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Livin' La Vida Loca

Colossians 2:6-15
© Stacey Steck

For those of you fortunate enough to have missed Latino pop music superstar Ricky Martin’s humongous turn of the century hit song, “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” allow me to bring you up to speed. The song describes the gravitational pull of the singer’s love interest, mostly in lyrics a tad too risqué for your average worship service. It is safe to say however, that she is a woman who can entice him to do things he would not ordinarily do, including, and I quote, “make you live her crazy life,” thus giving meaning to the song’s Spanglish title, vida meaning life and loca meaning crazy or wild. La Vida Loca: the wild and crazy life. Now, I didn’t bring the band, but if you’ll help me out, I could be convinced to sing you the lyrics of the refrain. Are you ready? Here we go: “Upside inside out, Livin’ la Vida loca. She’ll push and pull you down. Livin’ la Vida loca. Her lips are devil red and her skin’s the color mocha. She will wear you out. Livin’ la Vida loca.” Incidentally, members of the clergy are looking forward to the parody version of the song which describes their life in the church and is tentatively entitled, “Livin’ la Vida Broke-a.”

There are some passages of Scripture which, upon first reading or hearing, seem more like a painfully impacted wisdom tooth than a wild and crazy party. They are so dense with words and concepts and images that they quickly become confusing and run the risk of becoming meaningless. Today’s reading from Colossians is one such passage. It starts off simply enough with a nice exhortation to continue to lives our lives in Jesus, grounded in him and built up on his foundation. But then we are brought into a whirlwind full of tricky terms and ancient images: philosophy, and we’re not talking about trees falling in uninhabited woods; human tradition, and not we’re not talking about roasting turkey at Thanksgiving; Elemental spirits of the universe? Are those the ones on the bottom of the periodic table of the elements I never learned in Chemistry class? And then we move on to loaded theological phrases like “fullness of deity,” and “circumcised with a spiritual circumcision,” both of which sound more painful than liberating. Then Paul brings in the baptism language and the dying and rising in Christ and being made alive even though we were “dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of the flesh.” And then Paul throws in some legal and accounting and political images for good measure. All this may have made perfect sense to the church at Colossae when they heard it for the first time but we are a long way from fully understanding everything that is going on here. There are roughly 1.3 sermons for each of those things I just mentioned and so a complete explanation of all the parts must wait for another day. However, a summary would look something like this:

This part of the letter to the Colossians, addresses a different kind of gravitational pull than the one experienced by our lover boy Ricky Martin, this one the pull of ideas about religion that do not match the revelation of Jesus Christ that Paul has received. It seems that there were those who were teaching that something more than Christ was necessary, that Christ was but one part of a system of knowledge required to transcend the physical world, that Christ neatly fit into the rest of a system of belief that carried the day in that part of the world. The specifics are lost to us but we may surmise that pseudo-philosophies and empty deceit and human traditions and elemental spirits of the universe are threatening to sidetrack the church at Colossae from continuing to live their lives in Christ, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith. Paul is preaching the radical sufficiency of Christ alone, Christ above all, Christ the head of every ruler or authority, Christ the firstborn of creation (and your heart!), Christ the foundational wisdom of the world. No other wisdom can compare, no other wisdom is required, no other wisdom is worth following, for they all pale in comparison. Watch out, Paul warns, lest these competing interests take you captive, literally, lest they kidnap you from the truth, by trying to convince you that anyone other than Christ has anything to offer.

And Paul puts his advice into Easter language, the language of the church, the language of circumcision and baptism and resurrection. He reminds them that “God made you alive together with him,” as a result of the forgiveness brought through Christ. Paul offers these reminders and these warnings as the way to help them “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

What Paul was asking was no easy task. His was a new faith, a foreign faith, a minor faith, a religious system fundamentally at odds with the whole way religious systems were understood. You just didn’t have exclusive religions in the Roman Empire. So the pressure on these new converts must have been tremendous: “Whaddya mean you can’t come over to Aphrodite’s temple after church? Everybody else does it!” “Whaddya mean ‘Sagittarius with Scorpio rising’ just doesn’t work for you anymore? This is the Roman Empire buddy, lighten up!” This, my friends, was the path to martyrdom, to lions in the coliseum, to upside down crucifixions.

I always have misgivings about equating situations in the first century Roman Empire with contemporary situations, and it is difficult to do considering how little we actually know about what Paul was arguing against, but I do think it is safe to say that present day Christians face a host of challenges that make it tough to hold fast the faith. We may have separated the philosophy department from the religious studies department, we may have collected our tradition in a book called the Bible, and we may have relegated horoscopes to the same page of the newspaper as the comics, but we remain people of faith confronted by ideas held by others, and challenged to remain rooted in Jesus Christ. We face temptations of money and time and power, idols all. We face messages of hate and systems of injustice. We are wearied by the weight of the world and we look for a way to escape the daily grind. Which brings us back to Ricky Martin and Livin’ la vida loca, his crazy life, his wild life.

If we did a word association exercise using the phrase “the wild life,” most of us would not be thinking squirrels and acorns. I suspect that most of us would probably equate “the wild life” with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon. I also suspect that in some of our more honest moments, we have all longed for a little more of these qualities. But quite frankly, we generally shun them because these are words that often have sensual connotations. Indeed, that is the sense in which this famous song understands the wild and crazy life: with devil red lips and mocha colored skin, the temptress is leading him on a sensual adventure through the streets of New York City. Hardly the kind of life the apostle Paul would recommend to us.

But what would happen if we played the word association game with the phrase “the Christian life?” Would we still make an association with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon, with activities in which someone besides ourselves is involved? Somehow I think these are not the first words which pop into our minds. We are more likely to bring forth a different, milder set of words like self-control, kindness, humility, and compassion, great words all of them, but lacking some of the verve of the set we are willing to give to Ricky Martin. Well, shame on us if we are willing to let Madison Avenue and Hollywood have all the best words in the English language. Shame on us if we are not willing to claim for ourselves a vocabulary that rightfully belongs to us! Shame on us if we limit ourselves in our thinking of what the life of faith is all about!

In vivid images that unfortunately have lost a little in the translation, Paul gives the church a glimpse of la vida loca, a life radically transformed by its encounter with Christ. It is a life no longer held hostage by what is neither eternal nor loving; a life no longer fearing death, but made alive in baptism; a life liberated from sin. Listen again to these crucial words of the apostle: “When you were dead in trespasses, God made you alive together with him.” God made you alive together with Jesus Christ. That, my friends, is a life to be associated with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon, and with activities in which we certainly want to be involved!

What I want you to know is that Livin’ La Vida Loca is daring to accept that Christ alone is worthy to be followed. Livin’ la vida loca is living like we really believe this stuff and that we are transformed, that we are unafraid to express our faith in public, that we are not afraid to be seen worshipping God instead of ourselves, or being in a group that cares for people different than ourselves, or offering ultimate allegiance not to the television, not to the family, not to the nation or the flag, but to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. You and I both know that this is harder than it looks. We get it from all sides. La vida loca is not always an easy life, but it is a rewarding life and the one to which God has called us.

Many of you know that I worked in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for women. It was a residential program for pregnant women and I had the unhappy task of being the food service coordinator in a place where eating was about the only thing you had to look forward to at the end of a long day of emotionally grueling treatment. To my chagrin, I learned that quiche is not among the favored comfort foods of pregnant crack addicts in recovery. At any rate, it so happened that the kitchen was right next to the group room where daily therapy groups took place. These were often heated affairs with a whole lot of yellin’ and cussin’ and cryin,’ but also a whole lot of healing and transformation. One day the pest control technician was making his rounds in the kitchen and heard some of the more volatile goings-on in the other room and asked me about it. Apparently he missed the point of my explanation about the liberating value of group therapy because he launched into a diatribe against overly emotional women and began to relate a very unfortunate, but to him very amusing, story. He told me about a time that a friend and his wife were having and argument in his presence during which the wife had become quite upset. She was crying and screaming and finally the husband had enough and he beat her so badly that she could only lay on the floor asking our bug man for help. Then he told me, in a voice both nonchalant and vaguely proud, that he walked over to her, looked down upon her whimpering, and then kicked her himself just for being so pathetic. “Isn’t that funny,” he said to me, looking I suppose, for a moment of male bonding. And so I put down the chef’s knife I was holding, and I said, “Actually, I don’t find violence against women amusing at all and I think you are a sick individual who really needs to get some help.” And then I escorted him out of my kitchen and to the front door, and I didn’t worry at all if it hit him as it swung shut behind him. It took only one phone call to his employer to earn us a very cheerful and genuinely kind man to keep us free from pests thereafter.

I can assure you that this encounter would have turned out quite differently had my faith not played a role. For one, I might not have put down that chef’s knife. But more importantly, I doubt I would have had the courage to say what I did, and honestly, I might even have found it as “funny” as he did. I report this story not so that you will pat me on the back for standing up against injustice, but to demonstrate that living the Christian life is Livin’ la vida loca, filled with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon, and with activities in which we would never imagine being involved had we not been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God.

Obviously, I have related to you a rather dramatic story, and I suspect that some of you have had something similar take place in your lives. But if you haven’t, don’t think for a minute your life isn’t loca enough, because loca isn’t just about finding passion and adventure, release from inhibition, daring and abandon, and doing things we never thought ourselves capable of, but also about finding authentic life in the more mundane everyday situations as we try to exercise self-control, kindness, humility, and compassion. And so if la vida loca doesn’t describe good parenting, I don’t know what does. If it doesn’t describe a good employee, I’ve never read a better job description. If it doesn’t describe a good friend, nothing will. It might describe teenagers a little too well, but I guess that goes with the territory. In all these cases, it is the grace of God in Jesus Christ which makes it possible for us to be and do all these things. Neither philosophy, nor empty deceit, human tradition or elemental spirits of the universe can give us that grace — only Christ, for in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily and you and I have come to fullness, to a vida loca, in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority, every idea, every moment of time. Friends, “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving and livin’ la vida loca!” May God grant us the strength and courage to do that and more, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Firstborn of the Heart

Colossians 1:15-23
© Stacey Steck

Sometimes it just doesn’t add up. Sometimes you have all the facts laid out there in front of you and they just won’t come to a solution. Sometimes the facts seem contrary, even when you have it on good authority that they are accurate. Sometimes having all the knowledge in the world still won’t solve a problem, because some problems are greater even than knowledge. Some problems require faith to untangle.

Be that as it may, we are still kind of stuck on knowledge as the key to our lives. Indeed, knowledge is quickly becoming the key to our civilization. Don’t get me wrong; knowledge is good. It makes our lives easier and easier. It enabled me to receive e-mail from my 90 year old grandmother in Washington state. It enables us to see pictures of rocks on Mars. It enables us to enjoy the Sunday paper from our hometown, no matter where we are in the world.

Knowledge is power, right, that’s what we learn in school. It’s the information age, time to log onto the information superhighway. It is not enough anymore to have a high school diploma. It isn’t enough now to have a bachelor’s degree. And soon our Master’s degrees won’t be enough schooling to assure us of a job. We are an information-based economy now, and only greater and greater amounts of knowledge and new ways to manipulate it will keep us on top, ahead of whatever competition lurks across the ocean. Information and technology keep doubling in a shorter and shorter period of time. When we first started calculating how long it took for the total accumulated amount that we as a species knew to double, it was about 50 years. Just a few years after that, it only took 20 years for that knowledge to double. And then ten and five and now we are probably closing in on knowledge doubling every two or three years. Think of it: everything we now know; in about three years, we’ll know twice as much. Sometimes I think the pursuit of knowledge has become its own sort of religion, and we make it so because we need to think we have all the answers. No one likes to go around thinking they are wrong. Having the answers, being certain of what we think, gaining knowledge, all this is very comforting because it helps us to maintain our balance in a world full of questions we really can’t answer.

Paul’s message to the Colossians which we just heard has some knowledge and some answers. In fact, it was probably written to counteract false teaching and the dissemination of bad information about Christ. It seems that a heresy of sorts had popped up in the church at Colossae with people teaching that angels were responsible for intercession and that Christ was subservient to intermediary powers and this sort of thing. Paul sets the record straight with the knowledge they needed to know about Christ. "Christ is the firstborn of creation. In him all is created, he holds things together, he is the firstborn from the dead, in him the fullness of God dwells.” It was a battle against intruding philosophies and Paul has the last word: Christ is the Christ of the Cosmos, of all creation. In fact, Paul puts his explanations in such terms that all the big questions about Christ seem to be answered. It is as if he could sit back smugly say, “Any More Questions?” because the description is so complete.

But Paul recognizes that mere knowledge is not enough. It takes faith to make the gospel come alive, faith to make Christ real in people’s lives. He says, you are reconciled from your estrangement and hostility and evil doing, “provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard.” He doesn’t say that you are reconciled provided you know these things about Christ. Rather, the reconciliation is based on faith and hope.

I think Paul sees that knowledge and information and systems of human philosophy can be stumbling blocks to making Jesus our own, that they give us a false sense of security, that they prevent us from asking the really tough questions. Pursuing knowledge and debating larger issues makes it easier to avoid asking the probing personal and ethical questions that Christ calls us to ask ourselves. Talking about angels and about who answers to whom in the heavenly realm is fruitless and distracting from the joy of following Christ. When Paul tells the Colossians that Christ’s death makes possible their reconciliation with God provided they maintain faith and hope, I read him to say, “Yes, Christ is the firstborn of creation, Yes, Christ is the firstborn of the dead, Yes, Christ is all these things you know, but: Christ must be the firstborn of your heart, as well as your head.” In so many words, he brings his readers down to earth from their flight of fancy about the hierarchy of heaven and reminds them of the need for Christ in their lives. Christ must be the firstborn of your heart, as well as your head.

We can understand when Paul calls Christ the firstborn of creation as Christ’s preexistent role in the making of heaven and earth and we can understand the idea of the firstborn of the dead as the resurrection of Jesus, but what does it really mean to say Christ is the firstborn of the heart? There are many dimensions to Christ being firstborn of the heart. It is not just a question of salvation. I think if God were only interested in our salvation, the instrument of that salvation would have been a lot more mundane than Jesus. No, God is interested in our lives on earth as well and how we interact with others. That is why Christ is, as Paul says in the opening verse of today’s passage, "”the image of the invisible God.” Christ’s presence on earth allows us to see not only God, but also the life that God envisions for all creation. And just as Christ was firstborn of creation and of the dead, Christ is the firstborn of God’s heart and must be the firstborn of our hearts if we are to come close to living the abundant life proclaimed by the gospel.

Perhaps the world’s most famous monk, Thomas Merton, recounts in his autobiography his steps towards becoming a Trappist monk at the monastery at Gethsemani and I think it is really a retelling of how Christ became firstborn in the heart of young man who had resisted God for so long. I want to read you a portion of it because I think it captures something of what I’m talking about. He is on his way for the first time to the monastery in Kentucky, passing through Cincinnati on a train. He writes,

So when we entered Cincinnati, in the evening, with the lights coming on among all the houses and the electric signs shining on the hills, and the huge freight yards swinging open on either side of the track and the high buildings in the distance, I felt as if I owned the world. And yet that was not because of all these things, but because of Gethsemani, where I was going. It was the fact that I was passing through all this, and did not desire it, and wanted no part in it, and did not seek to grasp or hold any of it, that I could exult in it, and it all cried out to me: God! God!
All of Merton’s growing up years, he could not let go of the pleasures of life and finally, and he is passing through their midst, literally, and he no longer wants them. Christ, rather than the desires of his heart, is firstborn. Although it is not, Merton’s description of his joy sounds an awful lot like a mountaintop experience, one of the spiritual peaks in a person’s life so powerful that without the proper perspective, one can spend all of one’s life looking to repeat at the expense of a meaningful relationship with God. Making Christ the firstborn of your heart is more than a mountaintop experience. It is a way of life, perhaps even Christ’s very own way of life, a way of life Merton finally embraced.

Now, we are not all at eloquent as Thomas Merton nor do we all need to become Trappists in order to have this attitude. The place of Christ in our hearts is reflected in the way we lead our lives. I remember very distinctly the opening of the movie, "The Milagro Beanfield War,” truly one of my favorite films of all time. Old Señor Amante in his tiny, little, dusty adobe house in New Mexico with only shutters to cover the opening where glass would normally be, rises as the sun shines through those shutters into his eyes. He creaks out of bed and strokes his beard and shuffles over to a mirror, looks closely at himself and says, “Thank you, God, for giving me one more day.” He says it almost routinely, but not in the negative sense of routine, but more that he was thankful everyday. I think there is no more profound expression of faith than to offer this simple sort of gratitude. This man had not moved mountains nor built a business nor formulated a philosophy. But he humbled himself before God and let Christ be firstborn in his heart.

Maybe you are familiar with the story of a certain Quaker man, John Woolman, who lived in New Jersey in the middle of the eighteenth century, making his living as a clerk in a drygoods store. One day he found himself being requested to write a bill of sale for one of his employer’s slaves. He couldn’t do it: his hand wouldn’t move but his mouth could and he found himself saying, "I believe slavekeeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion.” And though this was his first moral thought and act in response to the inhumanity of slavery, it was not his last. Despite holding several jobs to support his family, he was also a preacher and took several months a year to travel around preaching against slavery. He influenced many people to become abolitionists but his commitment didn’t end there. He stopped using sugar because it was produced by slaves. He stopped wearing colored clothing because slaves produced the dye. He called blacks brother and sister. His life became a humble instrument to bring justice to an unjust order. He was considered eccentric and foolish and a bit odd but to the last, he gave glory to God for his passion. As he lay dying of smallpox in England where he had gone to speak out against slavery to the Quakers in England, he wrote, just hours before he died, “I believe my being here is in the wisdom of Christ.” His life says to me that his being there was because he allowed Christ to be firstborn in his heart.

In the Bible, we read of Christ talking about abundant life. God gives life, there’s no doubt about that, but what constitutes abundant life? We can exist without experiencing God, people do it everyday. That doesn’t mean that God is not with us. God is always there, inescapably there. But I think the difference between mere life and abundant life is this: When we recognize and embrace God in our life, it becomes abundant. It overflows with joy at our creation, compassion for people crushed by the world, a craving for justice and a longing for peace. Our life becomes an expression of God in our daily tasks as well as our heroic moments of faith. It makes life difficult but dynamic, perplexing yet poignant, and sometimes messy but always meaningful.

You can do all the research you want on this abundant life. You can read all the Wikipedia entries on the subject. You can channel surf all day, every day looking for it. But you’ll never be able to ingest enough information to make it real on that basis alone. You can be the world’s foremost expert on what Paul means when he says, “He is the image of the invisible God; the firstborn of all creation.” But you won’t really know anything until you experience Christ as the firstborn of your heart, and “continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel you heard.” May God help us to experience that abundant life in Jesus Christ. Amen.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Luke 10:25-37
© Stacey Steck

We all know well the story of the Good Samaritan, but do you know, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story?” You see, the story goes on like this:

“But a lawyer, seeing what had transpired, went to the room of the man after the Samaritan had left, and in his weakness said, ‘Listen, this fellow is just helping you so you will reward him. He probably even planned to have you beaten to make himself seem the hero. But come, let us go to the magistrate and swear out a warrant against him for negligence and you can claim the rest of his denarii. For see, he has left your neck worse than before.’ And lo, the man could barely move his head, neither to the left, nor to the right. And so they conspired against the Samaritan and went down to the magistrate to bring a suit against him.

“When the Samaritan came up, the guards took him into custody and brought him before the judge. ‘These two men have brought charges against you, claiming that by helping him you have injured this one. Do you deny it?’ The Samaritan replied, ‘It is as you say. Truly, I stopped to help this man who fell into the hands of robbers. I bound his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them, and then, carrying him on my own animal, left him with the inn-keeper. I see now that it would have been better for me to have left him for dead on the side of the road, for as it is written, truly, no good deed goes unpunished; but as my Lord lives, I could not do it.’

“At that, the man who had brought the lawsuit tore his clothes and cursed the lawyer, saying, ‘You have brought shame on me and my household, for you have taken advantage of my infirmity and caused me to bring charges against this righteous man unjustly.’ Then the judge, seeing what had happened, also cursed the lawyer saying, ‘Fool! You have made a mockery of the Lord’s justice. From this day forward, you shall have enmity with all the world, and all the world will laugh at your expense. And as for this charge you have caused this man to bring, it is dismissed and none like it shall ever be brought again, for it shall not be known for all the ages that this court punishes good deeds.’ And so, to this very day, those who help others cannot be prosecuted for their good deeds, and lawyers are the butt of many jokes.”

I hope you enjoyed that little addendum to our story, but did you know that it is not the only change that has been made to the story over the years? In fact, an addendum has been made against which even Jesus himself had something to say, namely, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” Yet we, for who knows how many years, have called this Samaritan “good,” when only God is good, and the Samaritan was simply being merciful. Perhaps we should begin to refer to this story as the Parable of the Merciful Samaritan. The irony of course, besides the fact that Jesus specifically rejects the use of the word “good,” is that Jews could never consider the Samaritans “good enough,” much less “good.” You see, the Samaritans were, to purebred eyes, halfbreeds, part Jewish and part something else. The Samaritans were those people who lived in what used to be the northern kingdom of God’s chosen people, that kingdom called Israel, whose capital was Samaria, but which had been cut off from the mainstream of Jewish life by its military defeat by the Assyrians and the subsequent forced resettlement of the area. Thus, those who remained in that area, now seven hundred years later, had earned the enmity of those who had a closer connection to the traditions handed down so many years before. You may remember a little earlier in Luke when James and John wanted to call down the ultimate divine punishment of fire from heaven to consume the Samaritan village which would not receive Jesus nor the disciples who came to prepare a place for him there. And just as Nathanael could say in the Gospel of John about Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” that’s what they thought about the Samaritans too, only stronger. And so, that we have dubbed this Samaritan “good” is a testament both to our willingness to add to Scripture that which is not really there, but also that we have almost permanently redeemed the Samaritans by our application of the word “good” to this one. I suppose we must take the bad with the good.

It is, of course, not goodness, per se, with which Jesus is concerned, but the qualities of loving one’s neighbors, and here, pointedly, mercy, that quality after God’s own heart that we would do well to cultivate, or in the words of Jesus, to “Go and do likewise.” It is mercy which we have received, and mercy which we should share. Absent mercy, we would forever be bumping into one another, because, as Gandhi once famously said, “requiring an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” Absent mercy, we would forever be nursing grudges, remembering past hurts, and guarding against new ones. Absent mercy, we would be like the lawyer in the real story, the one who was a little too preoccupied with whether he made the grade to have mercy on a people who had suffered greatly. The lawyer seems to be the product of a legal system which held grace in lower esteem than ethnic purity, a system that preferred to see itself as judge and jury rather than a prosecutor of injustice. Rather than regard himself as the recipient of mercy, the lawyer chose to see himself as the gatekeeper for it, and mercy’s credentials for getting in were usually a little thin. We usually talk about guilty people pleading for mercy; in the lawyer’s environment, it was mercy itself pleading for mercy, pleading for a chance to be a part of the life of a people in tremendous need of it.

I do not think that Jesus was necessarily making mercy the measure of neighborliness. In fact, it is the lawyer’s choice of words which introduces mercy into the conversation. He could have characterized the Samaritan’s actions as compassion or charity or common sense or pity, the word Jesus used. But the choice of the word “mercy” is telling coming from the laywer’s lips, for he has viewed Jesus’ parable through the eyes with which he himself most needed to see, that great virtue of parables. Ask a carpenter the same question, “which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers,” and maybe you get a different answer. But in the context of an absence of mercy, it is mercy which becomes evident in the hearing of the parable. That alone seems enough to assure us that the lawyer gets it, and the eternal life about which he inquired in the first place.

That being said, what is the characteristic, which we, were we to hear the parable today, for the first time and without the punchline, would supply? Is mercy the absence we feel in our hearts and lives? Or is it compassion, or charity, or common sense or generosity, or something else? I suspect that each of us would offer something different, though we would find similarities in all the answers. I would suggest that it would be spiritually profitable during the next week to spend some time filling in the blank of Jesus’ question, “which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” and then, armed with the adjective you have supplied, to go and do likewise. That should be enough to keep you spiritually occupied for quite a while, as we may hope it did for the lawyer.

The story of the so-called “good” Samaritan is one of the most famous of all Biblical stories, but although its punchline is among the most powerful, the power of the story which makes it so famous also makes the punchline that much easier to forget. We may remember the Samaritan and his good (and merciful) deeds, and think it a wonderful way to be, but we are not so good at following up on Jesus’ rather pointed advice to his friend the lawyer to “go and do likewise.” The doing is always the challenging part, especially because it usually means undoing some part of ourselves we’d rather leave alone. In the lawyer’s case, it was his relationship with mercy, and mercy’s place in his relationship with God, and with his neighbors.

The doing is also challenging because it is the kind of work which meets with little in the way of the rewards we are accustomed to receive for doing important and valuable work. Internal, spiritual work, even if it is the practice of something like mercy amongst one’s neighbors, rarely results in traditionally positive rewards, tangible or otherwise. Coming to terms with those great spiritual themes like grace and mercy has its rewards, but they are neither the kind you hang on the wall, nor put in the bank. Indeed, if the truth be told, “going and doing likewise” usually earns you what it earned the Samaritan in “the rest of the story,” namely a date with someone who either does not appreciate your deeds or wishes to take advantage of them. That old truism that “no good deed goes unpunished” is not a truism for nothing; there is nothing quite so threatening as a person authentically practicing the finer and more difficult points of their faith. We can count on resistance to loving both God and neighbor because when we do that, when we really do that, we challenge really touchy stuff like emotions, like family rules, like political positions, like profit margins. These are things that provoke the spiritual and moral dimensions of Newton’s second law, the one that states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If the truth be told, the reaction is often far more powerful than the original action, for there are systems and networks and interconnected psyches on the line, each reacting, and often in partnership, to the changes being brought by even one person’s courage to “go and do likewise.” No good deed goes unpunished because no good deed touches no one.

We all know how a certain story ended, the one about the guy named Jesus who really did love God and love his neighbor as himself, the one in which that good deed was punished in the harshest way possible. But the good news of the Gospel is that there is a judge who decrees that “it shall not be known for all the ages that this court punishes good deeds,” but rather that those good deeds that do get punished in less merciful courts are redeemed by the “supreme” court in a way that defies both imagination and the most powerful forces arrayed against us. The timing of the experience of that redemption may not always meet with our expectations, but we may be sure that it will happen, just as it did three days after they laid Jesus in a tomb. You and I can expect that same redemption of our good deeds, maybe not in our lifetimes, maybe not even in the lifetimes of those whose lives we impact, but certainly in the eternity we’ve been promised with the one who went and did likewise for our sakes. May God bless us as we love God and neighbor as Jesus did. Amen.