Sunday, April 6, 2014

Singing in Tongues

I quit singing today.  Well, not quite.  I quit attending rehearsals for the Fairmont State University Collegiate and Community production of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” an oratorio that has enjoyed a revival in recent years.  I hope to rejoin the choir in the fall when, in all likelihood, some new musical project will be underway.


So why did a self-professed lover of music, amateurish though he may be, abandon this particular commitment?  Initially, I looked forward to the chance to learn another classical masterpiece, and even before rehearsals began, I purchased a CD of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus production, eager to get a jump on the music.  But sitting down and listening to the CD the first time left me underwhelmed.  Yes, there were moments of music at its finest, particularly with the arias, but something about some of the choral portions sounded too triumphalist, bombastic or pounding for my tastes.  So, now I must struggle with the guilt of being a quitter.  (Not to worry, I’m old enough to get over it.)


My initial Orff “turn-off” persisted, and subsequent reflection has provided some possible clues as to why.  An immediate cause was my incapacity with the lyrics.   Rather than Latin and German typically sung in major musical works, these 25 songs from a collection of 250 poems, written around the 11th or 12th century, are set in Medieval Latin and Low German, and sometimes both languages are intermingled along with some French words thrown in for good measure.[i]  Getting all of the syllables pronounced and right where they belong in the complex rhythms of the music proved overwhelming for this 72-year-old.  It felt as if the music meant to impose impossible tongue-twisters of nonsense syllables with no point.  And that may have been the point.


The lyrics, according to on-line sources, were penned by defrocked monks and minstrels known for rioting, gambling and excessive self-indulgence.[ii]  One might conjecture that these formerly religious turned rebels traded their monastic and celibate habits for lives of reveling and carousing.  Having received exceptional academic learning, they possessed ample skill to express their more profligate proclivities in the literature of satire and sacrilege.  If their radical departure from religion to irreverence is what happened, it wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last, that stringent, repressed indoctrination has erupted into contemptuous excesses.


Did Orff succeed in his musical setting of capturing “over-the-top” reverberations of wildly excessive self-indulgence, and is that what jarred my sensibilities?  Possibly, but if so, then it’s no wonder that Carmina is experiencing a revival.  It accurately depicts our own time and may be a more apt description now than it was then, and for that reason a valid musical reflection.  Even so, something is nudging me away.


So again, why?  One insight emerged from the deep mystery of repressed memories during a telephone conversation with a friend, a trained and gifted tenor and fellow music aficionado, who listened as I talked about my Carmina dilemma.  Suddenly memories of my Dad surfaced.  He was profoundly deaf since the age of three from Scarlet Fever.  (My Mom also was deaf, but hers was from birth due to genetic causation.)  Unlike persons born deaf who usually do not develop a comprehension of what hearing is, since they have never sensed it, my father was acutely aware of what he had lost, and his method for coping involved accommodating behavior in which he often pretended to “hear” what people said to him, and would even respond using guttural nonsense syllables he imagined were intelligible.  His hearing co-workers and friends mostly joined in the pretense, rarely questioning assumptions of what was being communicated.  Given the dynamics of such a situation, one can easily imagine how confusion could result in misunderstanding and anger.  Dad was usually in a foul mood at home, and the least provocation could unleash a rage-filled torrent of thunderous gibberish that emanated from the apartment where we lived and rattled the walls and windows of neighboring units.  Often the mindless bellowing, mingled with sign language, was directed at me.  My sister had the good sense to run and hide in her room at the first sign of an eruption.  But I usually was not permitted that luxury.


The resurfacing of a memory about my father during a telephone conversation about my frustration with Carmina carries a significant connection.  Somehow at an unconscious level, I was associating the wild, seemingly nonsensical exuberance of Orff’s music with the wild, out-of-control howling of my father.  Obviously, the two are not the same thing, but the emotional brain cannot distinguish between differences (in this case) of seemingly boisterous blather, but rather, lumps them together as if they are the same.  And if the original source of the emotion is experienced negatively, that same sensation will transfer to all phenomena that inadvertently hooks it.  That may be a clue as to my less than excited reception of Carmina.  Unfortunately, further on-line research revealed that Orff’s only child, a daughter (born to the first of his four wives), was rejected by Orff and that her harsh estimation of her father was, “He had his life and that was that.”[iii]  (Sound self-absorbed?)


There is another connection that emerged.   As a three-year-old, speech was “developmentally delayed.”  Why should I talk?  Communication was achieved through hand gestures.   A neighboring family realized I could hear, and through their efforts, I entered kindergarten a year early (there were no preschool programs back then), and received speech therapy before there ever was such a thing.  My sister was born about the same time, and her introduction into the hearing world was aided by my growing language skills.


I was lucky that a neighboring family took an interest in me, right?  Well, partially.  They were very devout Christians, the husband and father a baker by trade but also credentialed as an Assembly of God Pentecostal Pastor.  They were a very loving family, and often I was with them when they went to their church several times a week.  Their services were very “lively” in a kind of crushing way.  That’s where I witnessed “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon where uncontrolled nonsense syllables spew out of mouths in every conceivable pitch the human ear can hear while undulating bodies and flinging arms fill the space in a gigantic, unrelenting, shrieking ecstasy.  (Subliminal orgiastic carousing?)


One memory from that time stands out.  I was six or seven.  We were returning in their maroon Kaiser- Frazer car one dark night, from another of their church services, and the conversation turned to my parents and their deafness.  The well-meaning Pentecostal Pastor and his wife communicated their message in words any child could understand: if my parents would get saved, get right with God, they could be healed and hear like normal people.  Not aware then, but only much later after years of psychotherapy, did I realize the damage that conversation (and probably others like it) did in terms of my perception of my parents.  The doorway that opened my entrance into the hearing world brought with it confusion not unlike the raving gobbledygook of my neighboring family’s religion.  It may be that my initial hearing of Carmina hooked the emotional repulsion I feel toward a religion gone wild with senseless, unintelligible craziness. 


It is never possible to ferret out all the reasons for emotional blocks and/or resistance to things happening in the present.  But recalling some of the memories may help to make partial sense of what is essentially determinative nonsense.  That first hearing of Carmina triggered hidden emotional concomitants that spawned an “ugh” response, and subsequent inquiry did little to keep that response in check.  Life is an endless web of convergences, some of which we realize, most of which we don’t.  To the extent that we know, however little, we are empowered to choose what to do.  For me, right now, out of deference for both positive and negative gleanings from the past, I choose to opt out and not sing in tongues.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Reply to my Congressman

I received a response from my Congressional representative the other day and decided to reply. Below is his letter and below that is my response.  Some of you (perhaps many or all) will disagree with my reply.  That's fine.  If there are particular points you'd like to address, please feel free to comment.  Perhaps this might serve as grist for a constructive conversation.


October 11, 2013
Rev. James E. Norton
13 Fairway Lane
Fairmont, WV 26554-2012
Dear Rev. Norton:
Thank you for contacting me about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. I appreciate hearing from you on this important issue.
The health and safety of West Virginians is a priority of mine. However, the President’s health care plan is a bad policy that increases health care costs, explodes the deficit and hurts small businesses.
As implementation of the health care law continues, the American people have started to see more problems and failings associate with it. The pre-existing conditions program has already been halted by the Obama administration because it ran out of funds 8 months early. The Obama administration has also delayed a number of provisions including a delay on the employer mandate for a year.
Obamacare will cost America $1.76 trillion over its first 10 years and add 17 new taxes or penalties. Insurance premiums, which according to the President were going to be reduced by up to $2,500 per year, will increase for new participants by as much as 413%. Small business owners and individuals have raised numerous concerns about the costs of premiums, the ability to keep the same coverage, and the 127 million hours per year that business owners, families, and health care providers will now spend strictly on compliance paperwork.
Under the law, tens of millions of Americans are at risk of losing their coverage, and employers have already been reported as shifting workers to part-time or 29 hours to avoid Obamacare rules. All Americans should have the right to make their own health care choices. Restricting choice and punishing individuals and employers is the wrong way to reform health care.
The goal is to replace Obamacare with common sense solutions focused on affordability first, not a Washington run, top-down approach. Reforms such as purchasing insurance options across state lines, making health care portable between jobs, creation of state-based risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions, and medical liability reform will help bring down cost and expand access to care without a top-down system.
Again, thank you for contacting my office.  If you have any further questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact my office.  Regarding issues before Congress, please contact my Washington, D.C. office by phone at (202) 225-4172; for constituent services, my Morgantown office at (304) 284-8506.  I also encourage you to visit my website at, where you can send me an email and sign up for my email newsletter.
David B. McKinley, P.E.
Member of Congress

October 14, 2013

Congressman David B. McKinley, P.E.
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.

 Dear Representative McKinley,

 Thank you for your response to my inquiry about the current crisis and failure of responsible reasoning in Congress.  Your observations suggest the impasse is over the Affordable Health Care Act, which became law three years ago and, for the most part, was upheld by the Supreme Court.  Even though the law is patterned after a similar program developed in Massachusetts at the initiation of a Republican governor, a state program that has reduced health care costs over-all, Republicans in Congress at the behest of certain business tycoons and political extremists are attempting to squash it.  Strangely, the law complies with sound market-driven measures that Republicans historically have endorsed, One has to wonder what really is going on here.

Your letter reiterates the same "old" talking points that keep getting hammered in some sort of propaganda campaign, most of which have been disproved, even by your own Congressional Budget Office. Already, the AHA is accomplishing worthy reforms in the overpriced, under-performing health care system.  These gains are being accomplished by market-incentives, encouraging fewer hospital stays, fewer ER visits, and unnecessary costly procedures.  Now when I visit my doctor, he is able with a few key-strokes on his lap-top to gain access to my entire medical history, and that makes him even more proficient than he always has been in providing for my care.  The AHA is promoting precisely that kind of advancement.  The removal of life-time limits and pre-conditions clauses has even now saved many families from economic ruin.

Obviously, such a massive new approach is going to encounter glitches.  Those unforeseen delays in registering new health insurance applications helps explain how widely popular the new program is and its public demand.  To use such to-be-expected "hiccups" as justification for gutting the program is deceptive representation, to say the least.

The sad reality is that in America we pay more for medical care than any other developed countries, but the health of American citizens is far from mirroring the measure of resources we pour into health care.  Where is the money going? Could it be the pockets of inordinately paid upper-level hospital and drug company executives?  The AHA is, once again, demonstrating a reasonable approach to payment for services, which probably will have long-term consequences for those who have been riding the medical and health insurance gravy train.  My opinion here does not include actual medical practitioners.  I have been blessed with exceptional doctors and other health care providers, and I have only the highest praise and respect for their commitment and care.  The problem, it seems to me, has to do with those who run medical institutions and drug companies and "make a killing" in the health market.  The AHA will impose restrictions on their ability to do so.

You argue that the AHA is a government, top-down approach.  I disagree.  It is a market-driven enterprise connected to quality care and successful outcomes: fewer hospitalizations due to pro-active intervention, working more closely with patients to ensure healthier outcomes, and in the long-run leading to a healthier country.

Certainly you ran for office out of a deep desire to "promote the general welfare," and as a Republican your aim is to conserve those values that reflect a humane American spirit. Given the attributes that have already come into play because of the AHA, I cannot help but wonder why the intense hostility toward it.  The changes in health care you espouse are already a part of the AHA.  Is the problem that while the original program in Massachusetts was Republican in origin, the present national program was Democratic led.  Are we dealing with political spite here?  Representative McKinley, please give serious reconsideration to ending the destructive shut-down, raising the debt-ceiling, and stopping the craziness over Obamacare.


James E. Norton


Monday, July 22, 2013

No Longer Inferior

St. Luke 10:38-42
A Sermon Prepared and Delivered by James E. Norton, Guest Preacher
First Presbyterian Church, Fairmont, WV
July 21, 2013

            Last Sunday, the Gospel Lesson was that story Jesus told about the “Good Samaritan.”  Today’s Gospel Lesson tells about Mary & Martha.  Those of us who grew up in the church have probably heard both stories as many times as the number of years we spent in Sunday School classes. Consequently, being so familiar, whenever we hear them again, we might catch ourselves yawning and thinking, “Ho-hum, that Samaritan yarn or that Mary & Martha tale again, and then settling in for a much-needed nap.  Good stories, however, like fine works of art, always have the potential for new insight, for seeing something in a different way, something we hadn’t noticed before.  Perhaps that might be possible today.

          Possibly last Sunday you recognized that the Good Samaritan account was about racial prejudice.  The hatred of Jews toward the Samaritans was ferocious.  Think of the absolute worst names you have heard applied to members of another race, and you may come close to the intensity of the hostility that Jews harbored against the Samaritans in Jesus’ day.  Jesus, by casting a Samaritan as a hero, was scandalously shoving the faces of his fellow upright, decent Jewish citizens in the mud of their violence toward another race.

          That’s called prejudice, that is, prejudging or profiling people on the basis of stereotypes rather than facts.  Prejudice can lead to atrocious injustice and devastating destruction of human life, as we have witnessed so dramatically in our nations recent history.

          Today’s story is also about prejudice, but this time directed toward gender.  The details of the story are relatively simple.  Jesus visits two sisters, Mary and Martha.  While Martha is engrossed in the many details of her social responsibilities as hostess, Mary is sitting with Jesus listening to his teaching rather than helping Martha.  The usual meaning we derive from this story is that Mary, unlike Martha, was free from the prejudices that women are totally responsible for the housework and seeing to the comfort of the males in the household.  She was also free from the prohibition that restricted women from receiving a Rabbi’s teaching.  Women in that day were forbidden to receive an education or even to come near the Torah, the law of God.  One saying among the Jewish people of the time was, “Better to burn the Torah than to let a woman see it.”  A prayer that still appears in the Jewish Prayer Book, prayed by Jewish men not only in Jesus’ day, but by some even today, goes like this:

"Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a Gentile."
"Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a slave."
“Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a woman."

          Prior to my retirement as a United Methodist pastor, one of my more enjoyable responsibilities was working with junior high youngsters in confirmation classes.  One activity I usually arranged for the participants was a visit to a Jewish synagogue or temple.  Such visits gave the youngsters a chance to become more familiar with the Jewish roots of our Christian heritage, and in every instance Jewish congregations were gracious and hospitable.

During one such visit, when the Friday evening worship service was over, the rabbi spent time talking with the confirmation students about the symbols and architecture in the temple.  Then he gathered the teenage boys and took them to the tabernacle (where the Torah scrolls are kept under lock and key), and removing one of the scrolls, rolled it out and began to show the boys how to read in Hebrew.  The woman who co-taught the confirmation class with me, in an attempt to better see and hear what the rabbi was explaining to the boys, moved toward the area were the scroll was rolled out, and evidently got too close.  Before she could get so close as to be within reach of the scroll, the rabbi hurriedly rolled the scroll up, placed it back in the tabernacle, and promptly slammed the doors shut and locked them.  That was the way things were about thirty/forty years ago.  But in more recent times, when making such visits to temple worship services, rabbis have been far more inclusive, allowing both male and female class members the opportunity to examine the Torah scrolls up close.  Things are changing even if it is some 2000 years since Mary was regarded by Jesus as worthy of learning.

          A dear friend and colleague, a woman who grew up in our neighboring community of Monogah, was a trail blazer in helping the people called “Methodists” in West Virginia to break out of some of their patterns of locking people into traditional (and sometimes oppressive) roles.  Back in the fifties before anyone hardly considered the possibility of women becoming ordained ministers, Elizabeth was convinced that she was called into the ministry.  She began the process of meeting the educational requirements and the other steps necessary to become eligible for ministry in The United Methodist Church.  The first time she applied for a “License to Preach,” she was turned down flat.  The District Superintendent who chaired the committee responsible for granting licenses said, “There is no way a woman can make it in the ministry.”

          But Elizabeth knew herself to be called by God.  So she stayed in school and continued to complete the steps toward ordination.  One year later she applied again for her license.  Again she met before that same Superintendent and that same committee.  When the Superintendent picked up where he left off the year before in grilling Elizabeth, even going so far as to question her sanity, Elizabeth responded: “Dr. Shaffer, there are two things I cannot change—one is that God made me a woman; the other is that God called me to be a minister.  No matter what, those are facts that I will have to carry with me to the grave.”  Dr. Shaffer’s response was blunt: “Give her her license!”

          And give her her license they did.  And along with it they gave her the dubious honor of serving what had to be one of the most demanding and difficult charges comprising several congregations located in one of the most remote regions of our state.  That same District Superintendent later admitted that he didn’t expect Elizabeth to last three months in the churches he (deliberately) appointed her to serve.  She stayed five years in that appointment.

          But at great cost!  Most people were unwilling to accept a woman minister.  And so when she stepped foot in their churches, she was assailed.  And throughout the active years of her ministry, she has suffered a number of indignities, including graphic threats on her life and lewd phone calls in the dead of night, calls from men that went so far as to give detailed pornographic descriptions of what they could do for her to make a real woman out of her.  Does one ever recover from such awful invasions into one’s psychic sensibilities?

          Nevertheless, Elizabeth proved faithful to her sense of calling and helped the people called Methodists to be more open to the gifts and graces that all people bring to life.  Just as Mary in today’s Gospel lesson somehow knew she could step out of the socially and legally assigned women’s roles, so Elizabeth has helped at least that corner of the earth called West Virginia to understand that the kind of gospel Jesus taught calls women, and indeed all people regardless of how they are perceived to be different, into equal membership in the circle of disciples.

          Looking more closely not only at this morning’s Bible story but at the whole body of Jesus’ teaching, we cannot escape the conclusion that Jesus was very critical of the tendency to think that leadership means hierarchy, power, control and prestige reserved for certain classes or just a select few.  How often, throughout my 46 years as a pastor, have there been power struggles!  How often have there been either passive aggressive or outright fierce fights that viewed leadership as a matter of dominance and submission (When I get into office, I’ll make things happen the way I think they should happen), rather than viewing leadership in terms of mutually shared responsibility.  That is, viewing leadership as a mutually shared responsibility in which all people are included as sisters and brothers and respected for the unique perceptions and abilities that are theirs to offer. 

          Remember when years ago people in churches, regardless of who they were (doctor, lawyer, professor, pastor), referred to one another simply as brother or sister—Good morning, Sister Elise or Hello Brother Jim; not as Dr. or Rev. so and so?  Perhaps people in those days understood something about the essential nature of our relationship in the church.  In the church we are not related as masters and servants, but as sisters and brothers.  Service in the church is not an opportunity for power-hungry people to find another power trip, nor a sanctimonious way of justifying the servitude of the enslaved.  It is a new way of seeing that overthrows all models of distinctions in relationships.  Women, as well as other classes of people sometimes considered inferior, are called out of such second-class roles to become equals—sisters and brothers in the community of liberated humanity.

          The East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also called the “Cathedral of Hope,” is a congregation that has learned how to be church.  The church building, a massive structure taking up an entire city block, may well be the largest church in the Pittsburgh region.  One Sunday when attending there, the first person who greeted me was a middle-aged woman wearing a plain dress made of flowered-printed cotton material, something many women would probably wear when doing housework.  The woman’s broad smile as she handed me a bulletin revealed several missing front teeth.  But it was the most welcoming smile I have ever seen when entering a church as a visitor or stranger—much friendlier than the first time I entered this church.  Then going into the sanctuary, I couldn’t help but notice the cross-section of cultures and races gathered there: African-Americans, Asians, Latinos Whites.  Also present were individuals whose sexual orientation was what some consider different, same-sex couples, one of which was two young women who sat arm-in-arm, one resting her head on the shoulder of the other, and occasionally both engaging in fondling, and no one even seemed to notice.  A Hispanic family of four sat in front of me, and during part of the service the oldest child, roughly ten years old, and I played a game of peek-a-boo.  This is what God intends for the church and what Jesus has in mind when he speaks about the “kingdom.”

This is the freed and reconciled humanity that the Gospel proclaims, and which, to this congregation’s credit, is already being fulfilled in the selection of a woman to be the pastor and in a working relationship between congregation and pastor that is contributing to the greater good of both church and community.  There is still a long way to go, but a major roadblock has been torn down.  May the rest of the journey find us walking and worshiping alongside poor and rich, African-American, Asian, Latino and White, gay and straight, left and right, all, in this place of Christ.

           Presbyterian Pastor Joy Douglas Strome in an issue of CHRISTIAN CENTURY suggests that a modern version of this morning’s story about Martha’s irritation at Mary for not helping out in the kitchen might have Jesus saying something like, “You’re absolutely right, Martha.  What was I thinking?  Why don’t we all come into the kitchen and help with the dishes and talk while we work?”[1]  Hmmm, not a bad idea!

          Eternal God, we give thanks that you call us and all people to be your children and to share the life you give us.  Keep us from retreating into a tribal religion that makes exclusive claims on your love, from thinking that we have a special claim on you.  Save us from the arrogance of believing that any are more deserving of power and prestige than others, or that the free world is the world you love, or that the prosperous are rewarded by you, or that our denomination is the one that has your special blessing.

           May we always be open to seeing all human beings as your children and as our sisters and brothers in the human race, and may we realize our need to be redeemed, restored, remade until we regard people more than we do power.

          We ask your special presence, O God, for persons in need: for military personnel and civilians who are in harms way in war-torn countries; for those who are ill, especially _____; for those who are lonely; for those struggling with severe disappointment and distressed by some tragic turn of events; for those who mourn, particularly those closest to Rose Minnie, Julia Heffner, Charlotte Lagoni, and Alfred Lemley, and for these specific persons about whose situations we are concerned and for whom we now pray in silence.

          These things we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior and Brother, who taught us this prayer we now say together:

[1] “Living by the Word,” by Joy Douglas Strome, THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, July 10, 2007, p. 18.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


St. Luke 10:25-37
A Sermon Prepared and Delivered by James E. Norton, Guest Preacher
Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church, Wheeling, WV
July 14, 2013

            It’s rather curious that we listen to the parables that Jesus told, especially considering how in one way or another, the parables include all people (the people we call “good” and the people we call “bad”) in what Jesus calls the “Kingdom of God.”  One difficulty for us when reading the Bible, living as we do in a democracy, is its language of feudalism: kingdoms, kings and lords; empires and emperors; masters and slaves, concepts that seem so out-of-step with our more equalitarian ways of the popular vote, electing officials to represent us in a government of, by and for all the people.  But then, maybe there’s more feudalism in our thinking than we realize.  Remember the Christmas card Dick Cheny sent out while Vice President, quoting this line from Benjamin Franklin: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without (God’s) notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without (God’s) aid?”  Perhaps our thinking is more feudal than we’re willing to admit.  But I digress, and that’s a topic for another time.

The more central issue of this make-believe story that Jesus told is that he takes human beings we keep separate in our minds, and he puts them together and calls them “Kingdom.”  Jesus, who associated with the common people and whom the common people heard gladly, who dined with tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners, includes everyone in the same community.

          Look at the title given to this morning’s parable we have just heard: “The Good Samaritan.”  There is no way a Samaritan could be good from the point of view of Jesus’ fellow Jewish citizens in the first century.  Samaritans were people whom first-century Jews loved to hate for what they thought were good reasons.  Generations before that time, Samaritans had cooperated with invaders while the faithful Jews had been rounded up and exiled, carried off by the invading armies to foreign lands, and the Samaritans then snatched up the good Jewish lands.  Samaritans also intermarried with the invaders and were held in contempt by upright decent Jews as “half-breeds.”  Samaritans were therefore viewed as political traitors and as racially inferior.  A few years before Jesus told this parable, some Samaritans took their pack animals into the holy places of Judaism and let them defecate there to show their disdain for the Jewish religion, so Samaritans were regarded as blasphemers as well.  Think of the worst names you have heard applied to members of another race or to persons whose lifestyle is different from what you regard as “normal,” and you may come close to the intensity of the hostility that existed between Jews and Samaritans.

          There’s another detail in this story that we usually overlook.  The priest, as Jesus tells the story, is going down the road (that is, from Jerusalem to Jericho).  Jesus takes away any excuse the priest might have for not stopping to help.  If the priest had been going up the road (that is, from Jericho to Jerusalem), then he might be justified for not stopping, for he might have been on his way to perform priestly services in the Temple.  There were roughly 5,000 priests in Jesus’ day and each was paid a yearly salary through the taxes collected by the Temple.  Yet, each priest worked at the Temple only once or twice a year.  Nice work if you can get it.  If the priest in this story were on his way to the Temple, stopping to help someone not only might delay him from reaching the Temple on time but also might make him ritually unclean.  As a priest, if he were to touch someone regarded unclean, he would then be ineligible to serve in the Temple until after he had gone through purification rituals, rituals that would take weeks to complete.  But this priest is not on his way to the Temple in Jerusalem, he is going the other direction.  He is returning to his 360-day-a-year vacation and still does not help.

          How can we apply this parable to our lives today?  Try this.  Imagine that you are the person who has been beaten up and left by the side of the road or down in a ditch.  Your pastor drives by and notices something, but he is too busy to stop.  Some of your friends in church are on their way to a Presbytery meeting and because they’re running late, they don’t even see you lying there in a ditch.  Now think of the person you would least expect or even want to stop.  Think of the person whom you consider to be evil.  Maybe it’s the person for whom you still hold a grudge because of the time he or she beat you up in high school.  Maybe for you it would be a bare-chested skinhead with tattoos all over his body and earrings protruding from every conceivable orifice.  Or it could be a modern day equivalent of Adolph Hitler or a drug dealer or a gay prostitute.  Considering my luck, the person reaching down to help me would probably be someone like Pat Robertson or Joel Olsteen, or Michelle Bachman or Ted Cruz or some other representative of the religious and political extreme right, or a former bishop who went out of his way to publicly embarrass me, or a member of the KKK, or one of my homophobic colleagues in the ministry.  Visualize, if you can, Adolph Hitler as the Good Samaritan of the week.  Mind boggling, isn’t it?  But that’s precisely what Jesus was doing when he cast a Samaritan as the helping one.

          “Gospel” means good news.  Where is the good news in all of this?  If we see good as coming only from those we consider to be good, there is very little hope; for, comparatively speaking, we see very few persons as good.  But if we see good coming from those we consider bad, then there is a great deal more hope, for we see many persons as bad.  The news is filled everyday with those we consider bad; so there are vastly far more resources for good news.

          Who are the Samaritans today?  Bringing the story into the present day, it becomes clear that what we are talking about is prejudice.  In the parable as Jesus told it, the “good” people could not see beyond race.  The root meaning of prejudice is “to prejudge,” to “profile” in a judgmental way based on stereotypes rather than facts.  Prejudice has something to do with the way we may tend to judge certain characteristics or behavior as “bad.”  Sometimes it seems that we humans are forever finding some group to be the object of our prejudice.  When I was growing up, it was the communists, and there was much to-do about the “red menace” and those “pink-o” sympathizers.  Then there was the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all the hatred we witnessed in those turbulent years.  When Dr. King was assassinated, one of his colleagues was asked to state Dr. King’s greatest accomplishment.  Very seriously, the reply came, “He taught Gov. George Wallace how to say ‘NEGRO’!”

          Sometimes, I find myself questioning whether our nation’s present political process with seemingly impossible gridlock and outlandish combativeness is not just about honest disagreements in health care, immigration and the other problems besetting us, but also, and maybe more so, about more deeply-seated prejudices.  If there is truth in that possibility, then it is sad, very sad indeed!

          An unfortunate and tragic occurrence that took place on July 3rd, 2000, in the town where I live may point to a present-day target of prejudice.  A young, disabled Afro-American man, Arthur “JR” Warren, Jr., was brutally beaten by two very strong adolescents who afterwards mangled his injured body by running their car over him four times.  Some argue that it was a hate crime against an individual who was considered “bad” because of the way in which he was different; others say that the brutal murder was an attempt on the part of the two youths to cover-up their own behavior involving the victim.  Either way it probably was a hate crime in that if the perpetrators were trying to keep past indiscretions with the victim from becoming public, then they were acting out of a fear that they would be judged as “bad” when their secret was out.  The prejudice of society against certain people would become directed at them. 

          As the slaying of “JR” gained national attention, the focus shifted more and more on his homosexuality than on the qualities reported by those who knew him: his gentleness and kindness, his quiet, courteous and shy manner.  A week after JR’s murder, a vigil took place in front of the Courthouse, a vigil made up of mostly church people.  Among them were the Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers carrying huge posters that read, “God hates fags,” and “Fags die; God laughs.”  Such beliefs about God’s attitude toward LGTB individuals as exhibited in such persons as the Rev. Phelps clearly demonstrate how prejudicial and hate-filled humans can become.  It is the very same kind of hatred that the Jews felt toward the Samaritans.

          But the posters carried by Rev. Phelps and his followers were not the only banners present at the vigil.  There were other people on the other side of the street who carried signs like “Christ professed love, not hate.”  Which signs came closer to reflecting the understanding and teachings of Jesus?

          When Greg Luganis, who at one time was probably America’s best competitive diver, disclosed his homosexuality and the fact that he is HIV positive, he became the target of many Christians who see their responsibility as condemning the likes of Luganis.  Nearly everywhere he went, there were crowds of protesters—Christians!—with their hate-filled posters and their outcries of contempt.  Someone asked Greg, “How do you handle it?”  He replied, “One cannot respond with hatred to all the hatred in the world and expect to live a full life.”  Who is the real Christian?


          Gracious God, by whom our life is sustained, we praise your name for your presence that never fails, even when we have failed you.  We give thanks that by your love we know love and are able to love; that by your justice we are able to know what justice requires of us; that by your peace we learn what we must do to be peacemakers; that by your forgiveness we know both how to give and how to receive the forgiveness that can bind up this world’s wounds and heal our divisions.

          Hear us as we offer intercession for all who stand in special need of your blessing.  We pray for those who are ill, especially _____.  We pray for all who mourn the loss of loved ones.  We pray for those in this time of year who are on the road on vacation, that their time away may be refreshing and relaxing, and that they may return safely home again.  We pray for those most directly caught in the madness of war.  We pray for the perpetrators and victims of violence.  We pray for all who seek in earnest and do not find you.  We pray for all who lack food and shelter.  Bless hurting persons, O God, with the awareness of your presence and the strength of spirit to rise above their reasons for despair into a higher hope.

          These things we ask in the name of our Savior, the Jew who praised a Samaritan; who interceded for an adulteress; who ministered alike to Jew and Gentile, slave and free, women and men; who was not afraid of your kind of loving; and who taught us this prayer we now pray together, saying: