Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
August 6, 2017
Text: Luke 10: 25-37
The computer age is amazing. Not only did the immigration official in Reykjavik admitting me to the European Union know that my destination would be Copenhagen, but because the plane came in from Iceland, there was no passport control when I arrived in Copenhagen, crossed the boundary into Sweden, sailed to the small Danish island of Bornholm, and then returned to pick up the flight to Helsinki—all without a hitch, all smooth sailing and then back again for exit from the EU in Iceland. And the new passport control for US citizen travelers cut my re-entry time to minutes—until I realized that Icelandic Air had put my baggage on the wrong flight. Boundaries, however, are not just the markings of land or sea, but of the mind. That’s certainly what Jesus addressed in the parable known as the Good Samaritan.
There are, of course, the obvious boundaries of the mind. We all can name them: prejudices based on race, religion, ethnic group. But then, there are the boundaries that are not so obvious, not prejudices but areas as we do not enter, most times unconsciously, areas where we do not feel comfortable or uncertain. This is not just a reluctance to address certain subjects, like quantum mechanics because we cannot even understand what is even meant by the word.
The boundaries of the mind encompass much more than many of our old prejudices, for all of us have some prejudices. Sometimes we call those prejudices preferences. For instance, we prefer spending our time with intelligent or educated people rather than stupid or uneducated ones. Our preferences translate into how we behave towards others.
We—you and I—establish those boundaries. Boundaries are important because they help us to form social groups, to categorize and to make distinctions. Without certain kinds of boundaries, we would be formless as the fog.
Jesus in his parable, however, is talking about boundaries that divide and hurt rather than build and help. The priest and the Levite who passed the man had self-imposed boundaries of behavior. They were people who did not want to “get involved,” as we call it. And there are times that we respond in the same way. “ It’s none of our business,” we say to ourselves and we hurry on our way.
The Samaritan belonged to a group of persons despised by those who considered themselves “true” Jews. Historically, they were an ethno-religious group of people who had their own version of the Torah, which commanded them to build their chief altar on Mount Gerizim. They claimed descent from two of the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, and their emergence as a separate religious group occurred after the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 721 BCE when, according to the records of Sargon II 27, 950 Jews were deported.
Other people then filled the land and fell into conflict with those who considered themselves “true” Jews, especially as the migrations of refugees—for that is what the Jews were—returned to the land. Much of this time is shrouded from us because of the scarcity of ancient records. Biblical accounts were obviously written from the Jewish perspective.
The two communities developed differently making the divisions between them firm by the fourth century. Historians date the final breach during the time of the Seleucid Empire and the Maccabees, when the Samaritans disclaimed their relationship with the Jews. In some sense we could look at the disdain between Samaritans and Jews a bit like the old disdain Protestants and Catholics had for each other back in nineteenth and early 20th century America.
In the parable it is the Samaritan, of course, who takes care of the Jew and pays the innkeeper to care for him. The young lawyer who has asked Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?” could not bring himself to name the Samaritan but only as “the one who showed him mercy.” He still had a problem crossing his own fixed boundary. He just could not cross it.
How do we set our own boundaries and how do we cross them when it becomes necessary? The history of our nation is one of both setting boundaries and crossing them. Historically, we created boundaries between religious and ethnic and racial groups. And we learned to cross those boundaries.
Much of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s involved crossing boundaries. The continuing struggle for equal rights for the LGBTQ communities is also about crossing boundaries. And the struggle of immigrants from all sorts of countries is also about crossing boundaries. Those struggles speak to one understanding of boundary, namely one of inclusion. Basic to that kind of boundary is the one of our mind for that frames our actions and our behaviors.
That comes back to the boundaries we create for ourselves, how we not just consider the political questions that arise in the various contexts but how we think. Opening our minds to all kinds of questions is a difficult process. In some sense, it’s part of becoming an adult.
When we were children, other people, primarily our parents, fixed our boundaries for us. As we grew and developed, we stretched the boundaries our parents and society laid down for us. We changed our ways of thinking and our ways of behaving. For instance, when most of us were young, we dressed in a certain manner to go to church. My own mother insisted I wear what she called a nice dress so I appeared in a certain manner. Ideas of dress and behavior changed for many of us and so has our way of appearing in church.
The boundaries of music in church also changed and for some those changes were welcomed. Forms of worship have changed as well creating a great variety in worship styles in our churches. All of these changes reflect changes in the boundaries we set for ourselves in our minds regarding church and worship, not to mention how we think theologically, another area of growth and development.
Most of us were raised with fairly fixed beliefs about Jesus, life, eternity, heaven, just to name a few. As we grew, we stretched the boundaries of our beliefs, and the boundaries of our faith. We developed new ways of not just talking about our faith but of acting our faith. We looked at biblical injunctions put down for another generation and translated them into our own. For many of us it meant moving faith from the realm of “should not” into the realm of “should.”
Now in a time of being open to questioning, we need to determine if there are limits to our questions. This is particularly important because faithfulness to the Gospel spills over into other areas of life. That is to say, our lives are not compartmentalized with dividers and walls but are an integrated whole. Our faith informs our decision-making process in all areas of our lives, as it should.
This is not an easy process because we live in a world governed by the desire for power, beholden to financial interests, and consumed by consumerism. The choices we make reflect the boundaries we set for ourselves. We are not hermits in a cave; we are members of some form of integrated society and must respond to the demands that our society places on us whether we want to or not.
Setting our boundaries, making our decisions, and living faithfully is all part of a difficult process of following the One who gave us a new vision of God. In this parable as well as many of the others we have read and studied, Jesus expands the boundaries of our thinking and our faith. This parable was an enormous challenge to the young lawyer who heard it, so mind-blowing, as it were, that he could not even say the words “the Samaritan,” but only referred to his actions: “The one who showed him mercy.”
Living in faith gives us the same challenge to expand the boundaries of our minds beyond that we had previously considered possible. This process is not just done individually but in community. The community of faith provides a place to explore the boundaries and how to expand them. The Lord’s Supper before us is a symbol of our community’s commitment to the One who broke all barriers and showed us new ways of living. As we celebrate it, let us consider how our faith moves us to shape the expansion of boundaries given us by the One we follow.
Let us pray: We come to you, O God who opens the possibilities of life and hope for a new way of living in the world we inhabit. Help us to expand the boundaries of our minds and actions to reflect the faithfulness of the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.