This sermon was given by the Rev. Alison Cornish on July 22, 2018, at Summit Presbyterian Church, in Philadelphia.
Our scripture readings this morning are familiar; so familiar, in fact, that we might only half-listen to them, lulled into thinking ‘we’ve got this.’ The commandment to turn to, to love God with all your heart and all your soul, is ‘the big one,’ a basic tenet in both the Christian and Jewish faiths. And the story of the Good Samaritan embodies the other great commandment: to love one’s neighbor as oneself. But, not surprisingly when it comes to scripture, there’s more to these readings than meets the eye and ear. Both have compelling, and important, backstories that invite us to explore past what we think we know.
Our text from Deuteronomy comes from Moses’ farewell speech to the people of Israel. That alone should give us pause — the towering yet always human figure of Moses must find words to inspire his people to persevere knowing that he himself will not accompany them to the Promised Land. And, he must do so knowing what he does about these people who have been disobedient and faithless in the face of challenges, and may well act that way again. Their ravaged land lost, pushed into exile by political and economic upheaval, Moses calls them to a renewed spiritual obedience, reminding them ‘this is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.’ A few sentences after our selection, in the ultimate appeal to any human in any age, Moses exhorts, ‘choose life, so that you and your descendants may live!’ Moses’ message, the one that reverberates through the ages is this: when times are difficult, the temptation to turn away from God can be overwhelming. Yet a new beginning is always possible – when past failures are acknowledged and accepted; when we recognize that hopelessness is a symptom of losing faith in God; and when we renew our commitments to our covenant with God and God’s commandments.
The parable of the Good Samaritan also has a backstory. At a gathering of Jesus’ followers and disciples, a lawyer challenged Jesus: if I want eternal life, what do I have to do? Jesus makes the lawyer answer his own question: to the familiar love of God the lawyer adds and expands the requirement to love ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘You’re right!’ says Jesus. But the lawyer isn’t satisfied. Hmmm … says the lawyer, and just who is my neighbor? Jesus responds with a vivid tale of a traveler who has been brutally beaten on the infamously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The first two passersby – a priest and a Levite – ignore the man’s plight, perhaps adhering to laws of purity connected with their roles and religious identities. It is the third traveler, a Samaritan – who the ancient world viewed as an unclean outcast – who stops and tends to the injured man (whose position and religious or ethnic identity we never know). The message is clear: mercy trumps boundaries constructed by rules and conventions. The Samaritan is moved by virtue of the humanity they share, and responds with compassion, even when it costs him financially and possibly in other ways hidden to us.
I’ve taken some time to sketch the backstories to our readings because it’s where I see how connected, our lives are to our spiritual ancestors. Humanity – all of us on this planet – we, too, are at a critical juncture – as the people of Israel were. Earth’s systems – on which we depend for our very lives – have been ravaged – and not by the powerlessness of God, but by the actions – and inactions – of us, a people who have forgotten the moral order of life: to do no harm, to treat others as we ourselves would be treated. Indeed, we are living in times when despair and demoralization seem much closer to hand than the great commandment of loving God with all our heart and all our soul.
And, in the era of globalization, at a time when vast inequities exist between those who live side-by-side as well as between whole countries, the question of ‘who is my neighbor [and what is my ethical obligation to care for them]?’ is a very real question. When the massive carbon footprint of a citizen of the United States creates conditions that cause rising sea levels in Bangladesh, we must not only redefine ‘neighbor’ in terms of proximity, but in terms of the kind of actions required to tend neighbors in distress. All this in the face of the fact that we are just as human as those who chose not to offer care in the ancient parable – we are just as susceptible to our fears and the embedded stereotypes of our society.
What can easily be lost both in the historic texts and in our own times is the possibility that each individual – each of us – actually can impact circumstances that seem overwhelming in their enormity, or situations that call us to act selflessly in the face of danger. Stories and deeds that too often aren’t recorded, or recognized; yet every day, ordinary people, in the fullness of their humanity, make a difference. I am thinking here particularly of the countless individuals who rush to respond and tend to those affected by hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis – crises that destroy homes and habitat, end lives and steal away property. Literally thousands of ordinary people respond to those in need, regardless of traditional boundaries that typically keep us segregated. Neighbors and strangers feed one another, house each other, tend to bodies and spirits. Yes, we have also seen where this ethic has failed, in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, Sandy in New York and New Jersey, Maria in Puerto Rico – where the underpinnings of racism, classism, and other ways of ‘othering’ have been revealed, along with a lessened sense of obligation, and mercy.
But having lived on Long Island when Superstorm Sandy hit, I saw firsthand how ordinary individuals responded, both in the immediate aftermath of the storm and during the long, drawn-out process of recovery that has taken literally years. Sometimes it was the smallest of gestures –as an example, in my own community – which sustained a much lighter blow than other areas – we discovered that emergency workers were being housed in tents even as nighttime temperatures plunged. After a supper of military meals-ready-to-eat, workers were sleeping in their trucks because they were warmer than the tents. Folks rallied to bring home-cooked meals and heaters for the tents to these workers far from their own homes who were working round the clock to restore power and rebuild our infrastructure. Such a small gesture, but one that grew understanding and connection, made the surreal real, tended to real people doing critical work.
I point to moments of crisis wrought by storms and fires because they are where the fundamental difference between two ways of being in this world – a world that is becoming more unstable in so many ways –make all the difference. We can either turn on one another, or toward each other. One leads us to more life; the other, more conflict and desolation.
I lift up stories of individuals responding to disasters because they are the embodiment of what we, at Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, see as the most important ways each of us can respond to the causes and effects of our changing climate: to join our individual voices and actions into a collective, strengthened and sustained by the hope we know through faith, and love – of God, and of one another.
The author and activist Paul Hawken, editor of Drawdown, writes:
Individuals cannot prevent the torching of Indonesia rainforests by corrupt palm oil corporations, or put an end to the bleaching and coral die-off of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. … Individuals cannot prevent the deliberate suppression and demonization of climate science and scientists by anonymous wealthy donors.
What individuals can do is become a movement … Movements change how we think and how we see the world, creating more evolved social norms. What was once accepted and thought to be normal – becomes unthinkable. What was marginalized or derided – becomes honored and respected. What was suppressed becomes recognized as a principle… Movements are dreams with feet and hands, hearts and voices.
What I hear in Hawken’s words is no less than ‘remaking the narrative’ —into a world where the action of a Samaritan is recognized as the norm, not the exception. Where despair of the future is countered by the turning of each of us toward a vision of hope — a hope grounded in a love of life.
All of this is possible not because we are required to be some kind of demigod or superhuman – but because we are called to enter into the fullness of our humanity. Hawken concludes:
We become human beings by working together and helping one another…
What it takes to reverse global warming is one person after another remembering who we truly are.
What we are is sometimes disheartened and lost. Who we are is sometimes the product of our cultures and times. What we also are is capable of enormous compassion and tenderness. Who we are is also brave and loving; and ready to choose life. The choice … is ours. The reward … is the beloved community of which we dream.
—Rev. Alison Cornish
July 22, 2018
Summit Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia
 Paul Hawken, ed., Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (New York: Penguin. 2018) pgs. 216-217.