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“WOULD THE REAL NINEVITES PLEASE STAND UP?”

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“WOULD THE REAL NINEVITES PLEASE STAND UP?”

First Presbyterian Church, Marietta, Ohio
April 29, 20178
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10

By Rev. Marc van Bulck

Our Scripture reading is one of the most familiar stories in Scripture.  Sunday School curriculums have been made about it.  Veggie Tales made a movie about it.  I’ve met people who have told me that they’ve never heard of Jonah in the Bible, but upon hearing “He’s the guy who got swallowed up in the belly of a fish,” they’ve said, “Oh, yeah.  I know that story.”  It’s also a great story for seminarians and Bible snobs who love to correct people and say, “You know, the Bible doesn’t actually say it was a whale.  It says it was a ‘large fish.’”  Whatever.

Jonah is one of the most beloved Bible stories that we tell to children, but when I read it today, it reads a lot more like a religious, political satire.  The business with the fish only takes up about a fourth of the story, and in my opinion this narrative feels like something much closer to Mark Twain than Mr. Rogers.

God has had it up to here with Nineveh’s shenanigans and warns Jonah that they’re goose is cooked if they don’t get their act together.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria whom the writers of the Hebrew Bible largely looked down their nose at.  They were foreigners.  Outsiders.  They didn’t exactly believe what we believe.  They didn’t go to our church.  They behaved differently.  They were sinners!

So, God tells Jonah to get his butt over to Nineveh and warn them that a can of you-know-what is about to be opened if they don’t start to straighten up and fly right.  So, naturally, Jonah hops on the first boat for the exact opposite direction instead as you do when you’re a Biblical prophet.

This makes Yahweh very grumpy who sends a storm over the water that threatens to break the boat to pieces out on the open ocean, and in a rare moment of self-awareness Jonah recognizes that maybe the problem is him!  So, he has the crew to toss him overboard.

As Jonah is sinking into the depths of the water, Jonah begins to drown and begins to die.  And so the large fish that God sends to swallow him up is not there to seal his fate; it saves his life.  Jonah is vomited back onto dry land, and our Scripture reading catches up to him:

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.  ’So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.  Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

I relate to Jonah a little bit more than I like to admit.  I used to like this story back in seminary when I thought that relating to him was a good thing.  I’m not so sure I feel that way now.  Jonah is the very definition of privilege.  He’s got all the right religious beliefs.  He’s the good, well-behaved church-going boy.  He can recite the B-sides to the Psalms even when he’s swimming in fish guts.  When his life is in danger, God swings in and saves him and makes sure he’s okay.  When Jonah gets uncomfortable, God plants a nice, shady tree just for him.  Isn’t that nice?

Jonah has everything he could possibly want, and yet throughout this entire story, all he ever does is whine about it.  Jonah whines all the time.  He is spoken to by the very voice of God (a privilege afforded to very few), and the first thing he does is slam the door like a moody teenager and run in the other direction.  God saves the lives of every living person in Nineveh, and Jonah still manages to find a way to make it all about him.  One minute he’s all, “Thank you, O Lord, for saving my life!” and the next minute: “I’d be better off if I was dead!”

And why?  “Because a worm was eating my shady little tree!  Boo, hoo, hoo!”  God says to Jonah, “Is it really right for you to be angry about this?” and Jonah says, “Yes, it is!  Angry enough to die!”

You know what the real irony here is?  The way this story sets up how horrible, evil, sinful, and depraved these Ninevites are, we might expect this kind of behavior from them.  The irony, though, is that when God asks them to do something, the text tells us they wasted no time jumping into action.  Verse five tells us “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast…everyone, great and small!”

They don’t whine.  They don’t complain.  They don’t ask stupid questions.  They don’t try to argue with God.  Their very first response is, “Holy Moses!  Thanks for letting us know, God!  Quick, come on, gang.  Let’s get it together.  Maybe there’s still a chance we can turn this ship around before it’s too late.”

The supposedly horrible, sinful people who we’re not supposed to like are the ones who come out looking like the heroes in this story, and it is the supposedly good, faithful, religious-type who is portrayed as a selfish, entitled hypocrite who has everything he could possibly need but can’t seem to do anything but complain like he’s being persecuted all the time.  It’s just the saddest commentary on our religious institutions you’re ever going to find in a story like this.  It would be a pretty biting piece of satire even by today’s standards, and this was written over two thousand years ago.

I’ve never been to Nineveh.  I’ve never traveled to that part of the world, but I’ve seen plenty of Ninevites in my own life – or at least people that I was raised being told were Ninevites.  People who were outcasts in my neighborhood but not because they were from some old country from the Old Testament.

They were outcasts because they were gays and lesbians.  They talked about things like “gender identity” that we didn’t understand and rolled our eyes at.  Maybe they were Ninevites because they lived over on the other side of town, or maybe they were atheists and agnostics.  Maybe they were Ninevites because they went to that other school, and heaven forefend one of them actually muster up the courage to wander into our church on Sunday morning.  Most of the time, however, we never really saw them that much.  They lived over in Nineveh.  They kept over there.  We kept over here, and that was just the way we liked it.

I also remember many people I knew who were supposedly good, faithful, church-going Christians who had everything they could possibly want.  People…well, like me!  We grew up in beautiful homes in beautiful, safe neighborhoods.  We knew the lyrics to every single hymn in the hymn book.  We had beautiful families who often had plenty of money to send kids to good schools.

Yet sometimes it seemed like all we were able to do was complain.  “Oh, my God, can you believe what so-and-so is wearing to the Christmas Eve service?”  “Here comes that horrible person from the committee.  Can you believe she wants to change the colors of the drapes in the fellowship hall to chartreuse?”  “He’s an alcoholic, you know.”  “I heard they’re getting a divorce.” “Christianity is under attack!  Why can’t these poor people just get a job?!  It just makes me so angry!  It makes me angry enough to die!”

The truth is that the Ninevites are dying both in our world and in Jonah’s.  Like any good satire, the book of Jonah does not end with a nice little moral that spells out the lesson that we’re supposed to learn.  It ends with a punch line, and in this case, it’s a real zinger.  God says, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow…should I not be concerned about Nineveh…in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons…?” (4:10-11)

The painful irony, though, is that when the original audience first heard this story, Nineveh had been destroyed long ago.  Was that God’s will?  It didn’t sound like it in the story.  Either way, humanity let it happen anyway, and the city was never rebuilt.

Many of the Ninevites in our neighborhoods today are dying, too.  Dying from poverty, from hunger, from suicide, or from occupying forces.  For all its wit, irony, and sarcasm, I believe there is also a vision of possibility embedded deep between the lines.  A commentary from the author that says, “It doesn’t have to be this way.  History doesn’t have to repeat itself.  The cycle can be broken.”

However, like any good satire, it doesn’t let us off the hook either.  It is also a cautionary tale.  That’s the other side of the coin.  The cycle can still continue.  We can choose to just ignore all that stuff and imagine all of the ways that we think we have been persecuted instead and how we are the real victims here.  Not these Ninevites.  The thing about satire is that it doesn’t always wrap everything up in a nice, comforting reassurance that everything is going to be okay.  Rather, the author uses irony and wit to simply tell it like it is.  To show us both choices and say, “It’s up to you.”

Jonah may have a thing or two to learn from these Ninevites.  He might learn something from their example and the way that they respond to God.  It makes me wonder if we could learn a thing or two from the Ninevites in our own midst.  Many of those same Ninevites I told you about that I grew up with were people who acknowledged that our society is guilty of letting things like poverty, hunger, prejudice, misogyny, and addiction become problems in our world and that they were guilty of participating in it!  Even though they were not always necessarily churchgoers, it was often through their example that I learned a thing or two about the practice of repentance.  To come to that realization and to respond with humility by actively taking steps to change it.

I have seen Ninevites in my own life model that example.  Maybe you have, too.  I have known Ninevites who volunteer in soup kitchens and homeless shelters over the weekends.  I have known Ninevites who have spoken up far louder and at far greater risk to themselves than I ever have about equality, prejudice, and social injustice.  Who have demanded vocally and visibly that the marginalized be treated with dignity and integrity.  I’ve known people who have shared with me that they are in AA who were far more open, honest, and willing to own up to the issues in their own life than I fear I am even on my good days.  These issues were of far more interest to them than the local gossip about so-and-so and what they did about such-and-such.

Not to bring Jesus up when preaching about an Old Testament story, but when we see Jesus treat the wretched, the outcasts, and the sinners as if they were royal guests of honor at his table, we remember that in the Biblical world of Jonah, God saw people like Ninevites as the real heroes in this story.  They are the ones who really, truly get it.  They are the ones who know what time it is.  Maybe we have something to learn from these Ninevites.  Will the testimony of our faith look like theirs, or will our response look more like Jonah’s?  The choice is up to us.  Would the real Ninevites please stand up?

To God be the glory now and forever.  Amen.

“Finally Comes the Poet”

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“Finally Comes the Poet”

Community Worship for the Inauguration of Dr. Susan Hasseler
“Finally Comes the Poet”
John 1:1-5, Matthew 5:14-16, Isaiah 40:25-31
Rev. Anne Weirich, April 2, 2017, 7pm
College Drive Presbyterian Church

The first several times that I drove into New Concord – about four years ago – I always came on on highway 40.  During my interviews, the church had been putting me up at one of the hotels at Airport Road, and it was late April – just as the redbud trees are starting to show their beautiful blossoms.  I think that the search committee wanted me to see the how pretty that drive can be.

When I came to New Concord to move here – later in July – I came all the way to the 83 exit.  My friend was behind me driving the moving van and we thought it might be better to stay on 70 as long as possible.

I’ll never forget my first view of the village from the Interstate.  I hadn’t quite realized just how much the university and parts of town are really quite like a city on the hill.

Most of the time, when I’ve seen cities on hills, the prominent buildings on the ridge are the churches.  And it’s true that it’s easy to catch a glimpse of Westminster Church from the highway.

But it’s really the buildings of the university that stand out.

I remember appreciating the image.   I liked the idea that perhaps there was a great deal of thought that may have gone into placing the first building – right to the north here – on a promontory.

It’s good way to raise up the importance of education I suppose – by putting the buildings high on a hill.

The Presbyterians who helped build places like Muskingum University certainly held education in high esteem.  When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, that we were to “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  (Luke 10:27)  Presbyterians and their Congregationalist colleagues took the “with all your mind” seriously and supported all kinds of education for children and adults.

Heart-love for God – soul-love for God – these are gifts I think.  We were made for God and our hearts and souls or spirits are restless and searching for God.  We can strengthen these aspects of our love for God through practices like prayer and worship and reaching out compassion and practicing grace through seeking reconciliation.  This is how we love in strength.  We focus – we increase the strength of our lens – on these practices and connections to bring ourselves closer to God.

When we love God with our minds, I think it’s a bit different.

I think it is this aspect of loving God that calls us out in the world in ways that can be stunning in richness.  When we love God with our minds, we exercise our minds – we discipline our minds to study the world around us.  With eyes of faith, we seek out the secrets God has hidden there for us to discover.  And if we are loving God with our minds, and getting it right – then we use what we find for good and we teach what truth we have learned to the next generation, and we grow in wonder at the “Creator of the ends of the earth.  [Who] does not faint or grow weary;  [whose] understanding is unsearchable.”

It can work the other way, too.  Sometimes the elegance or the mystery that the mind encounters while searching out the way things work in the world, can overcome us with the knowledge that there is something – some power – some force for life – that must be the ground of all being.  So our minds, engaged in the work of academia, can lead us to love God.

I believe we love God with our minds, because God is Mind – a mind that is so immense that it is unsearchable, says Isaiah.

What could be more indicative of that than one of our names for the Lord – the name Word?  “In the beginning was the Word.”  God spoke us – used language – to bring us into the world.  And words – language – is one of the great repositories of our knowledge.   Our minds – and our souls and our hearts – are quenched from the endless well of words that is God still speaking.  God still creates, still uses speech to give strength to our fainting, weary efforts….helping us, lifting us, so that even when we are most exhausted, most dejected, confused, depleted or discouraged, we suddenly find ourselves soaring easily like a kettle of eagles in a morning thermal.  We are renewed – given life – revived by the Word – by the Mind of God.

And when the Word brings life, it brings light, too….

So when we love God with our minds, we are seeking God’s light – which chases away the darkness in all its forms.

As those who love the light – those who love with our minds – we are then called to run that light up the hill – to show how God’s mind works in us and in the world.

We say, “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

We say, “Don’t hide, don’t despair.  Lift your eyes on high and see what the Mind of God has brought to light!  Put it high on the lamp stand!”

This is certainly the Word that the second prophet of the great Isaiah prophecy was bringing to Israel.

There had been 160 years of silence between the end of Chapter 39 and these words of comfort to the exiled people of God in Chapter 40.

Conquerors and political infighting and corruption had decimated God’s people and now they wept, the Psalmist tells us, by the rivers of Babylon.  The Temple and the holy city on the hill, Jerusalem, were in ruins.  And Isaiah was sent by God to bring a word of healing and hope and restoration to God’s people.

And this healing and hope was not only spoken to the heart and the soul and spirit of the people of God.  It was spoken in concrete terms.  This was to be a restoration of all things.  The Word of God, the Mind of God spoke and said that everything was going to be reordered.

And this is because God spoke to Israel with a very special kind of word …  the Mind of God was given to the exhausted, weary, fearful, broken and dispersed people as lines of poetry.

Walter Bruggeman writes – with great vocabulary and gusto,

It is an intellectual travesty, such an act of chutz-pah, such a subversive poetic utterance that dumps a poem in the midst of resignation. The poem works a newness, not because it is good poetry, but because the subject of the poem, the God who lives in and through and with and under such outrageous assertions, is at work overriding despair, inviting hope, responding to our waiting and starting the world free again, outside the regimes of weariness… The key religious question among us is whether there is grounds for an alternative rooted not in self-preoccupation or in deadening stability but rooted in a more awesome reality that lives underneath empires, that comes among us as an odd poem, as inscrutable as power, as dangerous as new life, as fragile as waiting.  The poet names the name and imagines new life, like eagles flying, running, walking.
(A Way Other Than Our Own, Westminster/John Knox:Louisville, 2017, p. 58-59.)

So, when we love God with our minds – we are called – I think – to this ‘intellectual travesty’ of poetry.

To quote the preacher Bruggeman again, “poets speak against a prose world.”  (Finally Comes the Poet,” Augsburg Fortress:  Mnpls, 1989, p. 3.)   And a prose world isn’t bad.  But it can be settled into complacency and riddled with disinformation or “alternative facts.”

When we love God with our minds, we are capable of the kind of speech that raises us up.  Not by proclaiming doctrine or parsing morality or solving problems.  But by bringing an alternative word – a poem – about an existence that is formed by the Word and mind and heart and strength of God.

Our poetry – whether it’s preaching from a pulpit or a formula inscribed on a white board in a classroom or scattered in the notes and staff of a musical score or a proposal at the board of trustees meeting,  teamwork on the basketball court or the compassion needed to tend the sick or when we prepare a lesson plan or defend a dissertation or a point of history or politics or philosophy – our poetry is needed.  Poetry is the language of God – prophetic language that has power – “shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, [even] dangerous [and] imaginative possibilities.”  (Ibid., p. 6)

The title of this sermon came from the poet Walt Whitman.  He wrote,

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d all their work, After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, Finally shall come the poet worthy that name, The true son of God shall come singing his songs. (“Passage to India,” 5:1101-5 Leaves of Grass, Mentor Books:  NY, 1954, p. 324.)

In other words, God will have the final word.

And if we be poets in the meantime, we will shine the light of our alternative realities – from this village on the hill – into a future that we cannot quite see.

This is how we show that we cherish the truth – that we are open to the truth – that we are not afraid of the truth that can break the fearful realities that can bind us and divide us and reduce us to a fainthearted and stumbling people.

And, Dr. Susan Hassler… even though I’ve known you for just a little while…  I think you can receive the mantle of inauguration as a poet.  Already, we’ve seen your grace and openness and energy and imagination.  I think we’ve even seen a little chutz-pah. You seem to know already about loving God and others with your mind.

And I believe I can speak for us all to say that we look forward to your inauguration into this calling as President at Muskingum University.

I think the time is right for your poetry here.

And, I can’t help but smile and be struck by what I consider an act of poetry in the word “inauguration.”

The word itself is rooted in the French term for install or consecrate.  But in the deeper meaning – the Latin root – it infers that these installations need to take place when the time is right.  The root word is “augury.”  Augury is the practice of searching in creation for the signs of the right time for moving forward.

The Latin word inaugurare means to “take omens from the flight of birds before consecrating or installing.” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/inauguration?s=t)

Seems like the one true poet is bringing us right back to the promised flight of eagles…

Sounds poetic in the deepest sense of that word…

Poetic, meaning we may we all take heart that as we move toward to your inauguration on Friday, as we move into the whole future beyond where we can see, we can be sure that we are carried along on the wings of eagles – with our way illuminated by the light of the Holy One – the Word – the Poet – the Everlasting God.

Amen

Rev. Anne Weirich

Currently the pastor at College Drive Presbyterian Church in New Concord, OH – home of Muskingum University and John Glenn – Anne is a graduate of Princeton Seminary (MDiv. 1998.) Prior to this, she has served a UCC church on Cape Cod, Claremont Presbyterian Church in CA, and Westminster, Grand Rapids, MI and First Presbyterian in Lansing, MI. She travels annually to the Holy Land, leading pilgrimages and has also worked with many PCUSA mission activities and partners including PDA in New Orleans, the Border Ministry and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Currently Anne serves on the executive committee of the General Assembly Committee for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.

Learn about Rev. Weirich’s latest trip to Israel/Palestine.

Download Pilgrimage 2018 Registration form.

A Hopeful Cry for Peace

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A Hopeful Cry for Peace

In light of recent events of these past several weeks, and the ongoing six-year crisis in Syria, we of the Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network (SLPN) feel compelled to issue a response regarding the current state of affairs. The continuing loss of life and displacement of innocent people speak to the dark and destructive evil behind the use of chemical weapons and any military responses, whether by accident or by intention.

Such responses must be deemed as unacceptable going forward in the Syrian crisis. Prior to these events, negotiations were going on near Homs to begin working toward some shared resolution. After these attacks, negotiations between local parties inside Syria have ceased and a wider polarization has resulted. It appears to us that military responses such as these will always bring even more violence and quash efforts at resolution through discussion and negotiation.

The military response taken by the Trump administration has been called by some a “measured” action. This has been said even though it was one that was unilateral and immediate and took lives on the airstrip in Al Shayrat. The repercussions of that action are now emerging and show the likelihood of an escalation of hostilities and yet more carnage to be inflicted on the Syrian people.

The question of responsibility for the chemical attack remains but, as more time passes, it becomes harder and harder to find the truth. In the “fog of war” it is frequently said that “the first casualty of war is the truth.” Yet we must always be committed to understand as much of the truth as we can identify in order to help us respond truthfully going forward. Responses devoid of such truth in the end will show no effect at bringing about lasting resolution. To achieve this kind of understanding requires time and a fuller understanding of the far-reaching implications of what our actions may be.

It has seemed to us irresponsible and unjust to follow the bandwagon created by government officials and the western news media in immediately casting blame on one side or the other for such deplorable behavior. It seems any rush to judgment allows guilty parties to take refuge in the “fog” and make plans for other such uses of chemical weapons. Therefore, as the Steering Committee of the SLPN, and having spoken with our partners on the ground in the region and those who are part of our network here in the United States, we call on all parties to view and portray this crisis not as a “civil war” amongst the Syrian people, but much more a “proxy war” that admittedly involves many forces within the country, and one that has been seized upon and escalated by the outside influence of warriors from more than 90 countries. These outside combatants have been allowed open access through bordering countries in the region who have a stake in the outcome and who clearly desire a government change in Syria.

We also call for any influence of “super powers” to be used in a just manner for the cause of peace in this troubled country. Such influence clearly means the cessation of providing military resources and actual hardware that bring a continuance of this deadly conflict. The vast expansion of military force in the region provides an economic boon for countries around the world. No civilized country should be complicit in advancing the spread of this war. Violence only creates more violence and not lasting peace. All parties must use their power to help rebuild this country in the post-war period and to create an incentive for those who have fled to return to a peaceful homeland.

Today is the open window to do something new, something prophetic in the cause of peace. It must be done thoughtfully and prayerfully. In this season as we continue to celebrate the great sacrifice and resurrection of the Prince of Peace, we are committed to peace in real terms. May we too give our lives for the cause of peace in the world. To that end we offer a prayer given to us by our PCUSA General Assembly co-moderator Jan Edmiston.

“God of hope and peace, we pray for your healing of our world. We mourn for the children, women and men who have been killed by today’s swords and spears. We give thanks for those who seek to heal rather than harm. We pray for peace that seems so far away, yet that through you, we know is possible. We pray that the communities of nations will practice wisdom and restraint in this vulnerable and broken part of your creation. May we be part of a resurrection to life and peace in Syria and embrace a future where no one will learn war anymore. Amen.”
Looking Ahead with Hope,

The Syria Lebanon Partnership Network
Tim McCalmont, moderator

A sermon delivered to the Presbytery of Lake Michigan on March 11, 2017

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A sermon delivered to the Presbytery of Lake Michigan on March 11, 2017

by the Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee Scripture: John 3:1-17 Good morning all! It’s good to be with you today.

I’ve had a friend from college visiting with me this week, and it’s been delightful to catch up with her–to find out what has been going on in her life, and share what’s been happening in mine, and also to reminisce about our college days, which were nearly 20 years ago, now.

As I’ve been preparing for this sermon, I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular experience I had in college. It was at a worship service I attended most weeks. This was a student-led service, not affiliated with any church or campus organization–just a couple kids with a guitar and a violin and a drum who started getting together to pray. It started with about 10 friends and quickly blossomed to over 100 students, so they asked to use the sanctuary of a church on campus so that this large group of students could continue to meet to worship at 10pm every Thursday night.

On this particular night I was in a sanctuary with all these fellow students singing a song called “Days of Elijah.” It’s a praise song that makes numerous references to the Hebrew Scriptures–Elijah, David, Ezekiel–and anticipates the second coming of Christ, using some of the language of the Hebrew prophets.

It’s an upbeat song, and the drummer and guitar player leading worship had people dancing in the aisles, like we were wont to for these songs of celebration. Usually I would have been dancing along with everyone else, but on this occasion I was frozen in my pew, because one line in the chorus had jumped out at me—“Lift your voice; it’s the year of Jubilee, and out of Zion’s hill salvation comes.”

Jubilee. I had just read about the year of Jubilee in Sunday School–we were studying a book called “The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life” by Russ and Gloria Kinsler, and in it I learned that the Jubilee law was about forgiveness of debts and redistribution of resources.

And right in that pew, I found myself putting together pieces of a puzzle–a puzzle I didn’t even know I had been carrying around for months or even years. I started thinking about what I had learned of Jubilee, and about a book on my parents’ shelf called “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”–a book that makes the case that if every Evangelical Christian in North America tithed, we could resolve world hunger and still have enough money to keep our churches running smoothly. I thought about my experiences on mission trips to the Philippines in high school, and about students at my college who had just returned from a trip to Nicaragua; I thought about what I was learning about fair trade and human trafficking, and all kinds of pieces started clicking together. As I began to step back and look at all these pieces as a whole, I had an image–a vision of an African mother, bound in poverty, rejoicing at the coming of salvation because Jesus was going to spread out the wealth of the world so that she would have enough. Enough to feed her children and live life without fear.

And I was on the other side of the globe, with less so that this mother could have enough.

Now, I’m not here this morning to make a case for reinstating the biblical Jubilee–most scholars of ancient history will tell you that there is no evidence that the nation of Israel ever actually followed that law. And I’m not here to make the case that redistribution of wealth is God’s plan for the coming kingdom. What I am here to talk about is the struggle inside of myself when confronted with the reality that in a just world, I might be called to have less so that others can have enough.

That struggle which I first felt at about 10:30 pm on a Thursday night while a room full of college students danced to “Days of Elijah”–that struggle was my first experience of confronting my own privilege. I didn’t have that language, yet, but I could feel the tension.

I found myself asking, could I really sing this song authentically? Could I sing it with joy? This song was about good news for the poor. If I am not poor, but am among the wealthiest 10% of the planet is it still good news for me? If it is good news for me, can I believe that it is good news, even if it might mean changes in my life that feel like sacrifice or loss?

This is a tension I want to invite us to occupy today. It is deeply uncomfortable, but in our society more than ever, we need to ask these questions and sit with them for a time. It is too easy for us to assume that we are playing a zero-sum game. That everyone either shakes out as a winner or a loser. We see this assumption when people get defensive at the women’s movement, as if saying that women matter implies that men do not matter. We see this zero-sum assumption when people get upset at the Black Lives Matter movement as if it implies that white lives do not matter.

Can I believe in a world where I do not have an unfair advantage over my sisters and brothers of color, but in which I am not oppressed by them? Can I imagine that? Can we imagine God’s kingdom as one in which we have less privilege, but enough justice?

When I ask these questions, I find myself much like Nicodemus, coming to Jesus in the cover of night. I’ve been pondering these questions for two decades, and for most of that time I’ve been pondering in solitude–or maybe with one or two other friends over dinner, but far out of the pulpit and public eye. It is frightening to ask questions about my own privilege; it exposes my own ignorance and limitations.

And so I come to Jesus saying, “I’ve heard stories of what you do, and I believe you are amazing. I look at the problems in our world, and I know you can change everything,” but I do it in private, in secret. And then Jesus pushes my comfort zone. “Sarah, honey, it’s not about what you know. It’s about a whole new life. Bottom to top, inside out, everything transformed as the Spirit of God births you into a new way of being in the world.” And as I stammer and stare, wondering what on earth that means, Jesus puts a hand on my shoulder. “You say you’re a pastor, huh? And you haven’t gotten this part, yet?”

And I want to get defensive because I really like being competent, but I see the love, I know the love, I trust the love in Jesus’ face, so I shrug.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that “we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.”

And I think of Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in a Birmingham jail, writing a letter to all the white pastors in town who are telling him to slow down and stop being so disruptive. “We speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.”

Or the Black Lives Matter protestors who are told by white media and plenty of white pastors and Christians to stop antagonizing the police. “We speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.”

“If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Does that cut your heart the way it does mine? Sisters and brothers, this is where we live. We live in this space between our impulse to get defensive when our neighbors testify about their own experiences of racism and the possibility of believing. Believing the reality of their experiences; believing the truth of our nation; believing the truth about our own hearts.

And oh, is it painful! It is heart-wrenching and soul-crushing and tears your body open, like childbirth. It is so painful to see the truth when the truth is that our nation that we love has a legacy of white supremacy that we cannot erase or ignore. It is so painful to see the truth when the truth is that the police officers we know and love, often in our own families, are caught up in systemic racism that targets African Americans and threatens their lives. It is so painful to see the truth when the truth is that the mother across the street from me raises her brown-skinned boys to be polite, not so they can make a good impression, like I do with my son, but so that they can survive to adulthood.

And it is painful to see the truth when the truth is that I only feel this pain when I choose to. Part of my privilege as a white American woman is the luxury of looking away.

But here is what I have come to believe.

I believe that seeing and naming and working to dismantle white privilege is good news. I believe it is good news for me.

I believe it is good news for me, because of John 3:17–that oft neglected verse that follows its much more famous counterpart. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Seeing and naming our privilege is not about shame. Admitting that I am racist is not about personal guilt and wallowing in remorse. Jesus has come to liberate the captives, and sisters and brothers, we are captive to racism–we are bound up in a system that we did not create or choose, but which infects our ways of seeing and thinking and speaking and behaving in the world, and we need salvation. We need to be born again.

And praise God, who did not send Jesus into the world to look at our sin and shame us or condemn us, but to liberate us from its hold.

Do we believe that this is good news?

I am coming to believe that it is, and that is why, today I am not seeking Jesus out in the cover of night, but standing before you in the light of day to proclaim: Yes. This is good news. In the just and righteous kingdom of God, we who are white will not be privileged over others. We will have less so that others can have enough, and this will be our salvation. May we proclaim the kingdom of God and work out our salvation with fear and trembling each and every day.

Amen?

Amen.

Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899

Sermon on the Good Samaritan for the Muskingum Valley Presbytery meeting on Feb. 4, 2017

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Sermon on the Good Samaritan for the Muskingum Valley Presbytery meeting on Feb. 4, 2017

1 John 4:7-21
Psalm 112
Luke 10:25-37

Following Jesus into Eternal Life
by Rev. Jeffrey Bergeson

My wife and I enjoy comedy.  One comedian we really like is Jim Gaffigan, and he frequently talks about food.  In one set, he notices just how much food is eaten during holidays—that holidays seem to be an excuse to eat lots of extra food.  He says, “I don’t usually eat a burger, a bratwurst and a steak, but…it is the 4th of July…and I’m gonna need my energy if I’m gonna be blowin’ up stuff!  It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted…”  We justify how much food we eat around the holidays.  Anyone have children?  Me, too.  And my kids will, I admit, sometimes do something wrong…and I’ve learned to ask them “what did you do?” instead of “why did you do that?”  Because the “why” question teaches them to justify their bad behavior rather than acknowledge what they’ve actually done.

In our passage this morning, a lawyer stands up to test Jesus and to justify himself.  And it is my conviction that if we want to follow Jesus into eternal life, we must follow Jesus beyond our own self-righteousness.  Following him out of all the ways we try to justify ourselves.

Self-righteousness is not always a ‘high and mighty’ attitude of being holier-than-thou.  It’s not only when we think “I’m better than you.”  Rather, self-righteousness is any attempt to justify yourself and your behavior.  It’s any way that we try to make ourselves feel good about who we are and make ourselves feel justified in our behaviors and attitudes toward others:  “Sure, maybe I don’t __________, but at least I’m not like __________!” or “Yes, that is how I act, but it’s my right to act this way!”  In other words, it’s any way we try to tell ourselves that we’re ‘in the right,’ other than because of Jesus.  It’s trying to look good without putting on Christ.

The lawyer asks two questions.  One is to test Jesus, and one is to justify himself.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer and he responds with the greatest command and the one like it:  Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus agrees and says, “do this, and you will live,” but the lawyer, in order to justify himself, asks, “And who is my neighbor?”  And we take the bait, too!  “Yeah, who is my neighbor?”

The lawyer never asks about God or how to love God.  Either it’s too complicated or abstract to bother asking, or somehow it doesn’t actually matter, or—more likely—he thinks that he’s got that one down pat.  “Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever.  Love God with blah, blah, blah… done.  Check.  Moving on.  What about my neighbor?”

But Jesus invites the lawyer and us to see ourselves and God in a different light, because truly loving our neighbors rightly will not come until we love God rightly, and we cannot truly love God until we understand who God is and who we are and what God has done for us.  Only then can we truly love God, and from that place of love, then we can love our neighbors as ourselves.

So Jesus doesn’t answer his question:  he takes up the question and turns it on its head by telling a parable to redirect the lawyer’s focus.  The thing about this parable is that it’s incredibly memorable and moving.  It leaves a very distinct impression on our hearts, but it’s also open-ended enough to keep rattling around in our minds, causing us to keep asking questions and seeing things differently.

We all want to be the Good Samaritan.  In fact we’re told to “Go and do likewise.”  Maybe sometimes we justify ourselves and think that we already are!  But for Jesus to say, “Go and do likewise,”  “be like that guy”… means implicitly that we are not by nature already like him.  We’re to be found somewhere else in the parable, in fact, anywhere else, because we’re all supposed to be like the merciful Samaritan, so by definition we’re not… and the parable unsettles us.

The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbor?” to justify himself.  Under Law: Who am I obligated to love and who can I hate or ignore?  We must remember that Jesus is the Son of God—the Incarnate Deity.  So the lawyer is trying to justify himself to God!  That just never works; that’s not a good place to be.  And I think there are three characters in the parable that implicitly do the same thing and three that don’t.

The first is really a group:  the robbers.  They implicitly justify their violent behavior perhaps thinking, “We deserve what he has!” or maybe even “we need what he has, so we’ve got to take it to live.”  They justify they’re robbery.

The 2nd and 3rd characters are the priest and Levite.  The priest, the highest religious leader, is probably thinking something like, “I am holy, and that bleeding man is unclean.  I can’t possibly mingle with him and jeopardize my holiness.”  The Levite is more of a minor clergy, but probably thinks along the same lines as the Priest.  As I said, I have children, so we sometimes watch Veggie Tales.  And in the Veggie Tales version of the Good Samaritan, these two characters sing:  “We’re busy, busy, horribly busy.  Much, much too busy for you!”  Both the priest and the Levite ignore the man, believing it’s not their responsibility to help or they’re unable or unwilling to get dirty.

These three characters implicitly justify themselves and their behavior.

But there are also three characters who implicitly do not.

The first is the Samaritan.  Now, if we only looked at his actions, maybe we could think of an ulterior motive, but v. 33 won’t allow us to think that.  The NRSV says he was “moved with pity.”  Now, I’m a nerd.  I make no apologies for that.  The word in Greek for “moved with pity” is spla(n)gchnizomai.  The root of that word is spla(n)gchnon.  Try saying that:  spla(n)gchnonSpla(n)gchnon is all the mushy organs below your lungs.  It is the bowels—the seat of love and pity.  It’s your gut, moved with affection to have compassion for someone in a bad situation.  The Samaritan does not try to justify himself.  His compassion is justification in itself.

First is the Samaritan.  Second is the man robbed.  He cannot justify himself.  He never says or does anything.  He is unable even to beg for mercy!  He’s “half-dead” and that’s not an English paraphrase; that’s literally what the Greek says.

And friends, spiritually speaking, without Christ we’re all half-dead.  We’re not fully alive.  Yes, we may be breathing, our hearts pumping, but really, we’re helpless and hopeless and only half-living, unable to save ourselves…without receiving God’s mercy.  And God’s mercy, I think, is what this parable is all about.  Finding life.  Which brings us back to the first question asked: What must I do…?

See, the priest and Levite were supposed to be mediators between Israel and God.  On different levels, they represented God to Israel and vice-versa.  But their understanding of holiness got in the way.  Yes, God is holy, but Jesus says, the priest and the Levite are not what God is like.  He asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  And it wasn’t either of the ‘religious professionals.’  It was a despised Samaritan who showed mercy.  And so, we see that God’s holiness is connected to mercy!

This is important!  Back in Luke 1:72, at the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah’s tongue is loosed, and prophesies, declaring that God “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,” which includes rescue from the hands of their enemies.  And later in chapter 1, verse 78 refers to the “tender mercy of our God.”  That word “mercy” in verses 72 and 78 shows up three more times earlier in Luke ch. 1 always in reference to God, but not again in Luke until here in the Lawyer’s answer.  “The one who showed him mercy.”  This is what God does!  God shows mercy.  So the Samaritan—not the Priest or the Levite—truly shows who God is.

Okay, back in 1:78, where it says his “tender mercy.”  The word “tender” is that spla(n)gchnon word—bowels, guts—which in Luke shows up there in 1:78, again in ch. 10 when the Samaritan sees the half-dead man, and then only two other times in Luke (7:13 and 15:20), which respectively refer to: Jesus seeing the widow of Nain with her dead son; and the father in the parable of the prodigal son when he sees his younger son returning and runs to greet him.  The Samaritan, in his compassion and mercy, represents the holy God of Israel.  And we are to be holy as God is holy, which includes showing mercy!

Sadly, there are probably times that we act more like the robbers or the priest and Levite—justifying our way of life and who we think we should care for or ignore, but really, without Jesus, we’re all half-dead and in need of healing.  We are beaten and bruised by the world and our sin—bleeding, naked and left for dead.  And the Lord God in a surprising and maybe even offensive visitation has come and shown mercy on us.

Nowadays, the phrase “Good Samaritan” is met with joy and delight.  But this parable would have shocked and probably even offended many of its original audience.  So how might we ‘re-cast’ this story today for the same shocking effect?  How about this:

A Fox News Anchor was mobbed during a recent rally in Washington, D.C.  Now it just happened that the President of the United States was passing by, but when he saw the man, he said, “You know, I’m very much a germaphobe.  I don’t want to get into that bloody mess.” And he passed by on the other side.  Just then, a State Representative came to the place and said, “This is horrible!  I’m going to bring this before the Senate to take action,” and, likewise, passed by without helping.  But a Syrian refugee, a Muslim, saw him and was moved with compassion and cared for the man.

Now…maybe you liked that version!  How about this one:

A woman wearing a cat-ears knit-cap was at that same rally and was accidentally trampled.  Now, a Presbyterian Teaching Elder happened, but was running late to a Social Justice and Community Responsibility Panel discussion… and so hurried away.  Then a Licensed Social Worker also came to the place, but didn’t stop because she was on her way to meet with a client.  But then came someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt, who stopped and helped the woman.

Wherever we personally stand, if Jesus’ parable doesn’t make us uncomfortable or challenge our notion of neighbor, then we’re not hearing it as Jesus told it.  We’ve justified ourselves like the lawyer.

So let me ask:  Who is the Samaritan in your life?  From whom would it offend you to receive help?  Who is difficult for you to love?  To whom do you have trouble showing mercy?

Because here’s the thing:  in Christ, God has shown mercy to all!  And therefore, in Christ, God is revealed to show us what it means to be holy and a neighbor by showing mercy to all!!!  If God, in Christ, has made all of us his neighbors, then who isn’t our neighbor?

As much as I struggle with loving some people, this parable tells me that I don’t get the luxury of justifying to myself those whom I am to love and those I don’t have to.  God is neighbor to all!  Unlike the priest and the Levite who wouldn’t give their time, money, efforts or affections, God in Christ, represented as the Samaritan, is moved to compassion for us.  At his own cost and effort, he cleans us up, gives up his rightful seat on his animal to carry us, brings us to a safe place and cares for us there, providing for our every need to bring us healing and new life even though we were half-dead and unable to heal or justify ourselves.

The Samaritan does not need to justify himself, nor does he.  He acts and speaks with compassion, mercy and authority.  The man beaten and left for dead cannot justify himself.  He cannot and does not say: you should help me because…  and yet he is helped by the Samaritan.  The Samaritan, in a way, justifies the half-dead man to the innkeeper who probably would not have taken in the beaten man and cared for him unless the Samaritan had already started to care for him and provided the resources for the innkeeper to continue to care for the man.

And so the Samaritan also justifies the innkeeper’s actions!  The innkeeper may not have otherwise continued to the care for the man without the Samaritan’s resources and command.  But the Samaritan, that is God, does all this at his own expense, brings the man to the inn keeper, pays the inn keeper, gives him charge to care for the man, and promises to pay him back upon return.  And so the Samaritan justifies both the man robbed and the inn keeper to each other.  Neither tries to or needs to justify themselves or their actions.  The Samaritan does it for them, just like God in Christ, justifies all those who believe in him.

So, can you see yourself as the half-dead man and how Jesus has saved you—justified you?  Good!  That’s actually the first step in being able to fulfill the first commandment—it is the beginning of how we are to love God.  But the parable keeps rattling around in my mind…

Before Christ saves and heals us, I think we’re the half-dead man in the parable, but after Christ gets to us, I’ve begun to think that we’re more like someone else in the parable:  I think we become the innkeeper!

See, when Jesus asks who of the three was the neighbor to the man robbed, the answer is, “The one who showed him mercy,” which of course is the Samaritan moved to compassion.  And Jesus commands the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”  But in the parable, the Samaritan initially takes care of the beaten man but then commands the innkeeper to do the same thing he had been doing.  “Take care of the man…”  The innkeeper has to trust the Samaritan, allowing the Samaritan to justify his strange behavior of caring for this stranger, and the innkeeper must obey the Samaritan in order to receive the promised compensation.  But…Jesus doesn’t tell us in the parable if the innkeeper ever did it or not…which leaves us asking: would we?  Will we?

Will we trust God enough to care for those he cares for, and to care for others the way he cares for them—to use the resources he gives us now and trust that he’ll provide all we need later to continue living in obedience, in giving of ourselves to fulfill the command to love our neighbors?  Will we be the innkeepers of the world—which, by the way, that word “innkeeper” in the Greek means “all-receiver”; welcoming everyone, which, based on the parable, does not mean letting people remain the way they are when they’re welcomed; they must still be cared for and healed and brought to wholeness through Christ’s resources given to us—but I digress… will we be the innkeeper, letting Jesus justify our strange behavior of loving and caring for others to bring healing and wholeness to broken and hurting people?  Or will we continue to justify ourselves like the priest, Levite or robbers?

Loving our neighbors isn’t about drawing a line and categorizing people who are or are not our neighbors.  Loving your neighbor as yourself is about showing undeserved mercy to others, bringing them healing, just as God has shown undeserved mercy to you when you were a stranger and half-dead without Jesus.      Loving your neighbor as yourself will be costly, just as it was costly to Jesus to show us love.  But…we are promised that God will provide all that we need in order to care for others—material resources, yes, but also the Holy Spirit in us to show them mercy, to love them like our Heavenly Father loves us.

If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves we will do well to: first, consider how we love the Lord our God, and more importantly how Jesus loves us in such a way as to dismantle our ways of justifying ourselves to bring us wholeness.  May we all follow Jesus out of our self-righteousness and into eternal life, understanding all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ at great cost to himself!  Don’t ask, “who is my neighbor?” but realize that God in Christ has become your neighbor, and neighbor to all, choosing to show mercy to everyone.  Do that first.  Then, go and do likewise, and you will live.

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

Following Jesus into Eternal Life

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Following Jesus into Eternal Life

Sermon on the Good Samaritan for the Muskingum Valley Presbytery meeting on Feb. 4, 2017
1 John 4:7-21
Psalm 112
Luke 10:25-37

Following Jesus into Eternal Life

 

by Rev. Jeffrey Bergeson

My wife and I enjoy comedy.  One comedian we really like is Jim Gaffigan, and he frequently talks about food.  In one set, he notices just how much food is eaten during holidays—that holidays seem to be an excuse to eat lots of extra food.  He says, “I don’t usually eat a burger, a bratwurst and a steak, but…it is the 4th of July…and I’m gonna need my energy if I’m gonna be blowin’ up stuff!  It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted…”  We justify how much food we eat around the holidays.  Anyone have children?  Me, too.  And my kids will, I admit, sometimes do something wrong…and I’ve learned to ask them “what did you do?” instead of “why did you do that?”  Because the “why” question teaches them to justify their bad behavior rather than acknowledge what they’ve actually done.

In our passage this morning, a lawyer stands up to test Jesus and to justify himself.  And it is my conviction that if we want to follow Jesus into eternal life, we must follow Jesus beyond our own self-righteousness.  Following him out of all the ways we try to justify ourselves.

Self-righteousness is not always a ‘high and mighty’ attitude of being holier-than-thou.  It’s not only when we think “I’m better than you.”  Rather, self-righteousness is any attempt to justify yourself and your behavior.  It’s any way that we try to make ourselves feel good about who we are and make ourselves feel justified in our behaviors and attitudes toward others:  “Sure, maybe I don’t __________, but at least I’m not like __________!” or “Yes, that is how I act, but it’s my right to act this way!”  In other words, it’s any way we try to tell ourselves that we’re ‘in the right,’ other than because of Jesus.  It’s trying to look good without putting on Christ.

The lawyer asks two questions.  One is to test Jesus, and one is to justify himself.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer and he responds with the greatest command and the one like it:  Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus agrees and says, “do this, and you will live,” but the lawyer, in order to justify himself, asks, “And who is my neighbor?”  And we take the bait, too!  “Yeah, who is my neighbor?”

The lawyer never asks about God or how to love God.  Either it’s too complicated or abstract to bother asking, or somehow it doesn’t actually matter, or—more likely—he thinks that he’s got that one down pat.  “Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever.  Love God with blah, blah, blah… done.  Check.  Moving on.  What about my neighbor?”

But Jesus invites the lawyer and us to see ourselves and God in a different light, because truly loving our neighbors rightly will not come until we love God rightly, and we cannot truly love God until we understand who God is and who we are and what God has done for us.  Only then can we truly love God, and from that place of love, then we can love our neighbors as ourselves.

So Jesus doesn’t answer his question:  he takes up the question and turns it on its head by telling a parable to redirect the lawyer’s focus.  The thing about this parable is that it’s incredibly memorable and moving.  It leaves a very distinct impression on our hearts, but it’s also open-ended enough to keep rattling around in our minds, causing us to keep asking questions and seeing things differently.

We all want to be the Good Samaritan.  In fact we’re told to “Go and do likewise.”  Maybe sometimes we justify ourselves and think that we already are!  But for Jesus to say, “Go and do likewise,”  “be like that guy”… means implicitly that we are not by nature already like him.  We’re to be found somewhere else in the parable, in fact, anywhere else, because we’re all supposed to be like the merciful Samaritan, so by definition we’re not… and the parable unsettles us.

The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbor?” to justify himself.  Under Law: Who am I obligated to love and who can I hate or ignore?  We must remember that Jesus is the Son of God—the Incarnate Deity.  So the lawyer is trying to justify himself to God!  That just never works; that’s not a good place to be.  And I think there are three characters in the parable that implicitly do the same thing and three that don’t.

The first is really a group:  the robbers.  They implicitly justify their violent behavior perhaps thinking, “We deserve what he has!” or maybe even “we need what he has, so we’ve got to take it to live.”  They justify they’re robbery.

The 2nd and 3rd characters are the priest and Levite.  The priest, the highest religious leader, is probably thinking something like, “I am holy, and that bleeding man is unclean.  I can’t possibly mingle with him and jeopardize my holiness.”  The Levite is more of a minor clergy, but probably thinks along the same lines as the Priest.  As I said, I have children, so we sometimes watch Veggie Tales.  And in the Veggie Tales version of the Good Samaritan, these two characters sing:  “We’re busy, busy, horribly busy.  Much, much too busy for you!”  Both the priest and the Levite ignore the man, believing it’s not their responsibility to help or they’re unable or unwilling to get dirty.

These three characters implicitly justify themselves and their behavior.

But there are also three characters who implicitly do not.

The first is the Samaritan.  Now, if we only looked at his actions, maybe we could think of an ulterior motive, but v. 33 won’t allow us to think that.  The NRSV says he was “moved with pity.”  Now, I’m a nerd.  I make no apologies for that.  The word in Greek for “moved with pity” is spla(n)gchnizomai.  The root of that word is spla(n)gchnon.  Try saying that:  spla(n)gchnonSpla(n)gchnon is all the mushy organs below your lungs.  It is the bowels—the seat of love and pity.  It’s your gut, moved with affection to have compassion for someone in a bad situation.  The Samaritan does not try to justify himself.  His compassion is justification in itself.

First is the Samaritan.  Second is the man robbed.  He cannot justify himself.  He never says or does anything.  He is unable even to beg for mercy!  He’s “half-dead” and that’s not an English paraphrase; that’s literally what the Greek says.

And friends, spiritually speaking, without Christ we’re all half-dead.  We’re not fully alive.  Yes, we may be breathing, our hearts pumping, but really, we’re helpless and hopeless and only half-living, unable to save ourselves…without receiving God’s mercy.  And God’s mercy, I think, is what this parable is all about.  Finding life.  Which brings us back to the first question asked: What must I do…?

See, the priest and Levite were supposed to be mediators between Israel and God.  On different levels, they represented God to Israel and vice-versa.  But their understanding of holiness got in the way.  Yes, God is holy, but Jesus says, the priest and the Levite are not what God is like.  He asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  And it wasn’t either of the ‘religious professionals.’  It was a despised Samaritan who showed mercy.  And so, we see that God’s holiness is connected to mercy!

This is important!  Back in Luke 1:72, at the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah’s tongue is loosed, and prophesies, declaring that God “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,” which includes rescue from the hands of their enemies.  And later in chapter 1, verse 78 refers to the “tender mercy of our God.”  That word “mercy” in verses 72 and 78 shows up three more times earlier in Luke ch. 1 always in reference to God, but not again in Luke until here in the Lawyer’s answer.  “The one who showed him mercy.”  This is what God does!  God shows mercy.  So the Samaritan—not the Priest or the Levite—truly shows who God is.

Okay, back in 1:78, where it says his “tender mercy.”  The word “tender” is that spla(n)gchnon word—bowels, guts—which in Luke shows up there in 1:78, again in ch. 10 when the Samaritan sees the half-dead man, and then only two other times in Luke (7:13 and 15:20), which respectively refer to: Jesus seeing the widow of Nain with her dead son; and the father in the parable of the prodigal son when he sees his younger son returning and runs to greet him.  The Samaritan, in his compassion and mercy, represents the holy God of Israel.  And we are to be holy as God is holy, which includes showing mercy!

Sadly, there are probably times that we act more like the robbers or the priest and Levite—justifying our way of life and who we think we should care for or ignore, but really, without Jesus, we’re all half-dead and in need of healing.  We are beaten and bruised by the world and our sin—bleeding, naked and left for dead.  And the Lord God in a surprising and maybe even offensive visitation has come and shown mercy on us.

Nowadays, the phrase “Good Samaritan” is met with joy and delight.  But this parable would have shocked and probably even offended many of its original audience.  So how might we ‘re-cast’ this story today for the same shocking effect?  How about this:

A Fox News Anchor was mobbed during a recent rally in Washington, D.C.  Now it just happened that the President of the United States was passing by, but when he saw the man, he said, “You know, I’m very much a germaphobe.  I don’t want to get into that bloody mess.” And he passed by on the other side.  Just then, a State Representative came to the place and said, “This is horrible!  I’m going to bring this before the Senate to take action,” and, likewise, passed by without helping.  But a Syrian refugee, a Muslim, saw him and was moved with compassion and cared for the man.

Now…maybe you liked that version!  How about this one:

A woman wearing a cat-ears knit-cap was at that same rally and was accidentally trampled.  Now, a Presbyterian Teaching Elder happened, but was running late to a Social Justice and Community Responsibility Panel discussion… and so hurried away.  Then a Licensed Social Worker also came to the place, but didn’t stop because she was on her way to meet with a client.  But then came someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt, who stopped and helped the woman.

Wherever we personally stand, if Jesus’ parable doesn’t make us uncomfortable or challenge our notion of neighbor, then we’re not hearing it as Jesus told it.  We’ve justified ourselves like the lawyer.

So let me ask:  Who is the Samaritan in your life?  From whom would it offend you to receive help?  Who is difficult for you to love?  To whom do you have trouble showing mercy?

Because here’s the thing:  in Christ, God has shown mercy to all!  And therefore, in Christ, God is revealed to show us what it means to be holy and a neighbor by showing mercy to all!!!  If God, in Christ, has made all of us his neighbors, then who isn’t our neighbor?

As much as I struggle with loving some people, this parable tells me that I don’t get the luxury of justifying to myself those whom I am to love and those I don’t have to.  God is neighbor to all!  Unlike the priest and the Levite who wouldn’t give their time, money, efforts or affections, God in Christ, represented as the Samaritan, is moved to compassion for us.  At his own cost and effort, he cleans us up, gives up his rightful seat on his animal to carry us, brings us to a safe place and cares for us there, providing for our every need to bring us healing and new life even though we were half-dead and unable to heal or justify ourselves.

The Samaritan does not need to justify himself, nor does he.  He acts and speaks with compassion, mercy and authority.  The man beaten and left for dead cannot justify himself.  He cannot and does not say: you should help me because…  and yet he is helped by the Samaritan.  The Samaritan, in a way, justifies the half-dead man to the innkeeper who probably would not have taken in the beaten man and cared for him unless the Samaritan had already started to care for him and provided the resources for the innkeeper to continue to care for the man.

And so the Samaritan also justifies the innkeeper’s actions!  The innkeeper may not have otherwise continued to the care for the man without the Samaritan’s resources and command.  But the Samaritan, that is God, does all this at his own expense, brings the man to the inn keeper, pays the inn keeper, gives him charge to care for the man, and promises to pay him back upon return.  And so the Samaritan justifies both the man robbed and the inn keeper to each other.  Neither tries to or needs to justify themselves or their actions.  The Samaritan does it for them, just like God in Christ, justifies all those who believe in him.

So, can you see yourself as the half-dead man and how Jesus has saved you—justified you?  Good!  That’s actually the first step in being able to fulfill the first commandment—it is the beginning of how we are to love God.  But the parable keeps rattling around in my mind…

Before Christ saves and heals us, I think we’re the half-dead man in the parable, but after Christ gets to us, I’ve begun to think that we’re more like someone else in the parable:  I think we become the innkeeper!

See, when Jesus asks who of the three was the neighbor to the man robbed, the answer is, “The one who showed him mercy,” which of course is the Samaritan moved to compassion.  And Jesus commands the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”  But in the parable, the Samaritan initially takes care of the beaten man but then commands the innkeeper to do the same thing he had been doing.  “Take care of the man…”  The innkeeper has to trust the Samaritan, allowing the Samaritan to justify his strange behavior of caring for this stranger, and the innkeeper must obey the Samaritan in order to receive the promised compensation.  But…Jesus doesn’t tell us in the parable if the innkeeper ever did it or not…which leaves us asking: would we?  Will we?

Will we trust God enough to care for those he cares for, and to care for others the way he cares for them—to use the resources he gives us now and trust that he’ll provide all we need later to continue living in obedience, in giving of ourselves to fulfill the command to love our neighbors?  Will we be the innkeepers of the world—which, by the way, that word “innkeeper” in the Greek means “all-receiver”; welcoming everyone, which, based on the parable, does not mean letting people remain the way they are when they’re welcomed; they must still be cared for and healed and brought to wholeness through Christ’s resources given to us—but I digress… will we be the innkeeper, letting Jesus justify our strange behavior of loving and caring for others to bring healing and wholeness to broken and hurting people?  Or will we continue to justify ourselves like the priest, Levite or robbers?

Loving our neighbors isn’t about drawing a line and categorizing people who are or are not our neighbors.  Loving your neighbor as yourself is about showing undeserved mercy to others, bringing them healing, just as God has shown undeserved mercy to you when you were a stranger and half-dead without Jesus.      Loving your neighbor as yourself will be costly, just as it was costly to Jesus to show us love.  But…we are promised that God will provide all that we need in order to care for others—material resources, yes, but also the Holy Spirit in us to show them mercy, to love them like our Heavenly Father loves us.

If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves we will do well to: first, consider how we love the Lord our God, and more importantly how Jesus loves us in such a way as to dismantle our ways of justifying ourselves to bring us wholeness.  May we all follow Jesus out of our self-righteousness and into eternal life, understanding all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ at great cost to himself!  Don’t ask, “who is my neighbor?” but realize that God in Christ has become your neighbor, and neighbor to all, choosing to show mercy to everyone.  Do that first.  Then, go and do likewise, and you will live.

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

Join Us in Louisville for our 2017 Annual Conference

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Join Us in Louisville for our 2017 Annual Conference

We are gathering at Lawes Logde at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (LPTS) April 18th-20th. Our theme is “Bursting Wineskins, Creative Responses to Christ’s Changing Church.” WHAT! Presbyterians Change? Caring for Pastors and Christian Educators is our primary purpose. We network throughout our denominations sharing creative ways of nurturing Church leaders when faced with adaptive change. How do we care for one another as we learn new skills or styles of ministry to speak God’s Word amidst changing cultures? Our conference will discuss these issues. We will do this face to face around the table, through keynote addresses and workshops, in worship and enjoying one another as we build or deepen relationships within PPCN. Rev. Grayde Parsons is going to stimulate our conversations and help us address important ways of reflecting upon the energy of our Call to serve Christ. Check out the complete brochure for a detailed listing of this event and register today. SEE YOU IN LOUISVILLE. Pastor Jim Splitt, President PPCN gyouareyou@me.com