Sunday, July 28, 2013

July 28, 2013 - Proper 12C

Lectionary Readings

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            I’ve been looking forward to preaching this sermon for quite a while. Three years ago, I had just begun the work of ministry at St. Francis, and after spending a week with our high-schoolers on a mission trip, I preached my first sermon here. I don’t know if you all recall the sermon or not. It likely wasn’t that memorable, other than the fact that I preached it from the chancel steps without notes, something you probably haven’t seen since then.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

July 14, 2013 - Proper 10C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

These are the hardest sermons to preach. All you have to do is utter the phrase “Good Samaritan” and even those with a passing knowledge of the Bible will know what you’re talking about. We have “Good Samaritan” laws that try to promote helping those in need. Even the series finale of the hit show Seinfeld was based on these sorts of laws. So how is a preacher to preach on such a well known text? As Jesus told it, this story was subversive and shocking, but in our culture is has become genteel. Most people hear this passage and assume that the moral of the story is “be nice to strangers,” which it is not. Some preachers will approach the text by examining the question “who is my neighbor,” urging their congregation to respond with compassion to everyone they meet. And that too, is missing the point.

This is an extremely rich parable, and it refuses to be summed up in one pithy little statement. In fact, referring to this passage as the “Good Samaritan” is misleading. We’d do better to call it “The Parable of the Man in the Ditch,” or “The Unlikely Neighbor.” But even those statements don’t capture the full grandeur and all of the subtle lessons that Jesus has put into his masterful telling of the parable. So let’s walk through this passage and see what exactly we are being told to “go and do.”

As the text begins, a lawyer arises to test Jesus and set a trap for him. Lawyer really is a bad translation, this man was a religious scholar, someone who studied the laws of Judaism. So don’t read this passage as an indictment against attorneys, this man had a religious motivation in his approaching Jesus. He came to test Jesus, to try to undermine his teachings. Maybe he wanted to see, if perhaps, the rumors might be true, if there was a chance that he might be really be a prophet, or even more, the messiah.

But his motives were not so pure, as the way the dialogue unfolds, we see that he is just waiting to pounce on Jesus if he fumbles the question. We see this most clearly in the question- “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question itself is a trap because it doesn’t make any sense. The easy answer is that there is nothing you can do to inherit anything. By definition, inheritances are free gifts, you cannot do anything to earn them. He has asked Jesus an impossible question.

When do we do the same? When is it that doubt causes us to test God? How many times do we pray “God, if you really want me to do this, give me a sign.” And in doing so, we’re just waiting for a chance to get out of if it. When do we ask those impossible questions? When do we make those deals with God that are setting us up for failure, you know the sort- “O God, if you’ll just do this one thing for me, then I’ll do this grand and wonderful thing for you.” But as we’ll see, our traps of insecurity and fear don’t pull God into them.

So Jesus, rather brilliantly, answers his question with a question, not falling for the trap. He asks “what is written in the law? What do you read there?” Any Jewish legal scholar knew the answer- love God and love neighbor. As the passage from Deuteronomy this morning proclaims so beautifully- “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” This isn’t rocket science. The word of God isn’t something hidden from us, it isn’t something that we struggle to understand. It isn’t something that we have to go and search for. It is as near as our mouth and heart. This is one of the most important blessings with which God blesses Israel: the nearness of God and God’s word. So this religious scholar had no choice but to answer the question in this way- love God and love neighbor. And when he responds in that way,
Jesus tells him that he has answered correctly. But the man can’t leave well-enough alone.

The text says that he wants to justify himself. The word “justify” might also be translated as “vindicate” or “make oneself right.” The spring on the trap didn’t work, so he’s grasping at straws now. Parables are meant to draw us in, to invite us to participate in the story. So now is a good time to consider how we fit into the story thus far. If someone asked you- “what is written in the Bible?”, how might you respond? Have you read enough of the Bible to answer that question? Have you meditated on God’s word to have a response? How near is it to your heart and your mouth?

And when is it that we seek to justify ourselves, when we would do better to just keep quiet? When the argument is over, and our traps have failed, why do we keep grasping for straws? This parable is an invitation, both to consider how near to us God is, and to discern the motives for our actions- are they in keeping with God’s word, or are we just trying to justify ourselves?

So Jesus then begins to tell the parable. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. This was not an unheard of happening. Thieves could easy hide and jump on travelers who were not well-protected. They stripped him, beat him, taking all of his possessions, and left him there to die. And I wonder where we still have Jericho roads in our world. What are those pathways that still exist that are full of danger? What are the institutions that still exist that beat people up?

The past several weeks have been historic ones for the Supreme Court. The case that got most of the attention was the ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. And while that is something to celebrate, let us remember that it is just one step in the step towards liberty and justice for all. But there was another case decided that I’m afraid will set up many new Jericho roads. The Court recently struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, opening the door for discrimination and racism to find a new home in the voting booth. The Court said that the nation has changed in the past 50 years and such a law is no longer needed. I wonder if the security personal on that Jericho road were removed because there hadn’t been any muggings recently. As Justice Ginsburg wrote in dissent- “[This] is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

There are many Jericho roads, where those who are forced to travel them are just waiting to be mugged and beaten. You can find these roads in North Carolina if you’re unemployed, as our legislature has decided to strip benefits. You can find these roads in the housing projects, where the road from poverty to prosperity is full of robbers just waiting to knock people down. You can find these roads in our jails, which are disproportionally full of minorities. You can find these roads in our education system in North Carolina, where we rank 46th in the nation in dollars spent per student and are continuing to cut funding to public schools. You can find these roads in Raleigh, where Medicaid expansions are being rejected in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. You can find these roads among migrant workers and our immigration system. You can find these Jericho roads everywhere.

And along comes a priest, coming from Jerusalem and returning home to Jericho. Priests had shifts at the Temple in Jerusalem, and this priest had likely just finished his few weeks of service in the Temple. Some people try to give this priest a free-pass and the quote laws from the Torah about ritual purity, suggesting that the priest would have been making himself unclean by touching the beaten man, thereby making himself unfit for his duty to God. And that would be a great argument, if it worked.

But it doesn’t. For one, the text clearly says that the priest was heading down from Jerusalem, which is a city on a hill. If he was going down, he was finishing up his priestly duties and would have had plenty of time to go through the purification rituals before his name came up on the Temple rota again. Furthermore, those rules only applied to touching a dead body, and the priest doesn’t even walk over to see if the man was still alive. He doesn’t attempt to get help, instead, he can’t be bothered with this. So he crosses over to the other side and goes on his merry way.

Perhaps the priest thought that if anyone asked about it, he could use those purity laws as his excuse. Or perhaps he could say that he was so focused on where he was going that he didn’t even notice the man. What are our excuses? What excuses do we use to keep the dirty, poor, and needy at an arm’s length? When do we look the other way and pretend that we didn’t see injustice?

This priest’s error was in confusing holiness with Godliness. He thought that he had excuses for avoiding this inconvenience- his duty was to remain holy so that he could do his ministry. But he forgets that before anything else, he is called to Godliness, to loving God with all of his heart, soul, and mind, and to love his neighbor as himself. Let us not make the same mistake.

Next down the road comes the Levite. Levites were a group of people that assisted the priests in the Temple. And this Levite was also coming down from Jerusalem, signaling the end of his shift in the Temple. And what I’d like to point out is that he did the same thing that the priest did. Now priests led the worship and rituals in the Temple, and the Levites assisted. And what is so abhorrent about this part of the parable is that the Levite did the same thing as the priest. He knew that the priest, who lived just down the street from him in Jericho, had left the Temple a few minutes before he did. So he knew that the priest must have passed by this wretched man and not done anything. And he did the same thing- nothing.

You’re probably familiar with the psychological phenomenon known as the “bystander effect,” that says that the more people who see someone in need, the less likely anyone is to act. Momentum can be hard to break. It is difficult to go against the grain, to be the voice of dissent when injustice is happening. This incident is an extra damnation against the priest, who set the example for this Levite. And we would do well to consider what examples we are setting. What does the way we live teach our children and grandchildren? How do our actions, as people who claim to be Christians, reflect on Christ? What example do we set for those around us?

But the Levite bears some of the blame as well. And his inaction begs us to consider those moments when we just go with the crowd. The Levite didn’t have the courage to be different. He couldn’t find the strength to do what he knew was right, but would have made him vulnerable. After all, the wounded man could have been a trap. Perhaps the robbers were waiting for someone to approach the man and then attack them as well. But the riskiness of doing the right thing does not make it any less the right thing to do. Let the example of the Levite be a wake-up call to act when action is called for and to speak when a voice needs to be raised.

I really wish that we could have read this gospel passage in its original Greek this morning, because the words jump off the page in the next section. These first two encounters use the exact same sentence structure. But as Luke tells Jesus’ parable, this next section is jarringly different.

This next sentence begins with the word “Samaritan.” And I wish there was a way for me to make your gut churn when you heard that word, as it would have for Jesus’ audience. The conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans was intense, to say the least. It was grounded in a theological dispute, but became an ethnic hatred. The feeling this injured man, a Jew, would have felt when a Samaritan approached him would be the same as if in 1950s Alabama a black man approached a white woman, or if a Palestinian approached a Jew today in the Middle East, or if a Sunni came upon a Shia, or Nazi soldier approached a Jew in 1930s Germany. To say there was tension is an understatement.

And this part of the parable is often overlooked. The beaten man had to accept help from the Samaritan. Even in his half-dead state, he could have let ethic hatred drive him to tell the Samaritan to leave him alone. And it begs the question, would we accept help from anyone? Is there a group of people for which you’d rather die than admit that they saved you? Being helped by someone, especially someone you don’t like can be a challenge. Booker T. Washington was once asked how much he charged for a speaking fee, and he said “$50, unless you host me, then $150.” Putting ourselves at the mercy of others takes a lot of trust and vulnerability. Receiving hospitality, especially for those of us who like to appear as if we’ve got it all put together, can be just as hard as giving hospitality. So let this injured man be a lesson to us, that we accept the grace of God, regardless of what vehicle it uses to get to us.

Do you wonder why the Samaritan stopped to help the man? And not just stop, but he tended to the man, he poured expensive oil and wine on him. He put him on his own animal and guided him to an inn, and paid for his stay. Why did the Samaritan lavish compassion and mercy on him?

Again, the differences in the Greek text make it so clear. In the first two encounters, the text says “a certain priest/Levite was going down that road, and seeing him, passed him by on the other side.” But when the Samaritan enters the parable, the text reads “a Samaritan was journeying and seeing him, had compassion.” What I want to point out is the difference between going down that road, and journeying. The priest and the Levite were going down from Jerusalem, they had a destination in mind. They were on a mission, and they weren’t willing to be distracted. They were so focused on what they thought they should be doing and where they thought they should be going, that they couldn’t make any room in their life for compassion. But the Samaritan was not “going down,” he was “journeying.”

It’s really a question of how you go about life. Is your life a closed system, or open to new possibilities? Do you keep your head down to avoid distractions, or do you take in the sights? What happens when someone threatens to throw a wrench into your plans- do you get frustrated, or do you see it as a new opportunity for grace?

As the parable concludes, Jesus asks the question “which of these was a neighbor?” And this is a rather ironic and intentional reversal of how the parable started. The religious scholar came to Jesus and asked, “who is my neighbor?” And Jesus concludes by asking “who was the neighbor?”

And in that subtle shift, Jesus is communicating the point of this parable. The neighbor goes from being the object of the sentence, to the subject. And point of the parable isn’t to figure out who we’re supposed to be nice to, to discern who our neighbor is. That’s easy, everyone is our neighbor. The tough part of this parable is in figuring how it is that we can be a neighbor to everyone that we encounter. Jesus concludes by saying “go and do likewise,” or in other words- be a neighbor. And that is the point of this parable.

As you can see, this parable isn’t quite as simple as being about the “Good Samaritan” who teaches us to be nice to everyone. Jesus tells this parable to challenge us and reverse the way we see neighborly hospitality. We are invited to consider how it is that we try to trap God in our uncertainly. We are urged to explore the Jericho roads in our own time, that we might make them safer to travel. Our excuses are nothing that should prevent us from doing the work of Godliness. Though it can be difficult to break precedent and be that voice calling out in the wilderness, it is our calling as Christians. We might consider how we can be more open to receiving hospitality from others, and be willing to cross racial, economic, and ideological boundaries to offer help to those in need. And we are invited to enjoy the journey of life, so that we might be able to see what lies around us instead of just going through the motions. It’s a very rich parable, but if all you remember are three words from this sermon, remember these three- “go and do.”

Sunday, July 7, 2013

July 7, 2013 - Proper 9C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            If you go to the Middle East today, you’ll find that one of their core values is hospitality. Receiving the stranger and offering them food and water is not only the nice thing to do, but it is the only acceptable thing to do. Hospitality is a part of that culture, and that was just as true during Jesus’ time in the Middle East. And here in the West, we talk about hospitality as well. We often use the word “welcome” as a rough synonym for hospitality. But hospitality means more than that. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word literally means “love strangers.” What if we not only welcomed strangers, but loved them? That would get us closer to Biblical hospitality. This morning I’d like to examine three aspects of this Biblical hospitality, as seen in this passage from Luke. The three parts are offering, being vulnerable, and interdependence.
            First, we’ll begin with offering something in hospitality, as this is the most common form of hospitality that we know. Jesus suggest that there are two things that the disciples are to offer those they meet, peace and the Kingdom of God. As they enter a house, their first word is to be “peace.” “Peace” was an ancient greeting that conveyed tranquility, wholeness, harmony, and health, being based on the Hebrew word shalom. And I can’t help but wonder what our world would be like if “peace” was the first word that we offered to one another instead of “hey, how are ya?” And not just what if we said “peace” instead of “hello,” but what if we meant it? What if we were setting the tone for our interactions by offering peace? By saying “peace,” what if we were committing ourselves to trusting that we won’t be taken advantage of, to promising to offer only harmony and health to the other person? It might not change the world overnight, but I’d be willing to bet that you might start to see small changes in your relationships.
            But I’d also like to point out that peace does not mean an absence of conflict. Conflict is a good and healthy thing when handled properly. Conflict is natural, but what you do with conflict will determine whether or not it will lead to peace and healing or to war and strife. Too often we say that we can’t be at peace because we can’t agree with each other, and that’s a fallacy; and the sad truth is that it leads to negative conflicts. I don’t expect everyone to agree on everything. In fact, part of what makes the Episcopal tradition so rich is the fact that we live what we call the via media, the “middle way” between the poles of Protestant and Roman, between Conservative and Liberal. And Jesus knows that he disciples will encounter some conflict as they go out and tells them how to deal with it.
            If you’ll remember the reading from last Sunday, James and John asked Jesus if they should call down fire to consume the Samaritans. But here, that isn’t how Jesus suggests that we handle conflict. Instead, Jesus suggests not staying in an unhealthy relationship. If the person will not receive your peace or offer it back to you, you leave. It doesn’t mean that you won’t come back another time, but don’t stay in a place where peace is not possible. But as you leave, your parting words are not to be threats or insults, but rather a reminder that “the Kingdom of God has come near.”
            And this is the second offering of hospitality that Jesus offers us- the Kingdom of God. What is the Kingdom of God? Well, it’s like a mustard seed, and it’s sort of like a lost coin, and it reminds you of a father welcoming back his lost son. Jesus never defines the Kingdom of God, he simply says that has come near, or “is among you,” in other translations. And this is a point that should not be overlooked. Far too many Christians have fallen for the trap of thinking that the Kingdom is the same as the afterlife. Why would Jesus say “the afterlife has come near?” He wouldn’t; it makes no sense. And our preoccupation of who goes where when they die is nonsense as well. If you’ve paid attention to my preaching here over the last three years, you’ve probably realized that the present Kingdom of God is the core of all my theology. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon without at least once mentioning the Kingdom of God.
            What the disciples are to offer is the proclamation that the Kingdom of God has come near. And as Jesus presents it, this Kingdom comes with peace, with healing, with community. We pray it all the time- “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” What does that look like to you? What would it mean if the Kingdom drew closer today? How can you help to realize that prayer?
            The first move of hospitality outlined by Jesus is in the offering of peace and the pronouncement of the Kingdom of God. When we offer hospitality, how might we be sure to include those elements?
            Next, hospitality involves vulnerability. Notice that Jesus makes his disciples reliant on others from the start. He tells them to take no purse, bag, or sandals. For one, they will get these things from others; but secondly, they aren’t going to make a career or build up their net worth. They won’t be collecting souvenirs or donations that they’ll need to carry. He sends them out, telling them not to be weighed down by the burdens of possessions or money. And there is great vulnerability in this action. What if they don’t find anyone to feed them? Or give them a place to sleep? Or what if they’re a vegetarian and their host sets out a pot roast for dinner? It takes a lot of vulnerability.
            Jesus wants them to go out and truly be with the people whom they visit. And I hope that we notice that this is a reversal of how we often think hospitality works. Normally, hospitality is seen as welcoming. And we’ve really gotten this wrong in America. We think that hospitality is saying “come on in, we’ll show you how we do it around here, and we’ll even teach you how to be like us.” But as colonialism in Africa showed us, that doesn’t really work. When the first missionaries arrived in Africa, they didn’t find much success. Christianity grew very slowly when the Africans were told how to be Christian. Once the missionaries left, Christianity exploded. When they were allowed to know God in Christ through their culture, it clicked.
            So hospitality isn’t as much about “welcome, let me teach you,” as much as it is “can I stay with you and learn from you?” Martin Luther King famously said that Sunday morning is the  most segregated hour in America; and nearly 50 years later, he’s still right. And part of the reason why he is still right is that we’ve forgotten how to be vulnerable in our hospitality.
            We don’t risk being changed, or doing what is uncomfortable, and therefore we don’t really know each other. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be like lambs being sent into the midst of wolves. How often do we feel like lambs surrounded by wolves? When does our faith or hospitality endanger us or make us targets? When was the last time we risked something in being hospitable?
You can see this all around, churches are trying to welcome and attract young people by trying to be hip and cool. And all the research shows, that despite praise bands and guitars, despite letting people wear blue jeans instead of suits to church, despite preachers that look like a CEO giving a keynote address, young people haven’t been impressed with the efforts. They aren’t coming because churches aren’t doing what Jesus suggested that we do.
We’re not going to others on their terms. We aren’t learning their customs, we aren’t eating their foods, so to speak. It takes a lot of courage and trust to go out on that limb, to leave behind the known, to be utterly dependent on the other. But that is exactly the sort of hospitality that Jesus is suggesting to us.
And this vulnerability of doing things differently is seen in our reading from 1 Kings as well. Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, has leprosy, and finds his way to the Israelite prophet Elisha, who tells him to bathe in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman’s initial reaction isn’t “good, this is easier than I thought,” instead, he resents the fact that he travelled all this way to not even get a face-to-face meeting with Elisha and then be told to bathe in a river that is dirtier than the rivers back home. There was a sociological experiment done a few years back where a group of people were given free movie tickets, while another group had to pay $10 for their tickets. They were shown the exact same movie, but people who paid for the tickets were both more likely to have actually showed up to the show, but also gave the movie considerably higher reviews than the people who got free tickets.
We expect that good things are expensive and difficult. We expect that anything worthwhile will take a lot of time and energy. And we tend to overlook the easy stuff, the things that are right in front of us. The median cost for a wedding in the US is $18,000. After a wedding, I’ve never heard anyone say “that was worth $18,000.” But instead, the couple will often say that the best moment was something simple. The same is true of my seven month old daughter; she gets more use out of the bag that the toy came in than the toy itself. We tend to take more ownership of things when we have to invest a lot in them. It does take a bit of vulnerability to trust that what we need will be given to us, and it isn’t something that we need to earn ourselves.
If you look at mega-churches, you’ll see this phenomenon playing out. Mega-churches tend to espouse a rather difficult faith. They will tell you what you can and cannot drink, what shows you can and cannot watch, what beliefs you can and cannot hold. But that simply isn’t how God works. God isn’t present as much in rules and prohibitions as much as God is present in some simple bread and wine, or in the face of the person next to you. We like clear definitions and boundaries, but in the simple answers, we don’t get as much clarity as we’d like, and that takes some vulnerability. The grace, mercy, peace, and love of God isn’t something we earn, it is a free gift. Let’s not make that any more complicated than it needs to be. Let’s be more vulnerable in our hospitality, let’s really be with each other, learning from each other, and accept the love of God that is all around us instead of trying to define how it works.
Finally, hospitality takes interdependence. And given that we just celebrated Independence Day on July 4, that word choice is intentional. Independence is seen as a virtue; being able to take care of yourself is a noble thing. But in this passage, Jesus seems to be elevating the status of being interdependent.
I’ll be honest with you, I have some real uneasiness about the relation of patriotism to discipleship. There is a tension between being a citizen of the United States, or any other nation, and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. There is friction between being a citizen of an empire, a citizen of the last true superpower, and being a disciple of the Prince of Peace. And I struggle with it. Now pride is a natural thing for us to feel. There is nothing innately wrong with feeling a deep connection to the place where you were born and live. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the triumphs of your community. But we must realize that the flag and the cross are competing symbols. They both compete for our deepest loyalty and devotions. Which lapel pin do we wear, the cross or the flag? Do we give priority to the flag in the pledge of allegiance, or to the cross in the Creed?
Jesus gathers 70 disciples and sends them out. In Genesis 10, there is a list of nations, and there are 70 nations on it. It is no coincidence that these numbers match. Nationalism and patriotism was very much alive in Jesus’ time in Israel. People expected a messiah to come and be of the Jews, for the Jews, and by the Jews. But Jesus seems to be saying that God is bigger than Israel, and I think Jesus would also remind us that God is bigger than the United States.
Let us remember that since our founding, the United States has been called a “great experiment.” The United States is not the end of the road, but, at its best, it is a step towards the Kingdom of God, where we will experience true liberty and justice for all. But like all experiments, it’s not perfect, and it will fail, but we hope and pray that our failing will lead to a better design the next go-around. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s great words- “sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God’s side.”
And the only way to live into that prayer is to be interdependent, not independent. Being independent, disconnected from others, seeing ourselves as superior to others, does not lead to anything good, and it does not lead to the Kingdom of God. American exceptionalism is an idol that has taken us away from the giving, vulnerable, and interdependent hospitality that is so characteristic of the Kingdom of God. So let us remember, that as Jesus commissions us and sends us out, it is to be interdependent on others.
Just as Jesus sent those seventy out to proclaim the Kingdom of God, so too does God send us out to do the same. May we go, setting the tone with our first word of peace. May we vulnerable enough to learn from others, to see the new ways that God is working. May we be interdependent, growing with each other into a fuller realization of the Kingdom.

When the disciples come back to Jesus from their missions, they are excited about their mighty acts and successes, but Jesus says “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this… but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Now that’s worth shooting fireworks off over. Let us remember that that our glory is not found in our hospitality or our success, but instead in the glory that God has been hospitable to us, in giving us God’s peace, in being vulnerable enough to come to us in the person of Jesus, and in being interdependent with us through the Holy Spirit. And for that, in the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, I say, “glory, glory, hallelujah.”