April 3, 2011

the neighbor question

Scripture Reference: Luke 10:25-37

This morning we revisit a focus that we looked at last week, but in a different way, in a different passage.s

So we've go this Jewish lawyer, meaning he knows the Law. Not just the civil law. He knows the religious law inside and out. Which is to say that he's skilled in scripture. I mean, this is the guy who won the Sunday School sword drill as a kid. And he's kind of intense, it seems to me - kind of coming at Jesus in cross-examination mode. Wants to get it right. Interested in questions of eternal life. He can even quote chapter and verse for Jesus. Says it's all about loving God and loving your neighbor. He nails it, and yet somehow doesn't seem to fully get it. Somehow seems to have trouble hearing the word that he knows.

In fact, his next move is to try and justify himself. The lawyer tosses the whole thing back on Jesus, kind of like a hot potato. Yes, sure, you know...who is my neighbor? Define neighbor, could you? "He's looking for loopholes", says The Message...for a way out.

Who is my neighbor?

Jesus answers that with a story about a guy who's headed from Jerusalem down to Jericho. It's safe to assume that he's a Jew. And this guy is jumped by thieves; he's beaten up, thrown in a ditch and left for dead. A Jewish priest comes by first, sees him and hurries right on by. He was probably late for church. Next, a Levite - a Jewish temple assistant - sees the man but keeps his distance, too. I think he was probably listening to his iPod.

You know, no one would argue (of course) that this behavior is commendable. But it is possible that it's reasonable behavior. I mean thieves could plant a body like that on the side of the road as a trap in order to rob somebody else who came near. Or if it is a corpse and the priest and the Levite come close, they would have been disqualified from their temple responsibilities because they would have become defiled - ceremonially unclean - due to proximit to this dead body, so in some ways passing by is the prudent thing to do.

It's kind of how I feel when I'm approached by a pan handler or I see a homeless guy on the corner. You know, with a cardboard sign asking for money. And I think, well, he's probably just going to spend it for booze or for drugs or cigarettes or something, right? And so the prudent thing to do is to just pass by.

But of course, in the story somebody does stop. Somebody stops. Somebody who would have been a shock to our Jewish lawyer's system because it's a Samaritan. And Jews, to put it frankly, despised Samaritans. For Jews, Samaritans meant social outcast and religious heretic and ceremonially unclean all rolled into one. The presence of a Samaritan in the story would have rattled our lawyer. The phrase "good samaritan" would have grated on him like fingernails on a chalkboard. Samaritan is a bad guy.

I don't know, today it might be a little like saying a good undocumented immigrant or maybe a good Muslim fanatic. It doesn't add up. It doesn't fit. But as crazy at it sounds, the Samaritan stops and takes pity on this guy - this beat up Jewish guy in the ditch. The Samaritan who was maybe kind of beat up in his own way. Like maybe it takes one to know one.

And his heart goes out to this fellow. He's not only moved to tears, he's moved to action. Administering First Aid, transporting the guy to the hospital, running it up on his credit card. Run it up. It's okay. I'll take care of it.

The good Samaritan?

Who is my neighbor?

What Jesus is making clear here is that neighbor is not a term with limited liability, which is how the Jewish lawyer defined it. Neighbor was not limited to the short radius of those who were geographically or culturally nearby. No, neighbor included those outside the neighborhood, outside the comfort zone. Neighbor is not just people who look like me or smell like me or speak like me, or who even believe like me. Neighbor is anyone, anywhere, whose need constitutes a claim on my life, on my love.

It's interesting...You probably noticed this, that Jesus shifts the focus just a tiny bit from who is my neighbor to his question to the lawyer - who was the neighbor? And our lawyer cannot even bring himself to say the "S" word. The best he can manage is the one who stopped and showed mercy.

Right, Jesus said. Right. Now you go and do that. You stop. You start living that way. And you know full well that Jesus is still saying that in this text, and that he's saying it to us. You stop. You start living like that.

How tough can it be? Actually, pretty tough.

We talked about this last week...how we are unable to see others because well, frankly, we're not really looking. We're focused on other things. We're often focused on ourselves.

A few years back, a writer named Bill McKibben did an experiment. He found the largest TV system in the whole world, which happened to be in Fairfax, VA - a TV system with 100 channels...which doesn't sound like very many anymore, but at the time that was the largest cable TV system in the world. And McKibben had some people help him record everything that came across those channels. Everything. Every show. Every commercial.

And then, if you can believe it, McKibben sat down and watched all of those programs - all that was recorded, all of those tapes. He said (McKibben said), you know, you haven't lived until you've watched 48 straight hours of infomercials and home shopping.

And when he got through it, all McGibben said that the message that came through on the television everyday, relentlessly...what it boiled down to was simply this - that you are the most important thing on earth. You are the absolute center of the universe, the heaviest object around which everything else gravitates. Everything orbits around you. It's all about you. It's all about us and wanting what we want when we want it.

The thing is, McGibben was adamant that this consumerism is not just a marketing strategy. McGibben said he's convinced it is a demonic spiritual force making us self-centered...blinding us to the needs of others so that we simply do not see and do not stop.

One of the other reasons we don't stop is because we're so busy. And we don't have time to stop. Time is a very valuable resource. Actually, to tell you the truth, it's pretty easy for us to throw money at human need. The more costlier resource of our time - caring - takes time. Relationship takes time. We don't stop because we're so busy.

In fact, I've become convinced that there's kind of a unique kind of busyness that shows up in the life of Christians. We can spend enormous amounts of energy focused on getting our theological ducks in a row, focused on taking the right stand. But sometimes we get so busy taking the right stand that we never stand in the right place - stand with those who are beat up, with the outcase, with those who are on the margins.

I mean, it's like the old joke of the guy who falls into a pit and can't get himself out. How do we respond? The Buddhist says you're pit is only a state of mind. The Fundamentalist says you deserve your pit. The Presbyterian? The Presbyterian says let's get a committee together and study the matter.

Let's take the right stand.

But Jesus seeing the man takes him by the hand and lifts him out of the pit. This is one of the things I love most about Jesus. He's not just about taking the right stands. He's about standing in the right place with people who are beat up. There is no category of people, no group of sinners from which he ever isolates himself, from which he cuts himself off...not even those whose religion denied him.

I love Jesus' mercy and his compassion. How he reached down - he reached down into the pit of humility. How he himself gets right down into the pit. How he is willing - he is willing - to get beat up. How he's willing even to die in order to rescue everyone who's in the pit.

I'm humbled by his passion, by his suffering love.

So you know how some churches have titles for their pastors - like Senior Pastor of Associate Pastor? Sometimes it's a little more descriptive, like Youth Pastor or Pastor for Outreach. I heard about a woman who came into the church office one day to meet with the Pastor of Missions at her church, only she got a little flustered and it came out a little garbled. The woman said to the church receptionist, "I have an appointment with the Minister of Passion."

And I'm thinking, you know, that might not be so far from the truth. I mean, shouldn't that be all of our titles? Minister of Passion. Put that on your business card. I'm a Minister of Passion. I am claimed by the passion of Jesus Christ. His suffering love. I am passionate about reaching out to the last and the least and the lost with the love of Jesus Christ. I am passionate, not just abou taking the right stands, but about standing in the right place with Jesus.

And let me tell you, the thing is we're not doing social work. We are doing gospel-infused ministry that is empowered by the risen Lord when we stand where he stands. And, yea, I know it will never seem like enough. I know it will seem insignificant and in fact it will be insignificant. And yet, still, it is very important that we do it. That we stand with Jesus, that we do this gospel-infused ministry, that we love our neighbor in the name of Christ, in the power of Christ, for the glory of Christ.

Who was my neighbor? The one who showed compassion. Go and do likewise.

You know, as an interim pastor, I have discovered that you walk into all kinds of situations - interesting situations in churches. In my last church, there was a homeless man living int he church basement - a very sweet man, very dear. It was supposed to be temporary. He had his own key. He could come and go as he pleased. And he just kind of stayed. And by the time I got there it was going on like 7 years.

Actually, I think he liked the basement, and I'm telling you, it was not a pleasant space, that basement. It was dark, and dank. It had no windows. But I think he rather actually liked that because the thing is, this man had a huge tumor over one side of his face. It was over his eye. He tried to hide it with bandages, but it was too big. And in fact the tumor kept growing through the years. He needed surgery, but he let it be known that he had a phobia of doctors and that he just couldn't do that.

Believe it or not, most of the church didn't even know that he was there. There were only a handful of people that knew there was a man living in the church basement. And to me it felt a little bit like we were passing him by. Ignoring him. By not helping him get the treatment that he needed. Where did he bathe? Where did he eat? I don't know. We had to do something. If the authorities found out, they'd probably shut the church down. It was illegal.

And yet, of course, nobody wanted to see him back n the streets. We found him a social worker - a seasoned veteran who worked with the toughest situations imaginable. When I first explained the situation to her, the first words out of her mouth were, "Oh, my." I mean, I shocked her...a seasoned vet! This was a new one.

The first thing the social worker did was get him the government assistance that he qualified for. Next, she got him an appointment at Harborview. And eventually, a few months later, they scheduled him for the much-needed eye surgery...all expenses paid. She had picked him up at the church at 4:00 am one morning to take him to the hospital, and at the last minute, he refused to go. Later, he apologized to me. He said, "I just couldn't do it. I was too scared." Finally, on my last day - my very last day - at the church, he moved into his own apartment. We had a shower for him, loaded him up with housewarming gifts, and prayed for him. And I have to tell you, it did not seem like enough. I'm pretty sure it will never seem like enough. And yet, still, it is important to do it. Gospel-infused ministry. By the power of God who is at work within us. Thanks be to God.

Let's pray.

Lord, hear us as we take a moment to confess to you what's true about us and this story - as we confess to you our reluctance to get involved, our inability to stop, our inability to see.

We confess that we are surrounded by human need and yet we're too busy. We're surrounded by human need and sometimes we're asking diversionary questions, trying to justify ourselves. And this text comes knocking on the door of our lives and asks us to take a stand with you. Help us to be the people you would have us be, O God. Give us a determination greater than ourselves, a strength greater than ourselves, an ability to see beyond ourselves. Help us to be people who open our eyes and our hearts to anyone whose need constitutes a claim on our love. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.