The Good Samaritan

 

The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)
The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

This morning I presided at the 08:00 Eucharist at All Saints’, St Andrews for the first time in about a year. This was my homily.

Introduction

If ever we’ve needed the story of the Good Samaritan, it’s now.

Just then a lawyer, a religion scholar, stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what do I need to do to get eternal life?”

Jesus answered, “Well, what is written in God’s law? How do you interpret it?”

The lawyer replied, “That you love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. That you love God with your passion, your prayer, your muscle, intelligence—and that you love your neighbour as well as you love yourself.”

“Good answer!” said Jesus. “So, do that and you’ll live.”

But wanting to justify himself, looking for a loophole perhaps, the lawyer then asked Jesus, “And just how would you define ‘neighbour’?” [1]

And Jesus tells us this familiar parable about the Good Samaritan.

The day today: UK edition

If ever we’ve needed the story of the Good Samaritan, it’s now.

The events of the last few weeks have been astonishing, in the aftermath of the referendum to decide whether the UK should leave the European Union or not.

There has been so much fear and uncertainty.

Billions of pounds have been wiped off the value of companies on the stock exchange.

The value of the pound itself has dropped.

Reports of violence and intimidation and suspicion of immigrants have increased, with some far-right groups seeing the vote to leave the EU as legitimation of their actions.

So many of my friends have posted on Facebook and Twitter and other social media how uncertain they feel about the future. Even how ashamed they feel of being British in the light of the EU result.

In a world opening up and becoming smaller due to the internet, and social media, and TV—we are closing up and looking inwards.

Fear and suspicion.

Trump card

And it’s not just in this country. In the US, Donald Trump has secured the Republican candidate vote on a ticket of fear and suspicion of immigrants, and muslims, and Mexicans.

“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists,” he said of Mexican immigrants. (BBC News)

“We’re going to build [a] wall, and we’re going to stop it. It’s going to end,”

Shootings

And this past week, the shooting of a black man Philando Castile by a policeman in Minnesota, and the retaliation shooting of 5 police officers in Dallas, Texas.

More fear and suspicion.

I spotted a video of friend of mine the other day on Facebook. I used to sing with Tim in the National Youth Choir. He’s now a professor of American history at the University of Warwick, and was being interviewed on Sky News about these recent shootings.

And he said that if you look at the history of race relations in the US, you would expect them to be at an all-time low but actually they have been increasing gradually over a long period of time.

But there is a long way to go yet.

We’re all God’s people

It was into a similar situation of fear and suspicion that Jesus spoke when he told his Jewish friends the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Israel was overrun by the Roman empire. Ethnic groups lived side by side uncomfortably: Israel, Judea, Palestine—they still do.

Samaritans were seen by Jews as foreigners, immigrants, even enemies.

Fear and suspicion.

Jesus’s response was also, predictable, uncomfortable.

Jesus’s response was not, “Oh yeah, don’t worry: your neighbours are just the folks you like, the people who agree with you, you think like you, speak like you, look like you.”

No! It is this person, the Samaritan, that Jesus picks out as our neighbour. Not the priest (sorry about that!). Not the Levite (who served in the temple). But the outsider: the Samaritan.

The person about whom there would be most fear and most suspicion.

I do like that Scots phrase: “we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns”—we’re all the same under the skin, we are all God’s people.

Conclusion

I’ll finish with this, which was posted on Facebook yesterday, by Natasha Howell, a black woman from Andover, Massachusetts.

And I will try not to cry as I read it!

“So this morning, I went into a convenience store to get a [snack]. As I walked through the door, I noticed that there were two white police officers (one about my age, the other several years older) talking to the [shop assistant] — an older, white woman behind the counter — about the shootings that have gone on in the past few days.

“They looked at me and fell silent.

“I went about my business to get what I was looking for.

“As I turned back up the [aisle] to go pay, the older officer was standing at the top of the [aisle] watching me.

“As I got closer he asked me how I was doing.

“I replied, ‘Okay. And you?’

“He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, “’How are you really doing?’

“I looked at him and I said, ‘I’m tired!’

“He said, ‘Me too’. Then he said, ‘I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now, is it?’

“I said, ‘No, it’s not’.

“Then he hugged me and I cried.

“I had never seen that man before in my life. I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me. What I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning that was absolutely beautiful.

No judgements.

No justifications.”

Just a moment of clarity. [2]


Footnotes

[1] Combination of translations from NRSV and The Message.

[2] Posted on Facebook and tweeted by Jemele Hill. Edited slightly to revise punctuation, spelling, and translate a little for UK audience.

NSM pt.2: herding cats

This week I are been mostly… herding cats.

I’ve been working on the service rota for September. Currently at All Saints’, St Andrews we have around 11 people who can be on the service rota helping to conduct services.

From Sunday 30 August to Saturday 3 October, which is what the September rota covers, there will be 40 services. That’s three on a Sunday plus one a day, except Saturdays.

The matrix

When I took over as keeper of the rotas in November 2014 I created what I called the clergy availability algorithm matrix. It’s a spreadsheet that describes in the style of a puzzle book who can do what:

  • Priest A will not preside at 08:00, but is is happy to celebrate or deacon at the 10:00. He is happy to preach at the 10:00 two Sundays out of four, but only as a deacon not as celebrant. He cannot take any other services.
  • Priest B can preside at the 08:00 but only on the first Sunday of the month. He is happy to celebrate or deacon two Sundays out of four at the 10:00 and preach one Sunday out of four (as either celebrant or deacon). He is available for Tuesday night or Thursday lunchtime.
  • Professor C may preach but not preside, and only on festivals.
  • Priest D can preside three Sundays out of four at the 08:00 but not at 10:00. He is available for Tuesday night (if required) but prefers Thursday lunchtime.
  • Priest E. My first is in Episcopal but not in Anglican. My second is thurible but not in thurifer.
  • Etc.

That in itself makes for an interesting mind game, trying to hold that all in mind when allocating people to services

Workflow

I have the following workflow for creating rotas:

  1. Create a blank rota (filling in dates, saints’ days and festivals, etc.)
  2. Email people to ask for their availability for the next rota period. Text the one person who isn’t on email.
  3. Receive people’s availability.
  4. Create a draft rota.
  5. Email draft rota for feedback. Print out and post draft rota for the one person who isn’t on email.
  6. Make updates.
  7. Email second draft for final sign-off. Print out and post second draft rota for the one person who isn’t on email.
  8. Receive feedback.
  9. Make updates (if required).
  10. Email final version. Print out and post final version for the one person who isn’t on email.

And then the rest of the month is spent making tiny changes here and there depending on people’s changed schedules. The July rota, for example, is now on revision 20.

It’s takes a considerable time. For example, I worked on it for about 30 minutes this morning, and this evening for about two and a half hours. Over the last week there haven’t been many days when I’ve not had to tweak the rota in some way.

Folks go off sick, or have family crises, or swap with one another. Rotas are living documents that ebb and flow, merely suggesting who may turn up to lead the service. A serving suggestion, if you will.

I do quite enjoy organising it and setting it out nicely on the page, but to be honest I am quite looking forward to handing it on when the new rector arrives in mid-September.

Next up…

I’m presiding on Sunday at 08:00, which will make it four Sundays in a row that I’ve been on. So that means preparing a short (five minutes) homily, plus intercessions, plus printing out the Bible readings in font size that is big enough for my myopic eyes to read.

Then I’m not on again for 11 days.

And for a moment after writing that I felt a sense of relief… until I remembered the rotas. It’s always with the rotas…

As an NSM, this week I are been mostly…

I love the light in the morning in the sacristy (clergy vestry) at All Saints', St Andrews.
I love the light in the morning in the sacristy (clergy vestry) at All Saints’, St Andrews.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking that I need to blog more, and more than just music videos of Star Wars game demos (though those things are exciting me just now) but some real life stuff: what’s going on for me just now, where my energies are being spent.

I was standing in church on Sunday, after the 08:00 Eucharist had finished, the congregation had left and stillness had filled the building once again when I remembered that a while ago I’d wanted to write about what being a non-stipendiary minister (NSM) means to me and what I do. So here I am, on the first of what I hope will be many posts reflecting on this.

Stipendiary vs non-stipendiary

The first thing to clear up, I guess, is: what is a non-stipendiary minister? Well, it’s a minister, a member of the clergy, who is not paid a stipend. (How nice to be defined by something negative!) In the church, stipendiary clergy get paid a a kind of salary to enable them to carry out a role that the church has asked of them without the need for them to also go out and get a job to earn money to live on.

 

There are all sorts of legal and tax—and I dare say historic—reasons why clergy don’t get paid a salary, related to employment status and whatnot but that is the crux of it: in order to be available 24/7 to carry out a particular role, the church pays some clergy some money so they don’t need to get a ‘proper’ job.

Non-stipendiary clergy, like me, do the role without getting paid.

From 1999 to 2006 I was a stipendiary clergyman. Now I’m not, for all sorts of reasons not least of which was that that job was literally killing me. And making me depressed. And I rarely got to spend time with my wife. And we were on an IVF programme, which was stressful enough. And I was upset about how many of my NSM clergy friends were being treated, so I crawled under the fence and joined them. And probably a host of other reasons…

This week

Clergy meeting

Today we had our monthly clergy meeting, where the five NSMs who are currently looking after All Saints’, St Andrews get together to organise rotas, and worship, and share pastoral information.

The meetings have only been going on since Fr Jonathan left in November 2014 and we were invited to keep things going during the Rector vacancy.

I take the minutes for this meeting, usually writing them up on my laptop as the meeting happens which gives me less to do later on, and then emailing or posting them out in the evening.

I really enjoy these meetings, which usually last up to 90 minutes. We ramble our way through a very loose agenda, taking many a detour but usually ending up back in the right spot. And there is quite a lot of laughter. Oh, and fellowship—Christians like to use the word “fellowship” when they really mean friendship and fun.

Homily

I’ve got a homily (a short sermon) to write for the 08:00 Eucharist on Sunday. I need to get started thinking about that today. I need to find the readings, print them out (so I can scribble on them), and read them over a couple of times.

And I don’t ever look up old sermons that I’ve preached on those passages. Nope! Never do that. No, sirree! That’s one thing that I definitely don’t do.

Erm… actually, that is something that I do.

I also subscribe to the Midrash lectionary discussion email group which I find really inspiring.

Admin

I’ve also got a few other admin-type things to do this week:

  • Update the website with service times for August.
  • Update the 1970 Scottish Liturgy booklet we use at the 08:00 service, to include the peace.
  • Type up and distribute clergy meeting minutes.
  • Begin work on the September rota.
  • Update and print a set of A5 booklets detailing saints days’ collects and short biographies.
  • Create a poster.

So, not much then… I’ll blog again later this week with an update and further reflections.

What is at the heart of being Christian?

Marcus J Borg
Marcus J Borg

During my six days’ stay in hospital last month I listened to two audio books (using Audible from Amazon on my Android smartphone) as my eyesight was too poor to be able to read anything.

The first book I listened to was Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored (HarperOne, 2012) by the American Episcopalian theologian Marcus J Borg.

In the book Borg examines a number of words that have been historically important to Christianity (such as salvation, mercy, righteousness, sin, forgiveness and repentance) and explores what they meant at the time the New Testament was written, compared with how they have been interpreted using modern frameworks of understanding, and the tools of post-Enlightenment thought.

I found the book really encouraging and in places challenging, although I would have much preferred to read the book rather than listen to it, not least because the (American) narrator mispronounces a number of theological terms.

In much of the book Borg attempts to get back to the heart of Christianity: what is Christianity all about? I found this article by Borg published last November on the Patheos website an interesting companion: What is a Christian?

In the article, as in his book, Borg argues that Christianity is categorically not about believing the right things. He argues that the focus is not on believing God but beloving God: committing yourself to “a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness”.

The two ancient creeds of the Christian church (the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) he says we should begin with an understand of “I give my heart to…” rather than simply “I believe…”

Believing in itself does not lead to a changed life. But beloving God, giving our heart in commitment and fidelity to God does.

At the centre of being a Christian is:

  • A passion for Jesus, the decisive revelation of God.
  • Compassion (love).
  • A passion for the transformation of this world; participating in God’s passion for a world of justice and peace.

I love the simplicity of Borg’s writing and thoughts. I love the simplicity of this core of Christianity. It pushes away all that is unimportant and returns it to Jesus’s response to the question “which is the greatest commandment in the Law”: Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind […] And […] love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 38 ff.)

Richard Holloway on the difficulties of being a priest

I love Richard Holloway. He was Bishop of Edinburgh when I was put forward for ordination selection and training. I very much appreciated his concern for me and his deep pastoral heart. I admired his genuine humanity and his honest wrestling with and searching for meaning in what we do on this tiny rock in the universe.