Sunday, July 26, 2015

Let Everything PRAISE the Lord! (Psalm 150)


Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty firmament![a]
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
    praise him according to his surpassing greatness!

Praise him with trumpet sound;
    praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
    praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
    praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!

 

Ashley and I included a stop at the Grand Canyon on our fall vacation last year.  Neither one of us had been before.  We drove into the park through the east gate and stopped at the first observation point.  We parked the car, hurriedly walked down the path without stopping at the bathroom first – that tells you how eager my wife was to see the canyon – and crowded into a spot at the overlook with a few hundred of our closest friends, and we said the same first words of everyone who views the canyon for the first time: “Wow.”

 

We lingered for awhile, drove to the next overlook, parked, walked up to the edge, and said, “Wow.”  We repeated that pattern for the next two hours as we made our way toward the hub of the park and our hotel.  That evening, we ran through the village to crowd onto the last bus that would take us to points further west where we could catch the sunset over the canyon, and can you guess what we and hundreds of other folks said as the sun set and painted a continually-changing beautiful picture in front of us? “Wow.”

 

The next morning, we were up early to watch the sunrise – just like watching the sunset, but from the other direction and in reverse order, right?  I’ve seen the sunrise in beautiful places before, I had an idea what to expect, shouldn’t have been too surprised by what we saw, but do you know what I said as the sun rose that morning?  “Wow.”

 

There were also people there who seemed less-than-impressed.  People who walked up to the edge, snapped a few pictures, and hopped back in the car to drive to Las Vegas or Phoenix or Albuquerque or wherever they were headed next.  Families who complained about how expensive everything was, children who weren’t sure what their parents were so excited about, saying, “What’s the big deal?  It’s just a big hole-in-the-ground?”

 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  But for those with eyes to see, it will make you keep saying, “Wow.”  And I don’t know about you, but when I see something beautiful, something that takes my breath away, something that makes me say, “Wow,” I just don’t want to take my eyes off of it.  We spent about 24 hours at the Grand Canyon, not a ton of time, but every moment, would you like to guess which way my head was pointed and what had my attention?  I was looking at that big hole in the ground, that thing that kept making me say, “Wow.”

 

What if God held our attention in the same way?  What if, every available moment, our senses were drinking in the love and grace and holiness and majesty of God?  What if, we couldn’t take our eyes off of God, couldn’t even if we wanted to, what if God was constantly revealing some new facet of God’s self to us that we were constantly saying, “Wow?”

 

In today’s Scripture reading, the Psalmist says, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”  Does everyone here have breath?  I hope so!  You may want to check the person next to you – everyone here still breathing?  Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.  If you’ve got breath, praise the Lord!

 

That word, “let,” is a funny little word.  Sometimes we use it like we’re giving permission for something, or allowing something.  “I’m gonna let you go swimming” or “I’m gonna let you go to your friends’ house.” 

 

But there’s another we use that word, “let,” not so much giving permission, but giving a command.  At my house, that sounds like Ashley telling me, “I’m gonna let you clean up the kitchen,” or “I’m gonna let you take out the trash.”  In reality, is she saying, “I allow you to do this,” or is she really saying, “I’m telling you to do this”?

 

In the same way, when the Psalmist says, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” it’s not that we are being given permission to praise God, but being told, commanded, expected to praise God!  Do you have breath?  Yes, I do!  Good!  Then, as a person of faith, use that breath to praise God.

 

The problem is that many times we use our breath to do things other than praising God.  Ever used your breath to say things that were quite the opposite of glorifying God?  Ever found your breath filled with gossip rather than worship, or with giving grief to others rather than giving glory to God?

 

Today, the Scripture reminds us to use our breath, which is itself a gift from God, to glorify the God who gave us breath in the first place.

 

But, how should we praise God?  The Psalm says to praise God with all the instruments available at our disposal – with the blast of the ram’s horn – maybe that’s a trumpet.  Praise God with the lute and lyre – a guitar and a harp, perhaps?  Praise God with drum and dance – just don’t tell our Baptist friends that we’re dancing, I suppose!  Praise God with strings and pipe – sounds like an orchestra and an organ.  Praise God with loud clashing cymbals – in other words, expect worship to be loud!  Use every instrument at your disposal to glorify God.

 

Too often, however, we approach worship with our personal tastes, preferences, and sensibilities higher on the list than glorifying God.  We pick the instrument on that list that matches our own preference, and we begin to praise it rather than seeing all of it as an appropriate vehicle to praise God.  Too often, we use our breath to praise the organ or praise the guitar.  Praise the choir, or praise the band.  Praise the early service, praise the late service.  Praise what I like, praise what suits me best, praise what I most prefer.  It’s too easy to fall into praising those things, instead of recognizing that we praise God through those things.

 

We come to worship, a time to focus solely on God, and our first words are about ourselves. I like, I prefer, I want.  Nothing wrong with having or expressing a preference, but the word of caution is that we can worship our personal preferences rather than worshiping God.

 

We sing "mi mi mi" to warm up our voices, but too often "me me me" becomes the theme in much of our worship. We come to worship as consumers, ready to absorb and receive and evaluate based on our personal fickle preferences.

 

It's not that worship shouldn't touch us or move us or speak to us in some way. Worship is very much a conversation - we offer praise to God and God offers something of his love and grace back to us. What God offers us may look a little different from week to week - encouragement, inspiration, comfort, challenge, instruction. What God says to us at any given time may well make us glad, or sad, or mad, but at the end of the day, worship must be focused more on God than on ourselves.  Worship is not about me, me, me.  It’s about God, God, God!  We are not the audience in worship. God is.

 

When we make worship primarily about ourselves, in terms of style and taste and preference, we miss both the opportunity to glorify God, and to hear God speaking to us in unexpected ways and places.  I’ve participated in worship in various places in a variety of styles that run the gamut, some of it very familiar, some of it brand new and strange.  I’ve attended worship in languages I didn’t understand, and worship conducted in English where I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.  Some of it I liked more than others, but in every instance, when I was able to discern that a genuine offering of praise was being offered to God, well, then that was worship.  As long as God is at the center, regardless of the style, regardless of whether or not I “like” it, I’m pretty much good to go.

 

Those of us who lead in worship - pastors and musicians and choirs and any one else who contributes and leads in some way, we are not here to perform and entertain.  My hope is that you walk away, not thinking about what a good sermon or not-so-good sermon it was, or what a good preacher or not-so-good preacher I am.  My hope is that you walk away having seen more of God than you have seen of me.  Likewise, if the choir or our musician plays a piece and you glory in how great they are rather than in how great God is, then it may have been a wonderful performance, but as an act of worship, it has failed.

 

I say that even with my friends in the quartet sitting right here. They are talented. They are gifted. They got up early this morning, drove up from Charlotte, are singing two services today, and then driving back to Charlotte this afternoon.  But, they didn't drive up here to perform for us, they are offering their gifts to God as an act of worship. They aren't performing for us, they are leading us in worship in their own unique God-given way. If we walk away today praising them, while stopping short of praising the God who gave them their gifts, then everything they've done today will have been for nothing.

 

Whether you are up front or sitting in the seats, don't come to worship for yourself. Come for God.  Don't come to worship as a consumer. Don't come as a spectator, don't come as a passive recipient, don't come with your list of likes and dislikes and preferences.

 

We don't come to evaluate; we come to participate. Say that with me. We don't come to evaluate; we come to participate. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Come to use whatever breath you've got to praise God. It doesn't matter whether you've got a great big and flashy breath like some of the people in our choir, or a little off-beat can't carry a tune in a bucket breath - whatever breath you've got, use it to give glory and honor and praise to God.

 

The Westminster Catechism says “the chief end of [human]kind is to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.”  When we give ourselves to the worship of God, using all our life and breath in praising the one who gave us breath, we fulfill the chief and most basic purpose with which we were made.  Some have described the human heart as having a God-shaped hole within it – when we worship as Psalm 150 invites us to do, we fill the hole with God.

 

When Jesus was asked about the Greatest Commandment, he summarized it as “loving God and loving our neighbor.”  Those two go together.  They are inseparable.  But how he told us to love God is so important – he said to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind.  All our life, all our breath – not part of our breath, not dividing our breath, giving glory with this breath and grief with the next, dividing our breath between worship and gossip – no, let everything that has breath use all of their breath to praise the Lord.

 

We’re invited into a lifestyle of constant worship, and if we’ve used all our breath to glorify God, then there won’t be any left over for less-than-godly pursuits.  If we love and glorify God with everything we have, then that love spills over into everything else.  When our faculties are dedicated solely to God, they cannot be co-opted for anything less.  Praise the Lord!

 

If you come to worship as a critic, you can always find something to criticize.  If you come to worship as a consumer, you can always find something that met your needs and something that didn’t.  Worship can be very much like standing next to the Grand Canyon.  One person can be standing there saying, “Wow,” and another person may be asking, “What’s the big deal?” or “How much longer ‘til we’re outta here?”  Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, and what we put in will have a tremendous impact on what we get out.

 

So, don’t come to complain; come to contribute!  Don't come to give grief; come to give glory!  Don’t come to gossip, come to worship!  We don’t come to evaluate.  We come to participate.  Come to join your breath with others in giving glory to God.

 

Friends, as we give glory to God, God gives grace to us.  And that grace changes us.  Makes us better disciples.  More like Jesus.  More transformed into the image and likeness of the God who first placed breath within us.

 

That’s enough to make each one of us say, “Wow.”  Wow, God.  Wow, God, for who you are, and Wow, God, for what you’re still doing in me.  Wow.

 

Don't come to evaluate. Come to participate. Come to give glory to God.  Let’s all resist the temptation to make worship about, “me, me, me,” and let it be about “God, God, God.”

 

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.  Praise the Lord!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Faith Friends (Ruth 1:1-18)


1 During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.

But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.

But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.

Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.

Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.

10 But they replied to her, “No, instead we will return with you, to your people.”

11 Naomi replied, “Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? 12 Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”

14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. 15 Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.

 

One phrase in the English language can instill more fear in the heart than any other, and that phrase is “mother-in-law.”  Upon my simply saying that phrase, how many of you felt a chill go up your spine?  The relationship between in-laws can be tricky, to say the least.

 

My dad was an only child.  He was an only male child.  He was an only male child born after my grandparents had been married for eleven years.  Eleven years of being told they might not be able to have children, eleven years of hoping and earnest praying for a child.  Every stereotype you could imagine about an only male child born late in life to parents who were told they would likely never have children – all of those stereotypes were true.

 

From my grandparents’ perspective, I imagine my dad’s birth looked like something out of The Lion King, as baby Simba is lifted high and presented for everyone to gaze upon.  My Dad wasn’t just spoiled growing up, he was the absolute center of the universe, and you’d better believe that my grandmother knew that nobody could love him like she did.

 

My mom never stood a chance.  Mom and Dad met in college in New York, and their first Christmas dating, flew home to Dad’s parents in Virginia to meet the folks.  On the ride home from the airport, Dad hopped in the front seat with Papa, leaving Mom in the backseat with Grandma, who sniffled and dabbed at her eyes the entire ride home.

 

Mom and Dad had only been married a few months when Mom wanted to prepare a special dinner for Dad.  She called Grandma and asked for some of his favorite foods from growing up, and spent the entire afternoon preparing this meal, and Dad came home and sat down to a table piled high with all of the foods he disliked more than any in the world.  Grandma went to her grave insisting that she had thought Mom wanted a list of his least favorite foods, so she could be sure to avoid ever serving them, but we all have our suspicions otherwise.

 

Without pointing fingers, especially those of you who are currently seated next to your in-laws, have you ever seen or heard of anything like it?  It sounds like a scene out of Everybody Loves Raymond, doesn’t it?  Rightly or wrongly, whether life imitates art or art influences life, we sort of expect this Marie Barone-esque behavior in the in-law relationship.

 

Parenthetically, let me say I have wonderful in-laws, especially if Jeanne or David Pickerel are listening to or reading this sermon right now, I have the best in-laws in the world!

 

The in-law relationship is tricky to navigate, but it can also be a blessed one.  The rest of the story between Grandma and Mom is that they became good friends and yes, family, such that they eventually became not mother and daughter in law, but mother and daughter in love.

 

I imagine it was a similar situation for Ruth and Naomi, the first bit of whose story we have tasted in today’s Scripture reading.  The story of Ruth and Naomi is the story of in-laws who became friends.  And their friendship developed into a holy friendship, a faith friendship, in which by drawing closer to each other, they were drawn closer to God.

 

The book of Ruth begins in tragedy and loss.  Naomi and her husband are Hebrews who have fled to Moab to escape famine, they are refugees escaping starvation back home.  They are strangers in a strange land, far from home, far from the support of family and friends, with only their two sons.  The two sons marry local women, and then, one-by-one, the men in the family die off, leaving the women vulnerable and helpless.

 

Perhaps Naomi felt the pain more acutely than her younger daughters-in-law.  One funeral after another – first for her husband, then for one son, then for the other – one funeral after another without any familiar faces.  Just a few verses after today’s reading, Naomi – which means sweet – will change her name to Mara – which means bitter.  Things have not turned out the way she hoped they would; life itself has turned out to be a bitter pill to swallow.

 

Naomi knows the future is also bleak and potentially bitter for her two daughters-in-law.  Naomi knows that she is too old to attract the attention of another potential husband, but her young daughters-in-law, well, someone might still take a chance on a pretty young widow who could still help get the work done and maybe even have a few children.

 

Naomi decides to head back to her home country, hearing that the famine is subsiding, and hoping that some of her relatives might still be alive who would show some compassion toward her.  Her daughters-in-law, perhaps not knowing what else to do or where else to go, follow along behind her, but along the way, Naomi tells them to turn around and go back.  “Go back to your own people,” she says.  “Find husbands.  Have children.  Be fruitful and blessed.”

 

She thanks them for their kindness, but now it’s time for them to think about their own well-being.  After some persuasion and tears and one final hug, Orpah – not be to be confused with Oprah – takes her mother-in-law’s advice and heads home (Ruth 1:6-14).  But Ruth has hitched her star to bitter old Naomi.  She makes one of the most profound promises found in Scripture – “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you stay, I will stay.  Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God” (Ruth 1:16).

 

I used to wonder why the book of Ruth is included in the Hebrew scriptures.  Eight times in the 4 chapters of her story, we are told that she is a “Moabite woman.”  The Biblical writers are reminding us she is different, a foreigner, an outsider, not one of the chosen people.

 

And yet, this outsider has a book in the Hebrew scriptures.  She is named as a full participant in God’s redemption story, a full recipient of God’s universal grace.  Her story features so prominently that thousands of years later, when St. Matthew sat down to write his gospel, he began with an account of Jesus’ family tree, and Ruth – the foreigner, the immigrant, the outsider – would be named as one of the prominent ancestors of Jesus.

 

Ruth has much to teach us about fidelity, friendships, and faith.  Ruth has much to teach us about the nature and character of God.  Ruth grew up outside the faith – she’s never been to church, doesn’t know the first thing about Sunday School or Vacation Bible School, she’s never tithed, she’s never served on a committee, she wouldn’t know the difference between a hymnal and a Bible – and yet, this one from outside the tight-knit Hebrew community has something in her character that’s consistent with God’s character.

 

When she says, “Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay,” do we not hear the echoes of God’s promise to never leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6, cf. Hebrews 13:5)?  God is committed to us, sticks with us, no matter what.  Without even trying, Ruth reflects the covenant faithfulness of the God in whose image all humanity is made.

 

Mother-in-law Naomi, likewise reflects God’s image, even in difficult circumstances that leave her feeling bitter.  Her two daughters-in-law have made two very different decisions in terms of staying with Naomi.  One stays while the other departs.  Does Naomi bless one and curse the other?  No.  What I want you to notice is Naomi blesses them both.

 

Naomi’s love for her two daughters-in-law is not tied to a particular decision or behavior; she blesses them both.  So, too, God’s love and favor and blessing are not contingent upon us making certain decisions or behaving in a certain way.  It is not earned.  Not turned on or off like a light switch based on our actions.  God’s love is not reserved for a privileged few.  No.  Friends, God loves us, blesses us, favors us, graces us no matter what.

 

Naomi reflects the fidelity of God in extending unconditional blessing and love; Ruth reflects the fidelity of God in sticking with Naomi, no matter what.  As they stick with each other, bless each other, love each other, what develops can best be described as a holy friendship.

 

We were all told to choose our friends wisely.  We all know the reality that not everyone who claims to be our friend is our friend.  In the words of Annie Lennox, some of them want to use you.  Life is full of people who want to take advantage of us, exert influence over us, whose interest in us is self-serving.

 

Friends, those people are not your friends.  True friends bring out the best in each other.  Faith friends bring out the image of God in each other.  Ruth and Naomi were faith friends; their commitment to each other brought out the image of God in each other.  As they grew closer to one another they grew closer to God, and as they grew closer to God, they grew closer to one another.  Ruth and Naomi could easily have been the original Golden Girls – thank you for being a friend; travelled down the road and back again – and indeed, they travelled down the road of life and faith together.

 

Would it be that we would each have a few faith friends.  When you think about your closest relationships, the people you spend the most time with, does your time with them bring out the best in you, make you a better person, make you more gracious and loving, more the person God has created you to be and desires for you to become?  Sometimes they may challenge you, inspire you, push you, and even irritate you, but if it’s all for your own good and to the glory of God, then you’ve got yourself a holy friendship, and you should hold onto it like precious gold, and maximize the priceless time you spend with them.

 

If, on the other hand, your interactions with someone bring out the worst in you, make you angry, bitter, and negative, then that’s not a holy friendship.  That person is no friend of yours, at all.  That’s someone who is trying to sell you a seat next to them on the bitter bus – it may seem tempting to take a ride on it, but it ain’t gonna get you where you want to go.

 

You may climb aboard out of genuine desire to help that person, change them, correct them, convert them, win them over.  But taking a ride with them on the bitter bus is going to influence you more than you will influence them.  Riding around on the bitter bus is only going to make you . . . bitter.

 

Here’s the thing about the bitter bus – it’s only fun to ride when it’s a high-occupancy vehicle.  It’s awfully lonely, no fun to ride around on the bitter bus by yourself.  You can’t control other people who choose to ride it, but you do have the choice of not riding along with them.  People who ride the bitter bus love company, but that company doesn’t have to be you.  And while none of us has any control over anyone else, while none of us can make anyone else do anything, if enough people get off the bitter bus that’s it’s no longer any fun to ride, then you never know how that might motivate that lifetime rider to get off at the next stop.

 

That’s the best way to influence someone who’s bitter.  Simply refuse to join in.  Don’t give their bitterness an audience.  Don’t be a dumping ground for their trash.  Scott Stratten says, “Don’t try to win over the haters; you’re not the jackass whisperer.”

 

That’s the kind of transformation in the human heart that only God can bring about, but friends, God CAN bring it about.  While you don’t have to get on the bitter bus with someone or even try to win them over, you can still love them, show them kindness and compassion, and work and pray for them to someday, hopefully soon, offer themselves to God for God to change their life with his unconditional love.

 

When we offer ourselves to that kind of Godly transformation, you’d better believe that God will have some people in mind to help us through the change – to nurture us, support us, encourage us, challenge us, inspire us along the way.  You know, friends.  Genuine friendships always change us for the better, and holy friendships always change us more into the loving image of God.

 

Let’s choose our friends wisely.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Kingdom of God is Like a Friendly Stranger (Luke 10:25-37)


Today, we are wrapping up our June message series, on the “The Kingdom of God is Like . . .”  Jesus frequently taught in parables, stories, and the most common subject he taught about was the kingdom of God.  His stories made comparisons, using analogies to help people understand what the kingdom of God was like by drawing on things and experiences that were close-at-hand.  We’ve heard over the last month how the Kingdom of God is Like a Party, a Treasure Hunt, and a Good Story.

 

Today, we will hear how the kingdom of God is like a friendly stranger.  In a moment, I will read a familiar Bible passage – the story of the Good Samaritan.  Even if you’ve never spent any time in church, you likely know something about the story of the Good Samaritan.

 

The difficulty with familiar stories, of course, is laying aside our familiarity and allowing them to speak to us in fresh ways.  But that’s just what I’m asking you to do today.  With fresh ears, I invite you to hear the story of the Good Samaritan as if you’ve never heard it before, as we turn to the Gospel of Luke, the 10th chapter, verses 25-37:

 

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31  Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32  Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33  A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34  The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35  The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36  What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

 

A  number of studies indicate that we are who we are by about age 5.  90% of what makes us who we are – our personality, our temperament, our habits that we will carry with us through life are imprinted upon us very early in life.  Robert Fulghum made a fortune telling us, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, but it turns out we learned most of it even earlier than that.

 

One of the things that was drilled into my head at that age was “Don’t talk to strangers.”  Part of the reason this was drilled at me is because I wasn’t very good at it.  Mom said she would turn around for thirty seconds, and I had wandered off and struck up a friendly conversation with some unsuspecting senior citizen who thought I was just the cutest thing with my chubby cheeks and dimples, and in reality, they were probably more in danger of being taken in by me than I was in danger of being abducted by them.

 

That, of course was the fear.  Strangers want to do us harm.  Strangers = danger.  That childhood fear stayed with us through adulthood.  Don’t talk to strangers – and believe me, I have spent enough time in waiting rooms and on airplanes to have developed my own reasons for not wanting to talk to strangers, although, truth be told, those reasons have little to do with a concern for my personal safety.

 

We fear everything and everyone who is different from ourselves.  Because that fear is based on differences, we begin to notice those differences more.  We begin to make value judgments and start ranking those differences in terms of preferability, and history is a witness to that.

 

In a million different ways, fear gives way to judgment.  And then judgment gives way to hate.  Hate gives way to more judgment, which gives way to oppression and exploitation and violence and death, which only feeds further fear, and the never-ending cycle of fear, hate, and death begins all over again, and friends, God weeps each and every time.

 

Fear, hate, and violence were all at play in the famous story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan.  A legal expert, a lawyer, stands up to test Jesus.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks.  Jesus says, “You’re the lawyer.  What does it say in the law?”

 

The lawyer gives the right answer, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

Loving one’s neighbor was not a new concept.  Jesus didn’t invent it.  The lawyer knows, as well as anyone, the provisions in the Old Testament where the people of God are commanded to care for those in need.  To care for those on the margins of society, to stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves.

 

This command is not just about being nice.  No, caring for those in need was an integral act of worship and devotion to God.  Jesus would go as far to say that if you claim to love God but don’t love your neighbor, then your religion is phony-baloney.  To love God is to also love your neighbor – these two go hand-in-hand, they are inseparable like two sides of the same coin, loving God and loving neighbor go together like peas and carrots.

 

The lawyer has given the right answer.  He has aced the quiz, but now he’s hunting for extra credit. As lawyers are prone to do, this one starts hunting around for a loophole in the Law of Love.  He says, “OK, love God and my neighbor.  Got it.  But WHO is my neighbor?”

 

You see what he’s doing here?  To define who is my neighbor also defines who is not my neighbor, in other words, who do I not have to love?

 

He’s asking about the bare minimum he can get by with and still pass the course and graduate.  What’s the absolute least I can do and still get credit?

 

Think of that in the context of your own relationships, for a minute.

·        What’s the bare minimum I have to do for my partner and them not divorce me?

·        What’s the bare minimum I have to do for my grandma and still stay in the will?

·        What’s the bare minimum I have to do for my kids and not be arrested for neglect?

 

If you are asking, “What’s the absolute bare minimum I have to do?” then, friends, that relationship is already in trouble.  So it is in our relationship to God.

 

When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor, he is asking, “Who are the absolute bare minimum of people I have to love?”

 

 Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan.  Along a dangerous highway, a man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead in a roadside ditch.  Two people come along.  He doesn’t know either one very well, but he recognizes them.  They live in his neighborhood.  Their kids play soccer together.  They even go to the same church.  If anyone will stop, it’s these two – but no – they cross to the other side of the road, going out of their way to not help.

 

Along comes a third man, but he’s a Samaritan.  The Jews of Jesus’ day hated the Samaritans; even the word “Samaritan” was little more than a hateful, racial slur.  The Samaritans looked different.  Their beliefs and ways were different.  To the people hearing Jesus’ story, they were not “like us.”

 

And yet, who stops and shows compassion and cares for the half-dead man along the road?  The Samaritan.  The one from the group everyone else hated – the foreigner, the half-breed, the stranger.  The one who, according to the prejudice of everyone hearing the story, would be the least likely candidate to show some compassion, yeah, that’s the one Jesus says was the neighbor.

 

Who is our neighbor?  Anyone and everyone is our neighbor.

 

Where do you place yourself in this story of the Good Samaritan?  If you’re like me, maybe you’re asking yourself if you would have been one of the people who passed by, or the one who stopped to help?  Which one in the story would we be?

 

But, what if you and I are the fellow in the ditch – robbed, beaten, left for dead?  Who is my neighbor, now?  Anybody who stops to help, and I likely won’t care what color they are, where they are from, or what they believe about any number of issues.  At that point, all that matters is the willingness to stop and offer compassion and care.

 

So, what if we are the one in the ditch, and what if Jesus is the one who has stopped to help?  It is Jesus who has interrupted what he was doing, seen our problem and made it his problem.  It is Jesus who stooped to our lowest weakness, and raised us up to a height we cannot fathom.  It is Jesus who saw us half-dead, and brought us back to life.  It is Jesus who gave himself for us, while, as St. Paul says, we were still sinners.

 

While we were in rebellion, while we were unrighteous, undeserving, sinners, Christ extended himself, inconvenienced himself, gave himself for us to prove God’s love toward us.  Thank God that Jesus wasn’t asking about the definition of his neighbor, trying to calculate the bare minimum of people he had to love, because, guess what, you and I probably wouldn’t have made the list!  Thank God that his heart of unconditional love was open wide enough to encompass and embrace you and me, to restore us, to place his life within us, and once we are alive again in his love and have gained strength though his grace, he says, “Go, and do thou likewise.”

 

Every Christmas, we see the red kettles of the Salvation Army outside every store in town.  Maybe you fish in your pocket for some change when you see them, maybe you pass them by.  At one busy store, there was a man who came and went several times a day.  He wasn’t particularly well-dressed, probably needed every penny he had, but he always dropped something in that red kettle every time he passed.  On one trip, he stopped, looked at the Salvation Army captain ringing the bell, and said, “A few years ago, you helped my wife and kids out when I wasn’t there for them.  I’ve never forgotten that, and I want to help the next family like you all helped mine.”

 

One who has received much also has much to give.  One who has been loved has much love to offer.  One who has been saved by grace also can live in grace toward others.

 

The lawyer who asked Jesus was looking for the right answer, which he already had.  As it turns out, just having the right answer isn’t enough.  Like that lawyer, we can devote our lives to the right answer – getting our doctrine straight, our beliefs in line, but unless our hearts have been transformed by God’s love, it gets us nowhere.

 

This week, I’ve seen a lot of Christians offer their opinion about things that are right and things that are wrong – scratch that, I’ve seen a lot of Christians offer their opinion about what they perceive to be wrong, and how they, themselves, must therefore be right.

 

Paulo Coelho says, “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”

 

Friends, Jesus isn’t going to ask us what we know.  He’s going to ask us how we love.  The Christian faith is not about having the right answers; it’s about having the right heart.  By the love and grace of God, the right heart is learning to be grateful for what we have been given when we didn’t deserve it, extending love and grace to every neighbor – every one – around us, seeing people as God sees, loving people as unconditionally as God loves us.

 

Given the choice between being right and being loving, between having the right answer and having the right heart, may we be the kind of people who err on the side of love and grace.  The world has enough people who think they’re right.  It needs more people who love and live like Jesus.

 

A lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he asked.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?  He already had all the right answers, but he lacked the right heart.  It’s not enough to know that we’re supposed to love God and our neighbor; to inherit eternal life, we have to actually do it.