Vicar’s sermon. Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 18.1.24 The Good Samaritan

You can’t escape the Good Samaritan. He follows us every which way we go. He crops up repeatedly in our church lectionaries: year after year he is present…and here he is again, presented to us by the churches in Burkina Faso who have prepared this evening’s act of worship.
For all that the Samaritan in the story is a stranger to the man on the road we know him very well. Too well. So well that he blends into the background of faith: our eyes glide over the words of scripture, our ears fail to hear the story afresh. ‘Good Samaritan?’ – got that story sorted, nothing new to see here, nothing new to hear.
Except there is always yet more light to shine from God’s word’. One way this happens is by reading scripture with others…and this evening we read it alongside one another (Christians from the different congregations of this town) but also alongside the communities of Burkina Faso.
I would struggle to find Burkina Faso on a map: Western Africa apparently, just below Mali, bordering Niger. 22 million people, the country bordering the Sahel (sub saharan Africa). Burkina Faso doesn’t make the news. And yet almost a 10th of its population has been displaced by violence: conflict between Islamists and Christians, conflict between the 60 ethnic groups that make up the country. In the big cities churches have to hold short services to limit the security risk. Faith leaders seek to cross the divides between people to minister to the displaced, the bereaved and injured. The government does not have control of the whole country: some areas are literally ‘out of control’. The question ‘who is my neighbour’ becomes pretty pointed in this situation.
This story changes according to where and how we hear it. I remember telling the story in school collective worship and basing my telling on the Riding Light’s sketch of the Good Samaritan. A man was travelling on a train from London to York …London to York, London to York. The children would join in with the sound of the train and repetitions associated with each of the characters (the Vicar ‘Amen’, a solicitor ‘yes m’lud’). Who was the ‘Samaritan’ back then?…a punk rocker (Bleargh!) Utterly meaningless to children now. In Northern Ireland perhaps the character might be played by someone from across the divide. Here on the mainland now who would we put in that role to highlight just how extreme the hatred was between then in need and his helper?
Just the other week I told the story to a group of year 4 children at Green Lane School in a ‘Big Story’ or Godly Play session. There’s a particularly ‘slow’ reflective style to Godly Play that invites children ‘into’ the story. The style of story telling is less didactive: at the end of a session we ‘wonder’ together about what different elements of the story might mean. One of our wonderings was obviously ‘who is the neighbour to the man on the road?’ That’s not such an easy question is it. The Samaritan clearly regarded the man on the road as his neighbour but did the man who had been injured recognise him in return? Any number of episodes of Eastenders should be enough to tell us that sometimes the last person on earth you want to help you is the person you least like.
Another ‘wondering’ with the children laid out the paper cutout of one of the robbers before them and then asked ’and who is a neighbour to this man?’ We had done the same with the priest and the Levite – you’d expect them to be ‘on the same page’. You might expect the robber and his mates to be ‘neighbours’ to one another. The children however quite quickly twigged that everyone in the story – the robbers included- have neighbours, the difficult news is that we are neighbours to people we don’t particularly like!
It is, of course, easy to be a neighbour to people like yourself. One of my favourite theologians is Kenneth Bailey, a writer who has lived for many years in the Middle East and who (as a result) sees these well-known stories through Middle Eastern eyes and through that whole raft of biblical exegesis lost to us because it rests in the ancient eastern churches. He points out that, in the parable, all the normal identifiers of who the man on the road is have gone. He is stripped: his clothes don’t enable the other travellers to see whether he is Jewish or foreign, he is ‘left half dead’ – so he cannot speak, his language does not give him away. The Priest and Levite are perhaps concerned that he may well be dead: ritually unclean.
But with these identifiers gone: what do we have? A human being, a person made in God’s image, in need: this is what the Samaritan sees, everything else is secondary. Except modern life increasingly wants to separate us into different ‘identity’ groups: How we identify (male/female; black/white; GenZ/boomer; Muslim/ Hindu; gay/straight/trans; Republican/Democrat; Tory/Labour) separates us from others more than it unites us. Our identity, something we regard as being so important so often seems to work against us. What chance the good folk of Burkina Faso crossing divides so deep rooted in culture, so heavily burdened with loss, injury and grief?
And then notice how we, you and I, tend to place ourselves in the story as this ‘Samaritan’ figure. How many of us identify primarily with the man on the road…or the priest, Levite…let alone the robbers (for all our western way of life strips others of dignity across the world). We want to be the ‘helper’, the one who rescues and saves, whereas we (or our churches) might actually need help ourselves…from unlikely people and places.
We have wandered from Burkina Faso across to the Middle East and back in order to force us to confront how just hard this parable is, and to lead us towards prayer that recognises we need the grace of God to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’. The Samaritan clearly sees himself in the man lying on the road – if he’d come this way ten minutes earlier that could have been him. When the injured man comes round he may well have all his prejudices challenged as he must recognise in the Samaritan a new neighbour. None of this is comfortable. None of it easy but it is of a piece with the call of Jesus to follow him: the one who identifies wholly with us, risks reputation and standing to do so, is crucified for his pains but who unites us in worship of God and in a new community whoever we are, wherever we are from and no matter how we identify for we are primarily children of God and brothers and sisters to one another through Him.

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