Saturday, July 20, 2013

"What in Heaven's Name Are We Doing Here?:" A sermon on not being a Good Samaritan

Luke 10:25-37

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “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.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”


Well, the Good Samaritan has come up in the lectionary again, and you can’t pass up an opportunity to preach on the Good Samaritan, because it is a foundational for who we are as Christians. We love this story because it is just beautiful, a wonderful examination of who we are and how we are called to love one another. And isn’t it nice? Because we all want to be good, don’t we? We’d all love to be called good by Jesus, just as the Samaritan was, so that when people talked about us, they didn’t simply call us by our names or titles, but Good Dalton, or Good Mike, or Good Sandra.

We want to be good, so we do good things. We serve, and we give a little money here, and we volunteer there, and these are good things, deeply good things, and God calls us to do these kind of works, to help people who are left by the side of the road. I started thinking this week about all the good things this church does, and to be honest, I am having trouble coming up with a list short enough to read in worship and have us out of here by 12 o clock. And this kind of attitude isn’t limited to North Decatur. This is the church. It is who we are. We do good things.

And so I hope you hear me honoring all the things that this church does, and the things that the church universal does. God expects it of you—if you are a Christian, you ought to do good things. I hope you hear me honoring that, because I think it is also important to say this: doing good things is not enough.

I have mentioned to some of you that I am a proud graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, a fine Methodist school in Birmingham. It is a wonderful place—I know we have some folks here who are graduates, some who have children and grandchildren who have graced those hallowed grounds. It is the place I met Stacey, the place I found my call to ministry, the place I eeked out a C+ in Research Statistics 102. While I loved almost everything about Birmingham-Southern (other than statistics), there was one program that I despised.

My freshman year, the school decided that its students needed more culturing. So, in the school’s infinite wisdom, each student was to attend five approved cultural events each semester, accumulating 40 of these cultural event credits by graduation. Only 39 cultural events? Oh, sorry, no graduation. We would attend these lectures, or performances, or what have you, and full out a little Scantron form with our student number and I guess they fed them into a computer or burned them or made paper hats out of them, I don’t know. And to make it worse, because my class was the first class to have to put up with this nonsense, we were taunted until our senior year by the class ahead of us, who would point and laugh each time we said that we could not go to the fraternity party because we were needed at the ballet.

I remember one of my professors—my advisor, in fact, in my political science major, talking about how the school was trying to force students to be cultured and that they were in fact doing more harm than good. And when I told that professor that because the college’s chapel services were not considered cultural events, and because students were so preoccupied with picking up these cultural credits, that chapel attendance was dropping, he said something I will never forget.

“You know, Dalton,” he said, “it is as if we have accidentally created the church of secular humanism and are requiring students to attend our services”

It is as if we have created the church of secular humanism and are requiring students to attend our services. That is pretty indicting.

Good things are good. I don’t have anything against cultural events. One of the many reasons I am thrilled to live in Decatur is that we’ve got so much cultural all around us.  I love it. Cultural events are good, serving others is deeply good. But the church is more than a group of people who do good things. We are more than the church of secular humanism. 

And this is all well and good, until you start to ask the question of just what we ARE supposed to do, just who we ARE supposed to be. And for that, I think we need to look no further than the parable of the good Samaritan, for the lawyer asks some good questions. The lawyers among us will be glad to know that for once, the preacher is not going to dump on the lawyers, because the lawyer asks good questions.

The first question, after all, is a question I find myself asking frequently. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Eternal life isn’t the only point of all of this church business, of course, but it is certainly one of the major drivers of coming to church, of following God, of loving your neighbor and all of that. So Jesus answers the lawyer with a question: what do you read in the law? And the lawyer knows the law, of course, so he answers correctly: you shall love the Lord your god with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

Well done, says Jesus, but the inquisitive lawyer is not satisfied, and he asks what I think is an even better question:  just who is my neighbor? And I think this is an important question for all of us, especially in this brave new world. Just yesterday, I had someone come up and greet me while I was mowing the lawn at the parsonage, and I mention this to you because I think it is remarkable that it is remarkable. Used to be, you knew all your neighbors. Now, you’re lucky to know the names of the people on either side of you and across the street. Neighbor means something different, and I suppose we aren’t too off, since the lawyer asked Jesus the same question. Who is my neighbor?

Let me also say that I'm really struggling with this neighbor business today, after hearing late last night about the not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. I don’t want to get too controversial, and I know that not all of us agree on this, but I think it is important to say something. 

I know this is a difficult case, and I know the media has not helped as it televised every waking moment and had pundits and attorneys speculating all along the way. But what I can't get out of my head, nor my heart, is the strong belief that loving your neighbor is far more important than standing your ground, and whenever you have a grown man profiling, stalking, and killing a seventeen year old kid, no matter the surrounding circumstances, we have some serious work to do as a country and as a church working towards finding an answer to this question: who is my neighbor?

The lawyer’s question is still relevant for us today, and perhaps even more so, as it turns out to be a question with life or death implications. And so part of me thinks that if Jesus were answering the question today, he would start it this way:

A lawyer asked, but who is my neighbor? And Jesus said, “a child went out one night to buy some Skittles.”

What he does say is this:

A man goes on a journey and he is robbed and left for dead. A priest comes by but he is late for church and he cannot be bothered. A Levite, a holy man, comes by, as well, but he is too busy, too holy to get down in the ditch. It is not until a Samaritan comes along, an unclean man who, had the shoes been on different feet, would have hardly been worth saving himself, at least in the eyes of most folks, not until the Samaritan comes along that the beaten man finds a way out.

And I am struck by the story of the Good Samaritan, but probably not for the reason most folks are. I think it is a wonderful story, but if you hear the story as Jesus encouraging us to do good deeds, I fear you are missing the point. For the story of the Good Samaritan is the answer to the second question, not the first.

If the lawyer had said, what must I do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus had answered with this story, then I suppose you can draw the conclusion that you ought to go help people. But this story does not answer the question of how we are to inherit eternal life, but rather it answers the question of who is my neighbor, and that is a different question entirely.

In fact, says the writer David Henson, Jesus doesn’t even want us to be good Samaritans. He doesn’t want us to go out and do random acts of kindness, or at the very least, that’s not what he is saying here.

What Jesus wants us to do is to think differently about what it means to be a neighbor, to think differently about the things that divide us as people. Jesus, says Henson, wants us to know who the Samaritans are in our own lives. Then, he asks us to do the hard work of seeing them as humans not as Others, as teachers not as our students, as the heroes who offer us salvation rather than the victims who need our saving help.

That is a difficult lesson, but it is core to who Jesus is—he flips what we know, so the shocking thing in the story is not that the lawyer asks the question, or even that the Samaritan stops to help, but that the person Jesus is holding up as the paragon of neighborliness is someone who most people in Jesus’s social sphere would find disgusting. The real lesson is that these divisions are arbitrary, they are sinful, and to be a neighbor is to break down those walls that stand between us.

I am wondering today, who are we missing? Who do we simply not see because we are programmed not to see them? In other words, who are we profiling? What will it take to start to see people in a new way, to see even the most difficult person as God’s beloved?

The Buddhist monk and student of Christianity Thich Nhat Hahn says it this way: “To ‘love our enemy’ is impossible, because the moment we love him, he is no longer our enemy.”

It is impossible! For in that moment of vulnerable love, the walls between us break down and we become what the church is called to be: members of the same body of Christ. Not one person’s hand and another’s foot, but members of the same body. This is what it means to be the church: we are members of the same body. Yes, we are different in gifts and abilities and personalities and all the rest, but we are members of the same body.

Paul understood the importance of breaking down those walls, as he wrote the letter to the Colossian church, praising them for the love they had for all the saints. That church knew how to be the church, for they understood that to follow Christ is to have selfless love for all the children of God.

Paul knew the importance of this kind of love, and let me suggest that when he tells the Colossian church that since he heard of the great love present in that church that he has not ceased praying for them and asking that they may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, he is responding with the very highest form of love: prayer.

Perhaps this sounds silly, for it is easy to tell someone you are praying for them. But Henri Nouwen says that "Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched."

Prayer is the highest form of love, but it must be prayer understood in this specific way. Not just “I’m praying for you” or even a focus on speaking to God about someone, asking for things we want. True prayer requires vulnerability, being open to others, being open to God. True prayer requires vulnerability, and the problem with vulnerability is that it leaves you open to wounds. Maybe this has happened to you—you open access to your heart and it is wonderful for a while—full of some of the greatest highs in all the world. But exposing your heart leaves you vulnerable to attack, and it takes but one slice to make you never want to uncover it again.

The Christian life is indelibly marked by this choice of vulnerability. Close up shop, lock the door to your heart and you’ll never—never—be able to truly love, God or anybody, for you’ll never be able to truly and fully share yourself. But open yourself to love and you are opening yourself to all sorts of things, violent and difficult things included. But oh, how wonderful it is to meet another whose heart is laid bare, who shares the deepest things, for in that meeting, you will find God.

My favorite theologian, Howard Thurman, says that there is deep within each person an ear that waits to hear the sound of the genuine. And if I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and you see the genuine in you, I can go down in myself and end up in you.

Let me close this way. There is a beloved woman in the life of North Alabama United Methodism named Nina Reeves. Nina has been involved in United Methodist causes for years and years, especially with their camping ministries, and she is a marvelous storyteller. She is one person who, when she enters a room, it is as if the very being of God breaks through the reality of life and falls like a feather into the room, lighting softly for a bit. She is delightful. I have had the opportunity to be near Nina on occasion, and you just … sigh when you are around her.

One of Nina’s dear friends is Marcia McFee, the worship designer for General Conference who had the good sense to hire our own Sandra to play the organ during that important event. And because of Marcia’s travels and Nina’s age, they don’t get to see each other very often. Whenever they do get together, whenever they find an hour for lunch, Nina starts the conversation this way:

“The time is short. Let us speak about the deepest things we know right away.”

Let us speak of the deepest things we know right away. Let us cut away the nonsense and get straight to the business of sharing our hearts, even when that sharing is painful, even when it causes us to tilt our heads and wonder just where the other person is coming from. Perhaps we ought to especially pay attention to those times, for the gift of another perspective is among the greatest gifts of all.

This is why we are here. To be neighbors who refuse to be preoccupied by the social mores that keep us separate. To pray for one another—I mean truly pray. To go down into ourselves and come up for air in our shared space, so that rather than standing our ground, we share our lives. And to worship the God whose ultimate gift, even as he was hoisted onto the cross, was vulnerability. Let us remember that though we open ourselves to pain, the gift of the resurrection is that the worst thing is never the last thing, for God is with us now and will be forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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