I wrote this post for our parish blog (Church of the Apostles, KC). You can read it here…and all is the other fabulous posts and sermons!

One of my favorite words to describe my theological work with the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer is “juxtaposition.” Perhaps it is the influence of Alexander Schmemann and Gordon Lathrop—both liturgical theologians and both of whom highly value this concept—but the concept for juxtaposition is very simple: what happens when you put x next to y? An example or two might be helpful here. For liturgy, what does it mean when the Confession is prayed within the Prayers of the People as opposed to the opening liturgy during penitential seasons? Or, for Bible reading, why did the lectionary writers include that Gospel passage alongside this story from the Old Testament? The individual items have their own meaning, but their significance is altered and enhanced when placed nearer something else.

This week is no exception as we have not one, but two, feast days to celebrate: Monday was the Feast of Mary Magdalene and today (Thursday) is the Feast of St. James. Rather than trying to write two separate posts within the same blog entry, I think it is beneficial to look at both feast days simultaneously, in juxtaposed harmony, you might say. So, allow me to ask the question which we will seek to answer below: “What happens when you put James next to Mary?”

In Context

In Mary and James, we have two apostles with intimate firsthand experiential knowledge of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. According to John 20, Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrection. In a time and place where the account of a woman was always inferior to the testimony of a man, Jesus appeared first to Mary in the Garden. She had trekked to the tomb only to find it empty and while understandably upset, she is comforted by two angels before turning to see Jesus…only she thinks he is the gardener!  

Side note: We could get off on a serious tangent here, but how amazing is it that the resurrection took place in a garden and that Jesus, the new/second Adam, was first mistaken as a gardener…because He is! He is the Divine Gardener, the one with whom we are invited to walk in the cool of the day while He tends creation and invites us to participate with Him…but that is another post for another time.

Upon recognizing Jesus and embracing Him joyfully, Mary runs to the disciples to announce the resurrection. The first proclamation of resurrection, the first encounter with the risen Lord, is from Mary, an apostle.

Similarly, James, the brother of John, was with Jesus during some of the most pivotal moments of His earthly ministry. Apart from being “one of the twelve,” James was also part of the smaller trio with Peter and John. Too often, it feels, James is the forgotten member of the three, even the lesser “son of thunder” because Peter is such a huge presence in the gospels and John was the beloved disciple. We almost skip over the fact that James was the first disciple martyred for his faith.

James was there, atop Mount Tabor, as Jesus was transfigured and appeared alongside Moses and Elijah. He heard Jesus talking about His impending death; he heard Peter suggest that they build tents atop the mountain and stay there; he heard Jesus respond and tell them that they must go back down…and then he watched as Jesus set His face like flint toward Jerusalem and began the arduous journey toward the cross. James was a witness to all of these things, including the arrival of Mary with the proclamation of the resurrection, and he gave his life in defense of Jesus.

Mary and James Juxtaposed

So, what happens when we read Mary and James next to each other? At first glance it may seem like there is no connection: One was a disciple, and the other was a woman; one was part of the intimate inner circle of three while the other was at one point possessed by demons; one gave his life for Jesus while the other encountered new life bursting forth into the world in the Garden.

However, if we are really diligent and honest, the similarities between the two are overwhelmingly obvious. Mary Magdalene and James are tied together by one common thread: apostolic witness. Both James and Mary were transformed by Jesus, both of them were changed forever by their interactions with Him both before and after His death and rising. James encountered the overwhelming and awesome glory of Christ while atop Mount Tabor, and Mary experienced the same glory when she found out that she was talking to Jesus and not the gardener.

They were both sent out from those high, holy places as apostles and witnesses. We might celebrate Mary’s restoration of body and mind on her feast day, remembering how she was once afflicted and is no more, but her feast day is really a moment to cherish and remember her as the one who ran forth to declare the good news of resurrection. She did not stay in the Garden with Jesus…she went, and she announced, and she lived a life transformed based on this gospel joy.

The Feast of St James may be a time to commemorate his martyrdom, but it is the events which led to His death upon which we ought to reflect. James was not killed in a vacuum; we have to move backward from Herod’s decision to kill James in Acts 11 all the way until we get to a seaside scene when Jesus calls out to two brothers while fishing, and they drop their nets to come and follow Him. James followed Jesus from that seaside, through the Transfiguration, unto Jesus’ death and resurrection, and ultimately his own.

Mary and James provide for us two tangible, living pictures as to what it means to be disciples of Jesus and citizens of the Kingdom. Neither stayed put when they had the chance; both opted to go forth and proclaim the Good News; and both devoted their lives (and deaths) to the proclamation of the Risen Lord.

 

You will find both the transcript for my recent sermon and the link for the audio version in this post. I tend to mirror/follow my writing version with some degree of intentionality, but often it serves as the foundation from which I then branch out as the morning develops and the Spirit moves.

As always, a special thanks to the Rev. Cynthia Brust and the Rev. Canon Ellis Brust of Church of the Apostles and all the fabulous people at COTA for allowing me the space and opportunity to preach and work on my craft. I am truly blessed with such a fabulous, kind, and welcoming community!

LINK FOR AUDIO

Ought to. Want to. Have to. Need to. 

Would. Could. Should. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Shouldn’t.

It all gets extremely overwhelming, doesn’t it? I really want to eat this third serving of King Ranch Casserole but should I? I know I ought to call so-and-so on their birthday, but I don’t want to. It is highly advisable to exercise regularly and get your oil changed every 3,000 miles, but this book is too good and I’m too comfortable gearing up for some late night TV watching…

You’re laughing now, but let’s make this less fun:

I see that person stranded with a flat tire. I ought to stop, but…

I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor, care for the poor, the orphans, and the widows, visit the sick, the dying and the shut in, and be an expression of Christ to Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Independents, black, white, brown, yellow, even the Presbyterians…but they are just so different from me; they just make it so hard; I really ought to but they just…

And we give our excuses time and time again.

We tend to associate with only those who look like us, talk like us, spend money like us, or vote like us. Is that not the heart of the matter in our Gospel passage this morning? We’ve become so desensitized to the radical nature of the Good Samaritan that we risk missing the point completely. Let’s enter into the story once again and see what’s going on.

So, we enter Luke’s Gospel this morning and the passage beings, “Just then.” Ok, we need to stop 😉 “Just then” tells us that we are in the middle of a specific scene in the story. Ellis preached on Luke 10 last week and the story concluded with verse 20. 

Jesus has just sent the 70 out on their mission with the knowledge that “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” They are given instructions as to what to pack, how to go, and what to do when they encounter hostile/unrepentant cities. They go out and they return exuberant. They were able to cast out demons in Jesus’ name–I don’t know about you but I think the ability to cast out demons during your mission is something to rejoice about! Jesus rejoices with the disciples but then we enter into this interesting set of verses when Jesus blesses the disciples for being able to see what God has revealed, especially when there are kings and rulers who would love this type of information.

It is in the midst of this gathering–of the disciples’ return from mission and Jesus’ praise of their work and his comments about seeing and hearing–that a lawyer stands up and asks Jesus a question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

It is so easy for us to miss this and move straight to the second question: who is my neighbor? We cannot afford to move too quickly here.

Remember the scene with me one. Last. time: they are corporately rejoicing in the successful mission of being sent-out-ones in Jesus’ name and talking about casting out demons and the relationship between the Father and the Son and a lawyer asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Talk about non-sequitor. Talk about a buzz kill.

Jesus’ answer isn’t surprising: what do you read in the law? A lawyer asks the question and Jesus tells him to read the law…it might be like us having a conversation right now and me turing to you and asking, “what must I do to celebrate the Eucharist properly?” and someone replying, “What do you find in the Priest’s Handbook? Or what does it say in the Book of Common Prayer?” Are you with me here?

The lawyer responds with the shema–Israel’s ancient prayer which she was to recite multiple times throughout the day, the prayer that was supposed to be written on her heart, her forehead, the doorposts to the house, talked about as you she was walking with her children–that is, this is the very fabric of Israel’s life with YHWH. This is his response, with the addition of loving your neighbor, and Jesus says, “Yes, you are right. Do this and you shall live.”

Wait…what? That’s a weird response! We miss the verses preceeding the Shema in Deutoronomy 6…but they have been printed in your bulletin!

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Do you see it? The Great Commandment given in Deuteronomy, the very foundation and backbone of the Shema, is preceded by an important promise: do this and you will live. Follow YHWH and you will enter the land flowing with milk and honey. This YHWH, the one who redeemed and rescued his people out of Egypt that they might worship him in the desert, the one who gave the law to a people already redeemed, the one who promised Abram long ago of a people and a land…this YHWH already told them what it would look like to follow him and live in the promised land…

So of course Jesus would tell the lawyer to look at the law and then tell him that the foundational premise of the law found in Deuteronomy 6 would be the key to eternal life…of course he does. It makes complete sense now that we see it this way…right?!

BUT…

There is a but here and it is simple: the lawyer wants to justify himself and so he asks who his neighbor is.

Now don’t go giving the lawyer a hard time, friends. Sadly, if we are going to identify as anyone in this passage it ought to be the lawyer who asks the question. Why? Because how often do you ask God questions like this one? How often do you say, “But surely you can’t mean that folk in Wyandotte County are my neighbors? Surely, you don’t mean that Republicans or Democrats or immigrants are my neighbors, Lord?” The answer is simple, “Yes, and don’t call me surely.” 😉

The question instantly creates an us versus them, and we love that, don’t we? If everyone isn’t your neighbor then it means that some people aren’t your neighbors and if some people aren’t your neighbors then it means that you are off the hook for helping them, caring for them, loving them, treating them with dignity and respect…you see? 

The lawyer is hoping for an out, a get-out-of-jail-free card, and he doesn’t get one. Instead, he gets a parable. Jesus tells the story of a man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is no easy walk. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was about 18 miles long and you would have started at the high elevation of Jerusalem where the warm air and moisture coming from the Mediterranean was still present and then you would have descended into the Dead Sea Valley to reach Jericho, the oasis city in the desert. The road would have been arid and dry barren wasteland. This is NOT an easy journey and people hearing the story would have known that. The journey would have been lonely because while it was a primary thoroughfare between these two cities, it was so dry and arid hot with so many twists and turns that it was easy for travelers to be robbed and mugged. Bandits would hide out along the road, mug their victims and then travel into the desert and know they were safe, because who wants to chase someone in the desert?! 

So the man traveling this treacherous road, both because of climate and because of the potential for criminal activity, encounters a group of robbers who strip him, beat him, and leave him half dead…really, they leave him to die.

We read that a priest was traveling down that road. Whether the down here means down from Jerusalem toward or Jericho or along the road and on his way up to Jerusalem is irrelevant. This priest was either on his way to Jerusalem to worship or he was on his way back from worship in Jerusalem and he sees a man half dead. Given the way that Jesus tells the story it is safe to assume that this man who was beaten is an Israelite and therefore there is no reason for the priest to ignore him. However, the priest ignores him, likely because he did not want to put his purity at risk by touching blood, and he passes him by. 

A Levite is the next person to encounter the man and he too passes by him without stopping to help him. Levites were from the tribe of Levi which was the priestly tribe of Israel during the Exodus. While their rules and regulations were not as strict as the high(er) priests in Second Temple Judaism, they were still a priestly people which means that this Levite was yet another religious authority who passed by/over the dying man and did nothing…quite the commentary Jesus is providing!

Side note: the passage along which they were traveling is so narrow at some points that you would have needed to literally walk/step over the man in order to keep moving. Jesus’ point is clear here: the priest and the levite didn’t just turn a blind eye to the man…they stepped over him and kept moving without giving him a second thought.

And if you thought that was bad then hear the rest of the story: it was a Samaritan who stopped and took care of the man. It was actually rumored and forewarned to travelers from Jericho to Jerusalem to watch out for the Samaritans who might stop and rob you as you went on your way…do you see what Jesus is doing here? He is turning the entire structure on its head and making some pretty outrageous claims here, claims that would have gotten the attention of his listeners.

The Samaritan doesn’t just take the man into his care. He places him on his animal, pays for his expenses with the equivalent of 2 days wages and then says give me the bill if more is needed, and makes sure that he receives the medical attention he needs to make a full recovery.

“Who was the neighbor?” Jesus asks. The Samaritan, of course. “Go and do likewise.”

Instead of letting you sit with that story, I want to meddle again. Think about it like this. There once was a man traveling along the road between two countries. He encountered a group of robbers who beat and left him for dead. A politician walked by and said, “He isn’t my neighbor because he isn’t part of my political party” and he walked on. Then a pastor walked by and said, “He isn’t my neighbor because he doesn’t belong to my faith community” and he walked by. But then an immigrant, a foreigner, someone who did not belong to the country, someone about whom vicious lies had been spread, someone who had received the brutal end of diplomacy and democracy, and she was moved to pity. She took care of that man. She used her money, took him to a shelter…

Go. And do. Likewise.

There is no escaping the call of Jesus this morning. The lawyer asked two questions: what must I do to inherit eternal life? and who is my neighbor? The answers left no wiggle room: love the Lord your God and your neighbor and if a Samaritan taking care of a Jewish man after he was beaten by robbers is applauded for acting as a neighbor then that means everyone. And I don’t mean the neighbor next to you with the well manicured lawn who never leaves trash at the curb or throws raucous parties or who never comes asking for anything but when she borrows your allen wrench she returns it within 24 hours and the man who borrows some sugar comes back with cookies for you…not just them…I’m talking the immigrant, the migrant, the poor, the destitute, the DIFFERENT FROM YOU AND ME. We will be overwhelmed, I suspect, by the vast diversity of the Kingdom of God supping together at the eschatological banquet table. 

The lessons and the collect are rather clear this morning: you know what you ought to do and you need to pray that God would change your oughta’s into wanta’s so you can go about doing it…and we will be able to see the results based on the fruit of your labors…the proof is in the pudding my friends. When you live a life based on principles, 99% of your decisions are already made…when you live in the Kingdom of God, 100% of your decisions are already made…but will you follow through? Will you accept the call of God today, here, now, and begin reordering and reorganizing your live so that it aligns most fully with God and his kingdom? Will you commit to not only knowing what you ought to or should do in a moment but to actually doing it? 

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your body, and your mind, and your strength, and your soul, and your wallets, and you resources…and love your neighbor as yourself…Go and do likewise, friends.