Go and Do Likewise

A version of this sermon was preached on Sunday, July 10, 2016, at Kingsway Baptist Church in Toronto.  I am posting a text version here because the audio recording failed, and several members of the Kingsway family have expressed interest in it.  Perhaps others will be interested as well.  Even though two weeks have passed, it is still applicable to the social and political challenges we face.  The Scripture readings are Amos 7.7-13 and Luke 10.25-37

Audio recordings of other, recent sermons can be found online through the website of Kingsway Baptist Church.

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Last week, we considered the story at the beginning of Luke chapter 10 about Jesus sending a contingent of 70 unarmed disciples out into a world that He knows to be threatening and unwelcoming. Jesus sends them out without so much as a purse, a bag, or even sandals, saying, “Behold, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10.3).

I submitted to you that the implication of this text is that answering Jesus’ call to be disciples on mission requires us to be exceedingly brave and profoundly vulnerable: to make ourselves utterly dependent on Christ by not carrying our own supplies, because when we do the packing, we invariably bring our own agendas, presumptions, and expectations along on the journey. Which means we tend to make things far too complicated. We tend to magnify lesser concerns into primary concerns, and predispose ourselves to missing what God is up to, because we wind up holding God to our standards rather than holding ourselves to God’s.

What Jesus asks of us is quite simple – not necessarily easy, but quite simple: love God with our whole selves and love our neighbors as ourselves. But to do that, we have to strip everything else away and leave everything else behind.

Several of you thanked me for the sermon as you departed, but also confronted me with variations of a particular question. “That was well said, but I am not sure what I’m supposed to do.”

“What do I do?”

It’s an honest and heartfelt question, a question asked urgently by those wanting and willing to serve Christ. For that reason, it’s a question I’m always happy to hear, and happy to engage. But it’s also a revealing question, and one that we need to be wary of. It’s a question that reveals our discomfort with what Jesus asks of us: not knowing, not fully understanding, not feeling fully prepared but going anyway. That’s a big part of what it means to be brave and vulnerable.

And this discomfort, born of our desire (our need, even) to fully understand and know for sure, should make us wary, because this discomfort can easily set us on the path toward legalism – the path paved with specific lists of clearly defined “dos and don’ts” of the faith, the path of the Pharisees that can be oh so attractive when we are uncertain. It’s a well-kept and well-intentioned path, this path of legalism – but it’s not the way of Jesus.

Not knowing exactly what to do all the time is part of the point. That’s where faith and courage and vulnerability come in. And while that may aggravate us, we shouldn’t view it as a bad thing. It’s Jesus’ way of inviting us in, not leaving us hanging. In actuality, Jesus has told us what to do. What He hasn’t and doesn’t tell us is how to do it.

Love God with your whole self and love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10.27).

Speak peace to whatever house you find yourself in, and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near (Luke 10.5-6).

After issuing these and other instructions, Jesus doesn’t paint for us a crystal clear picture of what this love looks like, or lay out step 1, step 2, and step 3 for speaking peace – and that’s what we’re really after when we ask, “What do I do?”

But Jesus won’t fill that in for us, because the how is ours to discover, to work out in fear and trembling, through the work of the Holy Spirit moving in us and through us. The how is where we get to contribute to God’s mission of redemption in our particular place in our particular time, to participate in the ministry of reconciliation as God’s partners in the world. And that is a gift. That is Jesus trusting us, for all of our bumbling and fumbling, as fellow heirs to His Father’s kingdom. Isn’t that a beautiful and blessed thing? Yes, it is! But it results in a two-fold challenge for us:

The first is to put our full faith in Jesus – so much so that we’re willing to travel alongside Him without our own luggage.

The second is to embrace Jesus’ full faith in us.

The intersection of this two-fold challenge is where we find ourselves this morning, in the second half of Luke chapter 10. The “Parable of the Good Samaritan” builds upon and reinforces the themes of the story of Jesus sending out the 70. And I believe this parable exists, in large part, to help us resist the path of legalism and to encourage us to remain brave and vulnerable when we ask, “What do I do?” Because the path of legalism is exactly where a lawyer (a scribe, and expert in the law of Moses) tries to steer Jesus as Jesus is rejoicing in what the 70 accomplished on their mission.

In the midst of this celebration, this lawyer stands up and asks his version of the question: “So, what must I do?” Specifically, he wants to know, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – a question he asks despite the fact that Jesus has just commended the 70, those who were brave and vulnerable enough to venture out without wallet, bag, or shoes; brave and vulnerable enough to speak peace to both friend and foe; brave and vulnerable enough to testify through their living, as much as their speaking, that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

Jesus has just commended them and urged them to rejoice that their names are written in heaven, when this guy pops up and asks, “So, what do I do?” He wants something more specific, more detailed, more clearly defined. Or perhaps he just wants something different, because he’s not thrilled with the prospect of being sent out, vulnerable, into the world. “That may be fine for them, Jesus – but what about me?”

But Jesus won’t be forced onto that road. Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with another question. He gets the lawyer to come back to the simple, primary, but not so easy commandment God issues to God’s people: love God with your whole self and love your neighbor as yourself. Then, when the lawyer presses his case and wants to know specifically who his neighbor is, Jesus steers the lawyer onto a different road, a road that winds its way down from Jericho to Jerusalem:

A road that is dangerous and messy, as the roads of this earthly life so often are – the very type of road the 70 would have just returned from, and the very type of road this lawyer isn’t interested in.

A road that challenges those who travel it to be brave and vulnerable – and that refuses to let anyone take cover behind title, privilege, or any other pretense of the status quo.

What matters on this road is that grave injustice has occurred and the true neighbor is the one willing wade into it rather than skirt around it.

In this inquisitive lawyer’s world, people didn’t get more respectable than priests and Levites. These were the experts in knowing what faithful people should and shouldn’t do, people set apart as special (holy), people to whom deference was due. Likewise, few people were less respectable than Samaritans. They were considered heretical, unclean half-breeds who didn’t worship God in the right place or the right way, people whom the respectable should avoid.

Yet, in Jesus’ parable, on this real life road, none of those things matter. What matters is who lives, who acts like a good neighbor to the man whom this very real life has left lying in that very real ditch – not the one who feels sorry or says a prayer in passing, but the one who stops, gets down in the ditch with the man, lifts him up out of it, and carries him to a place where he can be cared for, and who promises to return to ensure that he is healing and recuperating long-term.

The Samaritan is the one who lives such a life – and he is the one the lawyer begrudgingly must admit is the true neighbor. And so the answer Jesus gives to the lawyer’s question, “What should I do?” is, “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise”: a decisive answer, but hardly a comprehensive one. There is still a lot for us to work out in fear and trembling, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For starters, we have to ask ourselves, “Where are the ditches along this stretch of the road of life we happen to be on – and who’s lying in them?” It’s not always obvious.

As an American, it’s pretty easy for me to see where the ditches lie and who lies in them this week. There’s a mass grave of black men killed senselessly and unnecessarily by police on one side of the road, and a smaller but no less deplorable mass grave of assassinated police officers on the other.

As an American living in Toronto, however, it’s not always so obvious to me. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ditches here. There most certainly are ditches here, because there’s a status quo here – in this country, in this city, in this church. Who would the characters of this parable be if Jesus told it in 21st century Canada? In 21st century Toronto? After all, there’s a pocket a predominantly white affluence that exists here in this neighborhood in the midst of the most diverse city in the world.

Why is that?

Why does that question make you shift uncomfortably in your seat?

Why does it make me squirm in the pulpit?

And what go-to explanations do we have that basically involve labeling others (i.e., those who don’t live here) as unclean, uncouth Samaritans?

But even when we see where the ditches are and see clearly who is in them, we have to ask ourselves why we, like the priest and the Levite, are hesitant to venture over there, even though we know this parable so very well. The priest and Levite no doubt had their reasons – reasons that they most likely could have articulated and argued convincingly, even theologically, based on their status and position. But those reasons don’t pass muster with Jesus. And if their reasons didn’t pass muster, why would we assume ours would fair any better in Jesus’ eyes?

“Well, Jesus, I’m just so busy. I have so much to do, and this important meeting to attend, and this important deadline to meet, and this important responsibility to take care of….”

Somehow I can hear Jesus saying:

“And why is that? Why are you so busy? What are you trying to achieve, and for what reasons? And what do those reasons have to do with my Kingdom, which you’re supposed to be seeking first?

Our calendars may be the single most effective weapon that the darkness around us has to employ against the light within us. And it’s been that way for millennia.

Centuries before Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we see this dynamic at work in ancient Israel when the prophet Amos comes prophesying to King Jeroboam. They didn’t have calendars as we know them, but they certainly had ways to categorize and compartmentalize life – which is what calendars do, and what we use them for. We also use them to categorize and compartmentalize people (such as Samaritans): those whom we pencil into and those whom we scratch out of our lives, if we have even bothered to include them in our calendars at all.

When Amos comes prophesying to King Jeroboam, the king’s priest (Amaziah) basically tells him, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don’t bring that word from the Lord in here. This is the king’s sanctuary. This is where business and politics occur. There’s no place for prophesying here. Take that back to Judah. Take that back to your church, back to your small group. Go share it in some place ‘spiritual.’ Save it for Sunday. This is Tuesday. There’s no time or room for wrestling with God on Tuesday.”

But Amos’ vision of the plumb line isn’t for the “spiritual side” of life. It is for life in all of its length, breadth, and depth – Sunday through Saturday. Amos is announcing that God is going to measure the entirety of our lives with heaven’s plumb line, according to the specs of God’s Kingdom – for that is what it means for us to be God’s people.

And that’s what the Samaritan understood. He didn’t let his calendar or his position get in the way of being a good neighbor, of living love, of doing what he knew was right.

So, in the spirit of Jesus’ decisive but inconclusive answer to the question, “What should I do?” I want to leave you with a series of questions to ponder today – and in the days ahead.

If you woke up in the morning and prayed, “Lord, how can I be like the Good Samaritan today?” – how would that affect how you plan and prepare for the day?

How would that impact how you scheduled meetings and other work responsibilities?

How would it affect what time you left to head into the office?

What you carried in your car or in your brief case?

What and who you blocked out time for in your calendar?

How you view the people you encounter during the day – either in the ditch or on the road?

May the Lord grant us the courage and the vulnerability to allow the Holy Spirit to measure the length, breadth, and depth of our lives according to the specs of heaven – and to venture into the ditches of this life, that we might embrace our full faith in Jesus, and Jesus’ full faith in us.

Let us go, and do likewise.

Amen.

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Making Peace

A version of this sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church of Hyattsville on Sunday, December 6, 2015.  The Scripture texts were Malachi 3.1-4 and Luke 1.67-79.  Accompanying the biblical texts was a reading of Langston Hughes’ 1930 poem, “Merry Christmas.”

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As December begins, and our thoughts turn earnestly toward Christmas, this is how we like to think of Jesus.

nativity stained glass

But sadly, in too much of the world, too many people are seeing Jesus the way these Egyptian women see Jesus in the photograph below: splattered and stained just like everyone and everything else, covered in the violence that has become all too common – so common, in fact, that some commentators have begun referring to it as “the new normal.”

Egyptian Christians touch a blood-splattered image of Jesus Christ, inside the Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, January 2, 2011. A bomb killed at least 21 people outside the church early on New Year's Day and the Interior Ministry said a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (EGYPT - Tags: CIVIL UNREST RELIGION IMAGES OF THE DAY)

This photograph was taken in Egypt a few years ago, but it easily could have been taken in America a few days ago. We no longer have to look overseas to grieve senseless acts of violence or contemplate the theological questions associated with them. 2015 is the year in which the phrase “active shooter” entered our vocabulary, and this is the context in which we come to church on this second Sunday of Advent to light the Candle of Peace.

This context is why we need to hear Langston Hughes’ ironically titled poem, “Merry Christmas,” alongside “Silver Bells,” “White Christmas,” “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” and the other seasonal standards this year. It’s challenging to hear, I know. You might have even found it offensive. But that’s precisely why we need to hear it. These challenging words from a poet of the Harlem Renaissance call us closer to what the gospel story of Christmas has to say to us.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself: hang on a second, preacher. Angels and shepherds and a star and a manger – this is the gospel story of Christmas. That’s what we read about in the Bible. That’s what Linus tells Charlie Brown Christmas is all about. And you’d be right – it is. But it’s not all we read about in Luke, much less the Bible.

Linus begins his story with Luke 2. However, as the people of Jesus, we have to begin with Luke 1. And Luke 1 doesn’t begin the story of Christmas with angels or shepherds or stars or mangers. Luke doesn’t even begin with Jesus. Luke 1 begins with John the Baptist. The presence of John the Baptist is how you know you’re dealing with the full gospel version of Christmas, because John the Baptist is the context for the angels and the shepherds and the star and the manger.

Funny how you never see a John the Baptist lawn ornament, now, isn’t it?

Actually, the lack of inflatable, light-up John the Baptists is completely understandable because the truth is we don’t like to start with him, either. Not only is John the Baptist a freaky dude who walks around wearing camel’s skin and snacking on locusts, he’s a freaky dude who comes, in the words of Malachi, to prepare the way of the Lord – which means he comes like a refiner’s fire, like fuller’s soap – to proclaim the need for cleansing and purifying as he goes. He comes to preach repentance. And he comes to Judea – to God’s people. He’s not strolling the streets of Rome, or Damascus, or Baghdad. He’s not coming to get in the face of “those people.” He’s coming to get into our face – in much the same way Langston Hughes gets in our face, pointing out things we don’t want to hear, much less see.

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of this poem is that, even though it was first published 85 years ago, it hardly reads like a relic of the past. Too much of this of this poem is all too familiar, because this is hardly the first year in America we’ve lit the Candle of Peace in the shadow of violence and terror – and not only violence done to us, but violence done by us. That’s the uncomfortable truth Langston Hughes is pointing out – the same kind of truth John the Baptist comes to point out – because that’s the kind of truth we have to confront if we are to repent.

It’s the kind of truth we’ll hear from Jesus, too.

So, if this poem offends you, or makes you squirm, and you don’t want to squirm or be offended, then I suggest you stick with “the holly jolly” commercial version of Christmas – because if Langston Hughes ruffles your feathers, then John the Baptist is liable to make ‘em fall out completely. In fact, you might want to consider heading over to the mall next Sunday morning, because we’re going to be reading more about J.B. next week, too. (FYI – The Mall at Prince George’s Plaza opens at 8:00 a.m., and I promise they’ll go out of their way not to offend you).  Just know that if you decide to come to church, and if you look deep into the full gospel version of Christmas within the pages of Scripture, and if truly have ears to hear and you hear, then chances are you’ll be offended. And you’ll be offended because God’s in the business of being offensive.

It was offensive for God to lower a sheet filled with unclean animals before Peter – animals he had never touched in his entire life – and say, “Kill and eat.”

It was offensive for the Spirit to tell Phillip to get in the carriage with the Ethiopian eunuch, an unclean Gentile of the first order.

It was offensive for the prophets of old to declare to the tribes and kings of Israel how the smell of their burnt offerings turned God’s stomach.

It was offensive for Jesus to tell the rich young ruler to give away all that he had.

It was offensive when Jesus to tell Martha, you know what, it’s okay that Mary is taking a break from her chores to sit and listen. In fact, she’s made a better choice than you have.

It was offensive when Jesus told the Pharisees it’s was okay to pick grain on the Sabbath because the Sabbath was created for people, people weren’t created for the Sabbath.

It was offensive when Jesus, the King of kings, the long-expected Messiah, deigned to wash His disciples’ feet – and to declare that they had no share in Him if they refused.

It was offensive when this same Messiah secured our salvation by being crucified like runaway slave. That’s why Paul declares that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

The gospel is offensive, plain and simple. It has to be offensive if it’s to do us any good. Offending our sensibilities for the sake of grace, defying decorum in the interest of justice – this is how God reminds us that He is God and we are NOT. It’s how God in Christ points out to us those jagged, cumbersome, unsightly logs that jut out of our own eyes when what we’d rather do is obsess over the speck we notice in our neighbor’s eye. Being offensive is how God confronts us in order to transform us. It’s the only way, really, that He can heal the world – by forcing us to acknowledge our wounds, as well as the wounds we inflict on others.

In fact, acknowledging those wounds is the only way we can light the Candle of Peace with any integrity today. For, if we fail to acknowledge our wounding and our woundedness, then we light this candle as false prophets – declaring peace, peace where there is no peace.

But if we approach the Advent Wreath, if we look toward the manger, with contrite and repentant hearts, then it becomes a powerful symbol indeed.  If we approach the Advent Wreath with contrite and repentant hearts, then  we light this Candle of Peace not in delusional ignorance of the violence and the division and the injustice of the world but in defiance of it.

With contrite and repentant hearts, we light this candle as people ready to shoulder our crosses and follow where Jesus will lead.

With contrite and repentant hearts, we light this candle as people who remember that when Jesus scandalously got down on His hands and knees to wash His disciples’ feet, He set an example for us. And when we remember the example Jesus has set for us, we position ourselves to proclaim that Jesus really is “the reason for the season” in ways that don’t ring hollow in the ears of observant people like Langston Hughes, who see the world plainly and who aren’t fooled by window dressing.

Proclaiming Jesus with integrity is what we must do, because the world needs what the full gospel version of Christmas has to offer.  The world needs to see and experience the glory of this holy season, to know that in Christ God is coming to His temple. Heaven is coming to earth. God is coming to walk in our shoes and live in our flesh, because God is willing to be splattered and stained by all the muck and the mire, the blood and the gore that the machines of worldly power spew out. He’s willing to wade directly into the cycles of violence that wreack havoc on our bodies and our souls and in our communities so that all of creation might yet be redeemed. And if we are His people, then Jesus calls us to wade right in there with Him, to be instruments and agents of His peace – the peace that surpasses all understanding, because it won’t let us settle for the false comfort of social conventions, preconceived notions, and self-righteous piety.

Joining Christ in that work is how God will ultimately “guide our feet into the way of peace,”  because peace is more than a feature of life.  It is a way of life.  Peace is a work to be fashioned rather than a present to be received.  Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, not blessed are the peaceful.

So, in the interest of “the way of peace,” let me leave you today with some provocative, if not offensive, questions:

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, recruited for peace with the same intensity that ISIS recruits for terror?

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, prepared for ministry with the purpose and intentionality of the “active shooters” who prepare so meticulously for their heinous acts of violence?

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, waged peace as earnestly and systematically as the world’s armies wage war?

I think we would find it to be a world in which Christmas, and all the seasons before and all the seasons after, would be very merry indeed.

May we have faith and courage to shoulder our crosses and follow Jesus into the way of peace.  Amen.

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