Sermon preached by Br Sam at Hilfield Friary, 11th July 2016
Sermon preached by Br Sam at Hilfield Friary, 11th July 2016, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
‘This is what the Lord showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line in his hand’ Amos 7.7
This chapel was originally a cow byre, the cattle shed of Flowers Farm, built out of local stone with the walls filled in with rubble, but not very exactly measured so that the lines aren’t straight. The floor slopes and the walls aren’t true. You can see this by looking at the beams holding the roof, but it’s made clearer by suspending a line from one of the roof struts – it shows that the walls and floor are out of true. In the vision of the prophet Amos in this morning’s first reading he sees ‘The Lord standing beside a wall with a plumb line in his hand’; the Lord measuring up his people and finding that they were ‘out of true’ with the God of justice, compassion and mercy for the week, the orphan, the humble, the poor and the needy; out of true with who they, the People of God were called to be – and therefor doomed not to stand secure. Elsewhere among the prophets of Israel, Jeremiah says that the House of Israel is like a bulging wall that is bound to collapse because it was no longer true to its foundation in God.
In the gospel reading this morning, in response to the lawyer’s question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’, Jesus reminds him of the foundation of Israel’s life: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself’. This is what the House of Israel has been built upon. Stay true to that, says Jesus, and you will find eternal life – life in all its fullness, the life of God’s Kingdom. This in turn elicits another question from the lawyer: ‘And who is my neighbour?’, to which Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of someone who is ‘true’ to the God of justice and mercy and compassion; a story which is so familiar that the term ‘Good Samaritan’ has passed into our everyday language. We say of anyone who has shown kindness and care to those in need that they are ‘Good Samaritans’. But what is often missed out of our common usage of this term is an understanding of the significance of the virtuous man being a Samaritan. Unlike the priest and the Levite, who should have known what was required of them – they were, after all, steeped in the scriptures – a Samaritan could not be expected to be true to the God of Israel, the God of justice, mercy and compassion. To most Jews Samaritans were foreigners in their midst, outsiders to God’s covenant, people of whom many were deeply suspicious because they were ‘out of true’. Perhaps, if Jesus was telling us this parable today, he would have spoken of ‘The Good Muslim’.
Last Thursday there died in Pakistan one who might fit that bill today. Abdul Sattar Edhi was born in 1928 and grew up in Gujarat, India, but at the Partition in 1947 moved to Karachi with his sick mother and worked in a market as a peddler selling cloth. After a few years, and building on the experience of caring for his mother, he established a free dispensary for the poor needy, begging his neighbours for their help and support. Out of that grew, eventually, the Edhi Foundation which is now the largest social care service in Pakistan. Since its inception it is estimated to have rescued over 20,000 abandoned infants, rehabilitated over 50,000 orphans and has trained over 40,000 nurses. It provides welfare centres, food kitchens, rehabilitation houses, clinics and emergency shelters. Edhi has been referred to as ‘The Angel of Mercy’, Pakistan’s Mother Teresa. A devout Muslim, he led an ascetic lifestyle, owning only two sets of clothes, never taking a salary from his organization and living in a small apartment next to his office. If a plumb line were to be set against his life I think it would be found ‘true’ – true to the God of justice, mercy and compassion.
On Wednesday evening Jonathan and I attended a celebration of Eid in Dorchester marking the end of the Muslim fast of Ramadan. It was a lovely, if rather chaotic, party with some great food and generous, warm and sensitive hospitality – particularly to those of us present who were Christians. Over the meal I had a long conversation with a man who was a builder and property developer. Among other things he talked about the challenge of being Muslim in the profoundly secular culture in which we all find ourselves and of which we are a part. ‘That’s why the prayer is so important to us’, he said, ‘five times a day we stop whatever we are doing to turn towards Mecca and to offer prayer to God. It’s what keeps us in harmony with God, the God who is present to us in every place and every time. It’s what keeps us “muslim” – the word itself means “harmony”. It keeps us true to God.’ I suggest that it’s the same with our own rhythm of prayer here at the Friary, not just four times a day in the chapel but at the end of our morning meeting and at the beginning and end of every meal. The purpose of prayer is to keep us in tune, in harmony with God, ‘true’ to the God of justice, mercy and compassion. Our daily prayer, whether corporate or private, is as it were a plumb line bringing us back to ‘true’, keeping us true to what God requires and desires for us.
In the writings of the Early Church Fathers this parable, like all the parables, is seen as an allegory. In this allegorical reading each one of us is the traveller who has been set upon by robbers, who has been stripped naked and has been left half dead in the ditch. And the Samaritan, the one who is considered an outsider to the covenant with God, the stranger who comes to our rescue, who pours oil and wine on our wounds, who lifts us onto his donkey and brings us to a safe place, is none other than Jesus himself, the one who above all is true – truly human and truly divine, ‘true God of true God’ as we shall say in a moment in the Creed. He is the one who is truly in harmony – dare we say it ‘truly muslim’? – true to the God of justice, mercy and compassion, and our true neighbour.