Saturday, July 27, 2013

"Lord, Teach Us To Pray..."

I was heavily dependent upon the work of Kathryn Matthews Huey and Elisabeth Johnson for this week's sermon. And the bit I mention about the additional words most Protestants use coming from First Chronicles was something I discovered watching this video from the delightful "Chuck Knows Church" series by the United Methodist Church.

LUKE 11:1-13
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."
And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; or a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

This is the Word of the Lord.

Every year I take part in a continuing education class for Commissioned Lay Pastors (or Commissioned Ruling Elders, as we are known now), where we read a book on a given subject and spend a Saturday taking part in a lecture and discussion on that subject matter. Yesterday, the subject was Christian History from the time of the Reformation to roughly the 1700's. Unless you're a fan of theology and history like me, this doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but the lesson and discussion focused much of its energy on how various movements and denominations grew out of and around the Reformation in different countries, and why.

We differ on a wide variety of fronts, we Christians: what is the nature of the elements in the Lord's Supper? What is the meaning of election and predestination? What is the role and efficacy of baptism, and how, when, and by whom is it properly administered? What is the nature of Christ, and what is the Trinity? It is safe to say that these are not mere window-dressing discussions, and in fact over the centuries blood has been shed in the disagreements which arose around the various issues.

With all of that being said, I think that one of the things that is common across all denominations, something that unites all of Christianity in one way or another, is that we all know some form of the Lord's Prayer. Some Christians say “forgive us our debts,” while other say “forgive us our trespasses,” some Christians recite the prayer as we see it in Luke, as well as in Matthew, ending with “deliver us from evil,” while others of us continue, “for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever,” before we say “amen.” That last part was added later, and is probably based on a blessing from the Old Testament book of First Chronicles. But whatever the variations, we all share that common core of knowing and reciting the Lord's Prayer.

The Lord's Prayer does more than connect Christians to one another, of course: it is this prayer which is a point of instant contact with God for those in spiritual or physical turmoil or danger. I remember speaking with a man who piloted a Flying Fortress in World War II, who told me that every time he flew a mission, he would first walk around his plane reciting the Lord's Prayer. I know of POWs in the Vietnam War who said the Lord's Prayer as part of their intentional daily worship as a way to survive in isolation. Some dementia patients, who often cannot remember family members, respond when someone recites the Lord's Prayer. When we don't know what else to say, when we don't know what to pray for, when we do not know how to approach God for a specific need, when we are afraid or in grief or feeling terribly alone, the Lord's Prayer is there to give us words, to focus our spirits, to calm our hearts.

I mentioned that the Lord's Prayer is found both in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew's Gospel, it is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:5-15, Jesus is addressing how not to pray: don't be an attention-seeker, broadcasting your holiness by shouting prayers in the marketplace; don't be like the people who babble incessantly, thinking that the more words they say the more likely the prayer is to get answered. He instructs those listening to go to a private place, then he tells them how to pray: “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...”

In Matthew, Jesus follows up the prayer by speaking specifically about forgiveness. If we forgive others when we are sinned against, God will forgive us, and if we do not? Well...

In Luke, we are told that Jesus had just finished praying when he was approached by his disciples. “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” I have heard that followers of the various teachers in that culture distinguished themselves from one another by having a special prayer that their rabbi would teach them. And that is certainly possible, but I also echo other commentators and preachers who wonder if the disciples, who were doing their best in their imperfect ways to model their lives after their Master, saw the way that Jesus' prayers really changed things, saw how intimately connected Jesus was with his Father, and even though they were raised in a culture that knew how to pray and when to pray and where to pray, wanted to do it better.

Isn't it interesting that, both in the context of the prayer closet of Matthew's Gospel, and the disciples' request for a distinctive prayer in Luke, Jesus responds with a prayer not in the language of the individual, not with “My Father, which art in Heaven...” but with the inclusive language of the Body, “Our Father, which art in Heaven...”

When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to hallow God’s own name, to act in such a way that God’s name is held in honor. The petitions that follow flesh out what this means. When God’s name is hallowed and God’s kingdom comes, there is daily bread for all, forgiveness is practiced, and God delivers the faithful from the time of trial.

And in Luke's Gospel, Jesus follows up with firm reassurance that God will give good things to those who ask.

I want to suggest that, as central as the Lord's Prayer is to our collective identity as followers of Christ – an identity that transcends the theological barriers we erect between one another, transcends race and culture and gender and orientation and even space and time, the Lord's Prayer calls us to consider what it really means to be a Christian, to be a believer.

I don't think anyone will be shocked to hear me say that baptism and church attendance don't make someone a Christian any more than standing in a Krispy Kreme makes them a jelly donut. The touchstone of a Christ centered life is rather how we respond to the grace of God.

Yes, there are tenets of the faith we espouse, yes we partake in sacraments like baptism, like the Lord's Supper, and yes we gather corporately for worship and support, but what we see in many places in the Scriptures, and particularly in the Lord's Prayer and in Jesus' commentary on the prayer, is how to live a life centered on building, nurturing, and sustaining a relationship with our loving Creator.

I misspoke a bit earlier, when I said that in Luke's Gospel Jesus follows up with firm reassurance that God will give good things to those who ask. It's actually a similar passage in Matthew's Gospel where Jesus assures us that God will give good things to those who ask. In Luke's Gospel, we are specifically promised the Holy Spirit, and this is significant.

This promise of the Holy Spirit is significant because the Holy Spirit and a sense of call always seem to go together. This prayer Jesus gave us is a comforting, private prayer to get us through our tough times and personal crises. Yet it is also, most emphatically, a prayer of the community, a community that is promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. And this community, the church, is called. We are called to be the Body of Christ. We are called to be light, to be salt, to be leaven for the world. We are called to be bread for the world. We are called to live and breathe in radical dependence on, utterly trusting in, the God who made us and listens to our prayers and calls us by name, the God who forms us into a community that prays together, "Give us this day our daily bread." Not just bread for me, but bread for all of us. Not simply for the long-term, or the by-and-by, but day by day by day. This God gives us the Holy Spirit to depend on and draw strength from. We can trust the Holy Spirit.

There are many kinds of prayer. There are prayers of meditation and petition and thanksgiving and praise and prayers uttered when we don't know what else to do. But prayer is, should be, at its heart, regular, intimate conversation with God, an outgrowth of our trust in God, of our dependence upon God, of our need to deepen and strengthen an intimate relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. Isn't an intimate relationship what Jesus is describing when he uses the word “Father” (in Aramaic, it's better translated "Daddy," by the way) for God? Isn't this close and loving relationship what he describes when he speaks of the love of a parent who would give only good things to their beloved child? And doesn't this kind of prayer say something about "who God is" to us? God is the One we can trust, the One who loves us, the One who is present with us, day by day, providing what we need. Not everything we want, but trust. Not the result of our own efforts, but trust.

For me, and I believe for you, too, the church is not something abstract. It is something we experience as embodied creatures with a need for community and companionship on the journey, on the pilgrimage of faith. It helps me to know that, even when I pray the Lord's Prayer, alone in my room, there are other Christians in other places, praying the same prayer, forming the same prayer in their hearts and on their lips, and all of us being formed and transformed by it. My brothers and sisters in faith know that it is hard for me to forgive even though I stand in need of forgiveness myself, so we pray to God for one another and ask not only for God's mercy on us, but that we might be transformed into people of mercy ourselves.

And because this prayer is the prayer of our community and not just a private one, it reminds us, challenges us, urges and inspires us as a community not only to form this prayer with our lips but to be formed ourselves by this prayer, formed and shaped into a community of compassion and justice that makes sure that all of God's children have "their daily bread" – and all that that phrase implies today, all that they need from the abundance with which God has blessed us. The prayer calls us to join in the building of God's kingdom not up in heaven, but here, on earth, a reign of justice, healing, mercy, and love. A life centered on trusting God.

Imagine receiving the Holy Spirit in answer to prayer. What would that look like in our own personal walk of faith, and in the life of the community? How would we be transformed?

We are the work of God's hands, and we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us become then, in our life as a community, daily bread for the rest of the world, for one another and for all of God's children.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Martha, Martha...

Thanks to the work of D. Mark Davis, Delmer Chilton, Robert Hamerton-Kelley, and Paul J. Nuechterlein for their insight and scholarship.

Luke 10:38-42
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Gospel reading this week takes up right where we left off last week, with the parable of the Good Samaritan. With that in mind, it's kind of confusing that Jesus would go from telling a lawyer to show and receive love, caring, and hospitality to and from all people, to wagging his finger at Martha for trying to show Jesus and his disciples love, caring, and hospitality.

In a historical context, Martha is doing exactly the right thing. We know from elsewhere in the Gospels that Martha and Mary have a brother, Lazarus. It is entirely possible that Lazarus invited Jesus and everyone else to his house. Martha has welcomed Jesus and his disciples into her home, and is very likely making sure the feet of thirteen-plus people (one of them a celebrity) are washed, all their cups are full, and that dinner is on the stove.

In the historical context. Mary is doing exactly the wrong thing. First off, yes she should be helping Martha with the chores of hospitality. Secondly, the very idea that, in that day and age, a woman would sit among men as an equal, sitting at the very feet of Jesus, no less! But sit she does, and no one – not Jesus, not Lazarus, not one of the disciples – thinks a thing about it.

And yes Martha blows up and yes Jesus corrects her and says Mary has chosen the better part. But to just look at this as a sibling rivalry, or a battle between an active life and a life of contemplation, or for a preacher to wag his finger at the congregation and say “take time to listen to Jesus,” then go sit down for lunch without a thought as to how much actual work goes in to preparing that or any other meal... well, I think those approaches either oversimplify or completely miss the point of the text.

First off, let's look at today's reading in the context of last week's reading: it sounds delightful, the idea of spending all of our time and attention “at the feet of Jesus,” listening to and meditating upon the Word of God. Yet a life spent only in contemplation leaves no room for action. The lawyer who challenged Jesus in last week's reading knew the Law, meditated and studied it and memorized it day after day, but he didn't know who to act compassionately toward – he had never really put all that thought and study into action.

So sure, we should understand that balance is necessary to a well-rounded life of faith. We should study, meditate, pray, and we should act. We should help and love and show support and hospitality.

Yet is it not true that there are times when action is vital, when there simply isn't time to meditate and contemplate and vegetate. In last week's reading, the Samaritan didn't pause to ask “WWJD” or remember that he was on a dangerous road or that this guy was a despised enemy. He saw an immediate, pressing need and he acted.

We have seen that kind of response many times in our lives, and relatively recently. I still remember how, on 9/11, people were running from the Pentagon until the word went out that people were trapped in the collapsed, flaming section of the building. As a person the wave of people reversed, and they ran back to help. I saw the same reaction right after the bomb went off at the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Following the April 27, 2011 tornadoes in Alabama, people and money and goods flowed into the affected areas from all over the world, and no one stopped to make sure the recipients of the aid were good people, or were the right religion, sexual orientation, or color. The same is true for Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, and the list really does go on and on and on.

Martha was doing exactly what needed to be done. Aside from the cultural expectations, there is the reality that these people were tired from the road, they were thirsty and hungry, and they were under her roof. If she had done what Mary did, nothing at all would have happened.

I think it isn't entirely my imagination that sees Martha rushing around, frazzled. The Scripture says she was “distracted,” and the Greek there, “perispao,” means to be overly occupied with a thing, to be obsessive about a task and all the details involved; like the bride before a wedding, or a director on opening night of a play. Martha is a flurry of activity, so much so that things are starting to fall apart. There are cooking utensils hitting the floor and the bread is getting burned because she is trying to fill cups and pick up behind the disciples, and her nerves are getting more and more frazzled, and she stares a hole through Mary every time she rushes past, and she is banging plates down on the counter and slamming the oven door – I know, there weren't oven doors back then, but you get the idea – and maybe she is grumbling under her breath about the nerve of that lazy, ungrateful, insolent Mary!

By the time she talks – probably interrupts – Jesus, she is about to blow a gasket. “do you not care that I am working my fingers to the bone while that sister of mine does nothing? Tell her to get up and help!”

I imagine that everybody fell silent when that happened, but everybody there has been around Jesus for long enough to not be shocked at a woman speaking directly or even sharply to Jesus anymore. They are worried for Martha, and maybe a little embarassed that they hadn't lifted a finger themselves to help.

Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things...” but I think the Greek for “worried and distracted” carries a stronger feeling than our translation gives it. “Thorubaz─ô” means to disturb greatly, terrify, strike with panic... it also can mean a noise, tumult, uproar, perhaps the noise of persons wailing, of a clamorous and excited multitude, and so on. In Acts 17:5, it means an uproar or a riot. In Mark 5:39 and Matthew 9:23, it refers to those who are wailing in grief. In Acts 20:10, it refers to the alarm that people had over someone who had fallen from an upper story window.

Martha isn't just stressed or distracted. She is in a panic. There is too much to do, too many expectations, too much need, she can't do it all and the walls are closing in on her.

So I think it is a mistake to read Jesus' words to her in a tone of condescending rebuke. I hear real concern in Jesus' voice: “Martha. Martha! Honey you are freakin' out, take a breath...”

Part of the backstory here is that in Luke's ninth chapter, we are told that Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Everyone knows that Jerusalem is the center of power for all those who oppose Jesus, ground zero for the men wanting to see the itinerant Rabbi dead by any means necessary. Jesus knows this, and he knows that he must go there, and nothing will stop him from fulfilling his Father's plan.

When Jesus walks in to the house, I can imagine that Mary realizes something: this is the last time she'll probably get to see Jesus. She is one of those people who knows – knows – who Jesus is and why he came, and maybe she doesn't understand it any better than any other disciple, but she knows it as well as any of them. So she sits as close to him as she can, and she listens, hanging on every word.

We have to appreciate Martha’s position before we critique Martha. What if Martha feels the same way Mary does, and her way of reacting to this terrifying knowledge is to determine to do the best job ever of providing comfort to the King?

And what if the responsibility overwhelms her? She is having what looks like a panic attack. She certainly sees what she is doing as a struggle and she feels completely alone in it. Until we sympathize with the genuine challenge that Martha is facing, the internal ‘riot’ that she is experiencing, then we will only dumb down this story into “Martha, Martha” as a condescending pat on the head.

I want to be careful here, because I think Martha's situation connects to the parable of the Good Samaritan, but I in no way want to paint Martha as a bad person. The man who is beaten and left for dead in last week's parable gets passed up by a priest and a Levite before the Samaritan shows up. One way of looking at why they cross to the far side of the road to avoid him is that they don't want to chance becoming unclean by touching a corpse. Of course the Scriptures compel them to help much more strongly than they compel them to be clean, but their culture expects them to be able to stand in the Temple and make sacrifices and do priest-y and Levite-y things.

They let cultural expectations block out the clear Word of God. And perhaps Martha has let her obsessive attention to the task at hand, her determination to serve Jesus, the noise of the riot and panic in her mind and heart, actually block out Jesus.

In a way, the lawyer who challenged Jesus in last week's reading and Mary are similar: they are deeply invested in experiencing the Word of God. Martha is similar to the Samaritan, in that they are doing important, necessary work, acting as the hands and feet of God in this world.

Both are important, both have their place, and sometimes you can't do just one and not the other, but I think the key is focus. The lawyer, and Martha, let the minutiae drown out the truth.

Perhaps we read this account and want to be Mary, but the reality of our particular life situations, or the persistent noise of living in the twenty-first century, make us far more like Martha – obsessed and busy and in a low-grade panic from time to time. But busy-ness isn't wrong. Jesus never says that Martha is irrational or wrong-headed. He merely says that he will not stop Mary from sitting and hearing.

Mary has chosen the good part out of the many things by sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing the word. She is entitled to be there and not obligated to leave there – either because of her gender or because of the real, overwhelming work that calls to be done. She has chosen the necessary part. She needs to be there.

I think Jesus is calling on Martha to calm the riot within – to listen as she works, to experience the joy of being near her Lord within her activity. She needs to be there, too.

And we can work, and pray, help, and meditate, love, and listen, too. We need to be there, too.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"A priest, a rabbi, and a Samaritan walk into a bar..."

My deepest thanks to folks like Michael Rogness, David Lose, Kathryn Matthews Huey, D. Mark Davis, and Delmer Chilton for their keen insights and scholarship on today's Gospel reading.

The verdict in the Zimmerman trial came down as I was finishing the sermon tonight, and it shines a light on one of my most deeply held convictions: governments don't bring justice. Courts don't, nor do political processes of any kind. We do. We change hearts, we change outcomes, we build communities and societies where people like Travon Martin can walk without fear and where people like George Zimmerman can put away their guns and their aggression and their prejudices... becoming a neighbor.

LUKE 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“Who is my neighbor?”

The lawyer who asked the question knew his stuff, of course: When Jesus turned his question back on him, he responded without hesitation, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Maybe it’s the familiarity of the passage, or the fact that the parable overshadows everything leading up to it, but I never really noticed before how, out of all of the Mosaic law, all of the Scriptures detailing how the Children of Israel are to act, eat, worship, and think, the answer to the biggest question of all – life, the universe, and everything – even then, even to the experts in Jewish law, was love.

So my question is this: if the lawyer knew this already, why ask? Was he testing Jesus as a way of demonstrating to the people listening to Jesus that he was right? That Jesus was right? That the Law was right?

Or… was the real question that follow up question, “who is my neighbor?”

I like the direction David Lose of Luther Seminary takes with this – when the Scripture says the lawyer was “wanting to justify himself,” perhaps he wasn’t looking for confirmation of his actions. Maybe he really was seeking – wanting to know precisely what is required for the sake of justice in light of the commandments he has quoted. “OK, I get that, Jesus. But help me out, give me some parameters: Whom do I have to love just as much as I love myself, whose needs and welfare need to be as important to me as my own? Are there not are at least some people who are not my neighbor, someone it’s okay not to love?”

I don’t know, maybe he is hoping Jesus will say something like, “Well, if you can manage to love your family and friends and maybe throw a coin at a beggar every once in a while, that's pretty good. Just be sure to worship regularly at the temple, obey all the religious laws about sexual morality, and pay your pledge every year. Then you're all set - or as you put it, you'll inherit eternal life, and you'll go to heaven when you die, because, after all, you will have earned it.”

Nope. Jesus responds by telling a story that redefines “neighbor” not in terms of race, religion, or proximity, but in terms of vulnerability: Whoever is in need is your neighbor.

The man who was attacked and robbed was apparently Jewish. His fellow Jews, professional religious people, no less, went out of their way to go around him, no doubt fearing he was already dead and not wanting to make themselves unclean – after all, they had important business in Jerusalem, priest and Levite business, much more important than mere people, right?

Wrong, by the way: especially if they were heading the same way as the robbed man, they were done with all their Temple duties, ceremonial uncleanness wouldn’t have hurt them a bit, and besides, the Law said they had to help someone in need!

And what’s more, by all indications, be they cultural, racial, or geographical, the priest and the Levite were already this robbed and beaten man’s neighbor. If anyone should help this poor guy, it’s his people, for crying out loud!

Now, Stephen Patterson tells us that, in Jesus’ time, it was a pretty common theme to have a priest and a Levite in a story, kind of like a joke that starts out, “a priest, a rabbi, and a (fill in the blank) walk in to a bar…” The people listening would have strong feelings about the first two, no one listening to the story is surprised that the priest and Levite have no compassion. But normally in those stories, the third person, the one who gets it right, the one who saves the day, is a regular, run-of-the-mill Israelite. Someone like them!

That isn’t what happens though, is it? Of all the people to have compassion – and I mean a real, gut-wrenching need to respond, because the Greek word here is exactly the same kind of compassion Jesus felt when the Gospel of Luke tell us he saw a mother processing to bury her son, and it is the father’s response when he sees his lost son returning home in the parable of the Prodigal Son! Of all the people to drop everything and rush to help, a Samaritan?

Jesus’ audience would have been shocked and probably deeply offended that the hero coming around the bend is a hated Samaritan. After all, the Samaritans were considered "half-breeds," traitors who had colluded with Syria against the Jews. The Samaritans were so despised that, even after Jesus' moving story, the lawyer could not bring himself to say the 'Samaritan' word! That's how deep the hatred ran.

The Samaritans considered themselves Jewish, and in fact thought that the people in Jerusalem had it all wrong. The Samaritans believed that the center of worship was on Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem. They knew that the Jews considered them not only traitors, not only racially inferior, but absolutely unclean! A really good Jew would go the long way around to avoid a Samaritan town on his way to Jerusalem, not wanting his sandals to even touch the dirt of the village.

So you could imagine that the Samaritans felt just as much spite for the Jews. Besides, this Samaritan is in Jewish territory, on the same dangerous road, and those robbers could still be hanging around, waiting for their next victim. But this man doesn't let the Law, or fear, or hate, or the knowledge that he himself is hated keep him a higher righteousness: what loving God and loving your neighbor really means.

Somewhere along the way, the priests and the Levites of Jesus’ day had let their quest for holiness violate God’s commandments to love. This Samaritan didn’t even think of the consequences, though. He just acted out of his compassion, taking time out of his day, going out of his way to render aid and get the injured man to safety, spending money he would never see again to make certain that his recovery continued in his absence.

One of the things I wonder about is what happened to the man after the Samaritan left? After he recovered, his bones mended and his wounds healed, after he went home to his family and friends… was he changed?

Did he still laugh at the “Samaritan” jokes? Did he turn away when someone said mean things about Samaritans, or treated the cruelly? Or was he changed? Did he defend the Samaritans? Reach out to them? Treat them with the same love and compassion he had received?

Because if there is one thing I have discovered in my life’s journey, it is that my prejudices, my preconceptions, my most dearly held hatreds are exposed and challenged and destroyed not by arguments, not by political processes, not by logical evidence, but by flesh and blood. Meeting and becoming friends with people who refuse to fit my mental stereotypes means that either they, or my stereotypes, must go.

In a way, we can see ourselves as the good lawyer, having our understanding of Scripture deepened, going away from the conversation a more complete believer. We can, in a way, see ourselves as the Samaritan, crossing boundaries of culture and creed and class in the name of Jesus to help a person in need.

Yet is there not, in these interpretations, a lingering sense of superiority? We come out on top either being educated or condescending to help the less fortunate… I want to suggest that there is a third, much more difficult way.

Look at the structure of the story: by turning the usual template of “a priest a Levite, and an Israelite…” on its head, by making the hero of the day a hated outcast, doesn’t that mean the guy in the ditch is us? We're not the good Jewish lawyer or the Samaritan, we are lying in that ditch, and we desperately need our enemy to forget what he's been taught and what he understands his rights to be. We need him to forget the risk and the robbers, and stop and help us in our need. He needs to be moved by pity for our suffering.

When I speak of meeting and making friends with people who challenge and ultimately destroy my hatreds and prejudices and preconceptions, it is not with the tone of someone who has done the hard work of reaching out, of purposely seeking opportunities. I haven’t taken the risk, these friends have found me, have taken a chance, and have endured my stupidity and accidental cruelty and have loved me anyway.

They have loved me anyway…

Perhaps we are the person in the ditch… and the Good Samaritan is God. Deep down, most of us don't want God's hand-out of love, we don't want God's generous offer. We are only aware of God because God first loved us, after all, otherwise in our total depravity we would never give a second thought to God. But we know about God and God’s love and we want to deserve it, we want to earn it… but, of course, we can't. We really can't. We are the one in the ditch. We are the wounded and foolish one, the one helpless and in need of help and healing.

Jesus concludes his story and there is a wonderful turn of phrase when he asks the lawyer that follow-up question. The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and in the Greek, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think… had become a neighbor? Here is where the rubber meets the road: who has done the hard work, sat through the long nights and spent the time and money and gone out of their way to help?

We know the real answer to that lawyer’s first question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is “nothing.” We can’t do anything, it’s already done! We were saved when Jesus died on the cross, we are being saved every day as we walk closer with our loving God, and we will be saved on that final day of days when Jesus comes again. It is done. We cannot earn God’s love, because even when we were furthest from God, in the depths of our sin and separation, God loved us and sent Jesus to die for us.

We are called to live in that love: to be the good lawyer, seeking to learn more and more about responding to God’s boundless, resplendent love; to be the good Samaritan, acting with heartfelt compassion, being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ to a world that is broken, bleeding and half dead… and when we need it, to receive the friendship, the assistance, the compassion and love of others, even when they don’t think or look or act or believe the way that we do.

Because just like that traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, we are on a journey. Eternal life isn’t about hitting the jackpot when we die; God has already saved us. Eternal life, life lived abundantly, is here and now and tomorrow and the next day and every day. God has reached down, pulled us from the ditch, has healed our wounds and carried us to safety and paid our way!

Our calling, our journey is to act like it! To love because Christ first loved us, to become a neighbor to anyone in any kind of need, and to grow every day in God’s love.

“Who is my neighbor?”

Everyone. Everyone.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

"But, Like, the Jordan Is So GROSS..."

...ok, maybe Naaman sounding like the stereotyped Valley Girl isn't theologically defensible, but it is kinda funny. To me, anyway...

2 KINGS 5:1-14
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel."
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy." When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I used to work for a man who said, “People who say ‘money isn’t everything’ obviously don’t have money.”  Today’s Old Testament reading would seem to speak against that idea.

Naaman had money, lots of it. He had power, fame, and authority, he had the king’s ear, he had servants, and he even had an army at his beck and call.

What Naaman did not have was his health. Honestly, we don’t know what Naaman’s illness was. “Tzaraath,” which our reading translates as “leprosy,” was a term used interchangeably for skin diseases of all kinds, as well as for mildew in clothing and houses. Its possible root word may translate as “smiting,” because it was seen as a punishment for sin.

Whatever Naaman had, it was bad. Bad because it not only affected his health, it was a visible sign to all those who saw him that, mighty and rich though he may be, he was vulnerable. Folks like Naaman saw vulnerability as weakness, and people who command armies cannot be seen as weak.

I imagine that Naaman tried everything money could buy to cure the leprosy – arsenic and elephant’s teeth and creosote and mercury are listed among the historical treatments, not to mention the gifts and sacrifices he must have made to his gods… and nothing helped. Day by day the disease spread. If it was indeed the disease we know today as leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, his nerve endings would be affected, causing numbness, and his skin would have developed lesions.

Now, I admit freely that sometimes my imagination gets away from me, but I can’t help thinking that, at his core, Naaman, great and terrifying commander of the greatest of the Syrian armies, was a nice guy. His name translates as “pleasantness,” after all. He must have been kind to his servants, because even a girl his troops captured on one of their raids on Israel, a young lady forced to be a slave to Naaman’s wife, worried about his health. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria,” she said to Naaman’s wife, “He would cure him of his leprosy.”

And Naaman's wife told him, and he told the king... and I think we have a little telephone game going on here, because by the time word got to the guy who wrote the King of Aram’s letters, it sounded like the King of Israel was the one who did the leprosy curing.

This, as you might imagine, freaked Joram, the King of Israel, out. He threw a King-sized tantrum, flailing about and tearing his clothes and fretting that old Ben-Hadad II, the King of Aram, was looking for an excuse for all-out war, which Israel would lose again.

Then he got a message from the prophet in question, Elisha: “Cool it, dude. Send him to me.”

I bet it was a sight, Naaman and all his horses and chariots and carts of silver and gold and clothing, armor flashing in the sunlight, standards waving majestically in the breeze, foot soldiers stamping out a mighty cadence, marching and rumbling down this dirt road in Samaria, pulling up in a cloud of pomp and circumstance and dust to the door of a mud hut.

Naaman dismounts his chariot and stands at attention, awaiting the greeting of this mighty prophet, ready for a dazzling display of metaphysical pyrotechnics and is met by…

…a servant. Some lowly slave boy with a message from the boss, a directive to do something utterly demeaning and ridiculous: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

This was be the equivalent of writing a carefully crafted, painstakingly detailed text message to someone who replies, “K.”

It was Naaman’s turn to throw a tantrum now. How dare he! Doesn’t he know who I am? There are better rivers at home, why can’t I go dip there instead of this nasty little creek? I wanted a big to-do, invocations and intonations and gesticulations and all that stuff – shouldn’t there be lightning and whirlwinds and bright lights and an orchestra in the background when miracles are done?

And again it is servants who speak reason to Naaman, saying, in effect, “I love you, but you’re being kinda stupid.”

If he had told you to do something complicated, you’d have done it, right? He could have sent you on one of those Monty Python “bring me a shrubbery” quests, and you’d have jumped at it, and you know it. You love those things. All he is saying is go dip in the Jordan, no big deal, just go do it, what can it hurt?

And I know it is just my imagination but I can see Naaman doing an eye-roll like a fourteen-year-old, saying, “all right, gosh!” and stomping off to the Jordan in a pout. His army and his servants and his horses and his chariots all follow behind him and line up on the banks of the river to watch him. He dips once, twice, three times… “nothing’s happening,” he complains, and one of his servants shouts, “keep going!” Four times, five times… “I’m getting water up my nose!” “Don’t stop yet!” “But...” “Keep going, sir!” “Gah! All right!” Six times, and the seventh… and every person on the army simultaneously gasps.

Naaman is healed. Spectacularly, unquestionably, completely healed. Not as good as new, better than new.

Our reading doesn’t include this, but Naaman returns to Elisha and thanks him and begs him to take the gold and silver and clothing as payment for the healing, which Elisha refuses.

What does happen, though, is that Naaman takes back two donkey-loads of dirt, so he can have Israeli ground to sacrifice to the God of Israel, who he will alone worship from that day forward.

There are so many lessons in this account, so many things we can apply…

First off, of course, Naaman didn't get what he wanted – he didn't get the recognition and respect he felt like he deserved, he didn't get a floor show, but he got what he needed.

And for crying out loud, Naaman certainly didn't deserve his healing! He worshiped false gods, he fought against Israel, he whined and complained the whole dadgum time he was being healed about the way he was being healed – but in the end he did it anyway, and God healed him anyway.

And isn't it interesting that, for all the rich and powerful and influential people in the story, all the kings and generals and armies and all their horses and chariots and silver and gold, the ones who made the difference, were exactly the ones with no power – a slave girl, some servants and a prophet’s messenger boy?

We know, you and I, that God doesn't often do things the way we expect. God comes in the backdoor of history, putting babies in mangers and kings on crosses, healing and forgiving and loving based not on who deserves it, based not upon who the one loved is, but based upon who God is.

And though we may at times feel powerless, it is a fact that the rich and powerful of our world rarely change things. Revolutions don’t happen in the halls of government, but at the kitchen table, and those are just the revolutions that change temporary things. Nations and governments and empires and kingdoms come and they go, after all.

The revolutions that count, the ones that change eternity, where a human being loved by God responds with joy to that love, these revolutions happen in soup kitchens bus station waiting rooms and storefront churches as often as they happen in megachurches and cathedrals, and I daresay more often.

We may feel as if we have no voice, but we are called to speak. We may not like the messenger but we are called to listen. We may not like the method but we are called to go and to do.

And we may not see the lightning or feel the earth move or hear angels singing or even get the credit for what is done, but when we are faithful – and I mean faithful even in the way Naaman was faithful, doing what God required with the same attitude as a kid being sent to his room without supper – even then, God is faithful, and things change.

Amen and Amen.