his life to truly change anything.
It becomes a kind of hell. There is no hope. Spring will never come. Transformation will never occur.
I start here today because I feel like we’re in a hellish loop, only there’s nothing funny about it…. I can feel myself slowly becoming more hopeless with each killing, that spring will ever come.
The events of this past week seem to prove that, as a society, we haven’t solved anything. It’s just gotten worse.
Today’s parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable about racism. It’s a parable we hear every three years because that’s how often the lessons cycle through. And it’s a key story in the Christian tradition. And the trope of the “good Samaritan” is used so often (hospitals, churches, organizations) that you would think we would learn the lesson Jesus is trying to teach us.
Jesus is, of course, talking to his fellow Jews when he tells this parable. And he knows the Samaritans were hated by the Jews because they were of another race. He makes a very specific point in this parable: There is no “other” in the kingdom of God. Mercy is the only mark of the neighbor. The person who offers mercy is the neighbor.
And this precept is not just taught in Christianity. It’s a main theme in all the major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam.
All of them teach mercy. All of them teach that being in service to your neighbor is the highest calling.
And here’s where I feel the loop happening: We have all of these teachings and yet we still seem to have extreme difficulty in understanding who our neighbors are and how to be a neighbor to another. Where is our hope if it isn’t in these profound teachings?
Jesus believed deeply in a fundamental Jewish understanding about the relationship between God and humanity – that we are made in the image of God, that we all carry the image of God – the Imago Dei.
Ancient Jewish stories, like those found in Genesis, are infused with this understanding. The story of creation doesn’t label humanity as inherently evil or bad. As a matter of fact, the story goes out of its way to express the deep connection between God and all of creation.
This understanding is echoed at the beginning of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word – that which was breathed into being by the God of all life – the creation of God, the voice of God, the image of God. We are all wonderfully made in the Image of God.
And Jesus’ ministry was infused with examples of proving this despite rules to the contrary: healing outcasts, breeching boundaries, and upsetting self-righteous, rule-bound hypocrites, reminding people that the only things that really matter are: love God; love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments all of the law – the endless minutiae in Deuteronomy and Leviticus – all of the law is built on these two commandments. And from these two commandments all the Hebrew prophets are preaching their warnings to Israel and Judah.
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke tells us that this is the way to life.
This is the way to life!
Because here’s the thing – to love your neighbor is to love God because we are all made in the image of God. We are all, what we like to call Imago Dei.
There can be no other in the Kingdom of God because there is nothing except the Image of God in all of creation.
Therefore, mercy is the only response.
Now, this is hard to see. I know this is hard to see because I have trouble seeing it myself most of the time:
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when people who are connected to a group named ISIS are killing my brothers and sisters all over the world, mostly in other primarily Islamic countries.
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when I hear stories of child abuse and neglect.
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when the church is more concerned about maintaining the institution than it is about taking care of people and preaching the Gospel.
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when politicians incite frustrated people by making racist, sexist, and other demeaning comments in an effort to win votes.
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when I hear the owner of a local restaurant say that we should just blow all the savages away, that will solve the problem.
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when police officers admit to targeting vulnerable communities and yet so many police departments refuse to acknowledge this as a problem.
And I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when a sniper assassinates 5 police officers and wounds 7 more… who are simply doing their job by accompanying a peaceful protest to protect them and keep the peace.
In these moments… I want to name the other as enemy.
I want to name the other as evil. I want to insist that these individuals deserve retribution for their sins.
And I can get incredibly grandiose in my self-righteousness.
Those people are bad and we need to stop them by whatever means necessary.
Except, that this is not what I claim to believe. I claim to believe in the Imago Dei and so as soon as I cast someone else as the one to blame, as soon as I draw that line in the sand, I stand convicted by the person I call my Savior – Jesus.
It’s the hardest spiritual practice I know of, to offer mercy where I believe none is deserved.
Because it’s easier and more satisfying to self-righteously scapegoat someone else, rather than doing the long, hard work of reconciliation. Because I know that reconciliation will require me to change in some way.
One of my seminary professors once said something in a sermon that I’ll never forget. John Kater was my ethics professor and he said, that our call as Christians is to stand in the crossroads where we can see the kingdom of God and the brokenness of the world at the same time – never losing sight of either, no matter how much we may be tempted.
Never losing sight of the world, even when it’s painful to see.
And never losing sight of the kingdom of God even when we’d rather just sit in judgment of the world than offer mercy.
Because to stand in the crossroads is what it means to gather around a Table of Reconciliation every week.
And so I read the Gospel and I stand up here on Sundays and do my best to offer an interpretation of it that speaks to what we experience here in this world of Kingston, this place I’m coming to know.
And to this community of St John’s… this amazing group of caring, smart, engaged people who I’m coming to know.
You who visit and feed your friends and your neighbors… who deeply love your community and its history… who have experienced heartbreak and hard economic times.
You who help people learn to read and care deeply for this wonderful property… who offer opportunities for music and gathering… who pray for prisoners and all those who suffer… who care enough to connect to people in other countries like Tanzania and Haiti.
It is you are the hope. You are the way out of the loop. You, who see the Imago Dei so readily in one another, are the hope for transformation. Because you practice this love of neighbor with one another so skillfully.
How are we being called into deeper service right now?
How do we help people to see the Image of God in one another?
How do we currently embrace our ministry as reconcilers in the world and for the world?
And how are we called to expand that ministry and move into even deeper relationships with people?
How are we being called into mission with our neighbors – all our neighbors?
Because we are needed, my beloved friends. We are needed.
And here’s where I give away the ending to the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. Bill’s character only gets out of the loop when he stops thinking about serving his own needs and, instead, finds true joy in offering himself in service to others.
He learns to love his neighbor as himself.
He becomes merciful, a reconciler in the world.
I want to encourage you to attend two events that may help us all start to make sense of what’s happened this week and find a way to respond from our Christian faith:
First, there is a vigil this evening at Fair Street Reformed Church at 6:30. Pray with your neighbors, meet them, mourn with them.
Second, there is a community forum tomorrow evening at New Progressive Baptist Church at 6:30. Meet with your neighbors, listen to their stories, learn more about the experiences people have in this wonderful city of Kingston.
May we be intent on stopping the loop, the endless violence and racism and scapegoating that keeps us locked in fear of the other.
And may we hear the Holy Spirit’s whisper speak to us of God’s dream for this place we love so that we may be neighbors, reconcilers in and for the world.