Our Hebrew Scripture this morning is the first half of the 25th Psalm. In preparing for this morning’s sermon, I was immediately drawn to the last line: All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep God’s covenant and God’s decrees.
Keeping covenant. Paths of steadfast love and faithfulness. These things are intimately related to our sacrament of baptism. This Psalm, though written by an adult, seeking guidance and deliverance, could easily be a prayer for one newly baptized.
As Julia grows and matures, she will have an infinitely complex set of choices, multiple paths to adulthood. She will have Matt and Tiffany, her grandparents and her Aunts and Uncles to help guide her, along with countless teachers, mentors, and friends.
But this morning, we, along with her family, have set Julia on God’s path, a path of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. As long as she is on this path, she is forgiven any and all transgressions.
Now, if, as a new driver she gets into a fender bender after staying out past her curfew, well that will be up to Tiffany and Matt to decide if she’s forgiven! But for us, for today, our faith tells us that the promises made on her behalf, and the promises she may be led to uphold at her confirmation, put her on the right path.
I love this concept of God’s paths. Many paths, leading to God. Paths we can learn about, paths we can explore. If the way to God is through multiple paths, then living our faith lives becomes a journey, sacred movement, leading us to our Creator God.
Like all of us, Julia will have some choices to make. But her family, and her faith family, will be there for her as resources. Our challenge will be to remain available, accessible, without being overbearing.
Many paths, one truth.
The path of mercy, the truth of love.
The path of forgiveness, the truth of love.
The path of salvation, the truth of love.
The path of humility, the truth of love.
While God’s promises, God’s covenant, are steadfast and sure, our promises can sometimes be a little wobbly.
But God knows that. God anticipates that at some point in our growing, we might waver, might become unsure, may lose our confidence in the direction the path is taking us.
Whenever we celebrate the sacrament of baptism, we can’t help but be reminded of our own sacred promises, be reminded of God’s covenant that guides our own faith journeys. That is a very good thing.
What better way to be reminded of God’s covenantal promises, and our own promises, than to celebrate with an eternally hopeful act of baptizing a new member of the Christian family.
Though many of our baptismal vows and confirmation promises are years in the past, our actual journey, our way along God’s path is fresh, and new. Each day we awaken, we arise again to that journey. We traverse the paths of mercy, forgiveness, salvation, and humility, each day, with varying degrees of success. But we all are led into the one truth: God’s love.
Even when we lose our way, even when we are so far off the path, we fear we’ll never find it again, God’s steadfast love, the one truth, is always there as a beacon, a light for our path.
For me, that is the core message of this Psalm: that God patiently guides us along God’s paths, lighting the way even when we’ve lost our way. Like a sacred GPS, we just have to check it every once in a while, to make sure we’re headed in the right direction.
And let us not forget that these paths, these paths of mercy, forgiveness, and humility, we are not only recipients of these graceful gifts from God, we are also meant to show mercy, bestow forgiveness, and practice humility while on our journey.
Seriously, I know it sounds like a cliché, but if we awaken each day resolved to walk the paths of mercy, forgiveness, salvation, and humility, and knew that if we took risks for God in doing so, that God’s steadfast love, the one truth, would be there to catch us if we fall or stray, then the world would most certainly be a better place.
But we’re human, and forgetful, and sometimes resentful and angry. We don’t awaken with God’s paths on our hearts, because our lives are complicated, and we’re anxious, and we worry.
The Psalmist was worried. That’s why they wrote this Psalm. That’s why it begins with lifting up their soul to God, and putting their trust in God.
And so can we. And so can Julia, as she matures. With so many loving guides, so many guideposts in her life, gently nudging her back to the paths God has set before her, she too, will experience God’s truth, God’s steadfast love.
Julia’s journey is just beginning. Her first few steps on God’s paths will be tentative and cautious. Maybe even with a few missteps.
The gift, the joy, the truth, is that God’s love is as near to her today, early in the journey, as it will be during the journey. It never wavers, it is never distant. That is true for each of us, too.
Doesn’t that make you feel better? Doesn’t that make you feel freer to take risks for God? Doesn’t that support your decisions and your choices so that you don’t have to worry about what God will think?
Because we already know what God thinks. God thinks we are worthy of God’s love. God’s unconditional, all encompassing, forgiving, restoring and guiding love.
The baptismal water was just plain tap water before it was blessed. But once blessed, it became a visible symbol of an invisible covenant. Well, almost invisible. Because though God knows our promises, our promises today and our promises in the past, the world will only see our actions.
But it is our actions, the visible living out of our faith lives, that the world will know what we believe.
With baptisms being few and far between for this worshiping community, let us use the gift of 3 in 3 months as a powerful reminder of what was promised at our own baptisms, and what was confirmed by us at our confirmations: that God’s steadfast love guides us always, and that the many paths that lead to God’s love are as diverse as all of humanity.
Let us also be prepared to offer our support and our resources to the children and the families celebrating baptisms recently, with faith formation instruction and activities. Let us set aside some resources, so that we may fulfill our promises to the newly baptized. Another path God has put before us. Another path that leads to God’s truth, God’s love.
Baptizing a child is a choice, made by loving families, to set their child on a particular path. Making promises to encourage and support that journey is a choice. Confirming those promises at a time when a young person feels ready to take on them on for themselves is a choice. Living into those promises as an adult, through a church, in covenant with God, is a choice.
Each one of these choices is yet another path. Like the paths of mercy, forgiveness, and humility, these paths of promise lead to God’s truth: love.
And God’s love is the ultimate guide for all of God’s faithful children on the journey, no matter our chronological age.
Our celebration today of Julia’s baptism is part of a sacrament we set aside as special, and rare. And the drops of water we place upon her head are just a few precious drops from an ocean of love from our Creator God.
May Julia always feel God’s presence, God’s steadfast and guiding love, her whole life long. And may she never be embarrassed or afraid to ask questions of God, or about God, or about God’s work in the world though Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Savior.
The world is a better place today, because of the promises made here today. But it is also a better place today because we have been reminded of our own baptismal and confirmation promises.
Let us go from this place with joy for Julia’s baptism, and with resolve to live out our own faith journeys, on God’s many paths, with God’s one truth, love, as our guide. Amen.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is very likely the most well-known of all the Christian parables. Used by Jesus in an answer to the question ‘And who is my neighbor’, it tells of person who had been robbed and beaten and left for dead on the side of a road.
Two people, whom most listeners of this parable would think would have helped the victim, passed by. But a person most people of that day would have thought would pass by, stopped, gave first aid, and ensured that the victim was cared for so that he could heal.
This all began because Jesus was being tested by a lawyer, presumably from the local town and synagogue. Jesus was becoming more widely known for his teaching, his preaching, and his healing. His criticisms of the oppressive systems of the day, both Jewish and Roman, had not gone unnoticed by those who wished to keep those systems in place.
But Jesus, already accustomed to being tested, had a powerful story to tell, one that gets at the heart of his ministry.
When the lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answered him with 2 questions: what is written in the law, and what do you read there? And the lawyer knew that the law says "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
Jesus was satisfied with that answer, and told the lawyer that if he did just that, he would live.
But we know from the reading that the lawyer didn’t stop there. He wanted to know how Jesus defined ‘neighbor’. And so, we have the parable of the Good Samaritan to help all of us understand better what it means to be a neighbor.
Within these texts, are no less than the keys to living faithful lives, and the means to eternal life: loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our strength, all our minds, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
At the end of today’s reading, Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three people were a neighbor to victim, and the lawyer said ‘the one who showed him mercy’.
So one important component to this whole ‘neighbor’ thing, is showing mercy.
The Good Samaritan recognized the gravity of the situation, and acted. Provided first-aid: cleansed the victim’s wounds, but didn’t stop there. He then transported the victim to a local inn, and there, gave the innkeeper money and instructions for the victim’s care, promising to repay whatever was spent on helping the victim heal. This is going above and beyond what was already an unexpected action.
The listeners of the day, those who heard this parable for the first time, would have heard it through the lens of hatred for Samaritans. An argument about the sacred texts, and which were most important, had split the two communities, but it had progressed beyond an argument, and affected the two communities deeply. Anyone listening would have predicted that the Samaritan would have ignored the victim, or even made the situation worse.
The priest and the Levite would have been assumed to be helpers, and yet, they walked by on the other side of the road, ignoring the victim.
This turns the whole story upside down. And in a sly way, criticizes the local powers that be as being unfaithful, or at the very least, less faithful than the despised Samaritans.
All of this is to say that readers and listeners of God’s Holy Word today, through this gospel, receive the gift of wisdom about loving our God fully, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, and we get to strengthen our faith lives with it.
Where are we in this story? Where are you in this story?
Are some of us the lawyer, asking questions with ulterior motives? Are some of us the victim in need of first-aid? Are some of us the priest, or the Levite, passing by on the other side of the road? Are some of us the Samaritan, providing first-aid, and care above and beyond what might be expected?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. At one time or another, in our faith lives, we have been or will be any and all of these characters in this important and powerful parable.
What we can do for today, however, is begin to resolve to be the provider of first-aid to our neighbors in need. To recognize the gravity of our neighbor’s plight, and offer our resources to help in their healing.
Who are our neighbors, and who do we call Samaritans these days? And what does it mean when a foundational story in our sacred texts shows us that even the people we despise can have good intentions, can act rightly and justly for someone in need?
Who have we walked past on the other side of the road, in the name of ‘not wanting to get involved’, ‘minding our own business’, or ‘it’s too dangerous’?
We’d be naïve, I’d be naïve, if I didn’t point out that in this day and age, doing what the Good Samaritan did in our parable this morning is not without some risk, not without some danger.
But if we see a neighbor in distress, and we don’t feel we can step in and provide first-aid, literally or metaphorically, at the very least we can call 911, right?
When asked who acted as a neighbor in this situation, the lawyer said, the one who showed the victim mercy.
But when we live in such a merciless time, do we have the heart, the soul, the strength, and the mind to show mercy to a neighbor? To a stranger? Can we show God our love by helping our neighbor’s in need, even if it means going beyond first-aid, even if it means using hard-earned resources to ensure that our neighbors are cared for so they can heal?
I believe we do. We do have the heart, we do have the soul, we certainly have the strength and mind to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to go beyond first-aid.
But here’s the thing: the popular thing these days for some of our siblings, is to denigrate victims, blame victims for their plight, take advantage of victims when they are hurting and helpless.
There’s no mercy there.
A common cry among some of our siblings is that our culture can’t afford to show mercy to our neighbors, it’s too expensive. That those in need will have to find other ways to pay for their care.
There’s no mercy there.
A rallying point for some of our siblings is that those who wish to come into our country so that they can be safe from violence aren’t welcome. That they somehow, in their situation, represent some kind of threat to our way of life.
There’s no mercy there.
There is a growing unrest and resistance to looking at our country’s history, and its use of oppressive systems to break our indigenous siblings, our siblings of color, and our LGBTQI+ siblings, to name just a few.
And there’s no mercy there.
Anyone who shows mercy to one in need is a neighbor. Anyone who shows mercy to one in need shows love to God. Anyone who shows mercy in the face of injury, or insult, or evil intent, shows the world that they are in fact, a good neighbor.
The lawyer in this story wasn’t expecting this kind of lesson. His intention was to expose Jesus as either misguided, or even ignorant of the law. Jesus was neither.
And as if the core message here isn’t good enough, Jesus himself shows mercy to the lawyer, doesn’t he? He treats the one who would trip him up with fancy legal questioning with mercy. Jesus doesn’t ridicule, or chastise, but instead, gives him a way to grow in faith.
The lawyer correctly identifies the neighbor in this parable as the one who showed mercy to the one in need. Jesus tells him to go and do likewise.
Let us too, go and do likewise. Amen.