Archive for July, 2013

Luke 10:25-37

SONY DSC“He asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’”

Many of us are familiar with the story we refer to as “The Good Samaritan.” In fact, maybe we are so familiar with it, we may struggle to glean new insights. Yet I invite you to look at this story with new eyes.

A lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a simple story. A man is on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho on a winding, desert road. Robbers jump on him, strip him, beat him savagely and run off, leaving him to die in a roadside ditch. We don’t know the man’s name, race or socio-economic status. However, we are told a little about those who come down the same road. Jesus has already set the scene by using the word “neighbor.” The word neighbor has a basic meaning of “to be near.” In other words, your neighbor is the one who is nearest you.[1]

A Jewish priest comes down the road. He sees a man’s body in the ditch. He has no idea who the man is. He is not neighbor enough, or close enough, to know any of these things. He just sees someone in the ditch. He crosses the road to avoid him. He keeps going. A Levite comes down the road. He sees the man’s body in the ditch. He, too, has no idea about the man, but like the first man, he does not get close enough to know anything. He crosses the road to avoid coming in contact with him and keeps going. A Samaritan man comes down the road. He sees the man in the ditch. Stops. Tends to the injured man’s wounds. Takes him to a nearby inn. Pays for his care.

Jesus’s use of a Samaritan as an example of the third man to come down the road is startling. Had he followed the usual convention, he would have used a priest, a Levite, then a lay person.  No. Jesus uses a priest, a Levite, then a hated enemy as example. Jesus could not have stretched the boundaries of acceptability any further than by using a hated Samaritan as a hero in this story. Why? The Samaritans had originally been part of a Jewish tribe. However, in one conflict, the rest of the tribe had been taken into exile, but the Samaritans were left behind because they were poor and unwanted.  So they remained in the northern part of Israel and intermarried with other tribes. They worshipped God on Mt. Gerazim rather than in Jerusalem. They only believed in the first five books of the Torah and they interpreted it differently than did the Jews. In Jesus’ time, if you said the word “Samaritan” to a Jewish person, the best they would call them was half-breeds. In fact, they despised them so much, Jews would go out of their way to avoid traveling through any part of Samaria.

“Who is my neighbor?” asks the lawyer.

Perhaps there is an underlying issue in his question. One writer has proposed that it may be this: “’I am willing to love my neighbor as myself, but don’t get me involved with the wrong neighbor.’ What are the right rules so that I can justify myself?  (Who do I have to help (and who can I ignore?)” [2] Jesus’ response is clear. Compassion and love have no boundaries. None. Just like God’s love. We love God as God loves us. Out of that love, we love the neighbor we like and we love the neighbor we hate or who makes us nervous or fearful. The other—whomever the other may be.  

Who is my neighbor? Who can I ignore? 

LunchBus011372865711Above the fold on the front page of last Sunday’s Washington Post was a picture that has haunted me all week long. It is a picture of a two-year old boy with a buzz haircut. He is eating a piece of bread. There is dirt under his fingernails. As he chews his piece of bread, he looks up at the photographer.  Deep sadness and wisdom look out of a two year old’s eyes. This child is one of thousands like him. In the hills of East Tennessee, it is summer. That means no school breakfast or lunch. It is a part of the country plagued by high unemployment and deep poverty. In fact, “poverty rates have almost doubled since 2009 and two-thirds of children qualify for free meals.”[3] According to the Washington Post article, there is “a rise in childhood hunger that [has] been worsening for seven consecutive years. Congress had tried to address it mostly by spending a record $15 billion each year to feed 21 million low-income children in their schools, but that left out the summer, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to spend $400 million more on that. Governors came together to form a task force. Michelle Obama suggested items for a menu. Food banks opened thousands of summer cafes, and still only about 15 percent of eligible children received regular summer meals.”[4]

This year, a Tennessee food bank decided to bring food to children, rather than the other way around, so a bus driver and his helper hit the road every day with sack lunches. On this particular day, here is what was in the sack lunch—which, by the way, was 750 calories each: “2 ounces of celery sticks, 4 ounces of canned oranges, chocolate milk and a bologna sandwich, each meal bought with $3.47 in taxpayer money.”[5] By federal law, no one is to have seconds. After the month’s supply of food stamps is gone for a family, this is often the only meal that the children and teenagers have in a 24-hour period of time. One mother has begun to ask her children to rate their hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, because they are in such a dire situation.

My father’s family came from the hills of East Tennessee. Eight children. A father who wasn’t home much. I suspect they hunted, fished, had a small garden and some chickens, maybe a goat. I suspect they were often hungry. When the boys were old enough, several of them became coal miners. At least one died of Black Lung disease. My own people came from a neighborhood like Greenville, Tennessee, and I must confess to you that I don’t want to call them neighbors. I want to ignore them—for a number of reasons. For a variety of reasons, they live in poverty, some with large families. Many smoke cigarettes when their children are hungry. Their purchases at the store include doughnuts, corn chips, Airheads candy, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew—the last sometimes given to a baby sister when there is no more milk.  So it is easy for me to justify why I don’t have to be a neighbor to these folks. Why I want to ignore them and cross the road.

Yet Jesus Christ stands in front of me this morning. He looks at me from the deep, sad, wise eyes of a two year old who sits on a bus eating a bologna sandwich.  This is his ditch.

Too many of our brothers and sisters struggle to get out of a ditch called poverty. In 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan in a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City. Although Dr. King was speaking in particular about the Vietnam War, he was also speaking about poverty—especially poverty generated by what he referred to as “the giant triplets of racism,   extreme materialism and militarism.”[6]Dr. King said this: “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[7]

How we might restructure the political and socio-economic frameworks in our cities, counties and states so that no one goes hungry or is without shelter is open for discussion and disagreement. Yet we do not have to drive to East Tennessee to see the face of hunger. Many families in Laurel live at the poverty line. Many children are hungry during the summer when there is no school breakfast or lunch. Hungry children live in this neighborhood. They live in Washington. Baltimore. West Virginia. Idaho. Montana. Ohio.  East Tennessee. There are hungry children all over this country. The problem is larger than anything you or I can do.

Yet we can do something. One thing we can do is not to cross the road and ignore them or judge them according to our standards. The other thing we can do is to do whatever we can do, out of the abundant resources God has given us. At the very least, we could promise God that every week this summer, we will buy some extra, nutritious food to bring for our LARS basket. Something that costs us $3.47 more at the grocery store can make a difference in someone’s life. We may never see that difference, but God will see it. The person in the ditch may be grateful for a little bit of mercy.

Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.”

Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. Amen.


© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] Brian P. Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks Christian Resources, Luke 10:25-37. Accessed through www.textweek.com on July 11, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Eli Saslow, “Driving Away Hunger,” in the Washington Post, Sunday, July 7, 2013, Section A, p. 8.

[4] Ibid, p. A-8.

[5] Ibid, A-1.

[6] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence.” A sermon delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City. Accessed at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm.  July 12, 2013.

[7] Ibid.

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“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

harvest-12-2Earlier this week, five St. Philip’s parishioners and I attended a diocesan workshop entitled “Overcoming Obstacles to Church Growth.” Of course, the word “growth” does not necessarily mean growth in numbers. It can easily mean spiritual growth. Bishop Mariann asked the group a question to consider: “What one thing (an obstacle to growth) would you get rid of it you could?” The answers were interesting. “It’s the way we’ve always done it.”  Lack of money. Lack of transparency. Wrong perceptions about the Church. Resistance to change.

Everyone there on Tuesday evening had today’s gospel in front of them. . .“therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” HIS harvest. In other words, the harvest of the good news of God’s kingdom is not about you or me or the Church. It is about God. It is GOD’s harvest.

Bishop Mariann shared with the group a quote from Patrick Keifert’s book We Are Here Now. It is as follows:  “Indeed the most frightening discovery we made in our early research in local church renewal was how seldom members of local churches describe their lives in sentences that include God as the subject of action verbs. They almost always describe worship, for example, as something “we do” or “I do.” I worship God. I participate in fellowship. We sing hymns and pray. God, in the vast majority of these descriptions by churches’ own members and in their own words, is at best the object of human action. Rarely did we hear of God doing something in worship, much less in the community or neighborhood around them. We discovered that many of the imaginations and descriptions of local church leaders reflect a practical atheism and secularity. It isn’t that they don’t believe in God, but they don’t speak of God as being a part of their lives; they don’t think in categories that include God.”[1]

It is, of course, challenging to think of our lives in a way that has God as the subject of an action verb. Perhaps this is because our culture is so individualistic and self-driven in terms of the goals we set. The culture in which Jesus lived was much different. Community trumped individual needs or wants. Yet the kind of community which Jesus embodied was different than the prevailing tradition. Jesus had come to show people that the kind of kingdom of God they had understood was deeper, broader and richer than something one achieved by keeping the law and commandments. Jesus was messiah. Son of God. Savior of the world. Everything he did—preach, teach, heal, cast out demons, break bread with all kinds of people—all pointed to a larger conception of life.

Life in God was more than keeping a set of legal requirements. Life in God was more than some technical means to a happy ending. Life in God was about God and what God might be doing in the world God had created. This new concept of the realm or kingdom of God included more than just Jewish men. Luke’s gospel showed this. He included women, Samaritans, people who lived on the edges of society, Gentiles—literally meaning “non-Israelite people”—into Jesus’ expanded mission. The good news of God’s kingdom needed to go beyond the people of Israel. It needed to go into all the world, for and to all people.

Luke wanted the early Christians to understand that if they were focused on God, what God was doing, and what they must do as Jesus’ disciples, their vision would match God’s vision of what the world could be like. They could not do things the way they had always done things. They had to let go of their myopic view of God’s kingdom. They could not be resistant to learning new things or changing the way they lived their lives. As Jesus’ disciples lived out their lives of faith, they had to be courageous, prepared for those who would oppose them, open to all kinds of hospitality, willing to accept all kinds of circumstances.

In addition, the twelve disciples had to accept growth in their ranks. Now there were not only twelve men and a group of women who followed Jesus, there were many others. [Keep in mind that the gospel writer used the number seventy—or seventy-two in some translations—as a symbolic number. “The number seventy implies all of humanity, as Genesis 10 provides a list of all the nations of the world, numbering seventy.”[2]]

That did not mean that Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign was always popular. In fact, it was most often not popular, because God’s kind of world did not fit into oppressive political and religious systems. Yet just as Jesus’ ministry “[subverted] the systems of power and privilege in the world,”[3] so was to be the ministry of those who followed Jesus. This implied the excitement of abundant living and new possibilities in life. It also implied the need to be vulnerable, to be open to change and a willingness to be flexible—to change plans at any moment.

This must have been a challenging place to live for the disciples. Yet they knew Jesus personally. Jesus’ words and deeds had completely transformed their lives. They knew what it felt like to live in relationship with him, in an expanded sense of God’s kingdom, in the shalom of God—safe and complete peace—no matter what the situation.

By contrast, you and I have not had the opportunity to know the historical Jesus. What we know about Jesus has come through our church traditions, filtered to some degree, sometimes even obscured by people or documents. In the past hundred years, scholars have argued about exactly what, in the gospels, Jesus actually said and what others say he said. We in the Church have often gotten caught up in the rituals and politics of the institution. We have gotten to the point of asking “What would Jesus do?”  However, this is not enough. Perhaps we need to stop asking rhetorical questions, start reading the Bible, then to go and DO what Jesus did. I wonder where God’s people might go and do if we focused on God rather than ourselves. Rather than asking what we can do and then find God there, what would happen if we asked ourselves different questions. For example: “What is God doing and how can we join God in that adventure?” “What is God saying to this community of faith in this moment of time?” “How would I live today or tomorrow or Friday this week if God were the subject of every action verb in my life?” “What if the reign of God came near to me this week. Would I miss it, or would I recognize it?”

Maybe the kingdom or reign of God has already come near to you. So if we are not to miss seeing it, or living into its fullness, perhaps we should put our lives in perspective. We must put God as the subject rather than ourselves: God speaks and sings in Sunday morning liturgy. God hugs those who grieve. God sits next to me in the pew. God will share a cup of coffee with me this morning. God schedules my day. God writes my checks. God decides what the vision is for this community. God provides the way forward so that vision will come to reality.

If the kingdom of God comes near us today, will we know it when we see it?

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] Patrick Keifert, We Are Here Now,  (Idaho: Allelon Publishing, 2006), 62-62.

[2] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 214.

[3] Ibid., 216.

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