Sunday, July 10, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Struggling with Tough Questions

Summer 2016: This is a story full of love...
Luke 10:25-37

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The story of the Good Samaritan, from the gospel of Luke. is familiar to many of us. We know it, we read it to our kids and grandchildren, we tell it, we teach it, we act it out in dramas!

It could be described as an ‘example story’, that is, it shows us how to live and be and act in our lives as people of faith. We are called to be imitators of Christ and to show love, care for others. Only one of the 3 men, the helpful Samaritan, acted compassionately. God and Do likewise! An example story, so we should pay attention.

But is that it? The challenge for any of us in using a very familiar story like this, especially preachers preparing a sermon, is to read it through fresh eyes, to ask new questions, to probe different angles. Is there anything at all that “afflicts” us, challenges us, or intrudes into our thinking that we didn’t see before?

Let’s step back, look at a slightly bigger context and get the fuller story. It starts with a lawyer, an expert in the law, asking Jesus the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The text states he is testing Jesus. Maybe he is just being bold and wanting to get right down to the deeper stuff, not shallow thought and theology, but what really is important. Jesus responds to the question with his own question, turning it back to the lawyer. “What is written in the Law?” Jesus asks. “How do you interpret it, understand it?”

The lawyer gives an A+ answer...he is right on. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus replies, “That is correct. Do this and you will live.”

But the lawyer seems to need more, maybe further clarification, and so asks another question? “And who is my neighbor?” ahhh..tough question! “How much love are we talking about Jesus?’, he might be thinking. Let’s get specific. Where can I draw the line? There are lines, aren’t there? This can’t be totally open ended and without some limits and boundaries, can it?”

As a lawyer he might have been interested in more dialogue and discussion on this matter, wanting to know the finer points of responsible neighborliness. Instead Jesus tells a story!

The man walking down the road between Jerusalem and Jericho gets beaten, robbed, stripped of his clothes and left to die. A priest and Levite, one at a time, come by and pass on the other side. When the 3rd man comes along, a Samaritan, he came where the man was, he drew close, and felt great pity. He bandaged the wounds, anointed them with oil and wine, put him on his donkey, took him to the inn, where he cared for him, paid the innkeeper and promised to return.

“Which of the three was a neighbor to the man beaten?” Jesus asks the lawyer. “The one who showed mercy” he replies.

“Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. Do this!!!

Do this. Draw close. Show mercy. Extend kindness. ( The story,..... we know it, we read it, we tell it, we teach it, but do we live it?) Live out your theology in hands on care for other people. Get down on your knees. Get dirty, maybe even bloody, and bind the wounds. Don’t just Think love. Do it!

We may need to do something that makes us feel uncomfortable, or is inconvenient or puts us out of our comfort zone. It may be something major and time consuming or relatively small and a simple act of kindness.

(Example: tell stories of helping Ben and family move to Asheville, NC. Include hospitality and kindness shown by staff person at Lutheran Church, allowing us to come in and use restrooms, offering cold glasses of lemonade to kids, playground for them, etc. Also kindness/welcoming from their neighbor, who brought hot meal from Boston Market, plenty of food, a real feast, including a bottle of wine, as we were in state of chaos of unpacking and had not food or anything in house!!)

We ‘get it’, don’t we? We must do the same. It’s an ‘example’ story. At one level, this is the main point of the story, but is this enough? Might there be something else that is ‘afflicting’ us, even intruding into our thoughts that hasn’t before?

Two tough questions emerge!...

1.) In our context today, Who is our neighbor?

2.) Where do we find ourselves in this story? Does the story change depending on where we locate ourselves within it? 

Let’s look at that first “tough” question. Who is our neighbor? In the parable, during Jesus’ time, the ‘neighbor’ is the ‘other’, that is the enemy. The third man who came along and finally did something to help the beaten man was a Samaritan. There was bitter tension between Jews and Samaritans. The two groups disagreed about everything that they interpreted the Scriptures, where and how to worship and honor God, they avoided social contact with each other as much as possible. They really hated each other, so for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of the story, must have been shocking to those hearing this story in the first century. Absolutely shocking! It was a scandal. You just didn’t put the word ‘good’ along with Samaritan!

So in our contemporary lives, who is ‘the Samaritan? who is the last person on earth we would want to have save our lives or be deemed the ‘good guy’? Might it be someone who is at the other end of the spectrum politically, you know....the staunch conservative Republican, or the liberal Democrat? Could it actually be a person on our block who has strong beliefs on abortion or the death penalty and makes it known? Is the ‘other’ for us today, the gay couple who rent our apartment, or the person who comes to us for a job with a known police record or is a registered sex offender? And what about the recent immigrants that settle in our communities and work in our factories and fields and food service, some accused of “taking ‘our’ jobs”? Yet are we willing to do that work when we need a job?

The enmity between the Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day was real. The differences were real and not easily negotiated; each was fully convinced that the other was wrong. Sounds familiar....I hear that today regarding our discussion and debates on same-gender issues. Faithful Christians studying the Bible using the same texts and coming to different understandings on issues of the day, each fully convinced that the other is wrong.

So when Jesus deemed the Samaritan ‘good’, it was radical, risky and probably stunned his Jewish listeners. He was asking them to think ‘outside the box’, to dream of a different kind of kingdom, to put aside the history they knew, the prejudices they carried, the hatred that was buried deep. He asked them to leave room for the divine, for God to work and for the possibility that old ways and ideas might need to be altered and even transformed.

So how would you answer the tough question, “Who is your neighbor?

Let’s look at the second tough question.

Where do we find ourselves in the story?

Where do you locate yourself?

Do we find ourselves identifying with the ‘religious leaders’? Many of us are in some of those roles? Do we find ourselves busy, preoccupied, doing ‘good’ work in the church, in ministries, in institutions, and most days can’t find the time, the energy to add one thing more? When needs arise, how do we weigh whether we get involved? When do we pass on by? and then sometimes feel guilty. How do we protect ourselves from taking on too many things and trying to solve and fix things and people? What are our limits? Are we like the lawyer who asks the question, Who is my neighbor? and wanting to know if there are some boundaries, some limits, some guidelines? Do we sometimes respond to needs that become more than we can handle, becoming overwhelming and then feeling trapped?

(Ex. I confess I have frequently felt like the priest who walked on by, especially when I receive calls at the office from someone in need, especially when it is close to 5pm and I am ready to leave the office after some stressful work, and I debated whether to answer the phone, but did, then found out I was listening to a person recount their situation and knowing I somehow had to respond with ??? money, pledge of payment, compassionate listening ear, or sorry, can’t help. What to do??)

Do we find ourselves identifying with the good Samaritan? offering what we can, mercy, compassion, support, money, food,.... On good days, maybe we see ourselves in that person, hoping we can in some way, large or small make a difference. Maybe it is enough to ‘draw near’ to the needy and not to pass by on the other side. Maybe we need to go where the need is, to draw close, to see, to bend down, to touch, to listen, to anoint, to carry, to be present! Maybe on some days, that is enough. We are not expected to carry the whole load, to fix all the parts that are broken in people’s lives. God is already at work and we find ways to join in that work, however we can.

Do we ever locate ourselves in the story, in the beaten and bloody man, dying on the road, or lying in the ditch? We don’t know his religious belief, or profession or social status. He is just beaten, bloody, broken, vulnerable and in desperate need. Have we ever been in that place? some of us have, maybe physically, emotionally, spiritually broken, grateful to anyone, anyone at all who will show mercy and kindness and compassion. All divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ disappear. Maybe this is more than an ‘example story’. You know, go and do likewise, like the good Samaritan. Maybe this is a ‘reversal story! When you think of yourself as the one lying in the ditch, bloody and bruised, it isn’t important if you have the same beliefs or faith, or sexual preferences or political views. What matters is whether or not anyone will stop to show you mercy, love, compassion, before you die. You may not have ever experienced that kind of desperation, maybe some of you have. It won’t matter if you interpret scripture the same way or like the person, or agree with her views. All that matters will be that someone is there to reach out and pull you up and hold you together. And you might have to swallow your pride and grab hold of a hand you thought you would never touch or a person you would never speak to, or the person you can barely tolerate!

Who is your neighbor?” the lawyer asked. Your neighbor is the one who turns things on end, reverses things, the usual categories no longer apply, and suddenly you might see the hand reaching out is the ‘other’ and it shocks you, for in that person you see the face of God. “Your neighbor is the one who mercifully steps over the ancient, bloodied line separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ and teaches you and me the real meaning of ‘Good’.

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