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Surprised by Joy

Surprised by Joy
11.7.10
Luke 19:1-10

I just want you all to know that I’ve had that cute little song we all learned in Sunday School stuck in my head all week long. You know… “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior passed him by, He looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down from there;
For I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today”

There– you’re welcome. Now that song can be stuck in your head for several days too!

I’ve heard the song for years, probably like you, and once I got past the age where I was doing Sunday School flannel board activities, I’m not sure I’ve really given Zacchaeus much thought. He’s never been a character that’s persuaded me of much of anything, other than that short people have to fight extra hard to get anywhere.

But I am convinced that everything in scripture has a purpose for being there, so when wee little Zacchaeus showed up in the lectionary, I was curious. On the surface, it looks like a pretty straight forward sort of thing.

Let me refresh you on some of the details of Zacchaeus’ life, in case, like me, you haven’t ever gotten much past the flannel-board activities and the goofy song. Zacchaeus was rich– really, stinkin rich. And if that weren’t enough, it was believed by those around him that he became rich off them. He was a tax collector, but not just any tax collector– he was the chief tax collector. Which of course, is bad enough in itself– but even more than just taking up the money, he would have been seen as a collaborator with the much hated Romans. To take a position like that, whether we assume it or not, folks around him would have assumed that he was greedy. No one likes someone they perceive as greedy! And of course, he was short.

Truth be told, I’ve always liked Zacchaeus and his cute little song. And I have no idea why– he really doesn’t seem to have a lot going for him. As much as I’d love to believe otherwise, if I had lived during his time, he probably wouldn’t make my list of favorite people. If I were really honest, I probably wouldn’t have noticed him…unless he became obnoxious in hopes of overcoming his disadvantage. And if I had noticed him for being obnoxious, I sure wouldn’t think fondly of him. That’s exactly how it must’ve been for him. As a rule, generally overlooked. But if he got noticed, well he probably wasn’t anyone’s best friend.

But of course, as he so often does, Jesus picks the one odd bird out of a crowd and focuses on him. Little, bitty Zacchaeus becomes the focus of Jesus’ attention. Surely, there were tons of other “worthy” folks that Jesus could’ve picked out. But no, of course, we know, that’s not what Jesus does.

One of the first places in this story that fascinates me is that the crowd grumbles about Jesus going to eat with a sinner. I want to shake my finger at them, and tell them to mind their own business. After all, whose concern is it who Jesus eats with? And of course we know, this isn’t the first time that Jesus has eaten with a sinner. Two thousand years later, we know that that’s what Jesus ministry was all about. But it was important for Luke to tell us that the crowd grumbled about it.

But just as I get ill with the grumbling, nosy, whiny crowd… a small voice nags at me, “Well, wouldn’t you grumble too?” Ouch. Yes, I probably would, much to my disgust. Even though we know that Jesus was all about being with the ones who weren’t perfect, I think we still would like to control Jesus. We’d like Jesus to eat with, and love, and save, the ones that we think are worthy of Jesus’ attention. Truth be told, it’s almost as if we’d like to protect Jesus from those people– as if their sin might be contagious. Of course, just as I put on my self-righteous hat, I realize that I am those people. I don’t cheat people out of their money, but my sins are no less troubling to God.

Sure, Zacchaeus defends himself. I imagine him drawing himself up to his full height, and using his deepest voice to say, “Look. I’m not such a bad guy.” The greek is troubling here, and all of the commentaries debate over it. Some translate verse 8 as the ESV that we read does “I give half my goods to the poor.” That makes Zacchaeus sound like he has been falsely accused. But other versions and commentaries render the greek as “I will give” as if something has changed within Zacchaeus, as if Zacchaeus is put on the spot and defending himself.

We could argue about which way we think it ought to be and the theological ramifications of each, but what really intrigues me is Jesus’ response. Jesus doesn’t pat him on the back, and say “Good for you, buddy”. Jesus doesn’t even really acknowledge Zacchaeus’ sacrifice, either present or forthcoming.

What Jesus does instead is name Zacchaeus. He says, “Today salvation has come to this house”, which if you think about it, is a nice bit of wordplay. Of course, Christ is salvation, and we know that Christ stayed at Zacchaeus’ house. But we also know that something besides wordplay is going on here. Zacchaeus’ life is changed. He is saved from himself, from his lonely lostness. Jesus in this moment gives Zacchaeus an identity.

What’s that you say? Zacchaeus already had an identity? Sure he did. He was a tax collector. He was short. He was wealthy. Surely that’s enough to define a person? So what would happen if he quit being a tax collector? What if he lost his wealth? Where then would be his identity? Sure, Zacchaeus had things that made him stand out from other people, things that we could use to describe him to our friends. I would argue, however, that those things weren’t his identity, just like our jobs, our status, or whatever else we think defines us aren’t our identities. If, after all, those things were Zacchaeus’ (or our) identity, why in the world would Jesus bother to give him a new identity, which is exactly what is happening when Jesus calls him a son of Abraham. I’m not a big fan of skipping around to passages, but this one is important. In Galatians 3, we learn that a “Son of Abraham” are the ones of faith. And in Luke 13, the woman who was bent over for 18 years, was called a “Daughter of Abraham”. When people are identified this way, it says something first of all about their faith. But it also says something about their identity within the family of God. Often the ones who are described by their connection to Abraham are the ones who are for some reason outcasts. The woman I just mentioned would have been doubly “out”, one because she was a woman, and two, because she had such a serious physical deformity.

And certainly, Zacchaeus was an outcast, though by way of his occupation more than anything else. He had to have been lonely. He must’ve wished that he had someone to confide in. But of course, no one was willing to step up for that job. But Jesus comes along and says, “Look, Zacchaeus, it doesn’t matter what people say, or if they laugh at you, because you belong. You have a place in this family, in my family.” The fact that Zacchaeus is a tax collector isn’t important. Neither is the fact that he is wealthy or short. Those words describe him, they don’t identify him. His identity is in the fact that he’s been called family, by no less than Jesus himself.

Gosh, he’s even been called a person of faith, in so many words. How interesting. Is that how you would’ve described him? Faith is probably not the first word that came to my mind as I thought of Wee little Zacchaeus, who was known for cheating people out of their money. I wonder how Jesus thinks of faith– it sure must not be the way that we think of it. Let’s be honest. When we think of “faithful” folks, we might as well substitute the word “saint”. When we think of faithful people, we think of people whose lives are spent in prayer, in service, and in other things that we deem as “Christian-like”. Faithful, to us, seems to mean obedient. But the people that Jesus calls faithful aren’t always the ones who get it right. In fact, as often as not, “faithful” seems to refer to the ones who are missing the mark– at least as we would think of it. The ones that Jesus calls faithful are the ones who don’t trust in themselves for healing or salvation. Zacchaeus knew that he wasn’t ever going to be a part of the “in” crowd. He was never going to belong. He was never going to get it right. But when he meets Jesus, and finally has a person in whom to place his trust, everything is different, and he knows it. Suddenly, he doesn’t need to justify himself before people. He doesn’t need his wealth to make up for his lack of loved ones. In the words of the song, Jesus is all he needs, and for that reason, he is held up as a man of faith.

I mentioned earlier that there is a debate about how to translate Zacchaeus response–whether he is currently giving away his earnings or if that is a promise as to how he will be in the future. Because the greek could be legitimately translated either way, I think we have to use the context to decide. The gospel, that is, the good news, in this sermon is that Jesus comes to seek and to save the lost. And as I look at this story, that must have been such good news to lonely, outcast, missing-the-mark Zacchaeus. I’d argue that something is changed in Zacchaeus when he meets Jesus–before Jesus can even get the words out, Zacchaeus knows that he was once lost, but now has been completely found. I’d argue that Zacchaeus makes a promise for his behavior in the future, just as I’d argue that he’s been changed from a taker to a giver. His response is a huge outpouring of gratitude for having been claimed by Jesus.
Something changes. I know you’ve all seen the cartoon movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, and how near the end, the grinch goes from having a heart five sizes too small, to just bursting with so much love. It gradually creeps up, and his heart seems to be warmed. I think that’s what must be happening to Zacchaeus, as he realizes that he matters to Jesus. Suddenly love and grace and compassion creep into his heart, and wait! What’s that feeling? Is it hunger? Or indigestion? No, it’s some other inside bubbling. Zacchaeus has been surprised by Joy.

Last week during the hymn sing, we sang a song called Pass it On– and I remember the words “It only takes a spark to get a fire going”. We don’t hear anything about Zachhaeus after this day, but I’d bet you that he became that spark that helped to encourage other people.

What can we learn from this Wee little man with the cutesy song? He is held up as a model of faith, not because he is doing everything right, but precisely because he knows he isn’t ever going to get it right on his own. He is changed by his encounter with Jesus, and suddenly joy bubbles over into every aspect of his life. But surely this isn’t anything shocking to us– we’ve all been changed, or are in the process of being changed, by our encounters with Jesus, or else no one would be here. No one treks to church Sunday after Sunday just because it’s the popular thing to do. We know that we’re a part of Christ’s family, but how easy it is to forget that brand-new feeling of being in a relationship with Christ. How quickly we let this amazing thing that has quite literally changed our lives become a rule-based drudgery.

Zacchaeus, prophet though he isn’t, has a word for us today. The word isn’t righteousness, or perfection. It’s joy. And it changes the very essence of who he is and how he is in the world.

May you go forth into the world in joy, because you too have been changed, named, and claimed, by Christ. Sons and Daughters of Abraham, salvation has come to this house today! Can I get an amen?

10.24.10
Luke 18:9-14
Pharisee’s Annonymous

“I’m not ok. You’re not ok. And that’s ok” (William Sloan Coffin, when asked to summarize the gospel)

Intro

I’m sure most of you have heard more sermons on this text that years I’ve been alive. But I also know that both the Pharisee and the Tax collector have become sort of like “stock” characters to us, and so it’s hard for us to hear this story with new ears. We know what function they have in the story and we really don’t give them a whole lot of thought. As far as we really bother to consider, Pharisees and Tax Collectors just represent “bad” people. Here’s the deal with tax collectors– well, they were seen as collaborators with the hated Romans. They were unfair, unscrupulous– known to be cheats. In the words of the Beatles,

Let me tell you how it will be;
There’s one for you, nineteen for me.
‘Cause I’m the taxman,

Should five per cent appear too small,
Be thankful I don’t take it all.
‘Cause I’m the taxman,

(if you drive a car, car;) – I’ll tax the street;
(if you try to sit, sit;) – I’ll tax your seat;
(if you get too cold, cold;) – I’ll tax the heat;
(if you take a walk, walk;) – I’ll tax your feet.

By comparison, that Pharisee guy isn’t so bad really. In fact, he’s really, really good. Originally, a Pharisee was someone who had a very strict observance of the law– they kept every little bitty rule– all 619 of them down to the letter. But the aim of Pharisaic law was to make the Torah observance available to all.1 He even fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he has. He’s certainly not like that cheat of a tax collector. And of course– he’s proud of that fact. Who can blame him?

It turns out that Jesus does. We’ve heard this story for years and generations– we know that neither of these guys turns out to be role models we’d hold up for our kids. We’re completely numb to the idea that as Jesus so often does, he flips societal expectations on their heads. People who were reading this would have expected the Pharisee to be patted on the back–they would’ve been dumbfounded that the Tax Collector–so much worse in their minds, was the one held up as a model.

So what’s Jesus’ beef with this guy who is doing all the right things? The greek is pretty interesting here–and it gets rendered awkwardly in English translations. Several translations rendered this as “standing by himself, he prayed” or things along those lines. But what the greek actually says is “He prayed to himself”–and that’s funny because we know that he’s not exactly trying to keep all this quiet. There are a lot of ways that the greek could have expressed that if that’s what was intended. But what it says is that he prayed to himself.

I’ve never noticed that before. It says he thanks God that he is not like the tax collector, but with his careful rule following–this guy has in effect become his own savior. We’ve all seen people like this. We see them making a great show of prayer and religion, but we get the sense that they’re often trusting more in their own abilities to pave a way in the world than they are trusting in God’s gracious provisions. I’d argue that we’ve seen people like that, and that if we’re really honest, we’ve been people like that.

A preacher whose work I read fairly often tells a story about teaching this parable to a group of college kids. He was really digging deep, making the kids think about this story. He asked these questions,
“What does self-righteousness do to us?”
“It makes us think other people are inferior.”
“Whom do church people look down on?”
“The immoral, the poor, the uneducated.”
“Who would be like the tax collectors today?”
“Mafia bosses, drug dealers, pornographers.”

He says, “It was going very well. Several students were paying attention. A few had come to the front to get another Dr Pepper out of the ice chest. I was making lots of what I considered insightful comments. Then I asked, “What would a Pharisee look like today?” And goes on to say, “This kid, who at one point I thought I liked—he must have been in his third year as a sophomore—said, “A Pharisee would wear khaki pants and a blue sport coat and lead Bible studies.” Which the teacher thought was a pretty good answer, until he looked down to discover that he was wearing…you guessed… khaki pants and a blue sport coat.2

Imagine that shock to his ego. Imagine that sudden realization that the bad people and the good people aren’t who he’d presumed them to be. Of course, he’d considered himself a pretty good person. He was a preacher and a teacher of theology…how much better could it get? Of course, he knew God and probably talked of God and with God more than most folks. But, of course, the smart alecky kid was right.

A modern-day pharisee looks like each of us. We’re good people. We do the right things. We’re a blessing to the church. What a blow to our egos to hear that Jesus is talking about us in this parable!

So what exactly is it that Jesus wants from us? If you’ve been able to come to our “Prodigal God” studies, and happened to watch the video, you might remember this quote that’s really grabbed ahold of me lately. The author of the book says to us “God doesn’t want perfect people. God wants new people.”3

The Pharisee couldn’t become new because he was convinced he already had it figured out. He didn’t need God. But look at the tax collector– who wouldn’t come close, who couldn’t even bring his eyes to look up to heaven because he felt so unworthy. He knew that there was no way he was ever going to get it right on his own. Theologian John Calvin talks about the Total Depravity of people– in other words, we’re rotten, and smelly, and save but for the grace of God, there’s really not a whole lot thats great about us–at least not on our own. The Tax Collector realizes that–and only when he sees that, is he in a place to be changed.

By the end of this parable, we’re so confused. We find ourselves wanting to be the sinner, the tax collector, when just moments ago– we just wanted to be a good person. We want to be the person that Jesus holds up and praises. So how do we get there?

Here’s the first step. Hi. I’m Kim, and I’m a Pharisee. It’s been mere minutes since I last thought I was better or more justifed or more righteous than someone else. I don’t like to admit it, but sometimes I feel like I can save myself by doing all the right things.

Have you ever thought about our prayer of confession in worship or why we do it? It’s not just something to fill a little space in our worship service. It’s a way for us to acknowledge our sins, both as individuals and as a community. Why can’t we just do this on our own? Because the truth is that it’s hard for us to do that sometimes. We would really like to make ourselves look as good as we can before God, or maybe without meaning to, we justify most of our behavior and don’t realize how sinful we are. Praying in a spirit of confession helps us to admit that we’re wrong, and reminds us just how much we need a savior– because we’re not ever to get it completely right on our own.
Many of you, either from TV or movies, or for helping loved ones through an addiction, will recognize the words I spoke earlier as being from a 12-step program. I’m not in any way making fun of that, but if you look really closely at the 12-steps, they are definitely faith based, and could add a lot to our lives of faith. If you consider that being a Pharisee at heart is both life-hindering and an addiction, then these steps might help us considerably. (These are available at 12step.org or there are copies in the Narthex if you’d like to use them as a tool in your spiritual life.)

Step 1 – We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable

Step 2 – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

Step 3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God

Step 4 – Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

Step 5 – Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs

Step 6 – Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character

Step 7 – Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings

Step 8 – Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all

Step 9 – Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others

Step 10 – Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it

Step 11 – Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out

Step 12 – Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.4

Being self-righteous isn’t all there is to life. Just because our culture teaches us that it’s ok to be a Pharisee at heart doesn’t mean that it’s what we’re called to do. But only when we bring these shortcomings before God are we really ready to be changed into the true Christ-followers that we are called to be.

I’m not terrifically interested in self-help sorts of things, so please don’t think I’ve just given you a checklist of how to become a better Christian. What I am interested in is God-help things, and presenting the Gospel (good news) to everyone. It is not good news for me to remind us that we all have Pharisee tendancies, but it is terrific news for us to hear that God holds up the one who is broken, who can’t get things right on his own as role models for us. The tax collector, not the Pharisee, it turns out is our champion because all of us miss the mark for what God calls us to be– and we will never hit that mark on our own– not by being good, not by keeping all the rules.

It turns out that this story isn’t about right vs. wrong or good vs. bad. It’s about God’s grace, plain and simple. Our calling isn’t to be perfect or keep all the rules. It’s to put ourselves before God, broken, missing the mark, and just as we are, and let God make us into the people we are called to be.

Hear the paraphrase of our scripture from The Message translation:
This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”5

Amen.

10.17.10
Jeremiah 31:27-34

The Great Stock Market Crash. Pearl Harbor. The JFK assassination. 9/11. These have been life-changing events for lots many people in America. But certainly they haven’t been the only ones you’ve known. Deaths of loved ones. Medical diagnoses that made your heart tremble. Loss of jobs and the things that have meant so much to you. You’ve felt the very earth you were standing on seem to shake. Everything you’ve known and held dear has seemed to crash around you, leaving you fairly uncertain of much of anything. The things you thought you knew about who you are and who God is seem to crumple right before your very eyes.

Maybe the ways you’ve felt as the world has crashed down around your shoulders is much how the Israelites felt when they became exiles. Their nation fell. Like the Chilean miners that we’ve all watched this week, they became captives in the worst sense of the world, uncertain that life would ever go back to “normal”. But they remembered that they were God’s beloved… where, and for that matter, who, was God in all this? And how, if they were really God’s beloved, could all these bad things happen?

Don’t we ask those same questions when the worst comes our way? Even if you’re in a stage where you’ve seen so many things come and go, and you’ve learned to weather the times when God seems so far away, I know you’ve asked these questions. Even we can boldly proclaim “It’s God’s Will” or “Everything is in God’s hands” at the worst of times, a small voice inside us always wonders not only “How can this be?” but “Will I live to tell about this?”

Our culture tells us “If you’re a good person who does good things, you’ll live a good life.” And conversely, whether we admit it out loud or not, we’re pretty sure that bad people who do bad things will have bad lives. But of course, nothing is that simple.

I know I’ve mentioned that my best friend since childhood died in a skiing accident when we were twenty, but I’ve had a hard time admitting, even to myself, some of the questions that her death raised for me. Melissa was one of those people that I would call a really “good” person. She was always working for the good of someone else. She did all the right things, and try as I might, I could never convince her to do something she shouldn’t. Even when I was in a gossipy teenager phase, I don’t think I ever heard her say anything negative about anyone. She made excellent grades, she volunteered all over the place– she would have made a real contribution to the good of the world. How could a “good” God take such a “good” person? Why not someone who hurt children or stole from the poor?

I’ve also asked these questions in communities of folks. I asked these questions in Home Room senior year when we learned that one of our classmates had been shot to death while working to help support his family. I asked these questions at the funeral of a friend’s mom who took her own life, leaving behind two children my age. I asked these questions waiting in line to give blood on 9/11, and then again later that night as I prayed with people all over Knoxville who flooded the church looking for answers. Where was God? Didn’t God care that “good” people were hurting and brokenhearted? Why wasn’t God fixing it?

In the place of these brutally honest questions is where we meet the prophet Jeremiah with his word for today. The people were tired and worn out, body and soul. They were displaced, with not even a place to call home. They were angry and bitter. Anybody who might’ve been able to get them out of this mess had died. Just how long was God going to let this go on? They wanted answers, and they wanted them now.

I’ve understood the exiles, as I’ve seen the brokenness in my life and in the lives of those I love. I weep with them every time I read something from one of the prophets. But not until this week, when I was reading over the words that God speaks in today’s passage, did I realize the tone with which God was speaking. Hear the words again, this time as they appear in The Message translation.
That’s right. The time is coming when I will make a brand-new covenant with Israel and Judah. It won’t be a repeat of the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant even though I did my part as their Master.”
God is tired, and brokenhearted, and generally pessimistic about the people’s ability to live a new way. That’s why this covenant is going to be so different. It’s going to be written on their hearts, not in some cute, sentimental way, but as a matter of logistics. It won’t be carried around in a box, but it will be permanently installed on their hearts. If it’s written on their hearts, it can’t be broken, burned, lost, misplaced, destroyed–or any of the other things we manage to do with really important things! And even better, it really requires no work on the part of the people to adopt this covenant. All the work is on God’s end.

There’s a scene in “Gone with the Wind” where Scarlett has come home to her beloved plantation to find it in ruins. Her father’s gone mad, her mother has died–she’s hardly the noble lady she thought she was, and more than that…they’re all starving. She grabs a handful of dirt, and shaking it at the sky, vows that things won’t ever be like this again, no matter what it takes. If you watch this scene, you get the feeling that Scarlett believes she can make these things happen, if only by the sheer force of her will.

Don’t romanticize God here. He’s upset, but, like Scarlett O’ Hara, he’s vowing to do whatever it takes to make this thing go– to bring these hardhearted people back to him.

And it turns out that “whatever it takes” is forgetfulness. The people are bogged down in their own hurts, and guilts, and frustrations, and God is tired of being the only one interested in being in a real relationship. A little band-aid won’t fix this. As the saying goes, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” So God, by willfully forgetting the people’s sins, completely wipes the slate clean.

It’s interesting to me that God doesn’t stop with forgiving. He says, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” How unlike humans this is! What do we say when someone has wronged us? “Well, I might forgive, but never, as long as I live, will I forget!”

I know many of you, especially those of you that are veterans, remember the phrase “Lest we forget”. It’s a phrase based out of a poem by Robert Frost, but it’s become a huge part of veteran’s day remembrances. Though the original poem didn’t use it that way, the phrase has been held up to challenge our country not to forget the sacrifices that were made so that we could be free. But, by some, this phrase has also been used to evoke generations old hatred of other nations. Lately, it’s even been used with to remind us of the destruction that happened on 9/11.

I think the first use is entirely appropriate– after all, our freedom has never been free. It’s appropriate to remember those sacrifices. But what about calling up old grievances? What are we doing to ourselves when we force ourselves to remember these things, over and over? And what, exactly, would be the cost of forgetting?

No, people don’t like to forget. We don’t like to forget anything– that’s why we make long grocery lists and todo lists. It’s why we keep meticulous records. It’s why we’re spending great amounts of money to fund alzheimer’s research. There’s something terrifying about forgetting– especially when it comes to the ways we’ve been hurt or the things people have done to us. It’s almost as if we draw a certain power from the memory itself.

Think about it. When someone has done you wrong, you tuck that piece of information away in the depths of your heart– almost as if you will be able to use it as “evidence” against them should they ever hurt you again. If you file away a hurt, you’ll be able to pull it up later to tell yourself “I know I shouldn’t have gotten involved with them.”

But the thing is, holding on to that grievance means that you really aren’t done with it. It means that that old hurt is still pulling away at some of your peace of mind.

What if God had a “lest I forget policy”? What if God kept a little notebook of every infraction, both big and little? What would our life now and our life later look like?

That must be why God doesn’t stop at forgiving the sins of the people. He doesn’t want to use everything they do wrong as further evidence against them. He doesn’t want to keep reliving those moments of the people’s infidelity. No, he wants a brand new day– and that can only happen if God is really willing to forget.

There is a difference between forgiving and forgiving and forgetting. Forgiving gives people room to make mistakes, but forgetting removes their mistakes as a barrier to relationship. Forgiving will accept apology and regret, but forgetting will allow old wounds to finally close up.

I wonder what we need to hear from this passage, in this place, on this day? I think we need to hear that sometimes we break God’s heart. Sometimes, the things we do must make God cringe, if not out and out weep. And sometimes, like the exiled Israelites, we get so caught up in our own lives and worries, we forget that. Sometimes, we like our ancestors so long ago, need a completely fresh start in order to get things right.

But I think we also need to hear that has not given up on us yet. We look around, and our world is broken, and sometimes we wonder. God takes our hurts, our guilt, our messups, our patterns of failure, and transforms them into a new covenant that’s built on brand new life and relationship.

Because God loves us, God forgives us. But because God wants an ongoing, real relationship with us, God forgets. As I say every Sunday, “The past is finished and gone, and your sins are forgiven.” Turns out they are also forgotten.

Today is a brand new day– a day free of our past guilts, and hurts. A day without the questions “Where is God?” and “Why isn’t God fixing this?” because God is working through these things not only to fix “things”, but to fix relationships. Yes. Today is a brand new day. What will you do with it?

Amen.

The Tenth

The Tenth
10/10/10–Ord 28c
Luke 17:11-19

Once there was a tree….and she loved a little boy.

And everyday the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest. He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples. And they would play hide-and-go-seek. And when he was tired, he would sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree….very much.
And the tree was happy.
But time went by.
And the boy grew older.
And the tree was often alone.
Then one day the boy came to the tree and the tree said, “Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy.”

“I am too big to climb and play” said the boy. “I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money?”
“I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I have no money.
I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in
the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy.”

And so the boy climbed up the tree and gathered her apples and carried them away. And the tree was happy. But the boy stayed away for a long time….and the tree was sad.
And then one day the boy came back and the tree shook with joy
and she said, “Come, Boy, climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and be happy.”

“I am too busy to climb trees,” said the boy. “I want a house to keep me warm,” he said. “I want a wife and I want children, and so I need a house.
Can you give me a house ?” ” I have no house,” said the tree.
“The forest is my house, but you may cut off my branches and build a
house. Then you will be happy.”

And so the boy cut off her branches and carried them away to build his house. And the tree was happy.
But the boy stayed away for a long time. And when he came back,
the tree was so happy she could hardly speak.
“Come, Boy,” she whispered, “come and play.”
“I am too old and sad to play,” said the boy.
“I want a boat that will take me far away from here. Can you give me a boat?”
“Cut down my trunk and make a boat,” said the tree.”Then you can sail away…and be happy.”
And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away.

And the tree was happy
… but not really.

This came from beloved children’s author, Shel Silverstein, in his book The Giving Tree. As a young person, this was one of my favorite stories. But when I read it again a few years ago, I got really mad at the little boy in the story. The tree loves the little boy, and gives him everything he wants, even at the expense of her own life and well-being. We’re told at the beginning that the boy loves the tree, but never once does the boy give anything to the tree. Not once does the boy tend to the tree’s needs. And not once, despite being given so many gifts, does the boy ever thank the tree. He just takes and takes, almost as if he’s entitled to them. I’ve been mad at this selfish little boy for years.

So you can imagine how I feel when I stumble on this group of lepers who have been given such a tremendous gift of life and health and only one of them comes back to say thank you for being made well. One out of ten! One tenth! If you took a ten-question quiz in school, and managed to answer only one correctly, I can pretty much guarantee that your parents would be getting a call. These results are hardly stellar.

Yet, as I think about my own life, and what I’ve observed from people, saying “Thank You” isn’t as easy for us as we’d like to believe it is. In fact, I’d argue (again based on my own life and observations) that it’s a whole lot easier for us to grumble about what isn’t right than it is to say thank you for what is. I know when my house gets cluttered, sadly, it’s a lot easier for me to fuss and complain than it is to thank Donovan for the things he does to help out. Think about this: how much easier is it to fuss at slow service in a check-out lane than it is to thank the one bagging your groceries for making sure your delicate produce didn’t get smooshed. Or how much easier is it to grumble about a few days of ill-health than it is to rejoice at the many days when we’re well.

I’m not exactly sure why this is, but the truth about human beings (as a general rule…of course there are individual exceptions) is that we’re hesitant to say thank you. Biblical storyteller Martin Bell gave some thought to this story of the lepers and here are the reasons he came up with that nine out of ten didn’t say thank you– which might just be the same reasons it’s hard for us to say thank you.
One of them was frightened – that’s all. He didn’t understand what had happened, and it frightened him. So he looked for some place to hide. Jesus scared him.

A second was offended because he had not been required to do something difficult before he could be healed. It was all too easy. He had expected months, maybe even years, of prayer and fasting and washing and righteous living before he could be healed, but he had done none of this. His motto was “you get what you pay for.” Jesus made it too easy.

 The third had realized too late that he had not really wanted to be cleansed. He did not know what to do or how to live without his leprosy. He did not even know who he was as a person without his leprosy. Jesus had taken away his identity.
 
The fourth leper did not return to give thanks because in his great joy he simply forgot. He forgot. That’s all. He was so happy that he forgot.

 The fifth leper was unable to say thank you anymore to anyone. His life of leprosy and begging had turned his heart hard and calloused. He just  didn’t say thank you to anyone anymore.

 The sixth leper was a woman – a mother who had been separated from her family for eleven years because of the leprosy (this according to Martin Bell, though the Bible clearly identifies all ten as men). She was hurrying to the priests so she could  rejoin her husband and children. She did not return to give thanks because she was on her way home.

 The seventh had doubts that Jesus had anything to do with the cleansing. He knew that healing had taken place, but why and how were his questions. Certainly he did not believe in hocus-pocus, magic, miracles – any of that. There was a perfectly reasonable and rational explanation of what had happened, and he wondered if it had anything to do with Jesus.
 
The eighth leper did not return precisely because he did believe that Jesus had healed him – that the Kingdom of God was here and the Messiah had arrived. He didn’t return because he was spreading the exciting, wonderful news about the Kingdom.

 As for the ninth leper, we don’t know; we just don’t know why he didn’t return to say thank you. He must have had a reason, but we cannot begin to guess what it was.

These nine really represent you and me. They’re the churchgoers, the people of faith, the ones that regularly take the Lord’s Supper. Maybe they aren’t the villians we’d make them out to be. Of course, we all have our reasons why it’s hard for us to say thank you– to other people, or even to God. It’s almost as if saying “thank you” costs us something too dear–like it’s admitting that we aren’t self sufficient, and further, that we are dependent on someone else’s kindness. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re great at writing the obligatory thank-you notes that our Mammas made us write, but how much of that is out of ritual or obligation and not out of true gratitude?

This is a strange story– it’s not really about Jesus, but about the people that Jesus interacted with. We don’t learn a lot about Jesus, except that he healed ten people. In many of the other healing stories, the miracle or the healing is the focus. But in this one, it almost seems to be a side note. I wonder why Luke would bother to tell us this story, if it doesn’t really tell us a lot about God or Jesus?

This story isn’t really about Jesus. And it doesn’t really seem to be about the nine who kept on going, or their excuses. It isn’t about the nine, probably good and well-intentioned people who all did the same thing. This story is about one man, and how his life changed because of an encounter with Jesus. This story is about one out of ten who did something different. Some bibles title this section “The ten who were made clean” and others “the nine who did not give thanks” but I think I would title it, “The Leper who said Thank You.” Because something besides being healed of leprosy happens here when the man says thank you.

Somehow the man is shifted from his own little world to Jesus’ world. He realizes that he isn’t responsible for his own well-being…and he is transformed. Because he was both a Samaritan and a leper, he would’ve been used to being an outsider. The thought of running up to anybody, especially a Jew would’ve been unthinkable. But suddenly, when he recognizes this gift, he can do nothing other than run up to Jesus, his mouth bubbling praises. Some scholars think that this story should be separated into two stories– one of healing and one of salvation, but when you look at Luke’s work, and the larger body of the gospel, that doesn’t seem to be true. Health and salvation are almost always intertwined. When you look at both of those concepts in the scriptures, you can see that they are both aimed at making a person whole and well.

This man experiences not just a medical cure, but he is made whole and well. If you look back at the original languages of the bible, the concepts of wellness, wholeness, and salvation are used almost interchangeably.

Of course, the man is grateful– not just because he is obligated to be so, but because his whole world has changed. But this early Christ follower may have a slight edge over us. We’re awfully used to language of health and salvation. We hear about grace and forgiveness and redemption, and we’re not especially shocked by it. We’re almost numb to what Christ is doing in our lives. We forget, I think, how life changing all of this is– and maybe sometimes, it doesn’t occur to us to be thankful.

Jesus says to the man, “Your faith has made you well.” That’s interesting, because the other nine were also healed, but Jesus acknowledges that there is something different about this man. It seems that not only is Jesus noting the difference between physical healing and wholeness, but that Jesus is also linking faith to gratitude. I wonder if Jesus would even go so far as to say that there is, in fact, something life giving about gratitude that enables people to practice their faith on a whole new level. Or maybe he would say that faith without gratitude isn’t really even faith at all. The nine received the same cure as the Samaritan did, but they weren’t really whole people, because something was lacking.

I hope what you take away from this sermon is not that you need to write more thank you notes as southern codes of politeness dictate. I’m not asking that you create new rituals of thanksgiving that you do over and over because you’re supposed to. What I am hoping is that you’ll practice rejoicing–that you’ll let your heart and mouth bubble over with praise at all the things God is doing in your life–especially the things that we so easily take for granted.

And what happens when we do that, when we intentionally practice gratitude? It changes us as individuals, but it also changes a community of people. As one of my professors said, “When Christians practice gratitude, they come to worship not just to get something out of it, but to give thanks and praise to God. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers. The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts.”1

May all your days begin and end in doxology. “Praise God from whom all blessings come” is about the most powerful prayer I know.

Table Manners

Table Manners
10/03/10 (Sherwood)
Is 2:1-5
1 Cor 11:17-33

WCS– recognized by the United Council of Churches
Started in 1936 by Presbyterian Churches here and overseas, but in 1940 the celebration began to take place in other churches as well.
Today Christians all over the world will be doing the same thing– we’ll all hear the words of institution. We’ll all, in some way, be encouraged to think about the WHOLE, worldwide body of Christ.

Have you ever eaten in a restaurant and happened to see a child with really bad table manners? Maybe they are crying or yelling or shoving food in their face– whatever it is, it’s really annoying. You keep glaring at the parents, just willing them to do something, because after all, this is your night out…and that child is ruining your meal.

I’ve heard the story of some little girl, who as the saying goes “when she was good, she was very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid.” And her parents dolled her up in her finest Sunday clothes (I hear that it was an itchy blue velvet dress), and took her to Red Lobster–which was definitely not her first choice for an eating establishment. I hear that she had all she could take when she decided to take matters into her own hands. In front of her parents, grandparents, and a whole restaurant full of people, she shoved her stinky fish across the table. I hear that this particular little girl almost got in a world of trouble…but of course…that’s only what I hear.

Talk about ruining a meal! Whether you’ve seen something that bad or not, I’m betting you know what it’s like to have a meal ruined because of someone’s poor table manners.

Paul is writing to the church at Corinth, who in a lot of ways was Paul’s fair-haired child. But they had a lot of problems, one of which was with table manners.

Let me tell you a little bit about the ways the church did the Lord’s Supper. In the early church, it was an agape or Love Feast. It would have been a real dinner, not just the ten minutes that our modern worship service has made it. It would have been in a private home, but it would have been a communal meal. Like our modern dining rooms, we can only hold so many at a time, so what started happening was the rich (who didn’t need to work) would get there early and take all the good seats, leaving the working folks left to stand. Now the other thing that was going on was that many of the wealthy would bring their own food and drink– and then not share it with anyone. Can you imagine coming to a fellowship dinner, bringing your favorite casserole, and plopping it right in front of your plate, as if to say “Mine!”. But even more rude than that is that not only were the non-working folks scarfing down the food they had brought, but they’d scarf down everyone else’s too– leaving the latecomers to go hungry.

Paul is steamed/ticked off/hot under the collar. He’s outraged at the lack of hospitality. He had a vision of how this meal ought to be celebrated, and what the church at corinth is doing “ain’t it”. Listen again to how Eugene Peterson renders this in “The Message”. “Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of “remembrance” you want to be a part of?”

Paul is convinced that the Lord’s Supper must be different. The Lord’s Supper is the time where the community of Faith shares the necessities of life with each other. We share because God first shared with us and Christ shows us how. That’s where we begin to enter into a love feast. And a love feast must start with the notion of being one body, in a communal ritual that makes us one in Christ. And if we’re really going to be one body, then we have an absolute obligation to take care of each other’s needs.

Now I bet you’re thinking that we don’t have these problems in our modern churches. We all take the Lord’s Supper at once, and no one gets left behind. We don’t scarf things down. We don’t have the same extreme class differences that Paul was seeing.

But stop for a second. If you were on a witness stand, called to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God” would you be able to say that we’re one body? Could you say that about this particular church? Could you say that about all the churches in this community? Could you say it about the churches all over the world?

I hope you realize that the answer is no. Nowhere that you can look are we really the one body that we are called to be. We, both in this church, and in this community, and in this world, are greatly divided. Think it doesn’t matter? Hear these words from this morning’s reading again: “If you give no thought (or worse, don’t care) about the broken body of the Master when you eat and drink, you’re running the risk of serious consequences. That’s why so many of you even now are listless and sick, and others have gone to an early grave. If we get this straight now, we won’t have to be straightened out later on. Better to be confronted by the Master now than to face a fiery confrontation later.”

Paul is so steamed because, in his eyes, the Corinthians are acting like Christ’s life and death has not changed their relationships with each other. Think about that for a second. What should the life and death of Christ mean for our relationships to each other?

Paul reminds us that in our own words and actions we enact the Master’s Death. Not just at this table, but in all things that we do. Every time we choose to do anything other than lift others up, we’re diminishing Christ’s death. Every time we choose to think about ourselves instead of the good of the whole, we make Christ’s death less significant. Every time we allow petty grievances to stop us from being one body, we are becoming part of the crowd that cheered for Christ’s crucifixion. For Paul, and for us, the question becomes “What kind of remembrance do you want to be a part of?”

Patrick McCormick, a Catholic Priest, wrote one of my favorite books on Communion, says this “ To break bread with others is a sign of communion, solidarity, and friendship, and a recognition of the common dignity and worth of those with whom we eat.”

To break bread worthily, we must address and overcome and divisions in our churches and societies, tearing apart the practices that keep us apart.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a celebration only in as much as it is able to be a celebration for all of God’s children. For that reason, World Communion Sunday, is if nothing else, a call to action. It is a call to do SOMETHING!

It is a call to forgiveness for those that have wronged us, or have been less than we hoped for.
It is a call to extending table fellowship beyond our comfort zones.
It is a call to the unity of the church, and to recognizing what it means to be the whole body of Christ.

World Communion Sunday represents the highest hopes for peace and unity– not only within each church, but in each community, and not only that, but more globally in the whole world. It is a day that we come together to bear testimony to being a global church, united in the intense hope of the Gospel.

Today, as on all days that we celebrate communion, we are anticipating the heavenly banquet that we will one day share. Imagine for just a second what that banquet will look like.

I see faces of all colors, of all political persuasions, from all countries. I see the faces of people that I’ve loved, and the faces of those with whom I wasn’t able to see eye to eye. And when I imagine this, we’re all sitting down together, talking and laughing– as if none of those divisions matter a bit. Because the truth is, in God’s kingdom– they don’t.

Good table manners, as we see in Paul’s instructions, was about more than not talking with your mouth full. Good table manners meant dining with your companions as if you were at a banquet, as if you were all honored guests. Good table manners meant being truly hospitable, and you can’t do that if you’re snarling over your glass.

There’s a song I want to share with you called “From Boston to Bellfast”, by James Taylor. He talks about rifles and the destruction that we’ve caused with our hatred. He’s talking on a very literal level, but as you listen to the song, I hope you’ll hear it on a metaphorical level as well. I hope when you hear “God’s Rifle”, you’ll think of all the things that you’ve used to keep people at a distance, and when you hear “ancient hatred” you’ll think about the grievances that you haven’t been able to let go.

[Play song]

Today is world communion Sunday. It’s a day that we remember that Sherwood Presbyterian Church is connected to Marvin, and Mt Pisgah, and Charity, and Mt. Vernon, and Green Springs, and Church of the Apostles, and that we are connected to churches all over the world. It’s a day that we remember what it means to “Do this in remembrance of me.” It’s a day when we start to practice good table manners, because nothing ruins a good meal like poor table manners. It’s a day when we stop, and we remember that we’ve been invited to a Love Feast.

And if we take that seriously, it’s a day when we’re called to “lay God’s rifle down”, and quit worrying about what divides us.

Today is World Wide Communion Sunday. May it be so!
Amen

All in the family
7.25.10 (ordinary 17c)
Hosea 1:2-10

Intro
The very first time I preached on this passage, I was a guest preacher in a church were I had sort of grown up. The regular minister was my dad’s best friend, and he was going to be beginning a study on the book of Hosea. He asked me if, since I was preaching that week, and it came up in the lectionary, if I would preach this particular passage to get the series started. Talk about a doosy of a passage to be handed! (I think it was actually this same service when a pregnant lady went into labor.)
Well, this passage would’ve been hard to preach on it’s own, but this was the summer right before we were married. Right as I was planning my wedding, right as I was in that ooey-gooey phase where I was just sure that every day of my marriage was going to be that much sweeter than the day before. I was horrified by this passage as I imagined how hard it would be to be Hosea, who must’ve longed for a wife– and gets Gomer. It was a horrifying metaphor of what ought to be so sacred!

But at that same time, I was also working for the children’s home– where in a lot of ways, I was a surrogate mother to children who weren’t loved as much as they should’ve been. And I about cried as I read the names that God has Hosea call his children:

First of all, there was Jezreel: literally “God scatters”, but also a place where a bloody murder happened. This would be like naming a child Vietnam or Gettysburg. But just as importantly, this child seems to forewarn us of the loss of
kingship for Israel.

Next, was Lo-ruhamah: which literally means “not loved/not pitied”–which is also interesting because the Hebrew word for love is also related to the word for womb. This adds to the suspicion that Lo-ruhamah is probably not Hosea’s child (which we’d probably guess because we know that his wife isn’t faithful.) But more than that, what we learn from this child’s name, is that perhaps Israel has finally gone too far–and that YHWH won’t forgive them.

But the next child has perhaps the worst name of all: Lo-ammi– literally “not my people”. This turns the covenant of “You shall be my people and I shall be your God” on its head. It basically says to this child, “not only do I not love you, but you are not even like me.” In days when people were so often warring against one another, it’s like saying, “Not only are you not loved, but you’re actually my enemy.”

This story is meant to be a metaphor, but it’s also the story of real people. Can you imagine being named these horrible names? How would that shape your entire identity and sense of worth?

Despite being in a different stage of life than I was the first time I preached on this passage, it still makes me want to cry. Even though I’m a little more aware that marriage will have its hard times, and even though I’m not in a role where I’m still advocating to make sure children get enough love, it turns out this passage is no easier this time around.

As a sympathetic and compassionate person, my heart still hurts for Hosea. I’m not a person who believes that the ends always justifies the means, and even though these are God’s ends, I still have a hard time accepting the fact that God intentionally puts Hosea through this. Can you imagine being Hosea, knowing that God is willing this horrible life upon you, for the good of a people whom you don’t personally know? Can you imagine being these children, whose names are a daily reminder that they are outside the bounds of love?

And I’d be lying if I said that this image of God is easy for me. The God I find in these early verses is hardly a god that I’m anxious to worship and serve, not exactly a god with whom I’d like to walk as friend with friend.

Besides that, if God could get so angry with a people that he’d go to such extreme measures to make a point, just how far would God be willing to go to get my attention. It’s too much to think about!

Some background
So… what the heck is going on here? Let me give you a little background. Hosea was a prophet in the 8th Century B.C.– which is noteworthy because this story represents God’s last call to Israel before its destruction and exile. The people were supposed to be operating on the Ten Commandments and living well regarding social responsibility, justice, and mercy.

I’m sure that Israel didn’t mean to live like this. I’m sure they started out with the best of intentions, but as time went on, they were just a little less on fire for God. More and more, they began wondering why they had to follow all those rules. We read that Gomer is a temple prostitute, and that makes a strong metaphor. But the harlotry of Gomer stands for a lot more than sexual infidelity. God is angry about the way the people were doing business, about how they were making political decisions, and most importantly, their lack of belief and trust in God.

I don’t know, but I imagine God as trying to overlook these sins for a while. But then it just got to be too much. Finally after generations of the people completely missing the mark, God is fed up. He goes to extreme measures to make is point. And finally, God is so mad that he says, “you are not my people.” Though it breaks my heart, I can almost imagine God crossing his arms, and turning his back, coldly saying “You are NOT my people…and. I. will. not. be. your. God.”

That picture of God not only breaks my heart, but it actually frightens me a lot. It makes me wonder if I could ever be so horrible that God disowns me. After all, I’m no bargain sometimes. I miss the mark… a lot. Could God ever kick me out of the family?

A disturbing picture of God?
On a surface reading, this is a pretty disturbing image of God. In a lot of ways, we’d prefer that God didn’t take our sins seriously. We like to pretend that the things we do to ourselves and to each other don’t matter to anyone but us. We’d like to pretend that our hardheartedness is our own business.

But the truth is that God does take our sin seriously. Tremendously seriously. But as I grow in my faith and in my relationship with God, the thing that becomes more and more clear to me, is that the fact that God takes my sin seriously is really good news. It’s good news because if God didn’t take it seriously, that would mean that God didn’t care. While a picture of an angry God is awfully scary, it’s a lot more terrifying to think of a cold, distant God who just says “Fine. Whatever. Live however you want. Bring about your own destruction. I really couldn’t care less either way.” We usually think that the opposite of love is hate. But maybe the opposite of love is really apathy.

That’s not what we see here. What we find in this uncomfortable passage is a God who is so, so mad, because he cares enough to want the best for his children. He is passionate about Israel, and it is because of his love that he is angry. God is deeply committed to this people. God has delivered this people, set them down in their own land, and invested in them. And the only conclusion I can come to is that if God is this deeply committed to and invested in such a people, God must also be deeply committed to and invested in me, in us.

But still, even if we are able to realize that a God who is offended by us is a God who cares, this story is a little troubling. Truth be told, this passage is also a scandal because we’re being told that we stand before God as an unfaithful spouse. That’s enough to get any prophet kicked out of his robes.

Yet
Why, when given four lectionary texts I could choose from, would I choose to preach on this scary downer of a passage? Because of one word that changes everything: Yet.

At verse ten, just when we can’t we can’t bear to hear any more, God says “yet.” You could read that tiny little word as “nevertheless” or “even still” or “but” as The Message says it. Meaning “even though you have been so incredibly unfaithful to me, these blessings will be heaped upon you.

Listen again to what God says. “Yet, the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can neither be measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “You are children of the living God.”

At first, surely all of us wonder “Just what kind of a family is this?” We want to point our fingers, grateful that we’re not dysfunctional like them. But gradually, we realize that this story is about our failures– about our dysfunction– too. That’s really unbearable and painful to us to read, until we get to that promise in verse ten.

Now, as we hear those words of love, and redemption, and hope, I’m glad that this story is about us. This promise stands firm–even for faltering, stumbling, missing the mark, people like me.

“Just what kind of family is that?” we ask. Turns out it’s the kind of family where nothing can break the bounds of love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Won’t You be my Neighbor?
July 11, 2010 Ordinary 15c
Luke 10:25-37

Intro
Q: What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer?

A: A bad lawyer can let a case drag out for several years. A good lawyer can make it last even longer..

Q. What do you call 5000 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?
A. A good start!

Q. How can you tell when a lawyer is lying?
A. His lips are moving.

I bet most of us in here know a good lawyer joke. For some reason, we love to make fun of lawyers– even though most of us have never been one, and really, truthfully, have no idea what they do or they’re up against. A lawyer has kind of come to represent a villian, at least as far as what we watch or read. Even though one of my best friends is a lawyer, and even though I’m sure he’s about as honest as they come, if he ever has to defend me, I hope he’ll split hairs with the best of ‘em. I’d hope that he’d use whatever means necessary to keep me out of trouble. But I guess that’s why they have the reputation that they do: they’re willing to probe the depths of a definition to make the law work to their advantage.

Which I guess makes this story that we find this morning all the more pointed. A lawyer is attempting to put Jesus to the test. He presumes himself to be good, but he wants to know exactly what the definition of neighbor is. Is the guy down the road my neighbor? What about the guy that I don’t agree with– is he my neighbor?

But let’s be honest here. What’s the lawyer really asking? I think he’s really wanting to ask, “Who is NOT my neighbor?” After all, he’s a busy man. He’s a logical man. He knows, practically, of course, that he cannot physically love and be nice to every person he meets. He wants to know who is NOT his neighbor so he understands what the boundaries of the law are. In other words, he wants to know what the bare minimum is.

Before we get too excited about raggin’ on this poor lawyer who is only doing what he’s been trained to do, maybe we’d better ask ourselves about the lawyer within each of us. How different are we, really? We want to know exactly what we should be doing, but just as importantly, we want to know what the limits are.

We like to talk about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, and while that’s tough on it’s own (because how hard is it to love someone else as much as we love ourselves? pretty darn hard), I wonder if we miss a little bit of the point. We presume our neighbor to be those closest to us. We think of our spouse, our children, those in our neighborhood, those in our church.

But Jesus tells a story that should broaden our horizons terrifically. He tells a story, which everyone (even those outside the church) seems to know. A man is beaten and left by the side of the road. A priest walks by him on his way to be of service, and knows that if he touches a body like this, that he will be unable to serve. A Levite walks by, and crosses over to the other side of the street. But then a Samaritan comes to the rescue, bandaging the man, and charging an inn keeper to look after the man in his absence, on his tab.

That’s lovely really. It makes a great story about how we are to be helpers to those in need. But the problem arises when we stop and ponder what it means that the famous helper is a samaritan. The phrase “Good Samaritan” has been plastered on hospitals, and has more or less come to mean anyone who does a good deed. While that’s true, it misses a lot of the backstory. A person from Samaria would have been absolutely despised by any Jew worth their Kosher salt. One place in the scriptures, the words about this animosity are clear: “Jews would not even use dishes that Samaritans had used.” We hear a lot about how much the Jews despise the Samaritans, but I can’t imagine that the Samaritans, after enduring persecution from them, thought all that highly of the Jews either.

Well, ok. If we look at it that way, well the story means that we need to extend neighborly service to those with whom we disagree. Yes, but that’s still missing the thrust of the relationship. What Jesus is really telling us with this parable is that we need to love all people as much as we love ourselves.

“All people?” we say. “But surely there is a limit!” And so our inner lawyer comes out.

To put this relationship between the Samaritans and Jews in a modern context, and to really get what Jesus is asking of us, think about it this way. What if you happened to be walking down the road and you saw a muslim man bleeding in the road. Would you stop? I bet you would, because that’s the kind of folks you are. But what if you found out that he was a member of Al Quaida? I imagine some would stick around, but you’d sure be a lot more cautious. But what if you got to talking to the man, and you found out that he was part of 9/11, that he carefully planned and calculated ways to bring the most amount of harm to this country. If we’re honest, it would get a lot harder to offer a hand of kindness, as we remember just how many lives were lost. It would be awfully tempting to get up and walk away, thinking that if this man died in the middle of the street, that he’d get what he’d deserve. That’s about how the Jews and Samaritans felt about each other, and yet it was a Samaritan who stops to help.

Ahhh. Suddenly this story is a lot deeper and heavier than we might have imagined. Because the person that it would be hardest for us to love is just exactly the person that Jesus is telling us is our neighbor. That doesn’t do a whole lot for those of us who would like to set boundaries on what our faith requires of us.

It’s interesting to me that the law requires a good Jewish person not only to fully love God, but to fully love neighbor. Granted, it was a different time, and a different type of society, but can you imagine what our world would look like if something required us to really regard the people that share the world with us, and to work to make sure their lives were as happy as ours?

But even though we know that our government could never legislate something like this, let’s pretend for a second that we were bound by such a law. Let’s pretend that the rules that we love God fully and completely and love neighbors fully and completely were every bit as binding to us as any law issued by the government.

Now don’t get anxious yet. That’s what we seem to do with rules. We don’t even much like talking about the laws in the Bible, because it’s a lot easier to talk about having been set free by grace. We kind of like to pretend that law and grace have nothing to do with one another. Presbyerians, certainly, believe that everything we have is gift, that is, pure grace. We can’t earn our way into heaven by keeping the rules. But does that mean that we should toss the law out? The law is the means we’ve been given to arrive at God’s ends. So if God’s end (intention) was that we all live and love in peace and harmony, then this law is one of the ways we get here.

But what happens when the law becomes Gospel for us? Can it be that the law is ever good news for us? When that happens, instead of believing that following the rules will save us, we can present our obedience to the law as proof of our faith– that is, that because this Jesus guy really means something in our lives, it changes the way we interact.

The law is given not just so we have a list of things to do, but rather is given for our benefit. I wonder in what ways the Samaritan in the story was experiencing that law that he should love his neighbor as him self was actually a benefit to him? I wonder how the Samaritan felt as he left that day? Imagine that you were somehow able to help that man I mentioned earlier– the one whom you hated because of what he’d done to this country. Maybe you were really bound by the same law that the Samaritan was, and whether you wanted to or not, you knew that helping him was the thing you had to do. How would you feel? Perhaps at first, you’d grumble at the law that made you behave so irrationally. But I’m guessing that wouldn’t really be the feeling that would stick with you. And I know because I’ve watched it happen here– kindness and compassion really changes the one who is giving the kindness and compassion as much as it changes the one who is receiving it. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that the Samaritan walked away, somehow grateful that he’d had the opportunity to help. I imagine his step was a little lighter, that he thought a little more highly of who he was, and oddly enough, a little more highly of the Jew that he helped. Maybe the Samaritan (and we) start out acting with kindness and compassion because we’re supposed to, but in the process, somehow it is us who is transformed.

But more than that, think about how much freer you feel when you’ve acted out of abundant love than when been mean and small hearted. When we’re given the opportunity to be kind, and take that opportunity, we feel happier.

When we put ourselves in this story, we imagine that we are the actors– that is, when we choose (of course), we take it upon ourselves to be kind and loving to someone else. But I think what actually happens when we take that risk and love the unlovable, we find that instead of acting upon someone else, we ourselves have been acted upon. We’re acted upon by God’s love, which runs so deep and wide that we can’t even comprehend it. We discover that God’s streams of mercy flow on and around us, but not just on and around us, but on and around everyone else too.

And suddenly the lines become a lot less clearly drawn. Suddenly the boundaries that we’ve told ourselves are so important, turn out to more of a hindrance than anything else. Suddenly, we recognize our place on the globe only in relation to other people’s place on the globe, and quickly, our identity changes.

Think about the poor lawyer at the beginning of this story. He’s really asked to change his whole identity. He’s asked to lay aside the standards that have made him who he is. He’s asked to move beyond himself and his boundaries, to living in a limitless love. He, as well as we, are asked to move from “womb to tomb”, but more importantly, from partial life to abundant life– a life which we can only know when we can see beyond the boundaries that we have drawn for ourselves.

I like it when I can quickly identify who we are supposed to be in the story, but in this story, we have all, at some point, played all the parts. We’ve been the rule following priests who were too holy to get our hands dirty. We’ve been the lawyer, who wanted to define who was in and who was out. We’ve been the man in the ditch as life has knocked us over. We’ve been the innkeeper who is asked to take charge of someone’s care. And somehow, today we’re also asked to be the Samaritan, who crosses over the street and does the unthinkable, but who is transformed by compassion.

I don’t know who exactly we are, or ever who we are supposed to be in this story. But as I was worshipping at Taize earlier this week, this famous prayer struck me as a great answer of what it means to be a neighbor. We often call it the prayer of St Francis, or the “Peace Prayer”, but maybe it could be just as fittingly titled “A Neighbor’s Prayer”.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand; 
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life

Our charge as Christians is to love our neighbors as ourselves, but it is also to be a neighbor, even when the cost is great and the inconvenience is high. But in doing so, we allow the Holy Spirit to remake us into the things God would have us be.

As Mr. Rogers famously said, “Won’t you be my neighbor”? Amen.