Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 14th July 2013
14 July 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
Research published this week in the journal Frontiers in Psychology has suggested that when choirs sing in unison, their heartbeats also synchronise. Swedish researchers tell us that coordinated breathing leads to a coordinated heartbeat, and a synchronised pulse. This will perhaps be unsurprising news for singers: the combination of intention and group dynamic is a powerful one, which when honed creatively will often have physical and emotional impact, beyond strict audibility. That heartbeats should unite during what is essentially a corporate activity may be physiologically interesting, but perhaps it ought not be surprising.
The story at the centre of today’s Gospel is often read as a parable pointing towards an individual ethic of good living: if you google “Good Samaritan” this weekend, you will discover that the three top news stories are “Good Samaritan injured while trying to help at semi-crash”, “Good Samaritan puts up 500K to free Texas teen in prison”, and “Good Samaritans pay price at rescue.” It’s a mark of just how thoroughly some phrases from scripture have entered into our everyday language that people automatically know what you mean if you say someone is a Good Samaritan. However, important though this is, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a simple exhortation to good behaviour: this is to misunderstand the context. St Luke’s Gospel is a very public proclamation, in some ways the most public of all the gospels: the evangelist, we are told at the very beginning of the Gospel is writing to “Theophilus” to lay down what should be considered an authoritative public account of the Good News. And, therefore, in this story, he introduces us to two representative public figures, indicated as such grammatically in the original text: the priest, restricted by the purity regulations of the Jewish Law, and the Levite also symbolically representing the leadership of the people. This is as much society critique as it is individual moral instruction. And of course, it was the one outside the system, the Samaritan, who revealed how the society really ought to be structured – surely a source of surprise to the hostile lawyer who had originally asked Jesus the question.
So, this is an encouragement towards public virtue, in an original setting which needed some sharp truth-telling. Our own politics today could do with a dose of this. We increasingly risk using the language of society, rights and justice, without spending more than a perfunctory amount of time considering what such gifts might mean. The philosophy of Aristotle, which did so much to shape the Christian West for many hundreds of years, often through the filter of the theology of St Thomas Aquinas, insisted that public life was dependent on civic virtue where political duties outranked political rights. Some 2400 years on from Aristotle, we can now perhaps see that duties need rights and vice versa, but if there is a deficit in one of these concepts, it is surely that our political discourse risks becoming unbalanced with talk of rights without duties – especially duties to the vulnerable and the exposed. Aristotle, and his many commentators, thunder “you are what you do” – good character is developed by educating yourself in good habits, good patterns, by training yourself in the virtues. Each human person achieves their own existence by contributing this pattern to public life.
As well as being a summons to collective virtue, the story of the Good Samaritan is also a warning about vice: especially about how groups (societies) can so easily turn in upon themselves in the face of the (dangerous/threatening/dependent – delete as appropriate) other. Our own social narrative is littered with such examples, both outside and within the Church. All too often it is seemingly less-costly to find victims and scapegoats, than it is to invest in the time and the energy to broaden out a sense of mutual belonging, responsibility and trust. Those of us who are in the Church tend to recognise this – much of the time, we are quite good at mutual belonging and responsibility – but even with the best of intentions it is possible to somehow miss the mark. This Gospel teaches us that it is not enough just to listen to those who are excluded or marginalised – that’s far too easy and can be a nice comfortable rearranging of the metaphorical deckchairs just to avoid deeper issues; rather, we should approach those who are marginalised with the confidence that they have something to give, something to teach us. This is the example of the Good Samaritan, unsurprising, after all, in the Kingdom where those considered last are actually first.
So many people understand the Parable of the Good Samaritan just as an injunction to individual good living. It is more than that – it is both a critique of and a blueprint for how the Christian society might act. But, as ever, this begins with the conversion of the individual human heart. It starts with you and me. From there, we can consider how the collective heartbeat of our society can beat in time, in the tempo of the Gospel, synchronised with the primal life-pulse of the Lord’s Resurrection. We call that heartbeat the Church, herself also in need of that continuous conversion of heart in every age. This should not be forbidding or terrifying for those who are repeatedly bidden by the psalmist to Sing a new song to the Lord. In his letter to the Colossians, St Paul prays that this Church might bear fruit in every good work, as they grow in the knowledge of the Lord. These two factors are intrinsically linked. The Church is not an NGO, a band of do-gooders who somehow get off on random acts of kindness. Rather, the collective heartbeat of the Church should spring from singing the Lord’s new song – from being so rooted in the Resurrection, that the old patterns of selfishness, scapegoating, self-centredness no longer have any power. It is a Christian duty to bind up wounds rather than inflict them, to risk being involved with the pain of the world rather than fleeing from it, simply because Christ is there.
So, live well, act kindly, but don’t just do it in a vacuum as if somehow you can earn your own salvation. That would, in any case, be impossible. At the end of our Epistle today, St Paul reminds us that the action is God’s – it is God who has rescued us, and transferred us into the Kingdom of his Beloved Son. Our response? Thankfulness – and perhaps as Meister Eckhart wrote, “If thankfulness were our only prayer, it would be enough.” However, as the twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar put it so neatly, “What makes thankfulness truly Christian thankfulness, is fruitfulness.” The gospel has been bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, St Paul tells us. Let it bear fruit in us. Not just as atomised human beings, but as communities and societies whose pulse and heartbeat are united. The place we breathe most deeply together is here in the Eucharist, the great Thanksgiving. From here we learn how to bear fruit, wherever we are from, wherever we do, whoever we are. This week the parish priest of the Catholic Cathedral in Aleppo wrote that many Christians in that community are now attending mass every day – they even intend to begin the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius at the end of this month. Especially in situations of threat and danger, it is in the Eucharist that our heartbeats are synchronised, here we learn how to bear fruit. It is here that we are told by the Lord, corporately and as individuals, “Go, and do likewise.”