Monday, July 16, 2007

When the Bad Guy Wins

This is the sermon I preached yesterday at First Baptist Church Austin...

It doesn’t matter who the hurting person is; it matters who you are.

“Who is my neighbor?” the man asked coyly. He’d been questioning Jesus on behalf the Pharisees with the intent to catch him in either a lie or blasphemy. They had offered him five silver coins to strike up a conversation with this Jesus fellow, so he had to make good. He asked the question and his eyes glanced for a second over to where the Pharisees stood watching, smiles just barely curled the edges of their lips. He had asked the right question. His eyes darted back to Jesus.

It doesn’t matter what falls across your path in life; it matters who you are.

Maybe the man just wanted clarification. “Who is my neighbor?” he asked, wanting to make sure he got it right. His friends called him anal retentive. He chocked up his need for preciseness to being a “type A personality.” Whatever the motivation, he wanted to make sure he covered all his bases so he asked his final question and looked at Jesus honestly wanting to get the rules down good, do it right the first time.

It doesn’t matter what other people have done; it matters who you are.

Maybe the man was tired. He knew the deuteronomic code said to love your God and love your neighbor. It was the shema. He’d been fed that line his whole life. So it was easy to answer Jesus. And so he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” seeking understanding to the mystery of God and what it meant to really live out his Jewish faith. He knew that “neighbor” technically meant Jew but he was tired of the pat answers and needed something more. That’s why he asked the Teacher for clarification. He was tired of searching and just wanted the truth.

But he got a story instead. They all did. No matter what the man’s motivation was for engaging in this conversation with Jesus, no matter what prompted him to ask the question that would plague our world for years to come, he got his answer and it changed the world.

It was a story about a man mugged by robbers. A Jewish man. A story about who would be a neighbor to this beaten down Jewish man.

Once upon a time there was an American and he was mugged and robbed and left for dead. Who would be a neighbor to this beaten down American man?

It’s a story not only about the shema: about what it means to love God and love your neighbor, it’s a story about seeing. Seeing people, seeing relationships, seeing how far the kingdom of God will extend. It’s a story about inclusion.

A priest walks by, sees the bloody man and in an effort to avoid him, crosses over to the other side of the road. Ooooh. The Parisees shift their stance and cross their arms; they were used to being the bad guys in Jesus’ tall tales. Another dumb parable. The disciples pat each other on the back and lean in. They loved it when Jesus really stuck it to the temple priests.

A Baptist minister saw the man lying on the sidewalk. She couldn’t tell if the man was moving. So she stopped at the crosswalk and pressed the button to cross to the other side. Unwilling to wait for the flashing white symbol, she hurriedly jaywalked across fumbling in her purse for her phone. It wasn’t there. She must have left it in her office. She was always doing that! Well, hopefully someone else would dial 911.

It’s a story about people, the way we interact with each other, what we believe about each other. It’s a story about the covenant and drawing lines around who’s in and who’s out. “Who is my neighbor?” is a question of boundaries: we want to know who’s in and who isn’t.

Jesus’s tale continued prickling the necks of all who heard. A levite passed by – not a priest by vocation, but he was in the family line. A “PK” passed by, “preacher’s kid,” 25 years old and he still couldn’t move passed that affiliation. Both saw the man lying there and both had been sucked dry by good deeds and sacrifice and living in holy community. Both looked. Both stood a moment, uncomfortable with the options. But both crossed the street.

It’s a story about godliness, about understanding, about loving your neighbor. Loving your enemy. It’s a story about loving the people who hurt you.

Jesus continued, “Then a Samaritan saw him and bent down to him and began to bandage his wounds.”

Everyone drew in a breath, the lawyer, the Pharisees, the disciples. “Jesus…” one of the twelve started to question. They all looked at each other. This Teacher of theirs was full of surprises and full of nonsense. Just a few days earlier they had been in Samaria. Look at chapter 9 in your Bibles verses 51 and following. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him: but they did not receive him.” Samaria wouldn’t take him in.

The disciples were mad. Nobody says no to Jesus. “Do you want us to call down fire on top of this stingy Samaritan village?” they asked Jesus as they began to look for some stones to set up as a marker of their wrath. But Jesus rebuked the disciples, they dropped the stones and they all walked on to another town.

The Samaritans were bad people. Not only did they practice faulty Judaism, but they kicked Jesus out of their community. They rejected the idea of the Temple being in Jerusalem and they rejected the Messiah God had sent to save them. Ever since the Jewish people returned from exile it’d been nothing but problems with the Samaritans and this was the final straw.

So when the disciples heard Jesus describe the Samaritan binding the wounds and taking the man to the inn and paying for his room there, they too felt defeated. This was no longer just a story about a hurt Jew and some Temple so n so’s passing him over like they always did. Why was the one who showed mercy a Samaritan? Why had Jesus chosen a Samaritan to play the good guy? Was this a joke?

The disciples had been kicked out of the Temple by the Pharisees and they’d been kicked out of a town by the Samaritans. Those heretical fools, the disciples had thought as they kicked the dust off their sandals and kept on traveling. And now Jesus was telling a story and the protagonist, the hero, was a Samaritan. A Samaritan.

After the two had passed, a Mormon traveling came upon the beaten man. After the other two had crossed over to the other side of the road, a Muslim came and tended to the man’s needs. After the minister and the P.K. passed by, an illegal immigrant bent down to check on the man.

Choose your enemy. Choose who’s outside the box; outside the realm of redemption. And get ready to change the way you view God. Get ready to change the way you see people. Get ready to move the lines you’ve drawn around your church and draw them a little wider next time. Or don’t draw them at all.

Because God is bigger than boundaries and lines and races and religions and denominations and differences.

And because with Jesus everything gets turned around.

A Samaritan is a good neighbor. A Savior is a carpenter. A revolution requires no swords. Women are healed, the poor are forgiven, the outsiders drawn in and to those who believe, the kingdom of God they will receive.

It’s not about number of Temple sacrifices or how often we volunteer at church. It’s not about the location of the Temple nor is it about what kind of instruments get played in worship. It’s not about whose been to the synagogue this week or who’s been to a bar.

It’s about people hurting and people being redeemed. There are so many layers to this text. There’s the hurting Jew: a normal man who got jumped but who is now stuck, alone. There’s the hurting Samaritan, shunned by the Jews but faced with one who needs his help. There’s Jesus who just days earlier had been subbed by the Samaritans and now tells a story praising a Samaritan. There are the disciples as confused as ever still hungry from missing dinner cause that Samaritan village didn’t let them in and still learning what it means to forgive your enemies.

I can’t decide who to empathize with more: the hurting Jew, the compassionate and forgiving Samaritan, the ashamed disciples or Jesus who teaches us again and again in overt and subtle ways that his way is peace, his way is love, his way is unpredictable.

You never know where Christ will find you and you never know who Christ will find you through.

It didn’t matter what baggage they brought to the table. Social norms went out the window. When it came down to it, it was a Samaritan and a Jew. It was Jesus and a town. It is us everyday. And it’s the Samaritan’s character that takes the tale. Loving your neighbor is about who you are. The door was shut on Jesus in a Samaritan village but Jesus knew how great God’s love ran. It flowed beyond city borders or racial lines or societal norms or even religious affiliation. Jesus knew that God is in the work of bringing redemption and all have the possibility of being redeemed.

So go ahead and second guess that guy with the tattoo who shops at your grocery store. And second guess your neighbor who always keeps the shades drawn. And second guess the young woman who wears too much make-up to worship. Don’t leave them marked in your
mind by your first impression by your first experience. Widen your horizon. They are your neighbor. Give them the grace to be full of God.

And go ahead and love your ex-wife or your ex-boyfriend no matter how they’ve hurt you. Go ahead and be graceful towards your oppressive boss or your spiteful co-worker. Go ahead and pray for the men and woman who spend their lives making sure ours are miserable.

They too have the potential to be our neighbor. And we have the potential to be a neighbor to them.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, old nor young, Baptist nor Catholic, rich nor poor, gay nor straight, east side nor west side…

We are all one. We all sin. We all are being redeemed. Give yourselves the freedom to live fully in that mercy. Mercy.

Mercy mercy me.

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