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Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Gospel of Consumption

Pentecost 10C, 2010

Luke 12:13-21

Once there was a man, or so the story goes, who was determined to take it with him. He loved money, and didn’t want to leave it behind. So instead of putting his money in the bank, he started stashing it under the shingles of the roof of his house, in a spot directly over his bed. The plan was that when he died, as he ascended from his deathbed to heaven, he would grab the cash and take it with him.

His family, for numerous reasons, argued against the plan to no avail. Finally the man took sick and lay at death’s door. His family gathered around the bed as he breathed his last. When the man stopped breathing, his not-so grieving widow turned to their son and said, “Quick, Junior: get a ladder, go up on the roof, and see if the money’s still there!” Junior ran from the room, a loud clattering was heard on the roof, and, a few minutes later, he returned to the bedroom. “Momma, it’s all there – every dollar.”

“That old fool,” responded the widow, “I told him and told him, but he wouldn’t listen. He went the other way.”

A man comes to Jesus and asks him to settle an inheritance dispute with his brother. Any of you who have been through a family argument about an estate, as I have, know how ugly they can be. To all of you I say, write an absolutely ironclad will, and make sure everyone knows what it says before you die.

Jesus refuses to be triangled into the argument, and then warns his listeners about the dangers of greed. By the way, Jesus talks sixteen times more often in the Gospels about money, possessions, and greed than he does about sex. You wouldn’t know that from the emphasis Christians put on those two issues, would you? Jesus knew that far more people go to hell because of money than because of sex.

To illustrate the dangers of wealth and greed – the two are connected, because no one gets wealthy or stays wealthy without being greedy – Jesus tells a parable. A farmer’s land produced far more than he or his family needed, so he decided to build bigger and bigger barns and silos to hold the abundance. Then, his 401k filled to the brim, the man relaxed, knowing that he could coast for the rest of his life. But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

Or so reads the translation in the New Revised Standard Version. Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm in South Georgia, holder of a doctorate in New Testament Greek, and author of the Cotton Patch Version of the New Testament, said that the Greek in this verse literally reads You fool! Tonight they are requiring your soul. Who are they? Jordan said they are the things the man has stored up. We don’t own great possessions: they own us.

Joel Chandler Harris, in his Uncle Remus stories, told the tale of the time when Br’er Fox created a Tar Baby to catch Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit came down the road one day and found the Tar Baby sitting silent by the road, smiling at him. Br’er Rabbit tried to engage the Tar Baby in conversation, but the Tar Baby wouldn’t answer. Furious, Br’er Rabbit kicked the Tar Baby, and became stuck. He kicked with his other foot, and got more stuck. And so on, and so on, until Br’er Fox had Br’er Rabbit caught.

Jesus knew that possessions are a Tar Baby – the more we have, the more we’re stuck to them. We don’t own a house – the house owns us. We don’t own a boat, or a car – they own us. They require more and more of us. You have to take care of them, improve them, use them, store them, insure them. And then we need a new one, a bigger one, a faster one. Insert your own Tar Baby here: shoes, clothes, electronic equipment, musical equipment, books, toys, computers, smart phones . . . you get the picture.

An article in the May/June 2008 edition of Orion magazine gave a startling history of how American manufacturers and government leaders developed a plan in the 1920’s and 30’s to actually increase the levels of dissatisfaction in the lives of American citizens, so they would buy more and more things they didn’t need. The rapid growth of the industrial revolution had, by the early years of the 20th Century, made it possible for farms to produce all the food the country needed, for American industry to produce all the durable goods the country needed – note what I said – needed­ -- such that the number of hours people needed to work could be reduced significantly. In 1926 Secretary of Labor James J. Davis calculated that the world’s needs ultimately will be produced by three days work a week.[1] Kellogg company president Lewis Brown and owner W.K. Kellogg noted that if the company ran “four six-hour shifts . . . instead of three eight-hour shifts, this will give work and paychecks to the heads of three hundred more families in Battle Creek.”[2] Kelloggs raised the hourly wage to compensate for the fewer hours, hired more people, and profits boomed. Employees and their families had more time together. A bill was introduced in Congress calling for a thirty hour work week, which would have brought employment in the depression to hundreds of thousands more people.

In response, leaders of General Motors, DuPont, General Foods, the big steel companies, and other corporations formed the National Association of Manufacturers, and instigated a campaign they called “The American Way.” Their purpose was to foster what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption”—the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough.[3] Mass market advertising grew, not to convince people to buy real necessities, but to transform non-necessities into must-haves. When Franklin Roosevelt named his famous “Four Freedoms” in 1941, he added to the freedoms of speech and religion and freedom from fear the very interesting phrase freedom from want. Not freedom from need -- but from want. Listen to the pundits and politicians: “The American Way” often turns out to be our divine right not to have what we need, but whatever we want. This is not accidental, friends – it is a well-orchestrated collusion between business and government to keep us addicted.

Jesus says, Fool, this night they are requiring your soul. So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves and are not rich toward God. So what would it take for us, as disciples of the poor carpenter of Nazareth, to live an unaddicted life?

We don’t have time today to explore all the ways to simplify and focus our lives, and go through economic and material detoxification. But just as addicts have found it is easier to get clean with a friend and a group, I want to suggest that the church should be the place where we help each other become rich in God, and not the things of this world. When we talk, let’s not talk about boats and cars and houses and clothes and things – but about love and grace and mercy and God. Can we help each other focus on those things?

When we come to the Table this morning, let’s focus on this simple and amazing gift the poor carpenter gave us. He doesn’t give us caviar in a jeweled goblet: he gives us bread and wine. He gives us himself. He gives us each other. He gives us love, and forgiveness, and eternity. Why do we spend so much time and energy – and money – chasing what we can’t take with us, when we have all this that lasts forever, for free?


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Prayer: It’s Easier Than You Think

Pentecost 9C, 2010

Luke 11:1-13 7/25/2010

A long time ago when I was in college, I was the guitar player and song leader for what was then called the “Experimental Worship Service” at the church next door to the college. That worship was the infant form of what we would now call “Contemporary Worship:” the songs were played mostly on guitar, people were encouraged to dress casually, and the interaction between worship leader and congregation was more spontaneous. For that worship service, we trotted out new songs from Christian songwriters. One song that was especially popular was called You’d Better Go: a pretty revolutionary song rebuking old ways of doing church. One line bothered me, even as a young church radical: If you’re looking for an answer or a lesson how to pray, then there’s nothing for you here, you’d better go. You’d better go.

Shouldn’t the church be the place where we teach people how to pray? That’s why I’ve never had any problem with banning compulsory prayer in public schools (mind you, prayer has never been banned in public schools. Forced, involuntary, compulsory prayer has been outlawed. As someone said, as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in public schools. And many schools have voluntary gatherings of students before or after hours for prayer.). I don’t want school teachers to teach my children how to pray: that’s my job – and yours. The problem is that we’re not doing a very good job of it.

In the Gospel lesson this morning the disciples as Jesus to teach them how to pray. He offers them what we now know as The Lord’s Prayer as a model. When Vicki and I served three small churches in Orange County, our parsonage was sandwiched between one of our churches and a conservative Christian Church, whose pastor, George Vartenisian, lived on the other side of his church. George and I had wonderful and friendly debates daily about everything, one of which was the use of the Lord’s Prayer. George’s church didn’t use – or even know – the prayer. “It’s not the Lord’s Prayer,” George would insist. “Jesus would never have prayed “forgive us our trespasses, because he was sinless. He said to pray like this, not to pray this.” Well, technically, George was right. It’s a model for prayer, not a commandment. But just as a musician has to learn and rehearse scales before she can improvise jazz, rehearsing the Lord’s Prayer teaches us important components of any prayer, including prayers we create on our own. And, if you’re going to pray only one prayer for the rest of your life, this would be the one to pray.

This morning, I want us to look very briefly at what the Lord’s Prayer teaches us, but then move on to another form of prayer you’re probably not familiar with – a way of connecting with God that Christians have used for centuries. This morning, I don’t want to talk about prayer – I want us to learn by actually praying. What a concept!

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us all the pieces of how to talk with God. Note that I said with, not to. Hold that thought for a few minutes – it’s vitally important, and we’ll get back to it. What are those pieces?

Our Father: Right off the bat, this is not our private God. Christians only pray as part of a much larger community. Next time we celebrate communion, I want you to listen carefully to the words of the prayer I pray, just before we say Holy, holy, holy Lord. I pray, and so, with all your people on earth, and with all the company of heaven, we praise you, saying. . . Christians never pray in isolation – we pray with each other and with all the saints and angels.

Further, we pray to a God who is in relationship with us. Father. Not Thou who dost make the mountains rise up above the seas. . . This is someone who loves us and craves our companionship.

Hallowed be your name: God, you are awesome! Prayer involves praise. Too often we come to God with our shopping list. Parents, and spouses, don’t you sometimes wish instead of being greeted with a list of complaints, you were greeted at the door with a hug, a kiss, and an I love you? Where do you think you got that yearning? When we practice praising God, it changes our whole relationship from God as a divine vending machine to God as a friend and companion.

Give us today our daily bread: Ask, simply, for what you need – not what you want. Ask for bread, not a pony.

Forgive us: Remember that you are broken, and live as part of a broken world. Remember who you are, and confess that to God.

Do not bring us to the time of trial: Stick with me, God. Don’t let me go off on my own after I’ve said amen: keep me on the road.

That’s it. It’s really pretty simple stuff, isn’t it? So, why are we so lousy at it? One reason, it seems to me, is that just as we’ve learned that children learn in different ways, there are different ways of relating to God. Again, briefly, let me run down some of those ways:

Verbal. Protestants tend to be people of the ear. We talk about God. And that works for many people. We pray in words. But it’s not the only way.

Visual. Catholic and Orthodox churches are usually filled with stained glass, statues, pictures, and special pictures called icons. An icon is understood to be like a window into heaven. Protestant churches are now picking up on using images in worship and prayer thanks to the use of projected images. I’d like us to experiment with that as well – using great art, film clips, and other images as a way for us to connect to God. Our children, especially, are visually oriented, and respond powerfully to images.

Musical. Charles Wesley understood that you could teach people theology by getting them to sing it. For many of us, good music well done connects us with God. My experience has been that it really doesn’t make any difference whether it’s Johann Sebastian Bach or Metallica as long as it’s well done. Singing or playing a song that praises God is a powerful form of prayer.

Kinesthetic. I have friends who do their morning devotions lifting weights, running, cycling, swimming, or doing some other form of exercise. I find physical labor deeply spiritual, whether it be in the yard or on the house or on the boat. Brother Andrew prayed scrubbing kitchen floors. Monks work in the fields or kitchen or elsewhere as a form of prayer. Men, especially, often have a hard time sitting in church praying, but may find working with each other a powerful spiritual experience.

Intellectual. People like Malcolm Muggeridge, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and St. Augustine were converted largely by intellectual conversations and reading. For many, reading and writing are powerful forms of prayer and connection with God.

Sacramental. I love that this church has Holy Communion more than once a month. Putting the Body of Christ in your open hands is one of the most powerful spiritual experiences in my life. Baptism, especially of infants, is a window to the great river of God’s grace. You’ll hear me tell lots of communion and baptism stories in the years to come.

Contemplative. Silence. Stillness. Just being in the presence of God.

Good worship and good church should invite us to and teach all those, and more. Now, let me introduce you, in the briefest way, to an ancient form of devotion called Lectio Divina, Latin for Holy Reading, which incorporates several of the ways of prayer I’ve just mentioned. When I teach the Basic Course in Lay Speaking, this is how I teach people to prepare a sermon. You can use this for your personal devotions, for preparing Sunday School and other lessons, for lay speaking, and for discerning God’s will for your day and for your life.

Lectio Divina has four parts, which I’ve listed in the bulletin. If you have you Bibles, turn to this morning’s gospel lesson. We don’t have time to really work our way through the Lectio properly, but let’s walk through it quickly.

First, put yourself in a place free from distractions. Turn off the phone, TV, and everything else. Be quiet, and settle down. You may want to focus on a cross, a piece of religious art, or light a candle. Try to create a time and a place for this and this alone – perhaps just a chair that you don’t sit in unless you’re doing Lectio. Slow down, and don’t begin until you’re ready. Use the Jesus Prayer to focus and quiet yourself.

1. Lectio: read. Read a passage of scripture slowly. Treat it like a wonderful dessert or piece of meat that you don’t want to gulp down. Enjoy it slowly, treasuring every morsel. Read it again. Write down words that stand out to you.

2. Meditatio: meditation. Christian meditation is active. Put yourself into the story you’ve just read. Who are you? How would you have responded, had you been there? Why did certain words stand out to you? What is God saying to you in this passage?

3. Oratio: prayer. Pray about this passage. Pray about what God is saying to you. Pray about any confusion you have about this text. Surrender yourself and your understanding to God, to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, speaking through these words.

4. Contemplatio: comtemplation. Now, just be. Simply rest, in quiet, in God’s loving presence. Just as a child crawls into a parent’s lap, or a lovers rest in each other’s arms, gently and quietly rest in God, not seeking, not asking, not struggling. Just be.

Prayer: it’s easier than you think. I want Providence Church to be a school for prayer, where people can come and learn from what we say, from what we do, and from how we live, how to connect at the deepest levels to a God who yearns to hold us in his arms.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Distracted Disciples

Pentecost 8C, 2010

Amos 8:1-12

Luke 10:38-42

How many of you watched the Baseball All-Star game Tuesday night? I watched most of it. I guess it’s ok to let the National League win once every thirteen years or so, as long as they don’t make a habit of it. As I watched the game, something amazing caught my attention every time the camera showed the batter from a particular angle, down the third base line. In the Anaheim ballpark, there are dugouts for spectators directly behind home plate. In the first baseline dugout, there was a young man standing at the fencing, head down, texting into his cell phone every time the camera showed him. He was in the best seats in the park, literally ten feet away from the best baseball players on earth, not watching them. He was furiously thumbing text into his cell phone.

A former parishioner and Facebook friend of mine is vacationing in Alaska with her husband. Every day this week she has been sending gorgeous pictures of the scenery out across the internet, which means that she brought her laptop computer with her on the trip. After the third day of her posting pictures, I replied to her post, “the pictures are beautiful, but why bring your computer on vacation? Be where you are!” She hasn’t posted since – or maybe she unfriended me.

A July 9 feature article in the Baltimore Sun noted that with the advent of portable communications devices, more and more American workers take their work with them on vacations, returning home as stressed – of not more so – than they were when they left:

A survey released by showed that 55 percent of workers come back from time off without feeling rejuvenated, and others struggle to cope with work-related stress while they're away. In a separate survey, staffing firm Robert Half International found that 69 percent of financial executives check in with the office at least once or twice a week while on vacation.[1]

Linda Stone, a technologist, writes, The disease of the internet age is ‘continuous partial attention.’”[2] We try to juggle reading, television, the internet, and conversations with someone sitting next to us simultaneously, and end up failing at every one.

Up! Was one of my favorite movies this past year. It’s the story of a widower whose house is being surrounded by high rise construction. He devises a plan to float the house through the air using thousands of helium balloons and fly to a remote paradise. The writers of the film clearly know and love dogs, as do I. Their depictions of how dogs think is brilliant, and is nowhere more on-target than in showing how easily dogs are distracted. No matter what is going on in the movie, as soon as someone cries Squirrel!, the dogs go crazy, trying to find the rodents. Sometimes it feels to me that we live in a permanently attention-deficit world, constantly chasing squirrels.

So, is this a new thing? This morning’s gospel lesson suggests otherwise. Jesus has come to the house of Mary and her sister Martha, to rest, to eat, and to teach. Martha busies herself with the work of hospitality: preparing food and drink, making sure that the guest of honor is comfortable and provide for in every way. Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus’ feet with the disciples and others, listening intently to what Jesus has to say.

As Mary is bustling about the kitchen and household, you can hear what she’s saying under her breath: Sure would be nice to get some help with all this. Here I am, working like a dog to fix a nice meal for the Son of God, and that lazy sister just sits on her rump doing nothing. I can’t believe it. Who does she think she is? Can’t she see I need help? And why doesn’t Jesus tell her to come help me. He’s supposed to know everything – he should know how frustrated I am! Finally, Martha’s rage boils over and she confronts – not Mary – but Jesus, as if it’s his fault. Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!

Jesus’ response is no consolation to Martha: Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things: only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Thanks a lot, Jesus. And back to the kitchen Martha goes, no doubt muttering all the more.

What does Jesus mean by this rebuke to Martha? There’s a commonly repeated interpretation of this story which goes something like this: The most important thing in life is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him. Taking care of people, feeding them, providing hospitality and giving them comfort are all good things, but the best thing of all is to listen to Jesus and debate theology. So, who ranks the highest in the church? Janitors and cooks, or Sunday School teachers and preachers?

Now, I want to defend Martha this morning. In part it’s because I’ve already discovered what good cooks the Marthas of Providence Church are. In fact, I’ve figured out how to catch up on our church finances: there are at least three women in this church who make killer coconut crème pies. All we need to do is start selling coconut crème pies to the public, and we’ll be able to pay off the new wing and start building the new sanctuary next year. What would our church be if everyone was a Mary and there were no Marthas? What would Vacation Bible School be this week if everyone wanted to teach, but no one wanted to fix food and build sets and decorate the church?

I also want to defend Martha because there’s a lot of Martha in me. When our children were small and our family would gather at Thanksgiving, I was always the adult who ended up keeping track of where all the small cousins were and what they were doing, while all the Marys sat around the living room and talked to each other. Like Martha, I would get madder and madder that the parents of all these obnoxious children paid absolutely no attention to them whatsoever, and Uncle Brooke ended up supervising the entire tribe. I am a Martha, too.

Where in the world would we be – as church, as families, as schools, as a community – without the Marthas? So, what is Jesus really saying here?

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. Only one thing is necessary, Jesus tells the harried homemaker. What’s the one necessary thing?

I don’t believe it’s to abandon the ministry – listen to what I said – the ministry of hospitality for a life of contemplation. Jesus is telling Martha – and Mary, and everyone else in that room and this room – to pay attention to what you’re doing. Be where you are, in that moment. Whatever you are doing, do that thing with full attention and love and purposefulness. Martha’s problem wasn’t that she was fixing dinner instead of listening to Jesus – it’s that she allowed her anger at Mary to distract her from the all-important work she was pursuing. As my friend Alex Joyner says, this is not the hokey pokey, where we put our right arm in and take our right arm out, and shake it all about. Whatsover you are doing, do it with your whole self, as work done for the Lord, says Colossians 3:23.

The other mistake Martha makes is to triangle Jesus into the argument. That’s what dysfunctional families do – they talk about each other rather than to each other. Jesus refuses to take the bait. He will not be made the referee between the two sisters. He simply tells Martha to put her whole self into what she is doing, as Mary has put her whole self into what she is doing.

We live, as Linda Stone said, in an age of continuous partial attention. But that disease is nothing new – it dates back to the Garden, when Adam and Eve wanted to multitask and be both human and divine. Listen to Jesus: you are worried and distracted by many things: only one thing is necessary. Be where you are. Pay attention. Give your whole self to what you are doing at that moment. And ignore the squirrels.


[2] Bartlett and Brown Taylor, Feasting On The Word Year C, Volume 3, Knoxville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 267

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Last to Help

Pentecost 7C, 2010

Amos 7:7-17

Luke 10:25-37

In twenty-five words or less . . . Do you know the phrase? Don’t give me some long-winded explanation, tell me in twenty-five words or less. What do you want to do when you grow up? Why do you want to marry each other? Why do you want us to hire you? What did the doctor say?

If I asked you what your life was all about in twenty-five words or less, what would your answer be? It’s a good exercise for all of us. Tony Forstall, a preacher friend of mine, put his life summation as well as I’ve ever heard: God called, I answered. He has twenty-one words left.

The author Kurt Vonnegut was asked by a young fan what was the essence of life. At the outside, Joe, Vonnegut replied, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of: . . . you’ve got to be kind.[1] Karl Barth, the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th Century, was asked to sum up his twelve-volume master work, Church Dogmatics. His answer was: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. The radical Southern Baptist preacher and civil rights leader Will Campbell, challenged to sum up the Christian gospel in twenty-five words or less, said, We’re all (jerks) but God loves us anyhow.

An expert on the Jewish law and Hebrew scriptures decides to test Jesus on the core of his belief. Tell me, in twenty-five words or less, how to inherit eternal life. Translated: how can I receive God’s blessing and be with God forever? It’s a legitimate question. The scribe’s motives might be questionable, but it’s a fair question. You and I are asked that question, by believers and unbelievers, every day, and what we do with our lives tells others what we really believe. For many folks, apparently the path to God’s blessing is to work like dogs for forty or more years, accumulate lots of stuff, and die of cancer and heart disease from all the stress.

Jesus turns the question back on the scribe: You’re an expert on the Bible: what does the good book say? Jesus knows the scribe knows the answer: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Eighteen words: seven left. Ding! responds Jesus, you got it. Now, just do it. You see, Jesus invented the Nike motto.

Trapped. Not what the scribe came for. By the way, I like to tell people to stop reading the Bible like the Bible. This is an hilarious scene: the hunter becomes the hunted, trapped in his own scheme. Can you hear the scribe babbling at this point? But . . .but . . .but . . . uh, well, who is my neighbor? Good question. Who do I have to love to get God’s approval? OK, the sweet old lady living by herself across the street. Maybe the lady who lives on the left side of our house who hasn’t paid back the loan I gave her a year ago. But how about the Vietnamese couple two doors down with the rooster who starts crowing at 4 a.m.? How about the four guys – I think it’s four, we can never tell how many people are living there – on the other side of our house who won’t fix the broken fence next to us? And, surely, you don’t mean the people in the next neighborhood, or the next county, or state, or nation? You don’t mean illegal immigrants, do you, or people with whom we are at war? You don’t mean people who voted for him in the last election, or people who believe we ought to allow that. You don’t mean those people who don’t look like us, believe like us, and act like us, do you?

Jesus, good rabbi that he is, tells a story. That’s a very rabbinical thing to do. Who is my neighbor, Jesus? What are the limits of my compassion?

So Jesus tells a story about a man traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, about the same distance from Mechanicsville to Quinton. It’s a long one day walk. Along the way the man is mugged and left bleeding in the ditch. Now, a United Methodist pastor passed by, but he was late for a Trustees meeting, so he exercised compassion and veered his truck to the other side of the road so he wouldn’t hit the man in the ditch. Now, that’s love. Then, the church Lay Leader came by, late for the same meeting. He slowed down, but realized that if he didn’t get to the Trustees meeting, the crazy new pastor might convince the Trustees to dig a canal from the Pamunkey to the church for his sailboat. So he passed by, asking God to bless that poor man in the ditch.

There are interpretations of this parable that suggest that the first two men pass by because they are worried about becoming ritually unclean by helping this bleeding and possibly dead man. According to these interpretations, this is why Jewish law is so ridiculous, and why we should be thankful as Christians we don’t have to worry about such things. I think, at best, that’s a caricature of Hebrew Bible and law and of first-century Judaism. At worst, it’s anti-semitic. And it’s unhelpful and irrelevant for you and for me. I pass people lying, literally and figuratively, in the ditch every day, and it’s not because I’m worried about my ritual purity. It’s because I don’t want to get involved. It’s because people in trouble inconvenience my schedule and agenda and bank account. So, I’ve developed an elaborate system to replace interrupting my life to care for people in trouble with a great public religious busyness. I work hard at my job, I take good care of my family, I keep my yard neat, and I make sure I engage in enviable forms of recreation, like watching sports and reading and sailing and going to the gym. It’s a wonderful temple I’ve built for everyone to see.

Seven hundred years before Jesus told the story about the mugging on the road to Jericho, a farmer named Amos was watching some stonemasons building a wall in Israel. The masons were using a plumb line to make sure the wall was straight. Another phrase for crooked is – think about it – out of true. The image hit Amos like – well, a ton of bricks: Israel had built great temples and palaces for everyone to see and marvel at, but underneath the impressive surface people were dying from poverty, they were being enslaved, and corruption among the leaders of the temple and kingdom was rampant. Israel was being measured, Amos could see, by how well it lined up with God’s love for his people, and no matter how impressive the outward appearance, the kingdom was so crooked it would soon fall. Now, I live in a crooked house: it’s old, and it was moved years ago. The doorframes are askew, and the floors aren’t level. We tell people the house has character. We live with that. But how true are the houses you and I have built with our lives?

The first two passers by on the road to Jericho have built walls so thick they can’t reach the man in the ditch. But those thick walls are out of true. So a third man come down the road. This story has now become such a part of the cultural wallpaper that it’s hard to realize how scandalous this part of the tale was to Jesus’ listeners. Now, a Samaritan means someone who helps. But, to get a handle on this story, fill in this blank: I’d rather die than accept help from ­­­­___________. Maybe you fill in a name there – someone you know. Or maybe it’s a category of person. When Clarence Jordan wrote his Cotton Patch Translation in the early days of the civil rights movement, the third traveler was a black truck driver. For you maybe it’s a Muslim, maybe even Osama bin Laden. Maybe it’s a politician or other famous person you despise. Maybe it’s someone who believes or lives something you oppose with every fiber of your being. Maybe it’s an ex-family member. Maybe it’s someone who has hurt you, really, really deeply. We all have someone to fill in that blank: I’d rather die than accept help from _______.

That’s who helps the man in the ditch: the last person you would expect. For the record, southern Jews and northern Samaritans had despised each other for hundreds of years for religious, ethnic, and political reasons. This morning, let’s figure out who our Samaritan is. It’s important, because that person is the plumb line in our life. If the grace of God does not extend to them, then we’re in the darkness. If our understanding of the Kingdom of God does not have room for them, then we’re the priest and the Levite who have missed the point. The real reason for us to figure out who’s the last person we would accept help from is because that’s the person we need to extend our love to. If the spiritual house or family house or national house we’ve built does not include them, then it’s we who are on the outside, not they.

You see, we’re all lying bleeding in the ditch. We’ve been robbed and beaten by a world that promises us happiness with things than cannot satisfy, by friends and family who have hurt us in ways we can hardly name, and by our own sinful and broken selves who keep returning to the same addictive and self-destructive behaviors and beliefs. We’re all in the ditch, friends. And the way out is to take the hand of the last one to help.

St. Francis of Assisi was walking down the road one day when, to his horror, he saw a leper approaching him from the other direction. The leper’s face was horribly disfigured by that disease – he had open sores, his nose and facial features were being eaten away. Francis veered wide to the other side of the road, fearing contamination. A few yards down the road, Francis was overcome with guilt for having treated one of God’s children so. He turned around, ran down the road, kissed the leper on his bleeding face, gave him what little money he had, and blessed him. Francis went back on his way, but turned around to look. The leper was gone. Francis realized the bleeding and disfigured leper was Christ.

The last one you would let help you is probably the last one you would help. His name is Jesus.

[1] Bartlett and Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On The Word, Year C, Vol. 3., Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2010, p. 240