Several more familiar challenges from the Sermon on the Mount this week. Brian McLaren organizes them around three themes – anxiety, judgment and love. Jesus warns against getting caught up the first two since our lives and our living ought to be grounded in love – love for God, for neighbor, for self. The foundation of this love is God who, in the end, embraces and cares for us as if we were her children. And, come to think of it, we are! What difference might this understanding make to our Lenten journey? What if what we gave up for Lent is anxiety and judgment, so that we might center our lives more fully in the love of God?
In Adult Spiritual Formation we will continue to explore nonviolent resistance, drawing on The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium by Walter Wink. Hugh Satterlee has challenged us to place ourselves earlier in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We come upon the robbery in progress. Do we turn our backs, scurrying away? Do we take up sticks and stones and attack the robbers? Or is there a “third way,” a way of nonviolent resistance? Give it some thought and bring your response to class on Sunday.
Come at 10:00 AM and stay for Adult Spiritual Formation. Bring some others along to share the day.
One difficulty of working our way through the Bible in a calendar year is that there are more great texts than there are Sundays. Some days you have to consider more than one and this is one of those days. In his project, Brian McLaren is trying to help us see significant themes from these gathered texts that will help us understand the Bible in new, exciting ways. Today, under the theme “Rivalry or Reconciliation?” we can choose among the reunion of Esau and Jacob, the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats or the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is an embarrassment of riches! We will focus on the Joseph story, perhaps the least familiar, but have something to say about the others.
This is not the first time in this series or in this year that we have considered sibling rivalry. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau – sibling rivalry is as old as humankind. “You got a bigger piece!” “I’m smarter than you.” “Oh yeah, well can you do this?” “Mom always liked you best.” “I hate you and I’m never going to speak to you again.” I’m sure you can add your own lines to the litany. As we considered in the Cain and Abel story, this rivalry may be a result of a deep-seated belief that there is not enough love to go around.
I’m sure no one here ever played favorites or angled to be favored or blamed it on your sibling or took credit you didn’t deserve. I suppose all rivalry is not literally sibling rivalry though we might trace the roots of rivalry to this source. But what if see ourselves and all humanity as sisters and brothers in the family of God. Then all rivalry is indeed sibling rivalry. What difference would it make in our lives and in our world if we could learn to see one another as siblings, children of the one God, one family in faith?
We considered the wonderful story of the reunion of Jacob and Esau earlier this year. Remember how Jacob, the trickster and scoundrel, with his mother’s help, steals his brother’s birthright and blessing? All the scheming does him little good as he ends up fleeing his brother’s murderous rage to live in exile. Eventually Jacob risks coming home because, like the Prodigal Son, he comes to his senses and realizes there is no joy in being separated from home and family. He approaches his brother in fear, not knowing the current state of Esau’s anger, only to be greeted with tears and embrace, with love and compassion. The crucial line comes when Jacob looks at last full in the face of his forgiving brother and says, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (Genesis 33:10b). Compassion, love, forgiveness become the very face of God. Rivalry is lost in reconciliation.
The Parable of the Sheep and Goats can be challenging, even painful, if we read it all the way through to the judgment. But, it can be instructive to focus on the first part before the judgment. What can we learn from what is affirmed alone? “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” The blessed, in appropriate humility, are dumbfounded by the invitation. “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’” We all know the response. We learned it long ago in Sunday School. “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:31ff).
What struck me in reading this text this time was the phrase “these who are members of my family.” I hear that as naming the least as members of your family, my family, our family. The crucial thing is that we don’t dismiss anyone, including the least of these, from the family of God. To take a superior, judgmental attitude toward another is to take that attitude toward a sister or brother. It is rooted in ancient rivalry for love and attention, for favor and security, sibling rivalry as old as humankind. To offer compassion, care, forgiveness, welcome to one’s sister and brother is to see the face of God and the family resemblance therein. “…as you did it to one of the least of these who are your sisters and brothers, you did it to me.” Rivalry is subsumed in reconciliation.
Then the self-righteous biblical scholar, the one who knew the law so well, trying to save face under the piercing gaze of Jesus, tries to trap the teacher by asking, “Well, just who is my neighbor?” Most of us could recite the Parable of the Good Samaritan from memory. The religious leaders, whom we think ought to stop to help, take the legal way out. They manage to justify hurrying by, leaving the beaten man to bleed out by the side of the road. You can see the crowd, no fans of the religious establishment, shake their heads and hear them mutter their disapproval. Then, Jesus throws everyone a curve. Enter the Samaritan. Wait a minute! Did I hear correctly? Did he say Samaritan? What’s a blankety-blank Samaritan doing in this story? He’ll probably kick the poor victim over the cliff. History tells us the hatred ran that deep.
The crowd is astonished to hear that the Samaritan is the neighbor. The poor lawyer can’t even get the word out of his mouth. When Jesus asks, “Who is the neighbor in the story?” all he can manage to sputter is, “The one who showed mercy” (Luke 10:25ff). But what if we up the ante in this encounter? What if the question is reframed as “Who is my sister, my brother?” and the crowd is invited to consider the Samaritan as a sibling? Oh, my! That may be more than is tolerable. Still, if we are sisters and brothers in the family of God, isn’t that what Jesus is moving us toward? Where do we see the face of God in this tale? In our brother Samaritan who practices forgiveness, compassion and care, seeing the broken one at the side of the road as his own brother and treating him accordingly. Even ancient rivalry can be reconciled.
Finally there is Joseph and his brothers. I imagine we’ve all known a Joseph – a favored child who revels in the special treatment he receives, who has genuine gifts and is not at all reticent to let you know about them, who can’t understand why her siblings resent her and wish her ill. Well, Joseph’s older brothers have come to hate him so much they decide to kill him. But at the last minute they have a change of heart and sell him into slavery. Then they tell their father his favorite has been killed by a wild beast.
Years later, after a series of adventures, Joseph has risen to be the chief advisor to the Egyptian Pharoah. As he had dreamed, a famine comes to Canaan and his brothers find themselves in Egypt, pleading for their survival. Unknown to them, their brother, Joseph, controls their fate. Eventually the whole story comes to light, Joseph forgives his brothers, is reunited with his father and all seems healed. That is until old Jacob dies. There is an elaborate processional of Israelites and Egyptians who bear the body back to Canaan for burial.
However, in the closing verses, the brothers of Joseph suddenly find themselves not feeling so secure anymore. Maybe Joseph has just been good to them because of their father. Now that the old man is gone, are they certain that Joseph has forgiven them and will take care of them? Not really. Their guilt continues to eat away at them. So they approach Joseph with a concocted story that their father has given death bed instructions for him to care for of them. There’s no evidence that Jacob ever said this, but the brothers are desperately trying to cover all their bases. They recognize that Joseph has both justification and power for punishment.
To keep the drama going, Joseph does not give a straightforward answer. Instead, Joseph weeps. Are his tears for his brothers? For himself? Are they tears of forgiveness? Grief? Aching from his long years of painful separation? Accumulated anger at his brothers? Relief? In the end, I imagine some of all this and more was at play. Like Esau before him and Jesus after him, Jacob weeps over his brothers, both lost and found. In the enigmatic response that carries this story and our theme forward, Joseph says, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
There seems to be personal forgiveness that comes from Joseph, moving the situation from rivalry to reconciliation, “’…have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” But there is also a significant word about how God operates in the world. As Dan Buttry reminded us last week, it is a word about how God prefers restorative justice to the retributive sort. This word from and about God is good news for us.
Rivalry has come to be a way we commonly see and treat one another, whether we see one another as siblings or not. We compete and judge, we wrangle and fight, we oppress and war, and all too often we engage in these activities with a certain self-righteousness or sense of being favored or special. We fail to understand God as love, a vibrant, sustaining love that looks out over all creation, blessing it and calling it good. As children of that same God, created in God’s image and likeness, if we could look out with those eyes we might see the face of God reflected in all we encounter. We could learn to let go of rivalry and give ourselves over to the work of reconciliation. That is God’s plan, that we live in peace and harmony in one family of faith, the family of God. We can make other plans as Joseph’s brothers did but in the end God’s plan prevails. This does not mean that God ordained Joseph’s suffering so the brothers could learn a lesson about family togetherness, but, as the one who has suffered, Joseph has the right to turn his suffering over to God’s greater plan of reconciliation.
The love that binds us together is operative throughout creation and history. It is at work even in the midst of the most vicious rivalry and awful evil, drawing us ever back with cords of love toward that family in which we were made to live and love for all eternity. Bind us together, Lord. Bind us together with cords that cannot be broken. Bind us together with love that sees beyond all rivalry and makes us all one in the family of God. Amen.
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 14, 2013
Text: Luke 10:25-37
Let us pray: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Every observant Jew in Jesus’ hearing would have been familiar with these words. They come directly from the Torah and were prayed twice daily. To love God with one’s whole being was central to Jewish law. Every other element of the law sprang from this great commandment. So when the lawyer questions Jesus about eternal life, it’s not at all surprising to find he already knew the answer.
Some would argue that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus. It certainly is not the first time on this long journey to Jerusalem that a religious authority has tried to trip him up. But I’m not altogether certain. I think it’s in the nature of lawyers to want to pin things down, to ask clarifying questions and to try to establish precedents that people can practice. His question may be a test of Jesus’ knowledge or wisdom, but it could be that he really is looking for an answer. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Does that question have any ring of authenticity for you? Have you ever found yourself wondering along with the lawyer? Do you ever worry about the heavenly road and whether or not you’re on it? I know we largely think of ourselves as too sophisticated to put questions in these terms. But if you found yourself in this attorney’s shoes what would you ask Jesus? What would you want to know – about his authenticity, his message, his leadership, the way he was walking, the choices he was making, the reign of God he kept promoting? What must I do to secure my place in this in-breaking, life-transforming, reign of God?
Now in typical fashion of argumentation for the time and territory, Jesus turns the lawyer’s question back on him. He answers the original question with a sharply pointed question of his own. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Jesus knows this man is no dummy. This lawyer is well-read, literate in the law, perfectly capable of answering his own question, if he stops to think. Here we get Luke’s version of the Great Commandment, but it does not come from the lips of Jesus. It comes from the one who has just challenged him. Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor just as you love yourself. The law, the way, the truth, the life – all are rooted and grounded in these words about the power of love.
I imagine the lawyer was a little embarrassed at being shown up by Jesus. He engages in a little stuttering before he comes up with a face-saving follow-up question. “And just who is my neighbor?” Surely, he will either get Jesus to engage him on his own terms or he will catch Jesus short in his understanding of neighborliness. But again, Jesus does not follow the lawyer’s lead. He says, “Let me tell you a little story.”
The crowd is enrapt as they watch the volleys back and forth between the two. They settle in to hear one of Jesus’ famous stories, the kind with a surprise ending that will surely put his challenger in his place. I’m sure we could all tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan from memory. Along with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is the most familiar of all Jesus’ stories.
Jesus himself will soon walk the steep, rugged road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Even if it is not actually familiar to his hearers, they all know of its dangerous reputation. I can imagine they might begin by wondering what this fool was doing traveling the road alone, unless he was on some urgent business that required his taking off by himself.
Now he lies bloody and beaten in the ditch robbed of all his resources, including his robe and tunic. The listeners are conflicted. They understand why the priest and Levite don’t stop. The risk of being robbed themselves and the risk of ritual impurity were just too great. Truth be told, most of them would not have stopped either. They could think of a dozen reasons not to get involved. But they’d also been around Jesus long enough to begin to understand how important compassion was to the reign of God. They had a nagging feeling that Jesus believed the priest and Levite should have stopped. They knew that, for Jesus, human need trumped rules and standard practice every time.
So what would the catch be, what was the punch line for this parable? A Samaritan wanders onto the scene. Well, surely this is a turn for the worse. Everyone knew that a hated Samaritan could be up to no good. See, we’ve heard this story so many times it’s tamed for us, but the first century Jews, listening to Jesus talk, had been carefully taught to hate Samaritans. The ending, so familiar to us, would have been shocking to them.
That’s right. It’s the Samaritan who shows compassion and extravagant generosity. The lawyer is not the only one dumb-founded. The whole crowd is astonished, speechless. Jesus, looking the lawyer right in the eyes, asks one last question. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor…?” Stuttering again, the lawyer cannot bring himself to say the word Samaritan…“The one who showed…mercy.” Finally, the answer to that original question about eternal life, about residency in the reign of God: “Go and do likewise.”
If we were to put ourselves into this scene today, how might the story unfold? Who would we find in need and why? Who would be likely to walk by on the other side and who would stop to help? Where would you place yourself – lying in the ditch, hurrying by, taking time to lend assistance? My guess is that each of us has had some experience of all three roles. We’ve been down and out, hurting, in need of help. We’ve been too busy, too frightened, too preoccupied to stop for a neighbor in need. And there have been those moving, miraculous moments when our compassion has kicked in and we’ve stopped to help even when it was not perceived to be in our best interest.
Some would argue that it’s human nature to follow an instinct for self-preservation, to give one’s self over to caring only for one’s self and one’s own. Michael Rogness reminds us that the shrinking world in which we live challenges our understanding of neighbor. He says, “We are all ‘tribal’ by instinct and by habit. We are most comfortable with and usually care most about those like us. But now we live side-by-side with people of many different tribes” (Michael Rogness, Commentary on Luke 10:25-37, workingpreacher.org). Whomever is on our personal “Samaritan” list are the ones for whom we are least likely to have time or energy. No compassion for those folk; too hard to get inside their skin and see with their eyes. It’s important to look after one’s own kind. How subtly does racism, classism, sexism, homo-hatred, ablism creep in to erode our ability to love, to crush our capacity for compassion?
Gerald May argues that this very capacity for compassion, this awakening of the heart to loving and being loved is what distinguishes human beings from other animals (The Awakened Heart). Marcus Borg says that the call to compassion is one of two key marks that distinguish Jesus’ ministry from all others (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time). Anne Howard says of the parable, “There are two kinds of people in [this] story: those who see life with eyes of fear and the one who sees with eyes of love.” She continues, “Jesus makes it very clear to the lawyer: there is really only one rule to the game: be a neighbor. Be the one who doesn’t count the cost, be the one who doesn’t measure the boundaries, be the one who doesn’t calculate the limits of kindness, be the one who sees” with eyes of love (Anne Howard, “Two Ways to See,” A Word in Time, July 8, 2013, beatitudessociety.org).
Compassion, love for neighbor, may not be part of our animal nature, but it is certainly central to that second nature, that higher self into which we can grow. God has made us a little lower than the divine and crowned us with honor and glory (Psalm 8:5). We are created and called to something beyond our base nature. To give ourselves to God and neighbor is to commit ourselves to a life of love and compassion. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. Go and practice compassion. You already know the foundation – love of God and love of neighbor. Go and live out what you see to be true. Amen.
Thanks to everyone who helped with last Sunday’s worship service and church picnic. Special kudos go to Eleanor Satterlee (and her sidekick, Hugh) for organizing and overseeing the picnic. It was a very enjoyable occasion. It was also great to have Pastor Tripp back from his sojourn in Virginia. We missed his guitar, banjo, mandolin and mellifluous tones, among other things.
This Sunday we will consider one of the most familiar stories in the Bible, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This is a very familiar territory. Still, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves from time to time of what this story teaches. It grows directly from Jesus’ affirmation of the Great Commandments – to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbor as your self. It is interesting to have a focus on this second commandment two weeks in a row, as Paul quoted it in his letter to the Galatians, which we looked at last Sunday. Maybe it really is important, even crucial, that we continue to try to understand, embed, live out this great commandment – to love others as we love ourselves.
“So. just who is my neighbor,” the Pharisee asks? This is a relevant question for us as well. Obviously Jesus is talking about more than the family next door or your co-worker in the next cubicle. Neighborliness seems to have broad connotations in Jesus’ thinking – maybe extending to strangers, enemies, reaching around the globe. One question implied in Jesus’ story is who are the people we would find it most difficult to claim as neighbor? Look there if you want to know the challenge of neighborliness for yourself.
Come this Sunday at 10 AM dressed for the picnic and ready for celebration. Bring someone along to share the morning with you.
May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us. Pastor Rick