Sermon by Fr James Heard on Sunday 10th July, Trinity 7
Sermon by Fr James Heard on Sunday 10th July, Trinity 7
For those who like films, I wonder what your favourite film trilogy is? Up there as one of the greatest three films that have ever been made, and my personal favourite is – I’m not thinking about Rocky, Batman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Toy Story – but The Godfather I, II and III directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
It’s the story of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) arriving in 1920s NY from his home of Sicily. Most of the story spans the years 1945 to 1955 when power is transferred to his son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). It’s over nine hours of great cinema which I highly recommend.
It’s a sad tale about the spiral of violence that spreads from one generation to the next. In the films not a very pretty picture is painted of the church and its priests – most are in collusion with the mafia and happy to say prayers of blessing and bestow honour when sufficiently large donations are made to the church. In the last film, the corruption involves the highest level within the Roman Catholic church – and includes the Vatican bank. This is a particularly poignant issue with Pope Francis’s desire to do a bit of spring cleaning and his aim to sort out the problems of this high secretary yet powerful institution.
In the film, amongst all the corruption, there is one priest who stands out: Cardinal Lamberto. And Michael Corleone goes to visit to speak to him about dodgy dealing in the Vatican. Cardinal Lamberto is a prayerful honest priest who eventually becomes Pope in the film. They are in a courtyard standing by a small bird bath or fountain. The cardinal retrieves a pebble from under the water. “Look at this stone,” he says, holding it out for Michael to see. “It has been lying in the water for a very long time, but the water has not penetrated it.” He then whacks the rock on the side of the fountain, breaking it open to expose the inside. “Look,” he says, “perfectly dry.” The glistening water on the outside had not seeped in.
Cardinal Lamberto continues: “The same thing has happened to men in Europe. For centuries they have been surrounded by Christianity, but Christ has not penetrated. Christ doesn’t live within them.” It’s one of the most insightful moments in the films, one that we might reflect upon ourselves. To what degree has the Christian faith penetrate our hearts?
Our first reading describes the Israelite community turning ‘to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul’. Today’s collect – ‘graft in our hearts the love of your name… increase in us true religion’. In Hebrew thought, the heart is the seat of the will – not an ephemeral romantic notion – so loving God with all our heart means steadfastly directing our resolve towards God.
Our Gospel story today is a parable of religious people whose religion seems only to be on the surface. A religion that hasn’t penetrated their hearts. Indeed, their hearts seem to be made of stone instead of flesh.
Jesus shocks us with the oxymoronic description ‘Good Samaritan’. The parable is about two religious professionals who neglect a fellow Jew who was almost beaten to death, whilst a Samaritan was ‘moved with mercy’ to help him. This is a repeating theme in Luke’s Gospel. He does the same thing when he makes a Samaritan leper the hero in Luke 17: "Was no one found to return and give thanks to God except this foreigner?"
Jesus’s Jewish audience didn’t think Samaritans were good. They had hated each other for a thousand years as a result of the split between the northern tribes (who established a new capital in Samaria) and the south kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital. The legacy of this split was a millennium of political rivalry, ethnic hostility, and religious bigotry.
In the story of the Good Samaritan there is a reversal / and challenging of expectations. That’s what the kingdom of God often does... it shocks our sensibilities and bursts our boundaries. The people who you might expect for their religious devotion to have permeated their hearts are the very ones who coldly walk pass someone in desperate need. And the one who you least expect to help – a despised Samaritan – is the very person whose heart is filled with compassion and who offers help. It’s difficult for us to image how shocking this was to Jesus’s audience. Is there anything we can do in our contemporary lives to recover the scandal at the heart of this parable? Think about it this way: Who is the last person on earth you would ask to save your life?
To create a similar shock for us, we might tell a parable of a person who gets mugged in the East End – and first the Archbishop of Canterbury and then the Pope walk by, busily off to St Paul’s Cathedral for Evensong or Westminster Cathedral, not wanting to get blood on their hands or soil their smart clerical outfits. And along comes… who… I wonder who you might add here. Who might be the unexpected person? Perhaps a politicians name comes to mind… or a leader of ISIS. And this person’s heart is filled with compassion and he stops to help and support and give money for medical care.
What about other examples? Here are a few that might offend: An Israeli Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life. A Conservative politician is robbed, and a Good communist saves his life. A white racist is robbed, and a Good black teenager saves her life. A transgender woman is robbed, and a Good anti-LGBTQ activist saves her life. An atheist is robbed, and a Good Christian fundamentalist saves his life.
This is the shocking reversal that Jesus’ parable reveals. Jesus uncovers the cold hearts of the insider and he exalts the outsider. This is what we find so
I don't mean to trivialise the real and agonising differences that divide us. But the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans in Jesus's day was not theoretical; it was embodied and real. Each was fully convinced that the other was wrong. So what Jesus did when he deemed the Samaritan "good" was radical and risky; it stunned his Jewish listeners. He was asking them to dream of a different kind of kingdom. He was calling them to put aside the history they knew, and the prejudices they nursed. He was asking them to leave room for divine and world-altering surprises.
"Who is my neighbor?" the lawyer asked. Your neighbor is the one who scandalises you with compassion, Jesus answered. Your neighbour is the one who shocks you with a fresh face of God. Your neighbour is the one who mercifully steps over the ancient, bloodied line separating ‘us’ from ‘them’, and teaches you the real meaning of ‘Good’ (Debie Thomas, Go and Do Likewise).
Returning to the Cardinal’s stone in the Godfather film – the question may be put to us this morning: if God were to metaphorically break us open, will he find that Christ has truly seeped inside and permeated the whole of our being, or will he discover us to be merely dry and dead? Have we allowed the love of God to seep into and transform our hearts – to graft into our hearts the love of his name? That’s the invitation every Sunday: to experience something of the unconditional love of God in our broken lives, for that love to seep into the core of our being, into our hearts, and for that love to overflow in our lives to those who also are broken and in need of God’s healing touch.
In his speech "I've Been to the Mountaintop," Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way. "The priest and the Levite ask, 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'"
Jesus concludes: "Go and do likewise." Show mercy.