Sermon transcript for July 14, 2013
Who Is My Neighbor?
Belmont UMC—July 14, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
The recent edition of Runners World Magazine features stories related to the Boston Marathon bombing. Not long ago I heard the editor of this magazine interviewed on National Public Radio and he spoke about the events of the day in May when the bombing took place near the finish line of the marathon. He had been along the race route that day and at one point had been near the location of the bombing. He learned of the bombing as he was boarding a train to go home to Connecticut to be with his wife and children.
He spoke of those runners who had trained all year and whose main life goal was to compete in the Boston Marathon and complete it. He spoke of those runners, near the finish line and realizing that bombs were injuring spectators, gave up their life long goal and ran to help those who were wounded. He said, “I like to think that’s what we would all have done, if we’d been there. I like to think that’s what I would have done, but I’ll never know. One never knows how we will respond at the moment of crisis.”
As we hear Jesus telling a story about a Samaritan who helped a wounded traveler along the Jericho road we must find ourselves asking the same question, “What would have I have done if I came upon this wounded man? How would I have responded?”
The parable is a familiar one—we learned it in Sunday School as children and because of its familiarity it may have lost some of its punch for those of us who have been around the church for awhile.
I recall using this parable for a preschool chapel devotional at my last church. I asked the 3 and 4 year olds to act out the different parts as I read the story. I had a team of “bad guys” ready to pounce on our unsuspecting traveler, when a brown eyed little girl looked up at me (I thought she was going to cry.) and said, “Oh, please, I don’t think I can be one of the bad guys.” So she walked across the chancel and joined the team of good Samaritans. Not surprisingly, several little boys on the front row raised their hands enthusiastically and said, “Pick me! Pick me! I’ll be a bad guy!” (Well of course you will, boys.)
In a youth group setting we took a number of parables and rewrote them in modern language and with modern settings. The youth were encouraged to think outside the box and be creative. One group used today’s text. It bothered me a bit when their version told the story of a man who was beaten along a familiar road and left for dead. The read their version, “And Pastor Ken, was on his way to the Finance Committee, and was too busy to stop and help.” They continued, “Then the District Superintendent came by and decided from his vantage point that the man was already dead so he kept going.” (I like that part better). “Then the Bishop came by. . .” None of us was left unscathed. Their interpretation was correct: that we should look for ourselves in the story and ask, “What would we have done?”
The parable came as the result of a question from legal expert. Jesus told the crowds, “Love your neighbor.” The legal expert asked, “Who is my neighbor? Could you clarify that for me?” Frederick Buechner writes, “He presumably wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence, unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.’ Instead, Jesus told the story of a Good Samaritan, the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is anybody who need you.”
(Listening to Your Life)
A man was beaten and robbed on the road to Jericho, a familiar and dangerous stretch, a place where thieves waited for travelers. Probably Jesus’ hearers had been robbed along that same stretch of road or they knew someone who had. Two clergy-type folks passed by and did not help the victim. According to law, contact with a dead person would render them religiously unclean and unfit for temple duty. And the man looked dead, didn’t he?
And here is the surprise. It is a Samaritan who offered to help, and in no small way. He was generous beyond expectation. As Jesus’ hearers listened to this part of the story, their mouths would have dropped open in disbelief and shock.
The history of animosity between Jews and Samaritans was long and deep, and neither wanted much to do with the other—not since the Babylonian exile. Hundreds of years had passed and the hatred still ran deep. They worshipped at different temples and Jesus’ disciples, in another gospel story, offered to bring down fire on some Samaritans.
But a Samaritan stopped to help a Jewish victim, and at great cost to himself. Shocking!!
Maybe this parable tells us what Jesus would do. We like to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” The question became a bit cliché over the last few decades, but it is a valid theological question. The problem with the question is that when we ask the question seriously we discover that we don’t like the answers so much. What would Jesus do? Jesus would cross the road to help the wounded victim, but more importantly, he would cross the cultural, social, and ethnic, religious, racial barriers that often divide us. Our nation needs a church that will model that kind of compassion.
Someone said that parables add to our religious uncertainty. Let me repeat that: Parables add to our religious uncertainty. We thought we knew who our neighbors were until Jesus told us a parable about a Good Samaritan.
The thing is: we like our boundaries, our walls, our barriers that define who’s in and who’s out. Those boundaries create some odd sense of comfort for us. They take away the uncertainty. We like to draw boundaries. Jesus erases them. We build walls. Jesus tears them down. We wish Jesus would tell a parable that helps us understand who our enemies are. Instead, Jesus tells a parable that helps us understand who our neighbors are. The problem is: it turns out that the people we thought were our enemies are, in fact, our neighbors.
The other way to look at this parable is from the view point of the victim. The victim has no choice in the story, but would this Jewish victim prefer the help of a Samaritan. Probably not.
I remember a story Ellsworth Kalas told us years ago at a pastors’ retreat. He was on his way downtown Cincinnati on a hot summer day to speak at a big luncheon. He was on the interstate and his car began to sputter and he noticed the gas gauge was on empty. He quickly exited into one of the worst parts of the city, into an area where mostly bars and questionable businesses existed. His car coasted to stop in front of a run down bar. This was before cell phones so he rolled the windows up and locked the doors and prayed.
Two rough looking men came out of the bar and walked earnestly toward his car. He was terrified of what they might do. One of men banged on the window and then looked Kalas in the eye through glass. He yelled, “Are you okay in there?” Kalas responded, “I’m out of gas.” The man yelled back, “Come inside where it’s cool.” Kalas, “I’m fine here.” Perspiration dripped off his nose and onto his lap.
The two men disappeared behind the bar and Kalas was relieved. In a few moments they reappeared with a gas can and began to fill his tank. He unlocked the door and came out and thanked the men. He said, “I felt stupid. I guess I wanted the Methodists to come and help me but they never showed up.” We will likely find ourselves on the receiving end of unlikely and surprising help and God will teach what it really means to be a neighbor.
The question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” We know the answer, even if we don’t like it or it inconveniences us. The question is, “How shall we love our neighbors?” Jesus invites us to follow him. In a world that loves to draw boundaries and build barriers, Jesus invites us to be dare to care disciples who find themselves by losing themselves in service to others.
Jesus invites to love our neighbors, with the kind of love and compassion that stopped a Samaritan in his tracks on the road to Jericho, with love that reaches across boundaries and prejudice with help and healing.
How do we love our neighbors? Spontaneously, unconditionally, sacrificially, unilaterally, and maybe a little recklessly, because that is what Jesus would do.
Sermon transcript for July 7, 2013
Step into the Water
II Kings 5:1-14
Belmont UMC—July 7, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Today, I invite you to step into the water with a man named Naaman. The story of Naaman is a colorful and surprising story (and a bit humorous)—one of my favorites from the Hebrew Scripture. I recall a sermon on this passage preached by one of my professors. Actually, I only remember the title: “Seven Ducks in a Muddy River.” The same professor preached a sermon Jesus casting demons into swine. He titled it, “Deviled Ham.” I’m not as clever with titles but I do invite you into the water for awhile this morning.
Naaman is the Secretary of Defense for a powerful and wealthy country, Aram, which has had a mixed history with Israel. Aram has been an enemy of Israel. Naaman is rich and powerful himself, and armies bow to him. But he is sick. He has contracted leprosy, a terrible disease with an equally awful stigma. It makes for awkward networking with heads of state when one cannot extend a hand.
He is ill, and this powerful and self-sufficient person, this mighty warrior, with armies at his disposal, does not have the power to heal himself. In the face of illness, Naaman finds him self vulnerable and helpless. And don’t we all at such times?
But there is one person in Naaman’s household who has an answer for his dilemma. This person is a young Jewish girl, who was kidnapped and taken into slavery and made to wait on Naaman’s wife. She courageously, offers this suggestion to his wife, “If only my lord were with the prophet in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” (v. 3) She is speaking of Elisha.
Hearing this, Naaman packs up a wagon load of silver and gold, and fancy clothes, because that’s how he is accustomed to negotiating these transactions. He takes a letter of recommendation from the King of Aram and he arrives at the door of the King of Israel. The King of Israel does not know what to do. Anticipating an international incident and seeing this as pretext to start up another war against Israel, the king throws up his hands and tears his clothes in despair.
Elisha hears about this and asks the King, “Why tear your clothes? Send him to me so he will know there is a prophet in Israel.” (Elisha sounds a little rude and cocky here.) So Naaman makes a grand arrival with horses and chariots at Elisha’s place. Try to picture the extravagance of each move by Naaman. But Elisha does not even go out to meet him and instead, sends a messenger, telling Naaman to go wash seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman is outraged that Elisha does not come out in person. He is used to more attention, more fanfare. And he’s insulted that he has to wash in the little Jordan River. Naaman was hoping for something grander—something to grab media attention.
Again, it’s the servants who intervene, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and be clean.’” So Naaman does the simple thing, immersing him self seven times in the Jordan and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy.
Our lectionary stops there, but verse 15 continues, “Then he returned to Elisha, he and all his company. He came and stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.’” And he offers money to Elisha, indicating that the conversion is not complete but it’s a good beginning.
The story speaks for itself.
This story is full of surprises. It is surprising when the rich and powerful become vulnerable. It’s surprising that healing and restoration come at the suggestion of slaves and servants. It is surprising that God’s grace and healing are offered to someone who is an outsider to Israel. It’s surprising to Naaman that his power and wealth cannot solve his problems.
Power and wealth cannot solve all of our problems either. Everything is not going to be better just because stocks turned upward in heavy trading on Wall Street or because we have the largest stockpile of weapons at our disposal. And you and I come here week after week to connect our lives with that which money cannot buy. You and I come here week after week to connect our souls to a power higher than all earthly powers.
This story teaches us about humility. Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer reminds us that the Hebrew words used here describe Naaman as a “big man” who expects a big deal to be made over him. The words used to describe the slave mean “little girl” and as a slave she is “the ancient world’s consummate non-person,” and yet she is the one with faith in God and knows the source of Naaman’s healing. (Feasting on the Word Year C,, Volume 3, pp. 196-201)
Someone once told me that to be humble means to be teachable. It means that I will always have much to learn and if I am humble I can learn from anyone, anywhere. It means when I’m attentive to what God is teaching me, I may be surprised by the ones who teach me. I have learned much from theologians and spiritual guides, but I’ve learned as much from thoughtful lay persons who have modeled the rhythms of God’s grace and from little children who have helped me understand the nature of God’s self.
Naaman is arrogant. And on this July 4th Weekend, we might reflect on the way in which the story of Naaman speaks to our arrogance. Arrogance is the opposite humility. Arrogance has nothing left to learn. Arrogance says, “I’m right and you are wrong.” Arrogance in our nation prevents us from engaging in civil discourse and from solving our country’s many problems.
This is a story of healing. In this story God and God’s grace come together to bring both physical and spiritual healing to Naaman. Scholars say that Naaman’s 7 dips in the Jordan foreshadow Jesus invitation into the waters of baptism in the Gospels.
I love the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. We come to the table and break bread and drink from the cup together. We dip our toes or fingers into the waters of baptism. And in those moments of grace, the church gets it right. Because at the table and beside the water, there are no big people or little people, no slaves or free, no rich or poor, no male or female, no gay or straight, no Republican or Democrat, no significant or insignificant. At the communion table and at the baptismal font we come with one name and one identity and that name and that identity is “child of God.”
And in those moments of grace, when we finally get it right, we get a glimpse of the kingdom and a glimpse of the fulfillment of what we pray each Sunday, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”