In today’s Gospel our Lord tells the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. A solitary man travels the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He is robbed and beaten to the point of death. After several supposedly religious men pass by without stopping to help him, a Samaritan, a member of an ethnic group whom the Hebrews despised because of their religious differences, stops, ministers to him, and brings him to an innkeeper to whom the Samaritan entrusts his care. I wonder what would have happened if Jesus had continued the story. What happened to the wounded man after he recovered? Did he return to his solitary life? Or was he changed to reach out to others and to help them the way he had been helped? These are important questions because each of us, like all mankind, is like that man.
The Christian understanding of human nature is that we are all wounded by humanity’s ancient yet daily decision to be solitary, to walk apart from God. The Book of Genesis describes how, in the beginning of human consciousness, we made the decision to separate ourselves from God by making ourselves the center of the universe. When we left God’s protection, we made ourselves vulnerable to all of the dangerous consequences of human sin, which is another word for self-centeredness.
The thieves who attacked the man represent these dangerous consequences that afflict and wound us: the sins we commit that damage ourselves and others, the sins of others against us, the demonic spiritual forces that seek our destruction, and ultimately, death. The Good Samaritan is God, from whom we estranged ourselves but who stops to help and heal us. The innkeeper where the man convalesces is the Church, whom He empowers through His Holy Spirit and to whom God entrusts His continued work of healing wounded humanity. Now that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has rescued, redeemed, and healed us, how shall we behave? Will we return to our solitary, self-centered ways, or will we commit ourselves to seek out and serve others who have been wounded like us? What shall we do?
The real question is what we think of when we think of the word “ministry.” Is ministry limited to what others do for us, or, more expansively, does ministry include what we do for others? In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “The son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (20.28).” One of Jesus’ core goals was serve others, even to the point of laying down His life on the Cross before being raised from the dead. The purpose of Jesus’ service was not only to heal and redeem humanity, but also to equip us to join him in this life of service. Jesus’ earthly mission is like the seed which the sower sows which, after falling to the ground and dying, bears fruit an hundred-fold. We have been saved and we are being sanctified so that we bear fruit in our own lives. We pass forward to others what we have received. We serve others so that they, too, will bear fruit in the service of yet others until the Kingdom of God is extended to every corner of every life on earth as it is in heaven.
What shall our fruit look like? How shall we serve? One way to discern the work to which God calls us to do is to examine our lives, to recall times when we needed help, and then to help others who suffer the way we did. At another parish where I once served, I met a woman named Jackie. When Jackie and her husband, Robert, were on vacation in 1989, they went out to dinner at their favorite Mexican restaurant where they had shared enchiladas many, many times. When it was time to place their order, Jackie noticed Robert was very quiet. She asked him what he wanted to eat. Staring blankly at the menu, Robert asked Jackie, “What is an enchilada?” This indication of a memory loss launched a medical odyssey that ended with a word that Jackie had never even heard of before: Alzheimer’s. After seven years of continually increasing care for Robert and of continually receiving help from her church, Jackie decided to launch an Alzheimer’s Care Team, a ministry group dedicated to support those who care for people who suffer from memory loss. Four years after that, Jackie created “The Gathering,” a once-a-month program that provides a respite to caregivers by entertaining memory loss patients with arts and crafts, chair exercises, singing, and live entertainment. To date, hundreds of people within and beyond Jackie’s church have found relief and support through her ministry. Jackie told me, “This is my purpose. I’m just following God’s direction.” By following God’s direction for us, we develop the capacity to give direction to others. Jackie found a way to serve others when she examined her life and decided to help others the way she had been helped.
In April of 1998, another woman I met, named Donna, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. While undergoing a year of chemotherapy and 28 radiation treatments, Donna reached out to her church to find help in dealing with her suffering and fear. Along the way she discovered CanCare, a program that matches cancer patients with cancer survivors who were diagnosed with the exact same kind of cancer and who can provide support, care, and advice. When her cancer entered remission, Donna hosted her church’s first Survivor’s Day Luncheon in 2000. Donna has made dozens and dozens of people within and beyond her church aware of CanCare and other critical resources for those dealing with cancer. She told me, “When I think of where I would be without this help, I realize I’ve got to help others.” Donna found a way to minister by observing how she had been ministered to, and then offering that same ministry to others.
Bisi Ogunbiyi moved to New Orleans in 1998, married, and began to practice law. Just seven years ago this week, when Hurricane Katrina broke the levees in New Orleans, she and her husband fled to Houston, having lost everything. She met a member of a church choir in Houston, who told Bisi that her church had created a ministry program to help Katrina victims called “The Community of Compassion.” After receiving help in getting her family back on its feet, Bisi joined that ministry and began to help other Katrina households, visiting them, assessing their needs, and referring them to places that helped the way she was helped. Bisi told me, “God must really be telling me something, because everywhere I go He helps me and puts me in a position to help others.” Bisi found a way to minister by examining the way she had received help, and then offering that same help to others.
Jackie, Donna, and Bisi perceived a call to ministry when they recognized how God had reached out to them through other people, and and then answered His call to help others in similar circumstances. Like the wounded man in today’s parable, we have all experienced being beaten and robbed; we have all suffered some tragedy or loss that put us in a state of need. The question for us is, once we have been restored and healed, how shall we restore and heal others? How shall we serve, as we have been served? St. Thomas’ currently offers dozen ministries that we can prayerfully consider joining. Every one of these ministries started because one person decided that our church had a need for them, and committed himself or herself to start it.
Today I want to ask you not only to prayerfully consider whether God is calling you to join an existing ministry, but also to consider whether God is calling you to start a ministry that will help others the way you have been helped at some point in your life. We serve not because we hope to earn God’s favor or love; God’s love for us is constant, total, and free from all obligation. Instead, we serve because service is the completion of our own healing. Service to others is simply the final acceptance of God’s service to us. The Christian life is marked not only by a decision to accept the health and salvation offered to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also by a decision to extend the mercies we have received to others—to serve the way we have been served.
In September of 1958, in the cathedral of the Diocese of California, Bishop Karl Block was standing in the sanctuary before the Altar, preparing to celebrate the Eucharist. He felt a sudden pain in his chest and immediately recognized it for what it was—an approaching, massive heart attack. Not wanting to distract the congregation from their worship, Bishop Block quietly excused himself and retired with his deacon to the sacristy. The bishop turned to his deacon, said, “Let the service continue,” and died. “Let the service continue.” Bishop Block meant not only that the worship service should continue uninterrupted, but that the life of service offered by the church should also continue. By serving others, we fulfill the purpose for which God created and redeemed us: to love others the way we have been loved. What shall be our legacy of service that survives us? How shall we continue God’s service to this desperately wounded world in a way that redeems, transforms, and passes forward the gifts and ministries He has provided us? God is calling us to commit ourselves to some form of service to God and to others. Today we hear Jesus’ promise to the innkeeper after entrusted to him the care of the wounded man, “Take care of him, and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.” Today, our service begins. For all our days, let the service continue.