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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.

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