The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor Manisha Dostert
If you’ve never been to Christ Church Cranbrook on a weekday, you don’t get to witness the hustle and bustle that is naturally going on in this place during normal business hours. I’ve worked in many churches and for the most part, churches are usually quiet during the week, which is kind of nice, a very meditative space, you can get a lot of work done, you can pray and occasionally there’s a meeting or a visitor.
But this is not the case at this church. Aside from the fact that we are always here experiencing the joy, the wonder, and the noisy rambunctiousness of children through Little Lambs, which is our full time early childhood education center here at the church, we are also experiencing the joy, the wonder, and the noisy rambunctiousness of the adults. The parishioners, the staff, and the clergy, very much the clergy. And we also have so much going on during the week during the church, we have parishioners who are coming in to do the holy work, they’re doing altar guild, they’re doing flower guild, they’re collecting all of the item of the month opportunities that you have to gather something for the good of the community and put it in the bins outside the church.
In fact, this month for the item of the month, we’re looking for 250 new backpacks to give to kids in Pontiac and Detroit, they’re counting and making sure we have enough. They’re also making sure that the building is fine and taking care of the space. They are coming to visit, more often than not you would think, we get visitors here. People who have walked past the church and think it’s beautiful on the outside and want to come inside to see if it matches. And if I ever meet a visitor who comes into the church, I assure them this is a beautiful church because of the people of God who are here.
Sometimes when people come by the church, they pop into my office and I get to visit with them for a little. One such visit happened a little less than a year ago, Pete Webster, who is our church’s treasurer, came to my office because he was a little early for a meeting that he was supposed to be at. So we chatted a little and I learned about Pete, that he’s actually a very active theological life. And he has a lot of interesting questions and poses them quite adroitly. And he asked me one that stuck with me, he asked me, “What inspires Christians to pursue excellence as opposed to good or goodness?” What inspires Christians to pursue excellence as opposed to good or goodness? And then he asked, “Can you preach about that?” So Pete, here’s your sermon.
I was thinking about this question because of the parable of the good Samaritan that we heard today. What made the Samaritan choose not just to be good, but to be great? He didn’t just bandage the guy that was laying on the side of the road, but he took the man to a hotel. He stayed with him overnight and then he made sure that there were provisions for him for the next couple days as the man healed.
Whereas that priest and the Levite, these are men who are in the business of practicing goodness through the Jewish law, what do they do? On the other side. And it made me realize that there are two questions that were inherent in Pete’s insightful inquiry. Is there something about being a Christian that causes you to do good? And why would a Christian want to push past good and pursue excellence?
It reminded me of a book that’s floating around in the secular realm, maybe you are familiar with it, it’s Jim Collins’ book From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. So this is pretty big in business management circles. And he begins the book with this intriguing statement, “Good is the enemy of great.” Good is the enemy of great. And he goes on to say, “We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. And we don’t have great government principally because we have good government.”
And it’s funny because one of the things I do when I’m tasked with something and I don’t really want to go the extra distance, I just want to accomplish what I need to accomplish and then let it be is I will often say, “Well, that’s good enough for government work.” And this is what Collins states in his book, he says, “Great companies push because they know what they’re called to do, and probably more importantly, they know what they’re not called to do.” So Collins sites this great Greek poet, Archilochus whose one verse was made famous by Isaiah Berlin’s essays, The Hedgehog and the Fox and the verse is this: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.”
Now it’s verse from a poem so you have to figure out what it means, and Isaiah Berlin and others have unpacked this as a parable to mean that the fox wants to get at the hedgehog and will use many ways to try to get at the hedgehog because foxes are cunning and deceitful. So they’ll create surprise attacks or they’ll do a direct attack or they’ll set a trap, but the hedgehog has one job, to defend itself. And that hedgehog knows how to do it courtesy the quills. So as a result, the hedgehog can accomplish what it desires and the fox will never be able to do so.
So for the business management consultant Jim Collins, the way for companies or even nonprofit organizations, like American Red Cross, or the church, the way for us to go from being good to great is to be disciplined in knowing what you’re called to do and to be the best at what you are doing and don’t do anything else. In other words, focus, focus, focus.
Now, when this dichotomy of the fox and the hedgehog are applied to the good Samaritan parable, well maybe perhaps we can see why the Levite and the priest went on the other side. Now, I am willing to say that the Levite and the priest aren’t heartless human beings who would leave a half dead man lying on the side of the road. And I’m not alone. Martin Luther King who was never afraid to hold a minister to task when he or she did not fight for justice for all, actually came up with excuses for the Levite and the priest. He said, “The Levite was on his way to Jericho to make a survey of crime in the vicinity. And perhaps the priest was en route to Jerusalem to serve on the national committee for the improvement of public highways.”
In other words, perhaps the priest and the Levite didn’t have the time to stop because they were busy doing other things, namely, trying to deal with the systems that would cause a robbery in the first place. But, so the saying goes, the Samaritan, the Samaritan was focusing on the one big thing. One could argue that the Samaritan was incredibly successful in fulfilling the law of loving his neighbor because he was so single minded, focused.
He did not simply ask the man on the side of the road if he was doing okay. But he took out wine and applied it as an antiseptic and oil, I don’t know why he took out the oil. They didn’t know stuff back then, right? But he took out the oil and he applied that too and he bandaged up the man. And then he took him to an inn and he stayed with him all night long and then he went the extra mile. He paid the extra money, he gave the extra of everything he had, he was a person as Pete Webster noted, inspired to pursue excellence and not just goodness, nothing deterred him from going that extra mile. And why? Why did the Samaritan do all this? Because he was a hedgehog, single mindedly focused on loving his neighbor above all things.
I’ve been a Christian for many, many, many years. And I admit that as much as I love my neighbor in need, I ain’t ever going to be a hedgehog. I fall short. And even worse, I don’t care. I don’t care that I’m not the best lover of my neighbor. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people lying on the side of the road in my version of Jericho and I’m headed on the other side, on my merry way. And you know what? I am not alone. None of us are perfect. All of us fall short.
I remember about a year into my tenure here at church, a bunch of Christians gathered and we were asking the question what is our purpose here at Christ Church Cranbrook? And I love that we came up with something that was so life giving. We said people here at church, Christians are meeting Jesus. Christians here are finding and discovering joy. Christians are sharing beauty. And Christians are serving others. And it was the whole vision that every average Christian in this church was called to live up to.
Which is why I think Pete’s question is so profound. He asked, “What inspires a Christian to pursue excellence as opposed to good or goodness?” Inspiration is a funny thing. It actually begins with an understanding of a divine presence interceding, intervening, and interrupting into the human experience. The word is derived from two Latin words, spirari which means to breathe and in which means into. And it’s understood that a supernatural being breathes into the human being something that the human being didn’t have and it’s a new thought, a new way of being, a new way of acting. And here’s what’s so fascinating about inspiration, it comes outside of you, not within you. It comes from another, it doesn’t come from within.
Which is why what causes a Christian to pursue excellence over goodness is not something inside of you. You are being inspired by God. It is a gift to you. It is given to you. And then God gives you the will and the resources to accomplish it.
Now I know we always laud that Samaritan. But I want you to imagine, imagine if the priest or the Levite stopped and tried to help the Samaritan. Did they know how to bandage the wound? Did they know how to find an inn in which to take this man? Did they have the resources to be able to provide for that? Did they know what to do while the man was dying and they stayed with him all night? Maybe they weren’t going to be the best neighbor to that man who was dying, and maybe God knew that and so maybe God inspired that Samaritan.
It says in the scriptures that he was moved. It happened to him. He was moved with pity for the man who was on the side of the road. And it was the Samaritan who knew how to bandage the wounds. It was that Samaritan who knew how to get a full grown man off the ground and on top of his donkey. You try that at home. It was the Samaritan who had a schedule that was going to allow him to come back to make sure that the patient was doing well. The Samaritan was the ideal neighbor because he was inspired by God to be the one who showed this man mercy.
Now it’s a tough pill for us Christians to swallow to think that our inspiration of pursuing excellence actually doesn’t come from us. But we live with a God whose desires are greater than ours, whose knowledge is far more vast than what we know and whose will for our lives is more perfect than our own. So what inspires us to go beyond our comfort zone, to do something that we won’t settle for good enough, that’s the Holy Spirit. And it’s the Holy Spirit that changes your heart. It’s the Holy Spirit that commits you and equips you and gives you a push.
I had a Christian friend who was really active in South Oakland Shelter. Now South Oakland Shelter is a pretty phenomenal ministry, many of you are familiar with it, it’s been around for I think 30 years. And people who have no place to lay their head, they are homeless, the churches open up their door for a week, every week a different church opens up its door, and the people live in the church. And they stay in the church, they sleep in the church, and they then attempt to try to get their life in order. We do the rotating shelters, South Oakland Shelter, we’re going to do our week coming up at the end of September, and we’ll have 30 some people, families, and children come and stay in our church as they try to figure out what their next step is.
So I had a friend who was really active in the South Oakland Shelter at her church and she met a man, we’ll call him Louie. Louie had just got out of jail and he needed a place to stay. And so he got into South Oakland Shelter. And my friend met Louie and they hit it off. I don’t know what it was but they both really enjoyed talking to each other and it was a strange and beautiful relationship. And then when Louie left the shelter program, my friend gave him her cell number. And so Louie would call my friend.
And throughout the years, my friend would be helping Louie. Sometimes Louie had a problem with his car and it broke down and she helped him figure out what to do. Louie had some issues with some family members and she gave him some advice. Louie went back to jail and she went and visited him. And then when he got out of jail, he went to a halfway house and she tried to help him get his life in order. In essence, she was the good Samaritan to Louie. And no matter what Louie was going through she was there.
Now I met Louie. And I had no desire whatsoever to help him. So one day I asked my friend, I said, “Why is it that you keep helping Louie?” And she said, “Well, to be honest, I couldn’t imagine not helping him.” And I said, “Well is it guilt?” And she said, “No, I would recognize guilt. There’s something else going on. My heart would not feel right unless I helped Louie.”
And in that exchange, there were two pieces that were revealed to me. First, I learned that when God inspires us, God makes it so hard to do anything else. You can’t help it. You need to do more than what you’re called to do. You have to push the boundaries because you couldn’t live with yourself if you didn’t. But here’s the second thing I noticed. When God inspires you, God limits the inspiration. It is not impossible. There were 29 other people who were hanging out with Louie at the shelter that week and my friend only helped Louie. She was Louie’s hedgehog. But she wasn’t called to be anyone else’s hedgehog.
I am so heartened by this because I’m okay with being inspired by God and being restless with God and doing that which God wants me to do excellently. But I’m also okay with the fact that sometimes I just don’t want to do it. May you be open to the inspiration that the spirit is giving you and may you put everything into it, may you be as dogged and hedgehogged as that good Samaritan was in making sure that your calling is fully and completely fulfilled. And when you don’t want to do it, may you find peace in knowing that good enough is good enough.