Posts Tagged ‘grace’

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

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.


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Just Jesus
Galatians 2:15-21

Paul is steamed. There is no other nice way to put it, and in fact, Paul himself doesn’t waste much time with niceties.

Let me give you a little background. This is the only one of Paul’s letters that he doesn’t begin with warm greetings. He begins this letter by identifying himself, and then only six verses into this letter, he dives right in with “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one you called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” And that sets the tone for the rest of his letter.

This baby, fledgling church is ruining everything. Not only are they themselves going astray, but Paul is quite concerned that their witness will ultimately hurt lots of churches. And he simply cannot stand for that, so as quickly as he learns of the problem, he sets his pen to paper in hopes that he can turn this church around before too much damage is done.

And as we join the story in the passage today, Paul has just set his sights on Peter, who is spreading the word in another location. That sounds great…sounds like a great partnership between two giants of the ancient world. Except for the fact that Peter, according to Paul, is spreading a completely different gospel.

Peter, it seems, wants people to live under the covenant of the law– that is, these folks are still to practice works righteousness where they may earn their salvation by being circumcised, by keeping the over 600 laws, by doing the right things.

And for Paul, this is downright dangerous. If folks are going to be about the business of “earning” their salvation, then as Paul bluntly says, “Christ died for nothing.”

Imagine what a slap in the face that must’ve been. Peter would’ve loved Jesus as much as any of the others. He would’ve mourned and grieved at his death. And he would have been overwhelmed at his resurrection. But imagine the pain it must’ve caused to hear that all of that was for nothing.

[Finish this/make transition!!]

Just Jesus
When we talk about being justified before God– and if you’re having a hard time remembering what that means, think of it like a typewriter. When your text is justified, everything is in a nice neat line. When we’re justified before God, we’re set in line with God.
We know, at least on paper, that Jesus is what saves us. But sometimes, we’re tempted to change that a little bit. It’s almost like we believe that it’s Jesus and something else that saves us. Maybe Jesus and good works? Maybe Jesus and tithing the right amount? Maybe Jesus and thinking the “right” things? We live in a society of “measurable outcomes” meaning that we like to see certain steps checked off before we believe a job is done. It seems way too big that “Just Jesus” could save us, that our salvation could simply be a gift.

That’s where Peter got all tangled up. He didn’t mean to mutilate the gospel into something new, but he was a flawed human being just like the rest of us. It just seemed a little too good to be true that Jesus, and Jesus alone was enough. So when folks were all worried about eating Kosher foods and abiding by the covenant of circumcision, that sounded like a pretty good addition. Almost as if he was saying, “Do this… you know… just in case.”

But as Paul points out, you can’t have it both ways. If you have a “Jesus and” theology, then you have completely lost sight of what grace is– and further, why Jesus died.

I don’t often preach two texts together, because as often as not, the theme linking the two passages is a stretch at best. But what I love today is how this Luke text also drives the point home.

We meet this woman about whom the pharisee says, “He would have known what kind of woman this is who is touching him–that she is a sinner.” The pharisee, apparently much like Peter, needs the rules for the “religion” to work. People in the pharisee’s world need to be and do the right things in order to be “savable”.

We see a “Just Jesus” philosophy at work here. The woman, as far as we can see, hasn’t done the “right” things up until now. In fact, we know that “her sins are many”. But Jesus has forgiven her, and repaired the brokenness her sin has caused, making her whole once again.

That’s pure grace, and as the famous song reminds us, it’s nothing short of Amazing.

When Grace is at stake
When I was playing team sports, our coaches always managed to slip the phrase “losing gracefully” into our talks on sportsmanship…the idea being that when the time comes that you lose the game, you don’t pout and act mean and hateful. Instead, you shake the hands of the other team and remind yourself about how much fun playing the game.

That’s a nice concept. But forget about losing gracefully–what happens when you just lose grace?

I read a lot, and I’ve done a lot of reading from many different time periods. If Literature is any indicator, which I think it must be, then there’s been a definite shift in the way our society views blessings and good things. When people were really tied to the land, there was a definite reminder of God’s hand in our world. But as the industrial revolution happened, and we realized we could “make” things and produce things of our own accord, our sense that we controlled our own destiny has become greater and greater.

I don’t know if you realize it, but grace ought to be put on an “endangered species” list somewhere. Grace is very much at stake in our society because we’re a “do-it-yourself” society. We really believe that everything we have is a product of our hard work and position in life. We believe that we’ve earned things– even how people should treat us is a direct result of how we’ve been towards them. And the problem with this is that we not only hold ourselves to these standards, but we hold everyone else to them. Our mantra isn’t really “Saved by Grace through Faith” as much as it is probably “Everyone gets what they deserve.”

We’re absolutely at risk for losing any sense of grace in our lives. The more we worry about who deserves what, and who is doing the “right things, the less we need Christ at all.

Practical Grace
The woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her tears is overwhelmed by the saving presence of Christ, and she can’t help herself… she is so overwhelmed that all of this just comes pouring out of her. The things she does is done as response to what Christ has already done for her.

If I had to call that action something, I might call it “practical grace.” Grace is a lovely thing for us to talk about in theory, and it’s a great thing for us to remember that grace upon grace has been showered upon us. But if all we know of grace stops there, then we’ve missed the point as badly as Peter and the Pharisee.

When behaviors are modeled for us by stories in the Bible, they are never intended for us to look at and simply say, “Wow. That’s wonderful.” No, they are always modeled for us in hopes that we will learn from the good example and do the same thing in our own lives.

“Practical Grace”, I think, is how we go about living into our identity as having been saved by Christ’s redeeming work in and through us. Practical grace is that outpouring of love and generosity of spirit that we shower upon all people.

The cross of Christ should change us. What we believe about Jesus Christ and his cross should also make us more gracious and appreciative of the different ways in which people in the church witness to their embrace of Christ and this story of the cross. But you know as well as I do, that sadly, there is often a very large gap between the things we believe and the ways we go about living our lives.

There’s an old saying that “The most segregated hour of the week is Sunday at 11 a.m.” I used to smile at that, and think it mildly cute, while rolling my eyes, because there is a lot of truth behind it. But as I’ve grown in my understanding of what the church could be (not just this one, but the whole church), I’ve realized that this statement isn’t particularly cute or funny. We surround ourselves with the people that follow the same rules that we follow. We do this not only in the churches we pick for ourselves, but also in the groups we in which we gather within each church. We decide that one group doesn’t follow the same rules that our group follows and it causes tension. We want them to be just like us.

We worry about our differences, and truth be told, we have a hard time acting graciously to those who either are different from us, or believe differently than we do. But there is good news for slightly selfish, _____________________ people like us. Our experiences and opinions and whatever else are not what binds us together. The cross is what binds us together. 1

But if we were really working with a theology of grace, these things would fade into the background.

A theology of grace– where we believed that we have been saved not by the things that we do and say and think, but by Christ alone, means that this same practice of grace and forgiveness ought to pour out of us onto everyone we meet. If all Christians embody a theology of grace, it would not be so surprising if we become more tolerant of the different ways in which people witness to the amazing things the cross means for our lives.

One of the writers I looked at this week suggested this exercise:

Stop. For a moment be completely still until you can hear and feel your heart beating within you. Marvel at the way it beats without your willing or controlling it. That life-giving pulse is a gift. Imagine with every beat that it is Christ who is beating in your heart, your savior living inside you. More than anything in the world you want Christ within you to shine through all that you do and say.2

When you are really to the point when the thing you want most in the world is for Christ to shine through everything you do, then grace can suddenly start pouring out of you. When that moment comes, then everything the cross means is suddenly real for you. And now that that has happened, the differences between you and “So and so” don’t matter much anymore, because you will know that your life is based on “Just Jesus”, which is the one thing that can ever make us one.

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