Put up a sticky and don't forget to come to the Sprinklerama this Saturday, August 24th, anytime from 12:30pm to 3:30pm. This is a great opportunity to meet some new members of our community and let them meet us!! Wear something light and take a sprint through a sprinkler! Sit down for a good chat with a perfect stranger! And enjoy watching the kids revel in the last hot days of summer. Please bring a lawn chair or two, hoses and sprinklers to the Main Street Park in Twin Bridges (between the Fire Hall and the Old Hotel). We have cookies and cold drinks. We'll see you there!!
A sermon preached in Christ Church, Sheridan, MT, by the Rev. Bruce McNab.
8th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 10, Yr. C. July 14, 2013. (Text: Luke 10:25-37)
How many of you here would like to have eternal life? May we have a show of hands? Thank you. Usually more than half the people present will raise their hands when asked this question. Even so, even half the congregation raising hands means the question with which today’s gospel begins is still important, two thousand years later. And it’s even more relevant if we realize that “eternal life” isn’t something we must wait to enjoy in heaven. It’s available right now.
Our story opens with: “A lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” I’ll resist the temptation to tell a lawyer joke here. Anyway, the “lawyer” who questioned Jesus wasn’t that kind of lawyer. He was a scribe, an expert on the Law of Moses, and the favorite pastime of scribes was debating interpretations of the Law with other scribes. So when he asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” he was doing something like that. But his question was totally new. There’s no evidence that Jewish scribes before he time of Christ ever discussed eternal life. This means our lawyer had been listening and thinking about what Jesus was saying. He was a “good guy,” not a “bad guy.” And his was no off-the-cuff question. Jesus turned it back to him: “Well, how do you understand the Law on this point?”
Then the man with the unique question gave an equally unique answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and strength, and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agreed. “Do this,” he said, “and you will live.” But then the lawyer asked, “Well, okay, but WHO is my neighbor?”Now the issue shifts from love of God and love of neighbor exclusively to love of neighbor. Why? Because Luke wants everyone to see the fundamental link between loving God and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.
The scribe was asking Jesus to define the limits of love. “Where do I draw the line? Who belongs to my personal community of care? Who must I love because they’re my neighbors, and whose needs may I ignore because they’re NOT my neighbors?” The letter of the Law of Moses was unambiguous: “neighbors” meant Jewish neighbors, along with any gentile sojourners living among them.
To answer the lawyer’s question, Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We can grasp the essence of the parable pretty quickly: my neighbor is not limited to those who live on my block, or belong to my church or to my ethnic group. My neighbor is anybody from anywhere who needs the help I’m able to provide.
Jesus put a twist in his story by making its hero the representative of a category of people that Jews despised. That probably shocked his audience. It certainly didn’t win him any friends. It was like a preacher in the deep South back in 1860 (or even 1960) choosing to use a black man’s behavior as an illustration of virtue in a sermon —and then, to make matters worse, comparing the black man’s compassion with the heartlessness of a couple of white ministers. Listeners would have marched out of the church.
But Jesus’ point was obvious: If you want to inherit eternal life, you have to behave like a “neighbor” to whatever needy people you encounter in life even if they’re definitely not “your kind” of people. Even if they’re your enemies. You’re to love them as you love yourself. In fact, if you do that you show that you’re already living “the life of the age to come”!
Nowadays, we generally hear this parable as a nice story with a tidy little moral. We identify with the Samaritan and imagine we’d do just what he did if we were confronted on a lonely and dangerous road with a poor victim of highway robbery. Thinking like that keeps us in our comfort zone. But there’s plenty of evidence that we’re deluding ourselves. Our society is full of people who DON’T imitate the Good Samaritan, even when they have an obvious opportunity.
We learn from Jesus a lot better if, instead of identifying with the Good Samaritan, we identify ourselves with the victim. Jesus tells a story about US lying there by the highway, stripped, robbed, nearly dead, and desperately needing somebody, anybody—friend or foe—to have compassion on us before we die.
Or, if that seems too far-fetched, then just imagine being stranded in a broken-down car on a busy highway, back in the age before cell phones. Did that ever happen to you? It happened to me forty-one years ago on the Pulaski Skyway across the Hudson from Manhattan. It was rush hour on the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, and I’m sure lots of the people who whizzed by me were Christians, but none of them even slowed down. Finally a New Jersey state trooper came along and told me he’d radio for a tow truck to come out from Hoboken but in the meantime I should get out of my car and stand at least fifty feet away, since it might get rammed by a passing vehicle. And, by the way, “have a nice holiday.”
To love my neighbor as myself means to so identify with the needs of another person that the care I give that person is precisely the care I’d want if I were in his place.
We follow Jesus, the Son of God who came to give us eternal life. He identified with our human need: our loneliness, our desire to be loved just as we are, our fear of death, our need for forgiveness, and our hunger for a shepherd to lead us. (That’s what the Incarnation was all about: God himself stepping into our shoes!)
If we’re serious about having the “eternal life” Jesus talked about right now—not just in the sweet by-and-by— we have to get serious about imitating Jesus and opening our hearts to share the pain, grief, hunger, or loneliness of everyone we meet—reaching out like the Good Samaritan and showing ourselves to be neighbors who love them.
Because we live in “the Age of Therapy,” when we hear the expression love your neighbor as yourself we tend to psychologize it and start wondering what constitutes healthy self-love. This sends us down the wrong road. To love my neighbor as myself doesn’t require a mental-health definition of self-love. In the Biblical sense, to love myself simply means to take care of my needs—of any sort—in a natural way. To “love myself” means to provide for myself food and drink when I’m hungry and thirsty, a bath when I feel dirty, a coat when I’m cold, a place to live, transportation to work, and medical care when I’m sick.
Whatever Christians regard as necessities for ourselves, we should want to provide for others who lack them. For example, if I “love myself” and I’ve been injured in an accident, I’ll need medical treatment. If I’m to hold a job and support my dependents, then I’ll need some sort of training or education. If I work outside my home, I’ll need transportation to work. If I’m not to be a soulless drudge, I’ll need opportunities for recreation and intellectual stimulus.
Love your neighbor as yourself calls for very practical love. It’s not about just giving people “warm fuzzies.” If my neighbor has no way to get to work every day and I’m able to give him a ride or maybe let him drive my old car, what do you think Jesus would want me to do? If the young couple next door haven’t had an evening out in a year because they can’t afford a babysitter, much less a restaurant tab, what would Jesus want me to do?
Jesus’ lesson for the lawyer was clear: If you really want to live, if you want to “get a Life,” then imitate the Good Samaritan: “Go and do likewise.” Be a compassionate person. Be a neighbor. Compassion isn’t just a feeling; it’s a decision to act on that feeling.
The love we give back to God is always a response to God’s love for us, and loving our neighbor is a way of loving God. In fact, the commandment to love my neighbor as myself tests whether I actually love God at all.
Here’s the point: We can be as close to God as we are to our neighbors. The choice of how near God we want to get is up to us.
Please click here for a pdf version of this sermon.
A sermon preached in Christ Church, Sheridan, by the Rev. Bruce McNab.
4th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 6, Year C. June 15, 2013. (Text: Luke 7:36-50)
Sometimes when I read the Bible I wonder: If Jesus were living as a man among us today, what kind of person would he be? I mean: How would he act? What kind of job would he have? And who might modern-day counterparts of the Pharisees be?
If Jesus had been born into our modern age and if lived around here in rural Montana, I imagine him being a workman of some kind—like a field hand or a cowboy—who feels a call from God to be a preacher, but does his preaching along with his regular work of building and mending fences, mucking out stalls, digging ditches and helping manage the livestock. He’d probably be living in an old mobile home out behind somebody else’s barn. He’d be a man who goes every Sunday to a different church and stands up at the “welcome to visitors time” and gives an impromptu sermon or tells a story that upsets the pastor but touches the hearts of many people in the pews. After church, the people leave buzzing about the strange man and what he’s said. Many feel drawn to him, but others are repulsed because he’s so unconventional. (The pastor is always among the ones who are “turned off.”)
To continue these musings, especially in light of the gospel we just read about Simon the Pharisee and his dinner party, who do you think the “Simons” in our world might be? They’d almost surely include “professional Christians” like me, people comfortable with the church just as it is because we’re running it.
But, wait. Are we really happy with the church as it is? —Or, I might say, the church as it has been?— If we’ve learned anything at all from the New Testament, we’ve learned that true religion is not mainly about “rules.” Or about mastering some body of information. True religion is about experiencing a life-changing relationship with God--and the life we live after that change occurs. Let’s translate today’s gospel story into a modern setting, and just for fun let’s re-imagine it in the context of an Episcopal Church in Anytown, USA.
Suspicious of an uneducated, self-appointed evangelist in Carhartt coveralls—but still a little curious—Father Simon corners Jesus at coffee hour and invites him to come to dinner at the rectory that evening along with some other church members. This is supposed to seem welcoming, but it’s really a way to let the parish decision-makers check out what kind of person this Jesus is. (Lots of people who were at the service that morning think he’s wonderful, but others think he’s probably mentally ill.) Maybe Father Simon can at least persuade him not to stand up and preach his own mini-sermon at welcome time if he ever comes back to Trinity Episcopal Church in Anytown.
Simon knows how to do the proper thing. He’s a genteel master of the gracious gesture and proud of how he handles these awkward situations. Truth to be told, Father Simon is quite “proud,” period--though he wears a veneer of phony humility.
We need to put the woman who comes in off the street into our modern retelling of the gospel. Let’s picture her as a familiar “local character” who shows up uninvited at the rectory during Simon’s dinner party. She’s probably a hooker. Yes, that’s the clear implication of the gospel. When she shows up at his house, Father Simon (and the other “nice people” at the dinner party) are sure they know exactly what kind of woman she is. They’ve even seen her on a back pew in Trinity a couple of times over the years; but she’s definitely not part of “their crowd.”
Knocking at the door and barging into the rectory during dinner is out of bounds for well-brought-up ladies. If it wasn’t a church-related gathering, no one would let her in. But, after all, this is the rectory, and (strictly speaking) church custom requires that she be allowed in. Maybe she needs financial help—you know, a check from the Rector’s Discretionary Fund to help with rent, or groceries, or some other necessities.
So, in she comes. But instead of talking to Fr. Simon in the vestibule the way she should, the woman brushes past him into the dining room and makes a bee-line for this Jesus person. Then she starts fawning over him and crying. She’s wearing heavy makeup and mascara, and the tears make a mess of her face. And she’s wearing a totally inappropriate dress—big flowery print, very low-cut, and barely reaching to her knees. Vulgar!
Then this woman of the streets takes a bottle of expensive French perfume out of her gaudy little purse and begins to dab it liberally all over their guest. --And Jesus just sits still and lets her do it! He even smiles at her while she’s doing it! When that happens, Father Simon and the other church people look wide-eyed at one another and nod. All of them are thinking the same thing: “He knows this woman! This ‘preacher’ has been spending time with this shameless wanton. They have a personal relationship! ”
And, of course, Jesus and this shameless woman do have a “personal relationship.” Simon and his other guests have nasty suspicions about what kind of personal relationship it is. Their suspicions are wrong, but they ARE right about one thing. Totally right. The woman is shameless. Jesus has taken away her shame!
Somehow, somewhere, sometime the forgiving, healing power of Perfect Love and Perfect Holiness that meet in Jesus have touched this woman and set her free. The shame of her profession, the shame of her past life, the self-loathing that she’s felt for years have been lifted. She is forgiven. And so she comes looking for Jesus for a perfectly logical reason: it is so she can show her thankfulness and the decent love she feels for him in the biggest, fanciest way she can think of. Indeed, she is a woman who has a “personal relationship with Jesus”! And nothing will ever embarrass her about that.
“True religion” is about practicing the kind of personal honesty that leads to a life-changing relationship with God—and about the life we live after our lives are changed. It’s NOT just about “observing the rules.” True religion is about accepting the grace of God, being grateful to God for his love, and being unashamed to show it and share it with others. True religion is about being a new creation.
Jesus’ willingness to reach out to this woman in healing love had—sometime earlier than the dinner party—overcome her shame. But I wonder what happened to uptight Simon’s pride? Did anything ever humble him? You know, it isn’t until we forget our pride and, in a sense, begin to “feel ashamed of ourselves” that we’re able to turn to God and let him forgive us, make us over. Alcoholics Anonymous has it right: we can’t open ourselves to God’s power til we finally admit we’re stuck and can’t save ourselves.
This woman of the streets had had a lot that needed forgiving when she first met Jesus. And he forgave it all. Those whose many sins have been forgiven are not ashamed to show their love for God. But proud, pious Simon doubted there was much in his life that needed forgiving. (“My ‘sins’? Surely there must be some, but I’m not aware of any.”) Simon was happy just as he was. He had no need of “a personal relationship with Jesus.” (Whatever that might mean!)
Jesus said: “Those who have been forgiven little, love little.” We need to ask ourselves: Do we ever love with “shameless love,” over-the-top love, in showing our gratitude to God, the way the woman did who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair and then anointed him with costly perfume? Do we ever let such over-the-top love manifest itself in front of all the world? Or are we like Simon—willing to acknowledge Jesus with a polite nod, but with no reason and no desire to show him any sort of love?
When we’re honest with ourselves and honest with God, the Spirit delivers us from our illusions and shows us reality: the reality that we’re sinners who need a Savior.
And our Savior is right here!