It’s July 14th. Bastille Day in France. So, vive la France! Bastille Day was first celebrated in 1790, a year after the storming of the Bastille, and its aim was to symbolise peace. It’s said that a mass was celebrated on the Champ de Mars in Paris for an estimated 260 thousand people. Followed by a 4-day feast, fireworks, fine wine and running naked through the streets to display their ‘greater freedom’… I’ll be watching carefully in case any of you start shedding any clothing to reveal your French ancestry…
July 14th has become the day when the French celebrate their national identity – and identity is what’s important in our readings today. Picture the scene in Deuteronomy. It’s taken 40 years wandering through the desert but now they’re here, on the border with Canaan, the promised land of milk & honey. Moses has led them all the way. Start to finish. But he won’t be going any further. He’s dying.
Deuteronomy contains his parting words. His final instructions. 34 chapters, the first 30 of which are 3 sermons. Given on the brink of something new, something they’ve strived so long for. So, 3 sermons taking 30 chapters… Moses must have droned on for even longer than I do…
Ends of the earth
The third sermon, of which our OT reading is part, focusses on giving the Israelites comfort. If they mess up, which we all know they surely will, then the promised land may get taken from them. But if they repent it can be restored.
In Jewish communities our passage today is the last in the weekly readings of the Torah, the law. It’s read immediately before Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year. So, it’s important.
In it, Moses says that if they repent, if they turn their lives around, and return to God, if they heed God’s commandments, then he’ll take them back. He’ll bring them back together from the ends of the earth. Moses pleads with them to choose life by loving God and keeping the commandments.
And Moses says this is not difficult, it’s easy. It’s within everyone’s reach. Not up in the heavens or beyond the sea. It’s right here within us already. Inside us. In our hearts and in our mouths.
What kind of people do you want to be?
He’s asking them and us to choose: What kind of people do you want to be? As you enter your promised land and make a fresh start, what do you want to be known for?
Earlier in Deuteronomy, in his 1st sermon, we have what’s called the Shema Yisrael, the defining statement of Jewish identity: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”.
Moses says: is this how you want to be known? If so, you can do it. It’s within your grasp.
Faith and love
All 3 readings today pick up on that same theme, one that’s just as relevant for us today. What kind of people do you want to be? How do you want to be known? As the Conservatives chose a new party leader for them and therefore a new Prime Minister for us, that’s not just a question for those in this room but for us as a nation. What is our identity?
In Paul’s letter, the people he’s writing to are known for their faith and for their love of all God’s people. That’s a pretty good reputation to have isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great if the congregation in St James was known throughout Heywood for their faith and for their love of all people? Perhaps you already are? But wouldn’t it be amazing if our nation was known for that too?
And in our Gospel reading we have the story that we normally call the Parable of the Good Samaritan, though Jesus didn’t call it that. Here our expert in the law is looking for a short-cut to eternal life. Jesus turns the question back and asks him what scripture says. The expert quotes that passage from Deuteronomy 6. Loving the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And then he adds “to love your neighbour as yourself” which is from Leviticus.
The parable that Jesus tells in response, gives his audience, both back then and us now, a choice about the kind of people they and we can be. It’s not the quick fix that the expert was after but a life choice. The shock, the surprise, was who Jesus picked as the example to follow. He didn’t say look at me and do what I do. Jesus picked a Samaritan.
We don’t need to go into all the history now but enough to say that his Jewish audience would consider the Samaritan an enemy. This is not someone a little odd or a little strange or on the fringes. This is someone that they didn’t trust, that they feared. Whose religious outlook was different. There was violence between Jews and Samaritans not just in their past but in the time of Jesus too.
Go and do likewise
And Jesus tells his audience: act like this person, do what they do. This person that you don’t trust, that you fear. Not only that but accept assistance from this person if you need help. And it’s an imperative, an instruction. Go and do likewise.
The expert in the law had the head knowledge. But Jesus was looking for radical action not theoretical understanding. For people that do and not just talk.
The author Amy Jill Levine gave this illustration: A modern-day equivalent to the parable would be a Jewish national being attacked and left for dead. The only person to give him help, to show compassion, is a Palestinian supporter of Hamas. The Orthodox Rabbi and the Red Cross paramedic don’t go near him. It’s someone from Hamas who not only gives first aid but organises ongoing care too. And the injured Jew accepts that help – help from someone they would consider an enemy.
Looking for parallels
It may be tough for you and me to consider a parallel. If you can, you need to think of someone you really don’t like or someone you fear. Depending on your politics maybe it would be someone on the hard left or the hard right? Perhaps a Leaver or a Remainer? Someone from a different religion or ethnicity? Perhaps it’s closer to home and you really don’t get on with one of your family, or neighbours or, God forbid, even with someone here in church! Would you help that person if you found them in trouble? Would you accept their help if you were the one needing it?… And not just as a one-off but as a long-term commitment?
Our scriptures today ask us to choose life. To be known for our faith, our love and our compassion for all, even those that we don’t particularly get on with. And with God’s help it should be easy for us, within our grasp. In our hearts and in our mouths.
So, what kind of person do you want to be? How do we want to be known as a church? What is our identity as a nation? And what are we going to do about it?
George and Marjorie
And that is where I was going to end this. To say Amen. But over in our church in Bury we provide a home for a monthly social for refugees and asylum seekers. It’s run by a group called The Eagles Wing. One of the helpers was called George Abendstern. He looked a bit like Albert Einstein! He arrived in Britain in 1938 and was part of a small community of German Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, who settled in Rochdale.
George died a few weeks ago, aged 88. He was a committed Communist and Trade Unionist, so you may or may not agree with his politics. But he campaigned against injustice and inequality all his life. In particular, he very loudly spoke up for the rights of the Palestinians. Quite remarkable for a Jew. His non-church going friend, Sue, told us that his life exemplified what it is to be a good Samaritan.
And Sue told us about Marjorie, who also died recently, aged 98. She was local, got a First Class degree in Physics and helped to develop Radar during the war. She then taught Maths at Bury Grammar. Her son chose to read the parable of the Samaritan at her memorial service. He said it was “to illustrate her love of all people, of whatever race or creed, and of her belief in humanity and justice”.
Which reading will sum up your life?
What a different world it would be if, when the time comes, that same reading was chosen to sum up the lives of more people – especially those in, or aspiring to, national leadership. But, when it comes to our end, yours and mine, will it be the Samaritan reading that’s chosen for us too, by those who know us best? Amen
[‘What kind of people’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St James, Heywood on July 14 2019. It’s based on Deuteronomy 30: 9-14; Colossians 1: 1-14 and Luke 10:25-37. For Ian’s next offering, on Sarah and Abraham, please press here and for more by Ian please follow this link.]
- Amy Jill Levine – Short stories by Jesus: the enigmatic parables of a controversial Rabbi