Friday, July 26, 2013

“The Neighborhood” - July 28, 2013

Text: Luke 10:25-37

It all begins when a lawyer puts a question to Jesus.  (We all know how pesky those lawyers can be.)  He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Perhaps this guy is one of many who disapproved of Jesus and was playing “gotcha,” trying to get Jesus to say something that would get him in trouble.  But we don’t know that; maybe he admired Jesus and was honestly interested in Jesus’ opinion.

For his part, Jesus answers the question with a question of his own.  What does the law say?  How do you read it?  What do you think? 

And the lawyer answered with the commandment known as the Shema: “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?”  Again, maybe the lawyer is playing games, but there is this question hanging over him, and really hanging over all of us: How far should my concern and compassion extend?  Where do we draw the line?  It is one thing to say, “Love your neighbor,” but in real life, things are complicated.

First-century Judaism had boundaries with specific rules about how Jews should treat Gentiles and Samaritans, how men should relate to women, how priests should relate to everyday Israelites, and so on.  These rules were considered vital to social order and were not just socially appropriate, but a religious duty.  The question “who is my neighbor” was a real, live question.

And in response, Jesus tells a story, the story we are all familiar with – probably the best known of all of Jesus’ parables.  A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.  It is a notoriously dangerous road that descends through several narrow passes, all of which made for easy hiding for robbers.  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.  Maybe he couldn’t have been bothered, but on the other hand the guy bleeding in the ditch was ritually unclean.  And then a Levite, a temple official, came traveling down the road.  He saw the injured man, but he too passed on by.  It’s hard to blame him too much; it was dangerous to stop on this road.  Maybe it was a setup.  Maybe the injured man was part of a gang of robbers.  The best way to help might be to get out of there alive and alert the authorities.  So the Levite 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.  Samaritans were descended from Jews in the Northern kingdom of Israel who had intermarried with Assyrians.  They had their own temple at Mt. Gerazim.  They were considers blasphemers and heretics, and the fact that they were cousins to the Jews made it even worse. 

And so 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, but the lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”  He says, “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.  Two men are in complete agreement--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.

We generally read this story and come away with the thought that we need to be Good Samaritans.  We need to reach out in love and help people who are in the ditch, whether they have literally been robbed and beaten or whether it is more a case of being beaten down by life.  And this is important.  We consider it part and parcel of Christian faith – acting with mercy and compassion.  Jesus’ listeners are shocked because it is the despised Samaritan who is the example of faithful living.

Clarence Jordan was a New Testament scholar who among other things wrote the Cottonpatch Gospels, a translation of the New Testament that sets the scriptures in the American South.  In 1942 Jordan started Koinonia Farms, an interracial Christian community near Americus, Georgia.  Jordan was just a tower of strength who faced deep-seated hatred and the constant threat of violence because of his racial views, and more than that because of his actions.

Millard Fuller was a very wealthy person who had lost his way, lost a sense of meaning in his life and was about to lose his marriage.  He and his wife decided to start over.  They gave away their wealth and began a life of Christian service.  They visited with Clarence Jordan and influenced by Jordan, they started Habitat for Humanity in 1976, with a vision of providing decent housing for God’s people in need. 

Today, Habitat has built over 600,000 homes for more than 3 million people in the U.S. and around the world.  Some of those have been built here in Story County. 

Now, one thing that makes Habitat really work is that it is not just a handout.  It is not just charity.  Homeowners purchase that Habitat homes.  They put in sweat equity and make mortgage payments.  Volunteers working on the home are not building for the homeowner, they are building with the homeowner.

And this brings us back to the Good Samaritan.  Jesus says, “Love your neighbor.”  The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus answers with a story.  The neighbor is the one who helps.  That is the person we are to love – the heathen, despised Samaritan who acts in mercy toward us.  Guess who that makes us? 

We usually read the story and identify with the Samaritan, and that is OK.  That is valuable, and we are called to help people in need.  But the way that Jesus tells the story and responds to the lawyer, I think the point is that we are the person in the ditch.  We’re all in the ditch.  We’re all in need.  In our need, God has reached out to us, and unless we have acknowledged our need, we can’t really receive God’s gifts.

We are all in the ditch.  Now, when you are in the ditch, you don’t care so much who is helping you out.  If you have been in an accident and you are on the side of the road, you don’t care what somebody looks like or where they went to school or the kind of car they drive.  When you are in the ditch, you don’t really care about rules and regulations and custom and class and race and political affiliation.  You just need help.

Habitat works so well because it recognizes that we are all in the ditch, in one way or another, or we all could be. 

Over the years I have visited a Habitat build on the Lower East Side of Manhattan – they were renovating a large apartment building into Habitat homes.  Susan and I helped build a Habitat house in Charleston, South Carolina after Hurricane Hugo – this was before Zoe was born so it’s been a little while.  I worked on a Habitat home in Sullivan, Illinois, and I have been honored to work with Habitat here.  Many of you have worked on a house or provided food or given to support the work of Habitat, and some of you have put a great deal of time into working with Habitat.

At every Habitat site I have worked at, there was this sense that nobody has to be an expert, we all have something to offer, something to contribute, and it wasn’t so much we are building a house for Bill or Sarah or Denise; we are building a house with them.   It works because there is this sense that everyone is in it together.

The story of the Good Samaritan tells us that there is a lot more to Christian love and mercy than giving a few dollars to worthy causes.  I mean, that is important, and we need to be generous in giving.  But for all we know, the priest and Levite were big givers.  And it is easy to cultivate this paternalistic attitude that we are such good people for helping those poor people who are less fortunate than we are.

When Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” it can be read two ways.  It can mean “Be generous, be like the Samaritan.”  But since the question is “Who is my neighbor” and the answer is “the Samaritan,” then we are the person in the ditch, and “Go and do likewise” can mean, “Ask for help.  Accept care and compassion extended to you.  And broaden your definition of neighbor.”

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.  Living in this way keeps us from a paternalistic attitude of “helping the poor,” but it also helps us to celebrate a common humanity in which each has gifts to offer.  We gratefully share with others as we have been blessed, but we also gratefully receive from others as we have need. 

I read a story several days ago that has haunted me all week.  Samuel Wells, a pastor in England, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, went to visit a woman who had left the church many years ago and wanted to come back.

As it turned out, this woman was in her 90’s and had left the church as a teenager.  She had decided to give the church a second chance and was finally coming back after all these years.  The vicar tried to do the pastoral thing, asking what it was that had kept her away from church for so long.

“It was when we wanted to get married,” the woman said.  “We were in love.  The rector wouldn’t marry us.”

It sounded like there might be a story here.  “So was there something wrong?” the vicar asked.  “Had your husband been married previously, or were you too young, maybe?”

“No,” she said calmly, and the vicar realized that the woman was trying hard not to come across as patronizing or angry.  “The rector looked at my hand,” she said.  You see, I worked in a mill.  I had this accident when I was 16.”  She held up her hand.  The last three fingers were missing.  “The rector said that since I didn’t have a finger to put the ring on, he wouldn’t marry us.”

This pastor said that the color drained from his face.  It’s stunning, isn’t it?  This was so absurd that he quickly realized no one could have made it up; it had to be true. 

It is hard to imagine anyone who was treated in this way going back to the church, even after 75 years.  After trying to compose himself, Wells said, “May I ask what brings you back to the church now?”

The woman said, “God’s bigger than the church.  I’ll be dead soon.  The Lord’s Prayer says forgive if you want to be forgiven.  So that’s what I’ve decided to do.”  (from the July 24 issue of Christian Century).

I have heard some awful church stories, but this is about the worst.  For the priest, it was a ghastly misunderstanding of grace under the guise of some kind of literal upholding of natural law.  No finger - no marriage.

On the one hand, a horrific focus on arbitrary rules, unbending, unfeeling, unkind, yes – unchristian.  That priest didn’t ask himself, “What would Jesus do?”  And then there is the mine worker, willing after all these years to forgive, willing to give the church another chance.  The Samaritan knew more about grace and mercy than the priest and Levite.  The mine worker knew a lot more about grace than the rector.

Many of you know Mike and Emily Slade, who were in our church for a time after moving to Ames before Emily went to be Associate Pastor at Boone.  The Slades moved to Indiana this week, where Mike will be teaching chemistry at my alma mater, the University of Evansville.  We saw the Slades before they left town.  Caleb, now 3, was in rare form.  He was like an 8-track player that just kept looping the same songs – Jesus Loves Me, The ABC Song, and Mister Rogers.  Singing on and on.  Caleb loves Rogers.  He would sing, “Won’t you be, won’t you be, please won’t you be my neighbor.”

Mister Rogers was on to something.  We need neighbors and we need to be neighbors.  The Good Samaritan expands our definition of neighbor.  The neighborhood is a lot bigger than we thought.  Because we are all in the ditch, we all have needs, and we all have something to offer.  The neighbor is the one who shows mercy.  And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”  Amen. 

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