Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Scriptural GPS

A friend of mine, while trying to navigate her way to a job interview in rural Vermont plugged in her trusty GPS, Global Positioning System, to help her find her way. It did its job, or so she thought, finding the quickest, most efficient route from her home in Massachusetts. However, as she though she was nearing her final destination at a little church in a village nestled in the mountains, she encountered this road sign on a snow and ice covered road. Apparently she wasn’t the first out-of-towner who naively trusted her GPS to help her find the way.I guess they haven’t programmed those magical little devices for the magic of winter wonderland.

The lawyer Jesus encounters in Luke’s gospel is also looking for an efficient path. Not wanting to waste any time or energy on unnecessary tasks, he asks Jesus for the correct route information. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is the quickest way from here to there?” he wonders. “What is the bare minimum I have to do to get where I want to go? Exactly how many people are my neighbors?”

The priest and the Levite in the parable, however, seem to know exactly where to go. They are trusting whole-heartedly in the GPS they have been given – the accepted rules and traditions of the culture and religions. Seeing the mangled man in the road ahead, their navigational devices immediately recalculate their routes for them, draw for them detours that take them to the other side of the road.

Strict laws against touching the dead, which is what the traveler looked like, would have reasonably prevented them from intervening. A priest presumably on his way to intercede for others in the complex world of ritual and sacrifice would have defiled himself and made himself completely useless to the faithful who depended on his actions if he had touched a corpse along the way. Likewise a Levite, whose job came to him by his bloodline, meaning there are a limited number of men in the world who could do what he did, could not make a similar risk to his ritual status, to his level of purification. The GPS they had been given for living their lives told them to do exactly what they did, avoid this man, dead or close to it, in the road. The expectations of their roles came with certain understandings about what they should and shouldn’t do, and touching an unclean man, even if it could save his life? That just didn’t seem acceptable at the time.

The church gets sucked into the mindset sometimes, too. We get caught up in the trap of trying to act acceptably in our community. At the very least we are tempted by the cultural GPS in the same way. Voices out there speak and try to tell us that our realm of activity and circle of care shouldn’t stretch beyond our walls. They shout that working for social justice and the fair treatment of other is outside the acceptable scope of our ministry. There are those who argue that that church should keep to the church and just care for its own.

There are even those who make that argument within the church. Why should our congregation or our denomination speak up about conflicts in other lands? Why should be engage in the debates about health care or civil rights or human trafficking? Why does the church speak about responsible investments or legislative advocacy? What does the church need to say about fair wages or fair trade? The church, cry voices inside and out, is perfectly suited to care for its own, for our own, so why should the church, why should Christians meddle in affairs beyond our walls? Why should we care beyond our family, beyond ourselves, beyond our local neighbors?

“How much is enough?” these questions are asking, just like the lawyer who tests Jesus. “Is it enough to pray for the people who are hurting in our congregation? Is it enough to pool our resources to try to help each other out of tough financial situations? Is it enough to feed our friends with physical and spiritual food when they are suffering and mourning? Is it enough, Jesus, to care for the people we know, we love, with whom we worship?

Or do we need to go further? How much is enough? Is it enough to serve dinner to our youth and the youth of our neighboring churches? Is it enough to collect food for the struggling families at the school down the road? Is it enough to venture a little further and serve a meal at the homeless shelter? Is that enough, Jesus, to care for the anonymous people we hear about, we pity, with whom we share a community?

Or do we need to go further? How much is enough?

The Samaritan certainly went further. His GPS, both geographical and cultural seems to be completely broken because no Samaritan would EVER have accepted a route that took him through this Jewish territory. It just wasn’t done. Samaritans didn’t like Jews; Jews didn’t like Samaritans. The bad blood between them dated back hundreds of years. There was no reason this Samaritan should have been walking this road against all cultural, all political, all social expectations. These people don’t mix, and any useful Samaritan GPS would have kept this man OFF this road.

It was dangerous for him to be there. He was looking for trouble in a foreign land, traveling through a territory that was culturally, ethnically, and religiously different from everything familiar in his life. The people back home would certainly tell him if they could that this was not wise, not safe, not acceptable by any of their usual standards. He deliberately put himself right in the middle of a setting where he was bound to meet someone very different from himself, and it was likely to be a risky and life-changing encounter. As he travelled that road and approached the half-dead man in his path, what he then chose to do can only be described as an act of compassion.

That much is enough, Jesus says. That much is real compassion. Compassion isn’t about just loving and caring for the people everyone expects you to love and care for. Although that is CERTAINLY a starting point. Caring for our family, caring for our church community, the poor of our city and country, the families that are struggling in our immediate neighborhoods (because they are there and here whether we choose to see them in the road or not) is certainly the beginning of compassion. It just isn’t the end.

Compassion is risky, vulnerable behavior. Compassion is opening ourselves up to the idea that there are people who are very different who we are called to serve, and there are people who are very different who are called to serve us. Compassion is not limiting ourselves to the acceptable, predictable, efficient path of life and faith, but opening ourselves to detours and longer routes. Compassion is about searching for the more difficult journey with hidden opportunities to love others with our actions in Jesus’ name. Compassion isn’t a thought we have or a belief we apply to some theory about who Jesus is and what he wants us to do. Compassion is real life action.

After decades of studying the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and especially their struggles to exist with each other, author Karen Armstrong began to see something that seemed off the mark in our contemporary practices of our faith traditions. Armstrong noticed that people of faith spend a lot of time worrying about what we believe with our heads, what the Qu’ran calls zanna, by her definition “the self-indulgent guess work about matter that nobody can be certain of one way or the other, but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian.” She argues that while we spend all this time and energy on thinking about our belief in our head religion is really about behaving differently. “Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something. You behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice.”

This disconnect, she proposes, is part of the reason so many people in the world, particularly so many who claim to be a part of the three Abrahamic faiths, find themselves as odds, even very VIOLENT odds, with one another. At the core of all of our faiths is a call to compassion, a call to loving care for all people on earth. Unfortunately for all of us in all of our faiths, we have gotten really good at saying what we believe about compassion, but really pretty bad at acting that way.

That’s why when Karen Armstrong won the 2008 TEDPrize, an award given annually to an individual or organization with “One Wish to Change the World,” she used her $100,000prize money, corporate support, and a public forum to draft and promote the Charter for Compassion. In the words of the charter project:
“The Charter of Compassion is a cooperative effort to restore not only compassionate thinking but, more importantly, compassionate action to the center of religious, moral and political life. Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and lies at the heart of all religious and ethical systems. One of the most urgent tasks of our generation is to build a global community where men and women of all races, nations and ideologies can live together in peace. In our globalized world, everybody has become our neighbor, and the Golden Rule has become an urgent necessity.
“The Charter, crafted by people all over the world and drafted by a multi-faith, multi-national council of thinkers and leaders, seeks to change the conversation so that compassion becomes a key word in public and private discourse, making it clear that any ideology that breeds hatred or contempt ~ be it religious or secular ~ has failed the test of our time. It is not simply a statement of principle; it is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time."

The drafters of this Charter invite the world, individuals and organizations, cities and nations, churches, temples, and mosques, religions and denomination, to adopt it, making a lifelong commitment to live with compassion.

Listen now to the words of this charter.

The website for the Charter for Compassion includes an interactive section where individuals around the world share stories of compassion they have received or offered– ranging from an individual in Vermont who started a low profit company to give away technology to classrooms around the world to a woman in West Virginia who paid for the groceries of a single mother in line in front of her at the grocery store when she overheard that the woman’s food stamps weren’t valid for four more days. These stories and testimonies challenge us to recognize the places we have experienced the compassion of others, and, as Christians, the places we are called to share Christ’s compassion through our lives.

The culture in which we live is constantly trying to guide our steps toward an efficient and comfortable present and future. The GPS of societal norms will never cease attempting to send us on fast-moving highways that avoid all deviations and detours from the acceptable path, roads that keep us segregated into communities, friendships, churches, and families with people just like us. However, if we program ourselves along the GPS of scripture, if we are guided by the route of a Samaritan walking on the completely wrong road, we will find ourselves traveling in the way and footsteps of Christ. Then maybe we can begin to answer through our actions the question Jesus begs us to understand - - “Who ISN’T my neighbor?”

(Karen Armstrong quotes are from her acceptance speech from the 2008 TEDPrize.)

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