Friday, March 3, 2017

“Lawyer vs. Jesus” - March 5, 2017

Text: Luke 10:25-37

It has already started. My favorite time of year. 

How could Lent be your favorite time of year, you ask? Nothing wrong with Lent, but it is a kind of somber time – you’re not really supposed to enjoy it, are you? 

Well, if you know me very well, you may have guessed that when I say this is my favorite time of year, I’m not talking about Lent; I’m talking about tournament time in college basketball. This year, for good or ill, March Madness lines up almost exactly with the season of Lent. 

As I looked at our scripture texts for the coming weeks, all seemed to contain themes of controversy and adversarial viewpoints. There are rivalries. There is struggle. So, I decided to just go with it and give our series of sermons during Lent the theme of “March Madness.” 

Now, I do not mean to be glib about the season of Lent, and I don’t mean to put it on the level of something like a game. And don’t worry, while today is Lawyer vs. Jesus and in a couple of weeks it will be Fox vs. Hen, we won’t have a Jesus vs. Hen in the Final Four. But in the coming weeks we will explore some of the conflicts, some of the opposing views and characters we find in the scriptures. And in doing so, we may come to grapple with the sometimes competing tendencies and leanings and habits within our own hearts.

Our scripture today begins when a lawyer puts a question to Jesus. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

For his part, Jesus answers the question with a question of his own. What does the law say? How do you read it? The lawyer answered with the commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 

Jesus says simply, “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.” But the scripture says that the lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” There is a question behind this question. “How far should my concern and compassion extend? Where do we draw the line?” 

In response, Jesus tells a story that we are likely all familiar with – probably the best known of all of Jesus’ parables. A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was known as a dangerous road and sure enough, the man on this journey was beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead in the ditch. 

Fortunately, a priest was coming down the road, and he saw the man. But we are surprised to hear that he walked on by. And then a Levite, a temple official, came traveling down the road. He saw the injured man, but he too passed on by. 

Then a third traveler comes down the road. Most everybody knew how the story would end. The priest didn’t stop and the temple official didn’t stop. The high-up, important people didn’t stop, but an everyday Joe would stop and help the man. 

But that is not how the story went. A third traveler came along, but this man was a Samaritan. It wasn’t the priest or the Levite, but a despised Samaritan who helped this man. He bandages his wounds, puts him on his own donkey, and brings him to an inn. He cares for him that night, and the next morning he pays the innkeeper to take care of him, promising to pay any additional bill. 

After telling the story, Jesus put the question to the lawyer: which of these three travelers proved to be a neighbor to the man in need? It’s glaringly obvious, and the lawyer answers, “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” 

Two good questions had been asked. “How do I inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” Two good answers have been given. Jesus and the lawyer totally agree on the answers. But Jesus’ response, “Go and do likewise,” highlights for us that this is not a theoretical exercise. It is not an abstract idea. What really matters is the way we live. 

This is a story that is so familiar to us that it can lose some of its power. It can lose some of its punch. Even folks who are not religious know about the Good Samaritan. In popular culture, being a Good Samaritan means helping somebody in need. There are Good Samaritan laws in many states. These laws say that if you see a stranger in need and offer assistance, you are protected from liability in case there are unintended consequences of your efforts to assist a person. 

This is all well and good, and we definitely could use a few more Good Samaritans, as this is understood. But the story Jesus tells goes deeper than that. And to get at how this story was heard by Jesus’ hearers’, we might go back to our March Madness theme and consider the opposing players and opposing claims found in this story. 

First, we have Lawyer vs. Jesus. It appears that the lawyer is one of many who disapproved of Jesus and was trying to get Jesus to say something that would get him in trouble. Because when Jesus agrees with this man’s reading of the law, he couldn’t leave it at that. “Wanting to justify himself,” we read, “he asked, ‘Who is my neighbor?’” This man basically can’t take yes for an answer; it appears that is he is trying to compete with Jesus more than learn from Jesus. 

So it is a contentious conversation, and the question is about how wide our concern is to be. Who is my neighbor? 

A major struggle we find in this story is Jew vs. Samaritan. This is maybe a part of the story that we have a harder time grasping hold of.

If you were with us back in the fall as we made our way through the Hebrew scriptures, you may recall that at some point – well, it was after the reign of King Solomon – the Hebrew nation divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. In time the northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria, and the leading citizens taken into captivity. The Assyrians forcibly settled people from other nations into Israel, and these new arrivals intermarried with the Jews left behind. They came to be known as Samaritans. 

The southern kingdom of Judah was in time conquered by Babylon, and the people taken into captivity. But the Jews in Babylon were allowed to return to Jerusalem, and when they did, their conviction was that their northern neighbors had been corrupted and were no longer Jews – they were heretics. The Samaritans built a temple at Mt. Gerazim. Jews and Samaritans worshiped the same God, but there was a bitter rivalry. 

Around 100 BC, the Judeans invaded Samaria. They reduced the capital city of Shechem to rubble and destroyed the temple at Mt. Gerazim. As you might imagine, this did not make for warm feelings between the two peoples. 

Jesus and his disciples were from Galilee, a Jewish area to the north of Samaria. So you had Judea in the south, Samaria in the middle, and Galilee in the north. To travel from Judea to Galilee, Jews would sometimes cross to the east side of the Jordan River, travel north, and then cross the river again back in order to avoid going through Samaria. It would be like us going through Illinois and Wisconsin to get to the Twin Cities. You would cross the Mississippi River and go far out of your way just to avoid the northern tier of counties in Iowa. 

Around 50 BC, there were Jewish travelers who decided to venture through Samaria and were killed. By now, this kind of violence was mostly in the past, but not that far in the past. This is simply to say that Samaritans and Jews did not care for each other. And the fact that they had a shared history and religious and spiritual ties made it almost worse. They each saw the other as betraying the true faith. 

Another consideration here we might call Temple vs. Ditch. In Jesus’ story, a priest passes by, and then a Levite. Here is the thing: in relative terms, clergy were paid better in that day. A lot better. Priests were powerful authorities, members of the upper class, the elite. Levites were priests’ associates responsible for music, incense, bread, and temple adornments, but also for sacrificial offerings and banking. This was big business. Priests and Levites were known to have retreat homes in the Jordan valley near Jericho. Everyday Israelites resented their opulent lifestyles. 

When the priest and the Levite in this story passed by the injured man in the ditch, we are left to wonder why. It was a dangerous road. Some have noted that touching a bloody body or even worse, a dead body would make one ritually unclean. But maybe they had just some time off and were heading for a little R and R and couldn’t be bothered. Those hearing the story did not necessarily have high opinions of the priests and Levites to begin with. 

So when the third man comes along the road, they know how the story is going to end. It will be one of them, just a regular, everyday person, who shows himself to be more caring, more compassionate, than the priest or Levite, who are too busy and self-important to be bothered. 

So imagine the surprise, imagine the shock, imagine the anger, even, when the hero of the story is a hated Samaritan. When Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man in need?” the lawyer cannot even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” He answers, “The one who showed mercy.” 

Finally, this raises a question we might think of as Tribe vs. Neighbor. The lawyer asks, “If God wants us to love our neighbors, then who are our neighbors? Just who must we love?” 

But that is not the question Jesus answers. He tells a story and asks, “Which one proved to be a neighbor?” For Jesus, the question is not so much “Who is my neighbor,” but “How can I be a neighbor?” 

The issue is not who is a part of my tribe, who is in my circle of concern. The issue is being a neighbor – which has to do with our actions. It’s not even so much being a neighbor as it is acting as a neighbor. 

This is going to date me, but some of you will remember the “The Jeffersons.” This was a 1970’s sit-com, a spin-off of “All in the Family” that featured George and Louise Jefferson, an African-American couple from Queens who have made it big and have moved into a nice, mostly white Upper East Side apartment building in Manhattan. 

There is an episode where Tom, one of the Jefferson’s neighbors, a white guy, was robbed near the building and decided to arrange a tenants’ meeting. It turns out that there was already a meeting scheduled nearby by a group of folks who were concerned about the wrong kind of people coming into the neighborhood, and Tom was invited to attend. Tom asked if he could bring some of his friends along and the organizers said, “Sure!” So Tom brought along some other tenants in the building, including George. But as it turns out, this meeting was organized by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. 

It is immediately contentious. There is shouting and it nearly reaches the level of violence when the leader of the Klan meeting starts to have a heart attack. George stops arguing with the Klansmen and performs CPR on their leader, saving his life. But when the man is revived and learns that his life had been saved by a black man, he says to his son, “You should have let me die.” 

But the son was so moved by the sight of someone he had been raised to hate and fear saving his father’s life that his heart was changed. He renounced his membership in the Klan and became a different person.

On the day before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in Memphis. In it, he talks about the Good Samaritan. He talks about how people have imagined the reasons why the priest and Levite did not stop. He talks about how dangerous the road is. And he winds up by saying, “the question that the priest asked, the question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’”

“But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'”

We might even add to that, “If I don’t stop to help, what will happen to me?” If I do not have compassion, what will happen to me?

The question is not so much, who is my neighbor? The question is, “How can I be a neighbor?” Jesus’ parable tells us that love knows no boundaries. Being a neighbor means having compassion even for those we would rather have nothing to do with. And it also means seeing even our enemies as people of worth and potential agents of the kingdom of God. 

In one way or another, at some point or another, we all find ourselves in the ditch. The story of the Good Samaritan leads us to an attitude of mutuality – we are all neighbors, we all give and we all receive from each other according to our gifts and our opportunities and our needs – no exceptions. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” Amen.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

“Do You See This Woman?” - February 19, 2017

Text: Luke 7:36-50

Social occasions can sometimes be, well, awkward.  We can find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, with people we do not know well, and we are not sure of the expectations.  It can be uncomfortable.

A few years ago Susan and I went to a clergy retreat at a camp near Eldora.  It was a fairly small group, and maybe eight of us went into town for dinner.  The camp director told us about a tavern that had good food, and if you didn’t want to go to Pizza Ranch, this was about your only option.  We opened the door and walked in.  There were maybe 10 people in the whole place, all of them sitting at the bar.  They turned and stared at us.  Every one of them.  I half-expected one of them to say, “You’re not from around here, are you?” but nobody said a word.  They just stared.  It was an extremely awkward moment.  Finally a waitress turned up, showed us to a table, and everything was fine.  The food was good.  But for a moment, it was pretty uncomfortable.

We have all been in those awkward, uncomfortable situations.  Like our experience at that tavern, the problem can stem from lack of familiarity – we were newcomers on the regulars’ turf.  But sometimes the problem is just the opposite: we find ourselves in situations with people that we know all too well.  Someone whose politics or social or religious views are very different than yours insists on talking about loudly it at a holiday gathering.  Or you attend a dinner and happen to be seated by literally the last person on earth you want to see.  Or former spouses and in-laws are brought together at a wedding or funeral.  Some navigate it well and at least for the time being they are a big happy family.  For others – well, it doesn’t always go so well.

There is a Papa John’s commercial that they showed over and over during the NFL playoffs.  Peyton Manning is having a party at his house.  The doorbell rings and Miles, the Denver Broncos’ mascot arrives for the party.  Peyton welcomes him and invites him in – but suddenly Miles is standing face to face with Blue, the mascot of the Indianapolis Colts, Manning’s former team.  These two horse mascots look at each other and it is instant awkwardness. You’re not sure if the Papa John’s pizza is going enough to break the tension and make everybody happy.

In our scripture this morning, Jesus has been put in an incredibly awkward situation.  It is hard to overstate how uncomfortable this must have been.  Perhaps we need a little background to understand the situation more fully.  As we have seen as we have followed along in Luke over these past weeks, Jesus had created quite a stir as a new and completely genuine and teacher and healer and holy man.

All sorts of people were attracted to him – both rich and poor folks, educated and illiterate, highly respectable people as well as those on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy.  His teaching was at the same time very traditional, based on the ancient law, but also new and refreshing and accessible to many, as he interpreted ancient truths and traditions in ways that were filled with grace and mercy.  And as we have seen, Jesus’ ministry did not meet with everyone’s approval.

One evening Jesus is being entertained by one of the leading citizens of Jerusalem, and while he was at the dinner table, something absolutely astonishing occurred.  A woman - who is described as a sinner - broke into that scene and began to pour expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and then to weep uncontrollably and to wipe his feet with her hair.  Then she began kissing his feet.  This woman was most definitely not an invited guest. 

Don’t you hate it when that happens?  This was brazen, completely unthinkable behavior.

In first-century Palestine, such meals were often held in a courtyard or in a semi-outdoor setting, so there may have been neighbors and townspeople on the outskirts of the gathering who could see what was going on.  And Jesus had attracted a following, so word may have gotten out that Jesus, well known by now, was having dinner at Simon’s home.  This makes it a little more understandable that this woman showed up there.

On the other hand, women did not intrude into the company of men who were sitting at table for dinner.  In fact, even the wives were oftentimes not included at such a gathering.  Speaking of this incident, John Claypool wrote, “This woman’s mere presence alone was shocking, and then what she did was as tasteless and vulgar a show of affection as you could possibly imagine.”  It is hard to even list all of the taboos going on here.  Among other things, women never let their hair down in public.  The woman was already known as a sinner.

Most anyone in Jesus’ situation would have been utterly horrified.  They would have thought, “What on earth are people going to think about this?  Are they not going to wonder how I ever even came to know a woman of this sort?  Isn’t this going to be absolutely devastating to my reputation?”  I mean, this was bad bad.

Jesus had every reason to be beyond embarrassed.  But what makes this story so amazing is the way that Jesus responded.  Jesus’ first thought is not for himself and his reputation.  Jesus immediately jumps to the defense of this woman and began to celebrate what must have happened in her life that prompted this kind of behavior.
Now, the history of interpretation of this passage is interesting.  This woman is most often referred to as a prostitute.  It is somehow assumed that if she is a sinner, that has to mean sexual sin.  It’s interesting, isn’t it, that that kind of label gets attached to women described as sinners, but not so much to men.  The fact that she lets her hair down and behaves in such a forward way may lend credence to that view, but the text simply says she is a sinner.  And in fact, if she were a prostitute, Luke could have called her that, as he does another woman in chapter 15.

To me, such speculation misses the point.  At the end of last week’s scripture, Jesus points out that John the Baptist lived an ascetic life, abstained from alcohol and rich foods, and people said he had a demon.  Jesus on the other hand ate and drank and hung out with tax collectors and sinners, and he was called a glutton and a drunk.

Jesus is accused of being a friend of sinners, and then what happens in the very next story?  Of course, he is again shown as a friend of sinners.

Now, there is another reason that speculation about this woman kind of misses the point.  And that is because this story may be about Simon, the host of the meal, as much as it is about this woman.  People are appalled and mortified at this woman’s display, and they are no doubt shocked that Jesus’ doesn’t put a stop to it.  For his part, Simon – the man who had invited Jesus to the dinner – says to himself, “If this man were actually a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is who is touching him – a sinner.”  Which in a way is kind of weird, because decorum and common decency would have demanded that Jesus be offended by any woman who would do this – her “sinner” status was just icing on the cake, as it were.  And in fact, if she were not already known as a sinner, she certainly would be now.

Now whether Jesus hears Simon muttering under his breath, or whether it is obvious to him what his host is thinking, Jesus puts a question to Simon.  It’s a little parable that is tucked into this passage.  “Simon,” he says, “I have a question for you.”  He tells the story of a creditor with two debtors.  One owes a not insignificant amount, but the other owes a huge amount – ten times as much as the first person.  Neither was able to repay the debt, and the creditor decided to forgive the debt of each.  Jesus asked Simon, “Now, which one of these will love him more?”

Simon is no dummy, he knows exactly what Jesus is saying.  He knows Jesus is about to zap him.  So he says, “Well, I suppose it is the one who was forgiven more.”  You suppose?  Bu then, what else can he say?

Jesus said, “You have judged rightly.”  But then, the spotlight gets turned on Simon.  Jesus says, “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house, and you did not give me water for my feet.” (As was the custom - roads were dusty, travel was hard, and it was customary to offer guests a chance to wash their feet.)  “But she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss (of welcome), but she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”

Simon had not offered basic hospitality to Jesus, an invited guest, but this woman, this sinner, had offered all of this.  And according to the story Jesus told, because she had been forgiven much, she had great love.

Jesus topped it off by saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

What Jesus does is kind of subversive, because in effect he is saying that Simon was as much of a sinner as this woman.  He was lacking in love, he was lacking in forgiveness, and by implication he was lacking in faith.

Now just to hear this story, we are probably all scandalized by what this woman does.  When people behave in such ways and when they are already tagged with the label “sinner,” we just automatically assume a kind of moral superiority.  It’s hard not to feel like we are better than some people.  It’s hard not to feel a little judgmental toward some people.

I admit that this is true for me, and research actually shows that I am not alone.  A recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that most individuals strongly believe that they are just, virtuous and moral, and uniformly see others as inferior.  Interestingly, people also tend to rate themselves more highly than others in modesty.

Ben Tappin, a psychologist at the University of London and the study’s lead author, reported that “The individuals in our sample consistently judged themselves to be superior to the average person.”  Participants rated themselves, the average person, and a “socially desirable ideal” on traits such as sincerity, honesty, friendliness, competence, creativity, and so forth.

Basically, most people just think they are better than other people.  This is largely due to what is called the “self-enhancement effect.”  The classic study on this was back in 1981, a study on driving ability.  Most people rate themselves as an above-average driver.  I would guess that a majority of us here might think that we are well above average.  Well, by definition, we can’t all be well above average, but there you go.

Simon sees this woman, and he thinks that he is far better than she is.  Well, let me take that back.  Did you catch what Jesus asked Simon?  Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”

Maybe that verse is a key to the whole story.  “Do you see this woman?”  If he saw her at all, Simon simply saw a sinner.  Someone beneath him, someone really not worth thinking about. 
Simon doesn’t actually see her, not as a person, not as a child of God, not as an individual in her own right.  He just sees a sinner, someone beneath him, someone worthy of scorn and contempt, someone to absolutely avoid.

But what does Jesus see?  He sees someone with gifts.  Someone filled with love, with gratitude, with hospitality, with thoughtfulness.  Jesus can even overlook the social inappropriateness of her actions to see a child of God who has been forgiven.

This interplay between love and forgiveness is interesting.  Jesus says that she has great love because she has been forgiven, like the debtor with the unpayable debt.  Her actions were in response to the love and forgiveness of God that she had experienced.  Perhaps she had met Jesus before, or maybe she had been a person in the crowd whose life was changed by Jesus’ message of God’s grace and acceptance. 

Jesus made it clear.  He tells her, “Your sins are forgiven.  Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.”  Jesus forgives her, but forgiveness looks a lot like healing.  Jesus’ grace and forgiveness had absolutely changed her life.

With God, forgiveness and love and grace and salvation are all tied together.  And by pointing out Simon’s lack of love, lack of hospitality, lack of lack of graciousness, Jesus is basically saying that we are all in the same boat.  We are all sinners.  Whether our sin is there for all to see, or whether our sin is more hidden in our respectability, we are all in the same boat.  And the thing is, Jesus has the same love, the same grace, offers the same forgiveness to Simon that he does to this woman.  And he offers the same to us.

You already are a beloved child of God, not because of what you have made of yourself, not because on some moral scoreboard you rate a little higher than the next person, but because God has made you out of pure and amazing grace.  It was true of this woman, it is true of Simon, and it is true of each of us.

Living in this truth, living in God’s grace and love and forgiveness, we are made free, like this woman.  We are free to live lives of love and gratitude.  And we are free to truly see others.  May it be so.  Amen.

Friday, February 3, 2017

“He Had Compassion” - February 5, 2017

Text: Luke 7:1-17

Last Sunday we left Jesus up on a mountain with his twelve disciples.  After that, he comes down from the mountain and speaks to the crowds from a level place.  Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount; in Luke this is called the Sermon on the Plain.  Jesus pronounces blessings on the poor and weak and woes on the rich and powerful.  He says that his followers must love their enemies, see the log in their own eyes before they worry about the speck in their neighbor’s eyes, and build their houses on a solid foundation, not on sinking sand.  They are to live in a different way.

That brings us to today’s scripture.  After getting his team together and giving a summary of his teaching, Jesus goes on the road and he heals.  We read about the healing of a slave who was near death, and then the raising of a widow’s son who actually had died.

First, a Roman centurion has a slave for whom he is concerned.  This man had heard about Jesus.  A Gentile, he has good relationships with the Jewish elders in Capernaum and sends a delegation of these elders who make a request that Jesus come to heal his slave.  They vouch for the worthiness of this man.  But while Jesus is on the way, the centurion sends friends to intercept Jesus.  The elders have called him worthy but he says, “I am not worthy to have him under my roof.”  Along with his humble attitude he may have known that it might be awkward for this Jewish teacher to enter a Gentile home and he perhaps wanted to spare Jesus that awkwardness. 

But regardless, he has friends go and tell Jesus that he doesn’t have to come all the way to his house; he just needs to say the word and the slave will be healed.  And so Jesus does.  Jesus heals this person he has never met, upon the request of a Gentile whom he has never met. 

And what does Jesus say? “Not even in Israel have I seen such faith.”  So far in Luke, Jesus has repeatedly praised Gentiles for their faith while sticking it to religious leaders.  By healing the slave of this Roman soldier, Jesus again aggravates the Pharisees.

Soon after this, Jesus and his disciples travel to the village of Nain, and on the edge of the town they encounter a funeral procession.  Funerals in first century Palestine were community events.  Each village had its own professional mourners – women who helped to express the sense of loss felt by the community, especially the loss felt by family members.  They would wail and cry.  They would sing loudly and mournfully.  They would play cymbals and flutes and other instruments.  They did not hold back on the emotion.

Walking behind the mourners was the mother of the young man who had died.  There may have been friends with her, there may have been extended family members, folks from the synagogue, but make no mistake: this mother was alone.  She had already lost her husband.  Now she had lost her only child.  As a widow with no male family member to support her, she faced a very bleak future. 

The pallbearers are carrying the body of the young man on a funeral bier, which at that and place was something like a stretcher.  The body was covered with a shroud.  First century Jews generally buried their dead outside of the city, and quickly, usually on the day of death or perhaps the next day.  Embalming was not practiced.

It was a dramatic scene already – the throng of mourners making their way to the graveyard, the death of a young person, a grieving mother.  Jesus approached the funeral procession with his followers, a crowd of his own in tow.  He had just healed the slave of a Roman centurion.  But now he goes a step further, from healing to resuscitation.

Now, Jesus did not know these people.  He was not from this village.  He did not know this grieving mother.  Nobody asked him to intervene.  But Jesus noticed her.  He saw her tears, tears for this son she had lost and tears for her husband she had lost and tears for herself, who would now find herself in a desperate situation.  Women had no legal rights and a widow such as herself was subject to losing property.  To be a widow without a son was to be extremely vulnerable.

Jesus saw this mother, grieving yet another loss.  The text says that when Jesus saw her, he had compassion for her.

“Do not weep,” he said to her.  Now, generally, this is the last thing you want to say to somebody who has suffered a loss.  “Don’t cry, it will be OK, cheer up” – this is what you should not say.  “God had a reason, God needed him more than we did.”  Don’t go there.  Don’t say that.  It’s not helpful.

Never tell someone who is grieving not to weep – unless you can raise their loved one from the dead. 

Jesus reached out and touched the bier, touched the body, and the procession stopped abruptly.  By doing this, Jesus signaled that he was about to say something, about to do something.  And by doing this, he had made himself ritually unclean. 
Jesus said, “I say to you, young man, rise!”  And the next line is a great verse: “The dead man sat up and began to speak.”  In case it wasn’t clear this man’s condition, we read, “The dead man sat up and started to speak.”

If you had asked me to give the times in scripture when Jesus raised a person from the dead, I don’t know that I would have come up with this story.  Of the instances in which he raised a person, this seems the most obscure.  We remember Jesus raising his friend Lazarus.  And then there is the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue official. 

This story is different from the other two.  Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus – in fact, on learning that Lazarus had died, we read that Jesus wept.  And with Jairus’ daughter, Jairus comes and tells Jesus that his daughter has died but that he believes Jesus can yet bring her to life.  Lazarus was one of Jesus’ best friends; Jairus comes with great faith asking Jesus to act.

We don’t find anything like that here.  Jesus just happens to come upon a funeral.  He doesn’t know this woman or her son.  And she has not asked him to do anything.  Jesus does not raise this young man because of the mother’s faith; he doesn’t know anything about this woman.

It is simply a matter of compassion.  Jesus saw her and he had compassion.

Perhaps Jesus saw this woman and thought of his own mother, who by tradition was widowed at a young age.  You may remember that Joseph is a figure in the gospels only until the story where the family goes to the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years of age.  After that, he is never mentioned again.  The presumption is that Joseph died while Jesus was a teenager.

The focus for Jesus is the mother, the one who had lost her husband and now her son.  This widow would be doubly hurt by the loss – she would not only lose her son whom she loved, she would lose her source of income, her provider.  Her son was her pension.  He was her Social Security. 

Jesus heals a lot of people in the Gospel of Luke.  People who come to Jesus in faith and ask for healing, for themselves or for a loved one.  People like the centurion in our first story.  “Just give the word,” the man says, “and I know he will be healed.”  Jesus praises the centurion and attributes the healing to his faith.

But this woman does not ask Jesus to raise her son.  She doesn’t fall on her knees and beg for her son’s life.  She doesn’t express faith in Jesus’ ability to raise her son.

And when Jesus does raise her son, she doesn’t bother to say “Thank you.”  Well, maybe she did, but Luke does not report such a response.  And what about the woman’s son?  Luke reports that “the dead man began to speak,” but we don’t know what he said.  Maybe one of the things he said was “Thank you,” but the scripture doesn’t say.  Maybe he was wondering if he had been dead and missed the Super Bowl.  The crowd praises God and calls Jesus a great prophet, but we don’t hear anything from the mother or the son who was raised.

In other stories in Luke, people’s healing is attributed to their faith.  Or if the healing happens without a request for it, like the bent-over woman who Jesus heals in chapter 13, the person at least says thank you or begins praising God.

Here we have none of that.  And so, it seems to me that this story is not about faith.  And it is not about gratitude.  This is a story about grace -- pure, undiluted, unearned, un-asked-for grace.  This raising does not happen because of faith or worthiness, it happens solely because of Jesus’ compassion. 

The mother didn’t have to act faithfully. The son didn’t have to live gratefully.  It could be that both mother and son were faithful, and it is impossible to think that they were not filled with gratitude.  But that is not the point of the story.  This is about Jesus’ compassion.

Stephanie Weiner told a story about Doug, a 15-year old who was diagnosed with leukemia.  The doctors told him in frank terms about his disease.  They said that for the next three years he would have to undergo chemotherapy.  They didn’t sugarcoat the side effects.  They told him he would be bald and that his body would become bloated.  He heard all of us this, and Doug went into a deep depression.

His aunt called a florist and sent him some flowers.  She told the clerk that they were for her teenage nephew who had leukemia.  When the flowers arrived, they were beautiful.  Doug read the card from his aunt, and then he saw a second card.  It said, “Douglas, I took your order.  I work at the florist shop.  I had leukemia when I was seven years old.  I’m 22 now.  Good luck.  My heart goes out to you.  Sincerely, Laura.”

Doug’s face lit up.  Somehow, this note lifted his spirit in a way that nothing else had.

Here he was in one of the best hospitals in the country.  He was surrounded by state of the art medical equipment.  He was being treated by expert doctors and nurses.   But it was a sales clerk in a flower shop who took the time to care, who identified with him, who did what her heart told her to do, who gave Doug the hope and the will to carry on.

This is a story about Jesus’ compassion and a call to us to be compassionate.  You might say, “Well, I can’t raise the dead like Jesus did.”  Well, we’re all in the same boat on that one.  And we could spend a lot of time asking why did Jesus raise some people – a very few people - and not others?  Why did he heal some, and not others?

I don’t know the answer to that.  I do know that this was a resuscitation and not a resurrection.  While this boy lived, he would not live forever.  Jesus’ healings were not permanent.  So far, every person who has ever lived has died, even those who received divine healing.

The point of this story – what we are given to see – is Jesus’ compassion.  Jesus’ compassion brings this boy to life, and our acts of compassion are life-giving to those who are suffering. The word compassion literally means to “suffer together.”  Sharing someone’s suffering means sharing life in such a way that you share in another’s joys as well as sorrows.  We don’t have to be able to raise the dead to act compassionately. 

To know that you are loved and cared for is a major contributing factor in being restored to wholeness.  Those recovering from illness will often say that knowing people were praying for them and caring for them gave them hope and played a large role in their recovery.  Those who do not recover from their illness often find peace knowing that they are loved and cared for by others, and the one expressing compassion likewise receives a sense of peace and fulfillment in the expression of compassion, in the “suffering together.” 

Rather than a story about a miracle that happened long ago, this is a story for us.  There is someone in your life who needs your compassion.  It may be someone you know and see every day.  It may be a stranger, like this grieving mother that Jesus comes across or the young man with leukemia whom the florist sent a note.  This story is a call to compassion, and compassion is life-giving for both the giver and receiver.   If you live without compassion, if you live with a heart closed to the pain of others, you are not fully living.

Like Jesus, we are called to care for people in need, whether they have expressed faith or not, whether their faith is like ours or not.  Our ministry beyond the walls of our church really has a foundation of compassion.  In compassion, we support ministries that help people in need here in our community and we work to make our community a fairer and more just place.  Because of compassion, we make blankets for newborns, we put together hygiene kits for refugees, we support mission work around our country and around the world.  Out of compassion, we are going to Oklahoma over spring break to help minister to children in need.  We can disagree over methods and strategies and how best to get things done, but whatever we are doing, if we do not have compassion, we are being less than Christian.

The early Christian movement grew by leaps and bounds because of the way Christians cared for the poor and marginalized and sick and dying.  It was a witness to the world, and even among its detractors and opponents, the Church was known for its compassion.

What if we were known, above all, as having compassion?   What if compassion were our calling card? 

Saturday, January 28, 2017

“The Law of Love” - January 29, 2017

Text: Luke 6:1-16

Every once in a while you come across a list of archaic laws, many of which are still on the books.  Have you seen this sort of thing?  Here are some laws that were at one time or are still in force:     

In Wyoming, you cannot take a picture of a rabbit during the month of June.

In Harper Woods, Michigan, it is illegal to paint a sparrow and then sell it as a parakeet.

In Wisconsin, there is a law that says you cannot serve apple pie in public without cheese.

It is illegal to whistle underwater in Vermont.

It Tulsa, Oklahoma, you need a licensed engineer to open a soda bottle.

It is illegal for a man to knit during fishing season in New Jersey.

In Connecticut, a pickle has to bounce to be considered a pickle.

We were not immune to these sorts of laws in Iowa.  It was once a law that one armed piano players in Iowa had to perform for free.  And ministers in Iowa needed a permit to transport wine. 

There was a reason for these laws – not necessarily a good reason, but you don’t just come up with things like this out of the blue.  Maybe someone in Vermont drowned as a result of an underwater whistling contest.  Now, I don’t know the origin of the bouncing pickle rule in Connecticut – and once it had been bounced, would you want to eat it?  The law in Iowa about clergy transporting wine makes more sense.  It was passed in 1919, so it had to do with use of communion wine during prohibition.  I don’t know if it is still on the books or not.

While some laws seems strange and arbitrary, others are valuable and necessary.  The Hebrew people sought to live according to the Law - God’s Law.  The Law existed to allow God’s people to live fully and faithfully and joyfully and with integrity with God and with one another.  The Law was summarized in the Ten Commandments and was found in the Torah – the Books of the Law, the first five books of the Bible.  The Law was expounded upon in the Talmud, a commentary on the Law that explains in great detail how the Law is to be carried out. 

Now in our text for today, we have two controversies involving Jesus and the law regarding keeping the Sabbath.  The controversy is between Jesus and the Pharisees.  I think it is helpful to know a little bit about the Pharisees, because the way that they come across is often a caricature.  The Pharisees were a reform party within Judaism, with a concern for following the law and living one’s faith not just on the Sabbath and not just when you went to synagogue, but in one’s daily life.

Living out the faith on a day-to-day basis was difficult in a culture where it felt like your faith was under siege.  Israel was an occupied nation.  Hellenistic influence and Greek culture was all around.  Roman soldiers were stationed throughout the country.  There were those who worked with the Romans, collaborated with the Romans.  How do you maintain Jewish traditions, how do you hang on to your culture, how do you keep your faith when you are in the middle of a dangerous and chaotic world?  How do you maintain your religion when the powers that be are hostile towards it?

For the Pharisees, the answer was in keeping the law.  Keeping the Law as carefully and completely as possible.  This was what made them different.  This is what made them Jews.  This is what made them who they were.  It’s not that they were fundamentalists about the law just for the sake of the law – this was what held them together as a people.

The Law was something that could be followed by anyone, anywhere.  The Pharisees were offering devotional practices and ways of living out Jewish faith that did not require oversight or mediation by religious leaders.

So when we come to these stories, we need to understand that the Pharisees weren’t just hung up on rules and regulations, as we might sometimes hear.  They were sincere in their concern for the welfare of the people, and Sabbath observance was a part of that.

In our text, Jesus and his disciples were going through some cornfields.  His disciples picked some ears of corn and ate it.  This constituted work on the Sabbath and was not allowed, and some Pharisees questioned Jesus about it.  Why did his disciples disregard the Sabbath?

Jesus replied by appealing to a story from the Old Testament, where David and his companions ate bread from the Temple which was only for the priests to eat.  He told them that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.

And then on another Sabbath, Jesus was at the synagogue and there was a man with a withered hand.  The Pharisees are watching, and Jesus knows it.  He tells the man to stretch out his hand, and the man is healed.  Healing on the Sabbath was also considered work, and unlawful.

It seems that it is Jesus’ attitude about it all that really infuriates the Pharisees.  He asks, “Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath?  Is it lawful to save life or destroy it?”

Jesus is getting behind the law itself to the intent of the law.  The Sabbath, and the Law itself, was about life.  For hungry people to eat – that is about life.  Healing for someone who had no use of his hand – that is about life. 

Why was Jesus so threatening to the Pharisees?  Jesus seemed to threaten their whole enterprise of sanctifying people through adherence to the law.  He seemed to have a casual and cavalier attitude about Sabbath observance, about ritual observance.  He ate with tax collectors and sinners and his disciples did not fast.  And then he even claimed authority to forgive sins.

Now, I know that Sabbath observance is not exactly a hot topic these days.  It has been a long time since it was.  At one time, there were a number of restrictions on commercial activity on Sundays – they were called blue laws, and many of you remember that, but that was fading out even when I was a kid.

We have kind of gone the opposite extreme of the Pharisees to where there are no Sabbath restrictions.  We can shop, we can go out to eat, there are plenty of youth soccer and Little League games on Sundays.  I don’t mow the lawn on Sunday unless it is a near-emergency, but that is due mostly to my upbringing – it is certainly not a community expectation.  We could agree on the importance of rest, the importance of renewal, the importance of balance in life, the importance of time for worship, so it’s not that the idea of Sabbath is unimportant, but even then, what does this scripture really have to do with us?

Luke included these stories in his gospel because Sabbath observance was an issue for the early church.  In a church made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians, this was a real issue that had to be worked out.

Again, that may not make this an exciting topic for us, but what lay beneath it is important.  The questions surrounding the Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus and Jesus’ answer to them as well as Luke’s choice to include these stories in his gospel has to do with faithful identity to a community’s traditions and beliefs in light of ever-changing circumstances.  In other words, how do we live out an ancient faith in a new day?

It would be wrong to say that Jesus didn’t care about the law.  He kept the law, but he saw the law in a different light, a different perspective.  It was easy for the Law to become an end in itself.  The Pharisees could be so devoted to the Law that they could lose sight of the bigger purpose of the Law. 

Jesus has a different take on the Sabbath.  First, he says that Christ is Lord of the Sabbath, not the other way around.  The Sabbath was created for us – we were not created for the Sabbath.  Then he says that doing good on the Sabbath is lawful and in keeping with the scriptures.  The issue here has to do with having an openness of spirit and being able to discern what really matters.   

We can criticize the Pharisees for their rigidity, but let’s face it: we can all be rigid.  When it comes to faith, there are those we would consider to be fundamentalists – closed minded, unwilling to change, unwilling to consider other viewpoints, dead certain that their way is the right way and the only way.  But as much as I hate to say it, the fact is that we are all fundamentalists about something.

  • The jogger going out at 5:30 a.m. on a dark, blustery, snowy morning is a fundamentalist about her exercise regime.
  • The carpenter whose workshop looks like a display ad is a fundamentalist about the location of each and every one of his tools.
  • The 6-year-old who makes his parents pick off every single one of those tiny dehydrated onion squares from his Happy Meal hamburger is a fundamentalist about his food.
  • I know that in some households, if whoever goes grocery shopping comes home with a store brand instead of Heinz ketchup, they will discover a ketchup fundamentalist in their family.
We may think of ourselves as pretty progressive and open-minded, but if we were to suddenly make drastic changes in our Sunday morning order of worship, we would discover a good deal of liturgical fundamentalism.  We can be fundamentalists about which side of the sanctuary we sit on or the kind of music we sing or any number of things.  The point here is that we are all rigid in our own ways.

The streak of fundamentalism that is there within all of us is not necessarily bad.  Insisting on promptly recording every transaction you make and keeping your checkbook balanced is a good thing.  There are folks on our street who are fundamentalists about the appearance of their yard.  More power to ‘em.  Being a “fundamentalist” about some things can strengthen our sense of self and our resolve as followers of Jesus in a world where following Jesus is not always easy.

This is really where the Pharisees were.  Strictly and unwaveringly following the law was a way to keep the faith in a world in which that was not an easy thing.

But such rigidity becomes a problem when it reaches into the depth of our souls and hardens our hearts towards others and takes away our capacity for compassion.  The codes of behavior that we seek to live by can become a problem when they keep us from what God wants the most. 

We started out with some odd and offbeat laws that in some cases may still be on the books.  In each case, these laws had to give way to a higher and more important law – sometimes the law of common sense but often a higher legal standard.  The state of Iowa cannot forbid one-handed piano players from making a living because of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment or the Americans with Disabilities Act or maybe something else - you can ask one of the lawyers here this morning.  But there is a bigger picture law that supersedes the One Handed Piano Player law.

At the root of it, that is the disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Jesus sees a higher law.  And the higher law, according to Jesus, is to love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves.  The law, including Sabbath keeping, is to help us in doing that, to guide us and assist us in doing that.  When the Law keeps us from loving our neighbor, then there is a problem.  Maybe the problem is not the law itself but the way we understand it and apply it and live it out.  

The higher law is the law of love.  And this is where it hits home for us: how do we live out our faith – how do we live out Jesus’ ethic of loving God and neighbor – in a chaotic and unsettled and polarized world?

We read our text for today and want to put ourselves in Jesus’ shoes.  We want to stand with him as he answers the Pharisees.  But truth be told, we have a lot in common with the Pharisees, and I actually feel compassion for them.  They are keepers of the tradition, they are the good church-going folks, they are seeking to be faithful in a world in which that is not easy.

But Jesus shows us that the way to do that is not through easy answers.  It is not in one-size-fits all solutions.  The way forward, the way to live our faith in a complicated world, is by seeing the world through the eyes of love – messy and difficult as that may be. 

This brings us to the last few verses of our scripture for the day.  In last week’s text, Jesus called his first disciples.  Now, he calls all twelve, and they are listed by name.  It strikes me that they are called after Jesus has already been embroiled in controversy.  So they know going in, this is not going to be easy.

And that is the way it is for us.  Sometimes following Jesus can be tough.  But we have his example.  And we have one another.  And we have his law of Love.  Amen.