Today we entered the island continent Australia and islands nearby as we come near our close of this series, "The Changing Face of Christianity," which has brought us across the globe. On Palm/Passion Sunday next week, we enter Europe, not through preaching but through the passion Cantata of J. S. Bach. Easter will be a celebration of the global church through the power and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Today's communion liturgy today comes from Australian Aboriginal Christians. Its simplicity reminds us of people who have been in the land for more than 42,000 years - having come across the ice-covered seas from southern Asia at the end of the Ice Age. White settlers did not arrive until 1788 - 18 years after Captain James Cook took possession of the east coast for Britain. Used first as a penal colony, women and children didn't arrive to settle the land until the 1860's. Clergy arrived in the 1870's.
Our United Church in Australia (UCA) which came together in 1977 is composed of Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians and is the third largest Christian body in the country with 1.4 million adult members, ranking behind Catholics (five million) and Anglicans (four million). Let us enter "the land down under" through the Word of God.
At the center of Aboriginal religion is key belief of "The Dreaming." Aborigines from different groups will use different words for the Dreaming, but it is built around a common concept. The Dreaming did not take place in time. The Dreaming took place before there was time. The Dreaming describes first of all, the great events of creation. Starting with water, Spirit Beings or Ancestor beings, detach themselves from this watery, formless mass and emerge in various forms. Sometimes the forms they assumed were human-like, at other times, they were animal-like or bird-like. Kangaroo-Man, Snake-Man, Bowerbird-Woman, Moon-Man were all such Ancestor Beings.
Moving over the land, these Spirit Beings would do all sorts of things Aborigines would do or animals would do. Sometimes they would leave behind their imprints in river beds or rocky ridges. Sometimes they would use weapons or tools to leave geological features beyond human imagination. But, when they finished in this time before time, they ascended into heaven and were transformed in the celestial bodies.
From heaven, the Ancestor Beings have returned in ever-evolving Dreaming stories to become the ethical core of these indigenous people from generation to generation. Like the Holy Spirit, they flow through every aspect of Aboriginal life - conception, birth, and important life stages of development. They are called upon in prayer, song, and sacred ritual to explain that which seems inexplicable in their human condition (drawn from Ethics of World Religions, ed. Arnold Hunt, Marie and Robert Crotty, "Australian Aboriginal Religions," Greenhaven Press, Inc., San Diego, CA. , 1991, pp.181-193).
Jesus Christ makes sense to Aborigines. 95% claim Christian faith, mixed with the Dreaming stories, as the core of their life and faith today. They understand his conception by the hand of the Universe's Creator, his birth to Mary, his teachings and healings, his sacrifice, death, time in the grave, resurrection, ascension and return. It all makes sense in their conception of the Universe. They abide in him as the Great Spirit Being, for he is the son of all Ancestral Beings. And his parables or stories have now been adopted into the center of their lives as the key to the great ethical center of the Universe. While we might not "get" Aboriginal religion, they "get" our Christian faith.
Today's great ethical teaching from the center of the Universe comes from Luke's gospel. We call it the "Parable of the Good Samaritan." But, it begins as an exchange between a cynic and our Savior. Listen to this question and answer session that opens this passage. Lawyer: "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus:"What is written in the law? What do you read there?" Lawyer: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus: " You're right. Do this and you will live." Lawyer: "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus' third response to this courtroom drama is our parable. The point of this story is love and compassion. But it is not sappy and simple. It is a hard story for each of us to live into to. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was known as the " Bloody Way." Into the 19th Century, you still had a pay safety money to local Sheiks to travel on this road. Gangs of Robbers owned this road. You only went this way if there was no other way to go. A man was beaten and left for dead. Yes, the priest and Levite passed him by. But, while their behavior was certainly not commendable, it was also not without reason. You cannot paint them as simple caricatures of ethically dead and morally bankrupt religious leaders. The body could have been a plant by highway robbers and contact with a corpse would defile the priest and Levite and disqualify them from their Temple responsibilities. When they encounter the victim, theirs was a choice between duty and duty.
Enter the Samaritan - a man who in the listeners ears is ceremonially unclean, a social outcast and a religious heretic. They must have been shocked to hear Jesus tell this story. Think of your worst adversary, the person or persons who have most negatively affected your life, and that would be the person who stopped to care for you. This Samaritan did so at great personal risk and ultimately at great personal cost. He delayed his own journey, expended great energy, risked his life, spent two days' wages and promised much more on a man he did not know, and according to the times in which he was living, he should have defiled, hated, and left for dead.
The story ends and Jesus' fires back a question to the lawyer: "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man?" Lawyer: "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus: "Go and do likewise." (Drawn from Luke, A Commentary in the Interpretation Series, by Fred Craddock, John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1990, pp. 149-151).
When the dust settles on the road to Jericho, the answer to: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" is this: Live your life rightly ordered now. Live out your love for God, for others, for self. By so doing, you will show that you have been touched by the kingdom of God. You will then have the capacity to receive the promised inheritance: life in fellowship with God and others in the age to come.
Why do we make this so hard for ourselves? Why do we bicker and battle with family and friends? Why do we so often kick the body lying on the Jericho road (at worst) and pass by (at best)? Why unkindness when kindness heals? Why more hurt when hurt is already evident? Why judgment when compassion is needed? Why pain for pain rather than love for pain? Why cynicism when joy is needed? Why a negative attitude toward others, when all they need is to be heard? The other day, I was in the presence of a Good Samaritan from our congregation. One more person - homeless and in need - came knocking at the doors of our church. In case you didn't know, Jesus' word that "the poor are with us always" is the truth of our life lived together in this downtown setting for ministry. While I was, like the priest and Levite in the story, busy with the work of "church," (duty, NOT DUTY...), I watched a humble and good Samaritan offer compassion to yet another person in need. While I too often bear the garlicky odor of the lawyer's cynicism, I am blessed to be in the presence of true compassion. I have been humbled to learn once again from a true servant of the Lord.
My friends, you are my greatest teachers. So often, you show me the ways to follow Jesus. Thank you for the "Spirit Being" of Christ reflected in your lives.
Remember this lesson passed down from our Savior to the cynic as you head on your Jericho road this week: Eternal life is not found in knowing the commandments. Eternal life is found in doing them. Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church