Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Proper 10, Year C: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

While traveling in the West, the young Mark Twain was often in debt. Writing to a creditor, Twain quoted Benjamin Franklin’s proverb, “Time is money.” He then applied this proverb to his own situation by saying: “Now, I haven’t got any money, but, as regards time, I am in affluent circumstances, and if you will receipt that bill, I will give you a check for as much time as you think equivalent, and throw you in a couple of hours for your trouble.”[1]

Most of us would not envy Twain’s debt. But when it comes to our time, who among us wouldn’t want to be able to boast of “affluent circumstances?” In spite of our technological sophistication and the proliferation of countless “labor-saving” devices, most of us suffer from time deprivation. We just don’t have enough time. We feel hurried and harassed by the incessant ticking of the clock and the tight schedules on our calendars. And so we find ourselves living in what some researchers call a “time famine.”

Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan illustrates a connection between how we use our time and our capacity to love God and our neighbor.

For most of us, the details of this parable are quite familiar. A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho gets assaulted, beaten, and left for dead on the road. Two religious professionals – a Temple priest and a Levite – see the man and pass him by. A Samaritan comes along, and when he sees the man he’s “moved with pity.” He goes to the man’s aid, tends his wounds, takes him to the safety of an inn, and pays for any further expenses. When we recall that Samaritans were despised by orthodox Jews as both ethnically inferior and as religious heretics, it’s easy to see how Jesus’ hearers might have been shocked by this story. Of all the people in the world, a Samaritan shows the kind of compassion that fulfills the law’s requirement to love our neighbors as ourselves!

But what about that priest and that Levite? Why did they turn a blind eye? Why did they ignore the suffering and the need that was right there in front of their faces?

Part of what makes Jesus’ parables so rich is that he doesn’t answer all of our questions. Jesus doesn’t tell us why these two pious Jews keep on walking. And while there’s no definitive answer to the question, there is one possible explanation that connects with our experience of time. Recall that the priest and the Levite were religious functionaries. Quite possibly, they were in a hurry to get to the Temple to fulfill their religious duties. So it’s not necessarily that they were bad people who didn’t feel compassion when they saw the man lying on the side of the road. On the contrary, given their positions, it’s more reasonable to suppose that they were sincerely religious and moral persons. They just didn’t have time to stop and help.

I’m reminded of an experiment a seminary professor conducted a few years ago for the purpose of ascertaining the factors that enable people to act with compassion and those that hinder acting with compassion.[2]

The professor recruited 15 volunteers. Gathering at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, he gave them sealed instructions. Five of them received instructions to go across campus without delay. Their instructions said: “You have 15 minutes to reach your destination. There’s no time to spare. Do not loiter or do anything else, or your grade will be docked.” This group was called “The High Hurry Group.”

Another five were given instructions to make their way across campus within 45 minutes. They were told: “You have plenty of time, but don’t be too slow.” This was “The Medium Hurry Group.”

The remaining five were told to arrive at their destination anytime before 5 o’clock that afternoon. They had about 3 hours. This was “The Low Hurry Group.”

Unbeknownst to the seminary students, their professor had asked a number of drama majors to position themselves along the path to the appointed campus destination. One was sitting on a bench, his head in his hands, crying so loudly that passers-by could not help but notice. Another student was lying face down on the ground, as though unconscious. Yet another was shaking violently, as though dreadfully ill. All 15 seminary students would have to pass by these obviously needy persons.

So how did they respond?

Well, not a single one of “The High Hurry Group” stopped to help, even though all of them aspired to be ordained as Christian pastors. Two of “The Medium Hurry Group” stopped to assist. And all five of “The Low Hurry Group” responded.

Commenting on this study, Episcopal priest John Claypool writes: “Pressure is a moral category. Any time we get ourselves over-booked or have too many irons in the fire, it affects our ability to respond to the unanticipated. No matter how lofty our idealism, when our date book is filled to the hilt, it shapes what we are moved to do.”[3]

I’m confident that the priest and the Levite, being good Jews, believed fervently in the double-commandment to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. But when pressed for time – even in the face of urgent need – they failed to act on their best convictions.

Pointing to the example of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says to us, “Go and do likewise.” “Regard anyone in need of whom you have knowledge as your neighbors, and seek to assist them.” That much is beyond question.

What is up for grabs is whether or not we will have the time to obey our Lord’s command.

And so today’s gospel lesson invites us to reflect on our use of time. Do we have “too many irons in the fire?” Are we so pressed for time that, in spite of our best intentions, we simply cannot be open to meeting the unanticipated? Do we have so many events crammed into our calendars that there’s literally no time left to love God and to love our neighbors?

Reflecting on these questions is not about determining whether or not we’re good or bad persons. But it is about stewardship. It’s about the stewardship of translating ideals into actions. It’s about managing our time well so that we avoid the extremes of sloth on the one hand, and over-commitment on the other. And it’s about not allowing the clock or our calendar to be our god, dictating whether or not we live our most cherished beliefs.

Time is not our god. But it is our ultimate currency. We must be careful how we spend it.


[1] Quoted in The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, edited by Alex Ayres (New York: Meridian, 1987), p. 230.

[2] As recounted in John Claypool, Stories Jesus Still Tells: The Parables (Cambridge & Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000), pp. 93-94.

[3] Ibid., p. 94.

1 comment:

Joe Rawls said...

Most of our high-level leadership in TEC is of the "High-Hurry" persuasion, even in situations where there is no need for hurry.