Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 3/7
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, August 6th, 2017
A couple of you have asked me: hey we moved the furniture around here, what’s going on? What I really want to say is you are lucky we haven’t flipped it around so we face that way, and this is the balcony. I want you to come to church every week expecting something different happens here. Oops. Well, I just spilled that’s different.
There was a workshop I went to fairly recently. There were about 30 of us and we were asked to name one thing we do fairly well or do really well and I had to say: I’m a pretty good thinker. If you give me a few minutes and you are patient with me, I can understand just about anything. I get my brain around a lot of things. Two things can’t seem to understand is the stock market and the attraction of reality TV. Those elude me. Figuring things out gives me the same kind of thrill that I imagine my fly-fishing grandfather got when he was able to pull a big rainbow trout out of a stream in Colorado. Some of you have that same relationship with math. Some of you get really excited when you talk about math and it’s almost like you don’t understand the rest of us are hearing: tooooooooo. That is how it is for me and figuring things out. I’ll run, my mind will try follow, and my mind will try to keep up and I know people toooooooo. That’s how we are. Some of us are that way about science. Some of us are that way about figuring out children and how to best teach children. Some of us are that way about organizing and administrating so that things happen.
I remember in seminary, I spent a lot of afternoons in my study carrel and on into the evening; I would miss dinner. In my library study carrel reading and trying to understand and comprehend and get my brain around really hard theologians like Karl Barth’s work on the dual nature of Christ. I remember that night because I was in my study carrel till about 11 o’clock. I kept reading what Karl Barth was saying and not comprehending it; not getting it. Then about the ninth time through something clicked and I finally got it. And I mean I really got it. I had to go outside and dance. Now I’m a good thinker. I am not good at dancing so we won’t go there.
I feel that same excitement about the art of preaching. To look deep into a biblical text and wake up a tired language and set trapped images free; so that it positively gleams with the meaning that was originally intended. I’m ready to dance. The most perfect sermon is still just an exercise in talking and hearing. Apparently the world could not care less about what you say — really — until you translate what you say and what you think into action. That seems to be something that is understood by the Good Samaritan in our story today. He is the heretic outcast who actually is a better religious person than the religious people. I’ll be frank with you: the task of helping strangers, given the number of people who need help, the overwhelming impossibility of solving everyone’s problems; I really don’t understand the Good Samaritan.
The one in the story that I really understand is the lawyer who asks the question and brings Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. This lawyer is above all a smart person, a thinker, a well-trained mind. He’s logical but he’s also imaginative, creative, he can make sound connections between seemingly unrelated details and he can root out inconsistencies and impracticalities. He’s a thinker and I understand his thinking. I understand this guy. He’s concerned with the law, if not justice necessarily. He is concerned with drawing a line between right and wrong and good and bad. And because he is following Jesus around the lawyer in the story is also a person who is hungry for God. He has come to wonder if he’s missing something. It might be why he became a teacher of the law, a lawyer, searching to know the law. How do I organize my life so that it is worth living? The question he brings to Jesus is just that: what must I do to inherit eternal life?
He is not the first person to ask that question. Who does not want that? Who does not want to live a life with meaning that you really don’t want to end? We come to think that eternal life means heaven, somewhere in the sweet by and by, the jackpot at the end of the rainbow/ But not if you listen to Jesus; if you listen to Jesus; the jackpot is now. Eternal life means enjoying the life and the breadth and the depth and the sweetness of life that comes when we live an eternal life; now, right this minute! The kingdom of God is at hand. But how do we get that? What must we do to experience that kind of life teacher. He said what must I do to inherit eternal life? The lawyer wants someone to hand him the key. He wants the answer to come from outside of him. But Jesus wants this lawyer to discover it for himself and so in good rabbinic form Jesus answers the question with a question of his own. What is written in the law? Jesus asked this man; what do you read their? This educated, intelligent, intellectual lawyer answers beautifully. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind soul and strength and with all your mind and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.
It’s one of those answers that makes the hair on your arm stand up and makes your skin get that prickly feeling. It is so beautiful and right and profound. Jesus tells him: you’ve given the right answer. Do this and you will live. Or did it sound more like this you’ve given the right answer. Do this and you will live CLUNK! You know what to do now; go do it. CLUNK! Why CLUNK? Because the lawyer is thinking about all of the people he passes every day as he goes about his business: people sitting on steps and stoops and sleeping on sidewalks and drinking in doorways. He thinks about the morning headlines in the paper that morning about injured and ill people. He thinks about all the people on his books that cannot pay him. He thinks about the daily mail that brings pleas for conscience: send money for abuse children, send money for injured veterans, and send money for this organization or that organization — the victims of a dozen deadly diseases. He thinks about all the people who can’t pay for the advice they’ve received. He thinks about all the people who need a little bit of free advice.
Do this and you will live — yeah right. Do this and I’ll die of exhaustion. Most of us are pretty hard on the lawyer because we are moving past him. Most of us are the lawyer. We look at him as if he doesn’t get it and we are passing judgment on ourselves because we don’t get it. He is us. If we listen to the lawyer, we will find ourselves. We will probably say what the lawyer says. Desiring to justify himself he asked Jesus to define his terms: and who is my neighbor, he asks, hoping for a little bit to help, a little bit of wiggle room, hoping Jesus might limit his liability so that he might have a prayer of meeting this responsibility. Who is my neighbor he asked. But what he’s really asking is, who is not my neighbor? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind soul and strength and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. Who is my neighbor – actually — who’s not my neighbor? Who can I set outside my area of concern and still feel good. He wants to discuss this issue; explore it with Jesus; expose the problems inherent until it all become so complicated that he can do nothing. We do the same thing. Watch this lawyer; he’s us. We stall, doing anything simple by complicating the matter so that we can finally just throw up our hands and say well it’s so poorly defined; it’s so impractical; how can we even hope to do this?
I have friends with whom I do this from time to time, usually when I’m feeling overwhelmed. We go to lunch together. We stack up all the evidence we can find that homelessness is really an insoluble problem and having as much to do with addiction and poor choices and mental health and illiteracy and the government programs trying to solve it as it does with anything else that we might do. How can we hope to even get a handle on this? So we just talk ourselves out of doing anything. We compare our experience and we say things like, well, if we are honest, there’s as many no account poor people as there are no account rich people and if there’s no real connection between goodness and money then why not have money? Poor people with money lose it very quickly we say. Giving it away might make you feel better, but the chances that it really changes someone’s life that is slim. Again, the real problems are outside of our purview to affect and so why do anything. We talk ourselves out of it again. If you’re having a hard time following these arguments — please understand — that’s the point. These arguments are designed not to make things clearer or to resolve an issue, but to convolute the issue and to muddle things so completely that it becomes impossible to do anything.
These arguments are designed to make you feel as if you really are insightful about the issue and that, well, your heart is in the right place and I can prove by talking about it quite intelligently that I know a lot. The thinking and understanding is really the issue. That’s one way this practice of using complexity of a viewpoint as a way of keeping “doing” at arm’s length. There is another way that we use just as readily. We talk ourselves into doing nothing. It is a little more insidious. It happens when we lose ourselves into ourselves and the complexity of our busy lives and the time demands that pull on us and we are subject to this and that and we all know we have to run just to keep up and we don’t keep up and we feel like we are falling further behind and we really don’t even have time for everything that we have to do to stay afloat and families and children and responsibilities and bills to pay and jobs to perform and everywhere we have to be to get our kids raise properly and let alone thinking about people who well, God love him, probably make poor decisions and that’s what put them in that place in the first place. I’m sorry you just can’t be responsible for all of them. I just can’t do it all. I’m busy. There I said it; are you happy now?
Jesus just doesn’t cooperate with that conversation. We, the lawyer, wants to talk about love and how complicated it is to be open to everyone all the time. Really, can’t Jesus make his instructions a little bit easier to follow? Give me something I can manage like defining who my neighbor is exactly? Jesus knows he is a thinking man and so he tells him the story you’ve heard many times about how it does not matter what we think, what we believe, what we understand, what we know, what we feel and what we say about love. The only thing that matters is what we do about love and how that doing brings life. After Jesus tells the story he lets the lawyer answer his own question: which of these three says Jesus, the two religious types who crossed the road to avoid getting involved or the heretic outsider who took care of the beaten man. Which of these three is the neighbor? The lawyer is a smart cookie and he is very clear that he saw himself in the story Jesus told as one of the two religious types who was too busy moving down the road. We might consider that they didn’t stop for reasons of morality but I don’t read it that way. I read they were too busy being busy. It doesn’t matter why because they passed by and did nothing.
Which of these three do you think proved to be the neighbor to the man who had taken the beating? It’s a set up. Of course there’s only one simple answer to that question, the one the lawyer again gives with great eloquence: the one who showed mercy; the one who did something. Jesus says go and do likewise and you will have a life worth living. You may notice that’s not really an answer to the question the lawyer asked. The question the lawyer asked was who is my neighbor? But the question Jesus answers is: whose neighbor are you? The answer is: anyone’s, everyone’s. Jesus declines to limit the commandment to love and lets the lawyer decide how he will act. One thing is for sure in this text. What Jesus is calling him/us to do is not a leap in our thinking, not a great realization, not a new understanding or knowledge or an emotion or a clear idea. It simply doing; showing mercy; being a neighbor; doing love. This is a sermon about not confusing knowing, understanding, feeling, thinking and saying with actually loving, doing.
The story that follows this one, however, is a little confusing. It’s Mary and Martha there in the home. Martha sits at the feet of Jesus. Mary is trying to get the kitchen and everything cleaned up and she’s doing all the work. Martha is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening. Mary is doing everything out of love and Jesus praises Martha who is sitting at his feet listening. How do we sort that meaning out? Well the point of both of these stories is putting God first in our lives, putting God in front of our busy-ness, in front of our schedule; God first, sometimes to help, sometimes to sit. It’s fine to work. It’s fine to be busy at times but when that is all you are, how can God get a word in edge wise? It’s fine to think and to talk and to be frustrated and feel overwhelmed. But when talk is all we do, how can God fit a word in edge wise? Then we, together with the lawyer to whom Jesus is talking, we see ourselves as so busy, so involved, so overcommitted that it freezes us and we cannot even think about doing one more thing. And so we scurry down the road not even noticing the guys on the sidewalk, not even noticing the women on the corner. We are neighbor to no one.
It seems to me that the first task of loving is to simplify our existence so that we can simply notice an opportunity when it’s in front of us. What if the daily bread that we’ve been given — on a day like today — is enough for two? We might be a little hungry but one other person got fed. What if being a good neighbor is what leads to the fullness of life that you never want to end? What if living that kind of a life where you’ve always got a minute to help, always got a minute to hand a dollar to, always got a minute to… It fills you with joy like catching fish in a stream. To do love in this story and in our lives is to find our way out of thoughts that we have put in place that defeats our desired to do something.
No, we cannot solve homelessness. No, you alone are not going to save every child that has leukemia. No, you cannot send enough money to solve every problem you get in the mail. No, you cannot volunteer enough time to solve everyone’s problem. No, you cannot mentor every kid in the neighborhood. What if you just took care of the problem that was right in front of you? What if the Good Samaritan is good because on that particular day he engaged creatively the one problem that was right in front of him? What if we did that and all he did was a little more than the minimum. The minimum would’ve been stop, care for the man, bless him, tend his wounds and leaving him by the side of the road. That’s the minimum that is required in Jewish law. He took him to an inn, he enrolled him in the end, and he paid for care; a little more than is expected.
Most days nothing happens but some days; what if we spent ten minutes talking with that lonely neighbor whose wife died last month? What if we make it our opportunity to take a meal to a young Mom down the street who just had surgery? What if we see it as an opportunity that when in our work group the conversation turns into Islam-a-phobia we intervene and say: guys knock it off, that’s nonsense? What if we look as an opportunity to buy a sandwich for the man we see every day on the corner looking for something? What we see is an opportunity when we come out of the grocery store to get out our jumper cables and help someone get there car start? How do we love when the opportunity presents itself each day? You know what it means to do love because you have been the recipient of someone’s love. But remember, knowing the right answer does not change a thing. Whose neighbor are you? Go and do love.