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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Easter Adjustment

Easter A, 2011

John 20:1-18

John 20:1-18 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

David Norris is a young and attractive New York politician running for the United States Senate in 2006. His campaign is going incredibly well until a tabloid newspaper publishes embarrassing photographs from his college days. His campaign turns sour, and on election day, he is beaten badly at the polls. He goes into a hotel restroom to gather hits wits before making his concession speech, and is shocked to find there a dancer named Elise, who is hiding from hotel security guards because she has crashed a wedding at the hotel. Chemistry sparkles between David and Elise, they kiss, and, inspired by her, David’s concession speech turns into an honest uncovering of the calculating and manipulative underbelly of politics. The speech instantly catapults him into national attention and makes him a favorite for whatever office he runs for next.

David and Elise make a date to meet the next morning at a bus stop, but a mysterious man wearing a fedora spoils their plan. The man in the hat keeps referring to a book he carries with a moving map. David loses Elise’s telephone number, and, despite taking the same bus every day for the next three years, never sees her. Finally, one day, he sees her walking along the street, he gets off, and they reconnect, to the dismay of the same man in the hat, who has been following him all the time.

It turns out that Harry, the man in the hat, and other behatted men like him everywhere, are members of The Adjustment Bureau, who intervene now and then in people’s lives to make sure the plans of The Chairman are carried out. David is destined to become President of the United States, and Elise to become a world-famous dancer, but if they get off the plan in the book by falling in love, then everything will turn awry. The caseworkers in the hats step in to keep The Chairman’s plans in place. Some people, Harry explains, call them angels.

David keeps resisting the caseworkers and their plans, so a senior caseworker, Thompson, is called in to help. Thompson reveals the existence of the Adjustment Bureau to David, and explains that David can never tell anyone else about the Bureau, or he will be “reset:” his memory will be erased and his brain essentially lobotomized. David asks, Whatever happened to free will? Thomson answers him,

We actually tried free will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman Empire, we stepped back to see how you'd do on your own. You gave us the dark ages for five centuries until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought that maybe we just needed to do a better job with teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you raised hopes, enlightenment, scientific revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason. Then in nineteen ten, we stepped back. Within fifty years you'd brought us World War One, the Depression, fascism, the Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuba missile crisis. At that point the decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn't fix.

The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, raises intriguing questions about predestination and free will. Are human beings mere instruments in some cosmic symphony orchestrated by God, or do we have the freedom to choose who we are, what we do, and whom we love? Are there angels all around who, whether they wear hats or not, keep us to The Chairman’s plans, introducing accidents like a spilled cup of coffee or a twisted ankle to just skew our timing enough to keep us on the Master’s track? Holy Week casts doubt on free will as we watch Jesus move inexorably to his execution. Did Jesus have a choice to be someone else than a crucified Messiah? Was Judas doomed from his birth to betray his Lord? Could Pilate have rendered another verdict, perhaps releasing Jesus instead of Barabbas?

What about us? Are our lives set before we’re born? Is there a plan for my life? Is this it, or is there a better one that I’m missing somehow? Or am I doomed to struggle all my life with my feelings of despair, with my inability to be the person I want to be and my frustration with falling back, again and again, into the same patterns of darkness and failure? I work and struggle and slip and fall over and over and over, and then I die. In the words of the old Peggy Lee song, Is that all there is? Sure, there have been some good days, there are people who say they love me, and, well, it could have been worse. But when teenagers are killed getting off the bus and middle-aged men die in their kitchens, you have to wonder who’s pulling the strings.

Harry, the junior caseworker assigned to David, gives David his hat, which enables him to go through special doors in the city, skipping across time and space. David and Elise flee the men from the Adjustment Bureau until they end up at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, where David explains about the Adjustment Bureau to Elise, and the plan for them to be President and a great dancer, now thwarted by their love. There is a special door they must decide to go through, but if they do, they will sacrifice their destinies for the sake of love. Elise hesitates, then runs through the door in hand with Harry. They find themselves fleeing up a skyscraper, until they reach a dead end on the roof, surrounded by caseworkers, including Harry. Knowing they are doomed and that they are about to be reset, their minds erased, and separated forever, David and Elise declare their love for each other and embrace in a long farewell kiss. When they finally break, all the caseworkers are gone except Harry, who reveals to them that because of their love, he has reset their plans and the plan of the world. Harry, it turns out, is the Chairman.

It is the plan of the powers of darkness for Jesus to die, for hope to be shattered, for sin to triumph, for hatred to reign, and for Creation to continue its spiral into chaos. Judas, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, and even the disciples play into that plan either as willing conspirators or as unwitting victims. But just as David and Elise sacrifice their fame and glory for the sake of love, when Jesus refuses to save himself and come down from the cross, when he refuses to call twelve legions of angels to defend him, when he refuses the call of the crowd to proclaim himself King and begin an insurrection, a miracle happens. The plan is shattered. Only love can change the plan – a love which abandons ambition and even life itself. Greed and hatred and even death are powerless, because they have no power over a soul surrendered to love. The cross changes all the rules and all the plans, and makes an empty tomb not just possible, but imperative. Death cannot hold a life abandoned to love.

We’re here this morning to see if the tomb is still empty. We’re hoping, despite all the evidence, that maybe we can avoid the deadly plan that seems to be playing itself out in us. There is an escape, but it only passes through a cross. We cannot carry our ambition and our prejudice and our greed and our hatreds with us. We cannot carry our own lives through that door – it is only wide enough for love. Jesus is the way, and if we will drop everything else and hold to him alone, then we’ll find ourselves in the midst of the Easter Adjustment.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

You Gotta Get Down to Go Up

Palm Sunday A


Philippians 2:5-11 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Matthew 21:1-11 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 
‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ 
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ 
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

The 1989 film The Abyss is an underwater version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which workers on a high-tech undersea drilling rig are saved from Russian attempts to detonate a nuclear device by non-human aliens who live deep in the sea. In one sequence, Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio are trapped in a small sub that is damaged and begins to fill with water. There is only one dive suit, and only one of them can swim to safety. The woman decides to let the man, who is a better swimmer, swim to help, while she drowns. Because they are at great depth in very cold water, she hopes that even though she drowns, the man will be able to pull her to the undersea lab and revive her. The sub fills with water, she struggles, drowns, he drags her through the water to the drilling rig and . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the movie for you.

As the waters rise around her, the woman realizes she cannot live by going up. She can only live, paradoxically, by going down and drowning. She cannot know whether she will actually come back to life or not. She has a hope, and a theory. But to rise again, she must first go down, and drown. That is the Easter Story. That is the paradox of Jesus’ life. In order for him to live and to bring life, he cannot go up. From the heights, he must go down, and down, and down, even to drown, before he can rise.

The Palm Sunday lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the most important passages in the entire Bible in understanding what Jesus is all about. Scholars call this the Philippian hymn, because it seems as though part of the passage is a poem or song already at use in the early church that Paul quotes to make his point. When I was a child all sermons had the same structure: three points, a poem, and a prayer. Often the poem was a hymn text. Paul does the same thing, and some of us may know a modern version of the Philippian hymn sung in churches today:

Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess

That Jesus Christ is Lord .

Let the same mind be in you, Paul writes, that was in Christ Jesus. This is what you should be like. Want to know how to live as a Christian? Paul’s going to explain it to you in five verses. If you want to know one passage of Scripture to memorize other than John 3:16, this is as good as any you’ll find. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped – held on to – exploited. There is a wonderful little film made about twenty years ago that nobody noticed called Saving Grace. It’s about a Pope, played by Tom Conti, who is puttering around in the Vatican Garden one day when a breeze blows his hat over the wall. He’s wearing gardening clothes, and when he goes out the gate to get his hat, it locks behind him. No one recognizes him as the Pope, and he can’t get back in the Vatican. So, he hitchhikes down the road to a little town in southern Italy and lives there anonymously for a few weeks, helping some ordinary people. He doesn’t let anyone know who he is, but lays aside all his power and riches as the Pope to live as an ordinary man. That is exactly what Jesus does. He puts aside all his heavenly power to enter the common life of the world, and become just like us. That’s the Christmas story, of God born of a simple peasant girl in a stable on a cold winter night.

He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. The Greek word for emptying is kenosis. It means to be poured out, as a pitcher is emptied at a meal. This image of being poured out is a powerful one for what will happen to Jesus this week, as his life and blood are literally poured out for the world.

And being found in human form, he humbled – lowered– himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Notice what’s happening here? Here we have Jesus, sitting at the right hand of God, with life and position and power and glory forever and ever amen. But because of his love for the Creation – his love for you and for me – he gets down off of that throne and strips himself of all his glory and power, and becomes a baby born in a manger. He comes down from the throne, goes down to the earth, goes down to Bethlehem, and down into that manger. More than that physical and spiritual downward mobility, Paul says, Jesus also undertakes an emotional downward movement, into humility and obedience. Instead of growing up to be a leader and order-giver, Jesus eats with the poor and sick, he heals the lame and blind, he washes the feet of his disciples. He says he came not to be served, but to serve. This leader, this Messiah, only leads by showing what it means to follow. He claims no power, no authority, and no perks. Finally, he is obedient to God right to the point of going down to Jerusalem, down to Pilate, and down to death. You just can’t get much more humble than dead. Then he goes down to the grave, and, the creed says, down to hell.

The word Paschal comes from the Hebrew word pasch – the sacrifice that is at Passover. The Paschal Paradox is that Jesus brings life only by dying. Jesus, Paul says, is only Lord because he was a servant. Jesus is raised because he has gone down as far as he can go. Maybe it’s not a paradox at all. Jesus goes down from heaven, down from power, down to earth, down to humility, down to servanthood, down to death, down to hell. Jesus goes down so far there’s only one place left for God to bring him, and that’s up. Up to life on Easter morning. Up to heaven, up to Lordship and power and authority over all Creation. But to go up, first Jesus has to go down, just as the woman in The Abyss has to go down and drown to live, and the Pope in Saving Grace has to become a common man to learn how to be a good Pope.

So, Paul says, have the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. We all want to go up. We all want to go up to popularity and power. We all want to go up to life. We all want to go up to love. We all want to go up to joy. But the only path up is the path down. There is no way out of this sinking world except to go down and out, even if we drown. Even on Palm Sunday, when all the crowds want to make him king, Jesus is headed down to love, down to servanthood, down to death for the people he loves.

And, deep within our hearts, we know the same is true for us. It’s that path down at three in the morning when the baby is crying and we’d rather stay in bed. It’s that path down when the kids are sick and we’re wiping their fevered faces. It’s that path down when we’d rather be watching the ball game or fishing but there’s a poor person’s house to be repaired. It’s that path down when we’d like to buy some new bauble but there’s a neighbor in need. It’s that path down when we’d rather sleep in, but God is calling us to prayer and praise. It’s that path down when we don’t want to serve, but God needs a servant.

And tell me, tell me – when you take that path down, don’t you find, again and again, yourself being lifted up by arms from somewhere else? When you go down to your humanity, when you go down to obedience, when you go down to the death of your own will – don’t you find, way down there, yourself being raised up? That’s the Paschal Paradox: that the way down becomes the way up, and the way to your death becomes the way to eternal life.

The crowds today would raise Jesus up, but he is on his way down. Down to humanity, down to obedience, down to servanthood, down to death. And then God does what neither the world can do for him, nor Jesus do for himself: God raises him from the dead, and the heights of glory. That’s why he is Lord – because his path down is also ours, so his path up can be ours as well.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Strategies for Sharing

Lent 4 A, 2011

Acts 16:16-34 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

For the last five weeks, I’ve invited you to join me on a Lenten journey of prayer and fasting, as we considered how we can better reach out to our friends, family, and neighbors with the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We first talked about why we needed to be intentional and deliberate about that sharing; next we talked about the heart of the Good News – that we’re all really messed up people, but that in Jesus Christ God loves us anyhow. Two weeks ago we looked at some of the reasons why we resist sharing the gospel with others, and last week we heard that we, and no one else, determine who our neighbors are. Today, finally, we’re going to consider some specific strategies for how to share God’s love with other people by looking at the conversion of a jailer and his entire household. I believe this story tells us an awful lot of what we need to know and to do to be Christ’s ambassadors to everyone we meet.

Follow this story, from Acts 16, in your Bibles with me. Make notes in the margin or in your bulletin: I find five steps in this story for effectively sharing the love of God with others.

1. Call out the demons. Paul, Silas, Luke, and perhaps others have established a congregation in Philippi in the home of Lydia. Every time Paul and the others go down to the river to pray, a slave-girl with the gift of telling fortunes points to them and yells, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Her owners made a lot of money from her fortune telling. On one hand, you’d think this would be great advertising for Paul and Silas, but they don’t want to be associated with this girl and her owners and their profiteering. It’s also apparent that the girl is not yelling this as an endorsement, but as a complaint – in the Bible, the demons acknowledge that God is God – they just don’t like it very much. So Paul, annoyed, exorcises her of the demon by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now deprived of their income, the girl’s owners have Paul and the others arrested for upsetting the economics of the town. People will put up with all kinds of foolishness until it begins to affect their pocketbooks. If you want to get yourself beaten and thrown in jail, upset the financial status quo.

The primary task of the church, said David Harned, is to point out the idols in the marketplace, in the land, and in ourselves, and to point to the times and places where God is at work freeing the slaves.[1] You and I need to stand for the truth – which is that we are all fallen and in sin, but that God loves us anyway. We need to call out the false gods of popularity and greed and prejudice and war, and point people to the God who alone is worthy of our worship. Everything you and I do communicates whom and what we worship – and the hard truth is that you and I buy just as much into the idols that this world worships as anyone else. We should be challenging the priorities and values and, yes, the economics every bit as much as did Paul and Silas. And we also must expect the same treatment they received when at school and at work and with friends and in the marketplace we follow the Most High God. Our lives have to witness to a different Kingdom. If our lives aren’t any different, then anything else we say about the Lordship of Jesus Christ is a lie.

2. In all circumstances, especially in the dungeon, pray and praise. Beaten, chained in the stocks, Paul and Silas pray and sing. What did they sing? As good Jews, they probably sang the psalms, which proclaim faith in God despite suffering. They sang songs of praise and thanksgiving. Rejoice in the Lord always, Paul wrote later to the same Christians at Philippi, do not worry about anything, but with prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests known to God. In 1736 John Wesley was traveling across the Atlantic to become the first pastor in Savannah, Georgia. In the ship with John, his brother Charles, and another Oxford classmate was a group of Moravian Christians from Germany. Moravians were the ancestors of the Church of the Brethren today. During a terrifying storm in the middle of the ocean, John Wesley was convinced he was going to die and was overcome with fear. The Moravians, on the other hand, sat below decks calmly singing hymns. When Wesley asked the Moravian pastor how they could be so calm, the pastor responded, “Our women and children aren’t afraid to die and to be with the Lord.” Realizing he didn’t have that kind of assurance of his own salvation, Wesley embarked upon a three year spiritual journey that led to his awakening and to the forming of our own denomination.

The strongest witness you and I can offer others is to demonstrate that, no matter what is going on around us, we know that Jesus is Lord, and that we are with him now and always. When our bank accounts collapse, when our health fails, when we are deep in the darkest prison, we should give thanks and praise for God’s love in Jesus. It’s an incredible witness to the prisoners all around us. Fifty years later, Wesley’s last words on his deathbed were I’ll praise . . . I’ll praise.

3. Love others above yourself. When an earthquake destroys the prison and breaks the prisoners’ chains, Paul and Silas stay in place. The jailer, thinking the prisoners have escapes, prepares to kill himself, but Paul prevents him. Instead of taking advantage of the situation for their own freedom and at the expense of the jailer’s life, Paul and Silas sacrifice their freedom for the sake of their captor and his family, who live above the jail.

One of the most moving sports stories in the last couple of years was of the girl’s softball team when, in the bottom of the last inning, a girl hit a game-winning home run but broke her foot running to first base. The rules say that her teammates can’t help her around the bases, and if she didn’t touch all the bases, the run wouldn’t count. So the girls on the other team picked her up and carried her around the bases, touching her foot to each one and finally to home, where she scored the run that beat them. That action gathered the losing team far more fame than they would ever have received by winning. When you and I sacrifice our privilege for the sake of people who are in distress, it changes lives. After all, that’s what Jesus did, and if we’re going to follow him, then we need to follow him.

4. When people cry out for deliverance, tell them about Jesus. The jailer, overwhelmed that these Christians have protected him, asks to know how to be saved. Friends, people are asking that question every day, but you and I are so caught up in ourselves that we don’t notice. If you really listen, you’ll hear people talking about their struggles with their marriages, their children, their parents, their jobs, their dreams, their finances, their health, their faith. When I was doing hospital chaplaincy, I learned about “doorway moments” – I would visit a patient in their hospital room, ask them how they were, and the entire conversation would be in unrevealing generalities. But often, when I got up to leave and stood at the door saying good-bye, the patient would toss off something really significant – “I’ll see you tomorrow if I make it through the night” or “I just hope the hospital doesn’t take everything I own to pay the bill.” I had to learn to not throw those comments away with “Oh, you’ll be fine,” but to stop, come back in the room, and ask them if that’s how they really felt. And that’s when the real ministry would happen. People throw out those lines to us all the time, and tell us they’re just kidding. But they’re not. Listen and you’ll hear people asking how to be saved. And that’s the opportunity to tell them that you’re messed up, too, but that Jesus loves you and them, and that their life can be different if they’ll call on Jesus.

5. Show them what to do. Paul baptizes the jailer and his whole family. He tells them about Jesus, invites them to make a commitment, baptizes them, and brings them into Christian community. That’s exactly what I’ve been asking you to pray about the last five weeks – for God to give you the opportunity to tell someone in your life about the love of God and invite them to experience Christian community here on Easter Sunday. Don’t just invite them to believe – help them put flesh on belief here in the gathered Body of Christ.

Let me give you a specific and easy way to initiate a conversation with someone about faith. If you will ask God for the opening -- and pay attention -- there will be a moment in a conversation you are having with a friend when something will come up that you’ve been studying in Bible Study or Sunday School or youth group or maybe even that you heard in a sermon. Maybe your friend talks about how sometimes he or she gets really down on him or herself, feeling as if they have no value and feel so frustrated with being so unlovable. That’s an opening for you to say, “You know, we were talking about that in church recently – about how we’re all messed up, every single one of us. But the amazing thing is that God knows how messed we are and loves us anyhow. That helps me when I’m down on myself. And my friends at church really show me that love whenever I’m with them. I don’t know what I’d do without them showing me how much God loves me. How about you?”

We easily share our favorite sports teams, TV shows, movies, gossip, recipes, songs, jokes, and stories. Someone tells us something, and we say, That reminds me of a song . . . a joke . . . it’s like that movie . . . you, know one time I . . . All we have to do is exactly the same about Jesus. You know, that is like the time Jesus . . . last week at church we were talking about . . . there’s a hymn about that. . . Call out the false idols. Pray and praise without ceasing. Put others first. Tell people about Jesus. Show them what to do.

It will change your life, and it will change the world.

[1] Harned, David Baily, The Ambiguity of Religions, Westminster Press, 1968.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Who Is My Neighbor?


Luke 10: 25-37 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He 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.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus 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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He 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. The 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.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Picture in your mind and heart, right now, the person or group of people you most dislike, most fear, most avoid. Do NOT say – there’s no one like that in my life: I love everyone. You are in church, God knows what you are thinking, and the person sitting next to you does not want to be hit by a lightning bolt directed at you for lying. Be honest: who is the person or persons you hope to never have anything to do with for the rest of your life?

- suicidal terrorists

- inner city street gangs

- liberals

- conservatives

- people with AIDS

- certain neighbors, family members, classmates, or work associates

You know who that person is. You know who those persons are. Now, imagine lying in a ditch by the side of the road following an accident, and that person comes to help you. Or, imagine passing by that person who’s sick or injured or in trouble. What does that feel like? What are you going to do?

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ answer to a question about who God expects us to love. Family, friends, pets, people like us, good people – is that what God expects of us? So, Jesus tells this remarkable story about a man mugged on a journey, who is left in the ditch by precisely the people you would have expected to help him – a priest and a church lay leader. They’re too busy; they don’t want to get involved; they don’t even know the man in the ditch – or maybe they do.

The third passerby is a Samaritan. Jesus has not only stuck a knife into his hearers, but now he is going to twist it. Samaritans and Jews hated each other. Samaritans were the remnants of a small Hebrew sect in the northern part of Israel, who claimed that God intended for the Temple to be built on Mt. Gerazim, not on Mt. Zion (which is Jerusalem). Jews and Samaritans regarded each other as despicable heretics, pretenders to the true faith and racial legacy of Abraham. There is still a small group of Samaritans – fewer than 1000, in four families, living in Israel today. They still hate Jews, and Jews hate them.

It is the Samaritan who shows compassion for the victim, puts him on his donkey and pays for his hospital bill. “Now,” Jesus asks his listeners, “which of the three do you think was a neighbor to the man in trouble?”

Neighborliness, Jesus is telling us, is not the responsibility of someone else. We decide who our neighborhood is. And there is increasing evidence that we live in a dramatically less neighborly world. Governments decide that they don’t have to talk to nations that don’t agree with them. There is a growing disparity in the world, in our nation, and in our own neighborhoods between rich and poor. There are growing gaps between good schools and poor schools. A shrinking percentage of our population has adequate health care. We work in cubicles, communicate to the cubicle next door by email so we won’t have to talk to each other, we come home at night to our homes and never engage the people living next door, and we even retreat to the privacy of separate televisions, separate computers, and separate cell phones so we don’t even have to be neighborly in our own households.

In their ground-breaking book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Robert Bellah and the other authors say The litmus test that both the biblical and republican traditions give us for assaying the health of a society is how it deals with the problem of wealth and poverty. . . Classic republican theory from Aristotle to the American founders rested on the assumption that free institutions could survive in a society only if there were a rough equality of condition, that extremes of wealth and poverty are incompatible with a republic.[1] The Samaritan is not a republican, but he understands that the person next to him is his neighbor, and to love his neighbor means to level the playing field between the victim’s need and his own well-being. To be faithful to God, Jesus is saying quite explicitly, is to actively and intentionally seek the good of those next to us.

Notice the neighborliness of the Lord’s Supper: we all eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup. No one gets more or less. No one is at the head or the foot of the table. And if we cannot come, the table comes to us. The table is the pre-eminent symbol of neighborliness – and we need to take the table outside, not demand that others come in.

I believe that God is calling Christians to a counter-cultural life of radical neighborliness. God is calling us away from our isolation and into community-making. Specifically, I want to challenge us:

1. Find out right now who is around you in your pew.

2. Find out who is around you at home.

3. Find out who is around you at school and at work.

4. Find out who is around you wherever you are, and teach them what it looks like to have a neighbor. It makes absolutely no difference how they treat you: neighborliness is determined by how you treat them.

5. Insist that leaders in church and work and school and nation be neighborly and level the playing field. For most of us, that means that we’re going to have to contribute the fill for the low places. That’s the price of neighborliness, and is the reason who God blessed us so richly – so we could be a blessing to someone else.

In so many places, the world has forgotten how to be a neighbor. Who is going to teach them what that looks like? All the sermons in the world won’t help. We will learn how to be a neighbor by being one, and we will teach how to be a neighbor the same way.

Today – go make a neighbor.

[1] Bellah, Robert, et. al., Habits of the Heart, U. of CA Press, 1985, p. 285