Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Who Is My Neighbor?" Sermon from July 10, 2016, Good Samaritan Year C Proper 10

“Who Is My Neighbor?”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 10, July 10, 2016
© Rev. David J. Huber 2016
Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI
Focus Scripture: Luke 10:25-37  

“Who is my neighbor?” 

That is a profound question! Who is my neighbor?

I give the guy credit for asking this question. It’s a good change from his original, very selfish question - “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Directed solely at himself as though all God wants us to worry about is ourselves our or post-life life.

But he - the one asking the questions to Jesus - gets asked back, at his first question, “What is written in the law?” and he answers rightly, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 

I think, and I didn’t go through to check to make sure, but I think this is the only time that someone answered Jesus and he says, “Yep, you got it!”

You nailed it. That law is written in the old testament - the “love God” part is in Deuteronomy 6:5 and the “love your neighbor” is in Leviticus 19:18 - so it’s also not new with Jesus, though Jesus really took it as the center and focus and motivation of his ministry.

“You get it!” Jesus says to the man. I imagine Jesus excited. Finally, someone understands!

But then the man asks a follow up question. I wonder if Jesus sighed at the question, his face relaxed in sadness, a frowny face, maybe. Here is this bright man who seems to “get it” - love God, love neighbor! 

Then the question, “But who is my neighbor?”


Important question.

Define your terms, Jesus. What do you mean by “neighbor”?  If we are going to talk about neighbors, let’s define it. Who is my neighbor? Surely you don’t mean people not like me. Or people outside my family and friends. Or outside my tribe. Surely you don’t mean the prostitute or the man sleeping under the bridge by Phoenix Park or the meth addict or the Syrian refugee or the young men being shot or the men who shot up the club in Orlando or blew up the airport in Istanbul during Ramadan or … do you? None of them, right? Or do you?

Who is my neighbor?

“Well, it’s like this,” Jesus says, and he tells this weird story about a man who is ambushed by robbers and beaten almost to death, who is helped by a Samaritan - an outsider, a person hated by the Jewish people for being the wrong kind of Jewish; and who didn’t like the Jewish people because they were the wrong kind of Jewish - a Samaritan who gives an innkeeper 2 denarii, which was about two months’ worth of lodging at the time. That’s a substantial amount of money! He helps the man, gives the inn-keeper 2 denarii to keep the man protected and doctored. Promises to pay whatever else the inn-keeper spends. The Samaritan has no relation with this man, no responsibility toward him. But he is merciful anyway, even without that relationship.

As I wrote that, I thought, maybe that word “anyway” should never be attached to “mercy” - because mercy is never earned. It is always an “anyway”. To show mercy is to treat someone better than they deserve. That’s the nature of mercy. It is not earned or deserved, other than that we are God’s people, and have an inherent right to mercy because God shows us mercy. But it is never deserved. The Samaritan shows the man mercy, which he doesn’t have to by any rules at the time: except the rule of God, who says to show mercy and do kindness and to walk humbly. 

“But, God, this man doesn’t deserve mercy!”

God responds, “I know. That’s why you must give it. If he deserved it, then he wouldn’t need it. Giving it then would be an economic transaction, a kind of quid pro quo. I do this for you, you do this for me; or you do this, then I’ll show mercy. No, it is precisely because he doesn’t deserve mercy that he deserves it and that you must show it.” You don’t wait for someone to earn mercy, you just give it, as God gives mercy to us.

So Jesus asks the man, after telling this parable, “Who of these three people is the neighbor?”

And the man, still capable of giving the right answer, says, “The one who showed mercy.”

To which Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Which becomes the real answer to his first question, “How do I inherit eternal life?” It is to show mercy. To whom? To your neighbor. Who is my neighbor? Everyone.

Or we could also think of it as, that it is by showing mercy on someone that they become our neighbor. Through our mercy they become our neighbor. We invite them into that circle that we call neighbor. Our street ministry is much about showing mercy, and receiving mercy, and building that web of those who are our neighbor.

We do, though, live in a very large world. I think it is good to think of all the people as our neighbors. But we also won’t meet most of them. Most people of the world we won’t be in contact with, so it becomes kind of an abstract concept. 

I also don’t think any of us are in a position to try to make neighbors with the people who have been bombing airports and shooting innocents in dance clubs or those involved in the too often shootings of young men and women by police or the shooting of police by others… probably none of us are in a position to get to know any of the families of the slain or the families of the slayers, or what the emotional and spiritual impact is on them or will be in the future… none of us will be in a position to know what was really in the minds of the bombers, or what was in the thoughts of the cops, or the people the police were encountering, or in the minds of those who were shooting cops in Dallas… so much violence this week.

We may never be in a position to hear or experience the grief and pain of those in Syria and those who have fled; or the community of Istanbul or those flying through it. But one never knows. In some way, you may have a connection. My cousin Tyler was on a vacation in Europe for a couple weeks and she was scheduled to fly home through Istanbul two days after the bombing. She did, and she was fine. But at a little family reunion yesterday, I was sitting with her parents and extended family, and they talked about how nervous and anxious they were about her flying through that airport, and that they were from the time they heard of the bombing until she arrived home.

It can seem overwhelming to see the news or read the newspaper. Heck, sometimes it is overwhelming! There have been times this year that I’ve felt overwhelmed. A few times that I’ve watched the news of hear of another police shooting, or anti-police violence, or a terrorist attack, or a mass shooting, some act of violence… there are times that I hear of an incident on the news and I say, “I want to feel horrible about it, but I’m all out of feeling. I got nothing left. Too much of it. I’m already too numb. Meaning no disrespect to the people who have been killed and injured, but I’ve run out of the energy to feel today. I can’t my mind or my heart around it. Too many.”

But then I also look around to those who are fighting for a better system, calling for treatment instead of prison, fighting to end poverty, fighting to improve relations between police and the people they serve, those trying to calm down the nasty rhetoric. I see the people, who are usually the police and the firefighters, who are generally the first ones to rush into dance clubs to save people and tend to the wounded and who have to be the first confronted with horror… I see the doctors and nurses who take time off of work to go places struck by disaster… the people who line up to give blood… the folks who hold prayer vigils and pray for peace and hope and love, and those who struggle against the negative and the evil… I see all that and I think, “See, it’s not all bad.” If we only have a steady diet of what we see or hear on the news, it can feel like it’s all bad. But it’s not. There are a lot of people who know who their neighbors are. We can’t heal the whole world, but we can heal this little part of it.

There is a quote that has been going around for some time that works here, you may have seen it online or elsewhere.

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” - A mix of Talmudic teaching (the last line) and a riff on the words of the prophet Amos (the parts with the “now”s).

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

We can heal our little part of the world.

Who is my neighbor?

Who is not like you? That’s the one you must love.
Who does not like you? That’s the one you must love.
Who is your enemy? That’s the one you must love.
Who doesn’t deserve mercy? That’s the one who deserves it. Be their neighbor.

I leave you with a light-hearted story of something that happened recently, that I saw on the Today Show this morning:

Raymond “Buzzie” McCaulson, a Boston Taxi driver. He had a man hail his cab and ask him to go to a hotel. They got there, the guy said, “Wait here, I’ll be back in a couple minutes”, and he went inside. He didn’t come out after five, or after ten, twenty, thirty minutes. After a half hour, Buzzie went into the hotel to find him, but the people at the desk said no one like him had come in. He returns to his car, having been stiffed on his fare, and sees a bag on the back seat. Buzzie’s a good man. He’s just been stiffed, but he looks for a way to return the bag. He opened it looking for ID and found $187,000 in cash. Fifties and hundreds. He took it to the police station. The money got to the right guy, who was a man who’d been homeless for a few months and who had just cashed in his father’s inheritance. The man was going to leave, but the police suggest he should give Buzzie a reward. He gave Buzzie a $100 reward. A reward which Buzzie said is what he usually gets just for returning a wallet. Then as Buzzie was leaving, one of the policeman called after him, “He’d like a ride back to the hotel.” So Buzzie gave him a ride. As the folks on the Today show said this morning, “That’s a good samaritan.” (This story at CNN)


Addendum: here are a couple stories that I did not include in the sermon, but which I thought were good. 

In April, a group of kids were on an easter egg hunt in a field in England. A police helicopter soon appeared over them, and they saw two men running across the field. So they dropped to the ground and formed an arrow, pointing in the direction that the two men had run. The helicopter saw it, relayed the direction to the cops on the ground, and then men were apprehended: they had just committed a burglary. See story on CNN

And this story from a brilliant theologian, Mihee Kim Kort, a Presbyterian: 

“Then, there was the sermon about the priest and Levite, and how they were analogous to not only the religious leaders of our time, but to all of us Christians who follow the rules and uphold the principles of love, the eloquent, but verbose talk and chatter about love, but when it comes down to it, we aren’t able to get our hands dirty. Really dirty, I mean, bloody and dirty, like the Samaritan who picked up the brutalized man, and helped him onto his donkey, and cared for him at the nearest hotel. And again, at the end there’s always the call to be the same kind of neighbor as the Samaritan who showed incredible courage and compassion. 
[then a break]
If there’s anything I believe about following the merciful Christ of the Triune God, it’s that we keep showing up. Even when we don’t understand, even when we are guilty or complicit or fragile or confused, even when it doesn’t make sense, even when we are despairing, we show up to be with people. To pray. To light candles. To hold hands. To chant Black Lives Matter. To whisper, God, have mercy.”

Friday, July 8, 2016

“Rejoice Not in Power, but that We Are God’s People” - Sermon July 3, 2016

“Rejoice Not in Power, but that We Are God’s People”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 9, July 3, 2016
© Rev. David J. Huber 2016
Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI
Focus Scripture: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Listen to the sermon:

What Jesus said right at the end of this passage is extremely important. He says, “You have been given all this authority and this power and can do great things,” he’s saying to the people he sent out and who have come back, he says, “Don’t rejoice at that. Don’t rejoice at that. Rejoice that you are people of God. Rejoice that your name is written in heaven. THAT is worth rejoicing! Not your power or skills, but that your name is in heaven.” I think that is good for us to remember. We who often like to rejoice in power, whether it be economic, political, military, whatever the power might be. To think, “Ah, I am powerful, and I rejoice in that and celebrate.” But, celebrate instead that we are God’s people. That we are God’s sons and daughters.

This weekend is July 4 weekend. Our celebration of independence of this country. Certainly a very important day in the life of this nation, and in some ways in the course of history as well. Not that we were the first country with a constitution or certain freedoms, but there in the beginning many good things that are worth celebrating.

But Independance day is not a church holy day. It is not on the liturgical calendar. People in churches in other countries are not celebrating American independence day. They may celebrate their own country’s independence, but we don’t celebrate this holiday in the church because it is not a Holy Day. But there is some truth that what happens outside the walls of this sanctuary is also worthy, and should be included, in what happens in this sanctuary. As people we bring all that we are. All of our successes, our failures, our foibles and skills, our hopes and dreams, our regrets, and also our culture is brought into here with us, as citizens of this country and of the world, as people of Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley. We bring who we are as people into this space. And so it is okay to bring things into this sanctuary, into our worship, just as what we do in this space and time together goes out past these doors into the world. They are not separate places, that when we are in here we are Christian and when we are out there we are something else. It’s all of a piece. It all comes together. We bring who we are into here, and we put that into a context as a Jesus follower, and take it back out into the world as we are about the business that Jesus has called us to do. To be healers and repairers by being people out in the world. To bring to people what we talk about in the church, like new life, forgiveness, second chances, freedom in Christ, the power of confession and forgiveness, the importance of reconciliation and being in right relationship with other people, and the primacy of love. The importance of love as our prime motivator.

And so on this Independence Day weekend I think it is okay to celebrate our country, who we are, who we have been. But we are a church, this is a holy gathering, so we must also be careful that celebration does not become triumphalism. That it doesn’t become a “we are better than” kind of celebration. Celebrate who we are and what we have, but not in a way that compares us to others and make us seem better. So don’t do it at the expense of other nations or other people, many of whom around the world are our baptized brothers and sisters. So let us not be eager to proclaim that we are number one, or the best, or the greatest. That’s not a celebration, not for people who follow Jesus. I don’t think that’s what he would have us do. But we can celebrate what is good and give thanks for what we have. That we can worship how we want. That we can petition our government, like I did a couple weeks ago: go to DC and talk to our senators and representatives about what is important to us. Celebrate the good, confess the bad, ask God to help us hold closer to our ideas and make us more faithful as followers of Jesus.

That’s one reason I don’t like to use specifically patriotic songs in worship. We have some music that celebrates us, the beauty of our land, and talks about freedom, but not specifically patriotic in a political or military sense that make us seem better than others. As people of God who gather around this common table of bread and wine, I don’t think triumphalism is a good way to go. We ought remember that our vocation is inviting others to this table. So to say that our is better than others is to miss the point of the universal nature of Jesus’ mission and God’s love. We invite others to this table without regard to national boundaries, or political differences, or cultural divisions. To remember that we are bound around this table worldwide, and our citizenship is first as people of God We are citizens of God’s realm, first, and then everything else secondary.

As I have thought of our Independence Day this last week, my thoughts have gone more to the song America the Beautiful and less on the scripture text. The words have been going through my mind a lot this week. I didn’t expect that it would end up in the sermon, but it must. It became a part of what I have been thinking of. Perhaps partly because of my recent experience lobbying in DC and walking around the capitol mall and seeing the Lincoln and MLK Memorials, the museums, the Washington monument, the WWII, Korea, and Vietnam war memorials…

What I like about the song is that it is a celebration of America, but not a celebration of us being better or unique in some way, but a celebration of the land itself. Which means that it is a celebration not of what we do, but what God has done. It’s a celebration of what God has created that we get to live on. The beauty of the land. The one that we will sing, also includes confession and lament asking God to help us be more faithful, and more true to our ideals of justice, to be more united, to work more for people’s freedoms and liberty.

“How beautiful our spacious skies, our amber waves of grain, our purple mountains above the fruitful plains.” I’ve been singing those words since I was a child. Probably one of the first songs that we sang in elementary school. Some of the words I did not fully understand until I took my first trip out west in 1998 when my mom and I went out. Before then, the farthest west I’d ever travelled was the twin cities, except for the two years that I lived in Hawaii. That’s pretty far west! But the places between the twin cities and Hawaii I only ever saw from the air.

Mom and I took this trip out west driving to Wyoming and back, and through it I understood where these words come from. I saw mountains for the first time, real big mountains: the Rockies. Which can be purplish. The spacious skies, I understood them there in Wyoming in big sky country. It really is big! To drive by the endless fruitful plains and waves of grain, though in our case it was mostly waves of corn in our trip through Minnesota and Iowa. We saw lots and lots of corn! Which gave me an idea, too, of the size of this country. To drive for almost two days and still be driving by corn. On and on and on. To go a couple of days and still not at the rocky mountains yet, either. This is a big, big country, and a really big continent.

I’ve not been to every state in our country, but I’ve been to a lot of them and some of the Canadian provinces and territories as well. From Maine to Hawaii, and Alaska to Florida. I’ve been on farms and in cities, out in the woods and in deserts, I’ve been in caves in West Virginia and seen glaciers in Alaska. This is a really beautiful country. I think all of it is beautiful. Some people like to poo poo South Dakota and Nebraska, but I find them beautiful in their own way. This is a beautiful and a resource rich land that we live on and in. But so, also, are Canada, Russia, Europe, China, and other places around the world. We are not unique in that way. But we can still be thankful to live in such a beautiful place and thankful that generations before us had the wisdom to put aside a lot of our beautiful spaces to protect them as national parks or refuges. This year, in fact, marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service! Other countries have followed our lead, including countries like Kenya and Nairobi that have been creating spaces to protect the largest of the world’s land mammals.

There are also words in this song calling us also to be discontent until we are all one. Not to say that we are all free until we are truly all free. Until all are free, and all of us are one, a sisterhood and brotherhood from sea to shining sea. And to have the courage to repent until we are a land of true liberty. A land of people living free without violence, and extend that beyond our borders to all the Americas, the two continents that have “America” in their name. For all to live in harmony.

I think that is who Jesus would have us be. To rejoice in what we have and celebrate what we have, but not to do it in a way that celebrates the political, economic, or military power, but celebrates this beautiful land we live on, and to rejoice also that we are God’s people first and foremost, and see it as a call to be even better as God’s people becoming more and more faithful, becoming one in Jesus’ name.