Love your neighbor. Again.

July 10, 2016

Bible Text: Luke 10:25-37 |

A year or so ago I was out walking in the park near my house. A soccer game was being played in the field and – just as I was walking by – the ball flew up and over the fence and over my head and into the bushes. I got it, I said. But when I saw that the ball had landed far beyond my reach, right in the middle of a huge thicket of blackberries, I called out, Sorry – I’m not that good of a Samaritan. And only at that moment did I notice who the parent was that I was talking to: Deborah Toney, a parishioner from St. John’s. I was so embarrassed. I’d been totally busted as the priest who walked by on the other side of the road!

What strikes me most about the parable of the Good Samaritan was that – when the time came to help – he simply did it. There was no dickering around: Should I or shouldn’t I? What would Jesus do? Is it safe? What will cost me? What are the political ramifications? He just did it.

And why? Because it was in his nature to do so. Just as it was, sadly, in the nature of the priest and Levite to be more focused on what was waiting for them in Jericho than to be present to the need before them at the moment. After all, as Jesus tells the story, there’s no one else watching, nobody to impress. Nobody will know if they do nothing. So they did nothing.

But the Samaritan was filled with pity. The Samaritan had compassion. You see, this isn’t a case, per se, of religious ethics. It is an issue of character. And the outcast Samaritan had it, while the religious elite did not.

It’s like something I experienced a few months back. Someone associated with St. John’s, but who doesn’t come to church here or claim to be a Christian, called to say, Eric, can I come by and talk to you right now? I was ready to hear that he had cancer or some other personal crisis. But no. As it turns out, there was a crisis but it wasn’t his at all. He’d met someone living their car and he wanted to know what resources existed in Gig Harbor to assist her. I told him. He left. And the next thing I know, I heard second-hand that he and his wife were letting this person live with them until she got some things in order and could be self-sustaining again. She stayed in their home – a stranger – for a couple months.

You see, godliness is by no means restricted to the people who claim the name of God. In fact, it is often the case that the two have nothing to do with each other. Calling yourself a Christian is cheap. Any nut can do it. True godliness is an issue of character, and that can’t be faked. When Jesus is interacting with the good, religious lawyer, it’s character he’s interested in.

It reminds me of something I read the other day. It went something like this: Jesus wasn’t a Christian. And Mohammed wasn’t a Muslim. And the Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist. They were all godly men who were seeking the way of God.

I don’t know who penned this quote. Most likely, someone disgusted by religion and its adherents. But then again, you might just say that Jesus was one such person. If you read the gospels with a fresh eye, it’s not hard to miss that Jesus is regularly disgusted with the religious establishment and its adherent, but is regularly compassionate towards those who fall outside its boundaries.

But please don’t hear this as a rejection of religion. It’s more of a rebuke. That seems to be what Jesus was doing. After all, he was a Jew, ministering amongst Jews. His ministry of rebuke was just that – a ministry – a ministry of love which gave everything he had to restore true religion to his people. Jesus came among them with compassion and mercy… and… with wisdom and authority. And it was this full, kind/loving/rebuking package that drew people to him as the “real thing.” They saw in him an extraordinary godliness.

True religion is one which lives out the heart of God. Rules and customs and liturgies and programs have their place – but they are merely tools – apparatus that can be helpful, or hindrances. What we’re after is godly character.

Are you kind? Or not?

Are you generous? Or not?

Do you care about your neighbor, be she friend or stranger; black youth or white cop? Or do you not?

You see, the heart and spirit of God is always and eternally bent towards loving the other. It’s not a matter of prescribed duty. It simply is. It is who God is.

And our calling, our purpose, is to share and participate in that same spirit. Religion is rightly rebuked when it becomes an institution preoccupied by its own institutional survival:

Give money. Why?

To pay the priest. Why?

So he can run the church’s programs. Why?

To attract young families. Why?

So they’ll raise their children in the church. Why?

So they’ll give money….

And on and on the cycle goes. And we raise another generation of church goers who scurry down the road to Jericho, with little time or regard for the half-dead man on the side of the road.

Our call is to godliness. If you are mean-spirited, selfish, or prone to complaining: Stop. Stop it. That’s not the spirit of God, in whose image you are formed, which means you are not being your true self. You’re living out some false version of yourself – one that’s not doing anyone a bit of good, least of all yourself. Repent and believe in the gospel.

How? Well, to begin with, look to our friends in AA; they’ve figured out the first step. There needs to be a “Come to Jesus” moment when you admit – not only are you not living a godly life – but that you tired of living the way you are and are ready for a change. I was praying with someone recently who, through much anguish, finally eked out a simple prayer, Help me, Jesus. It was the bravest prayer I’d heard in a long time because it was so gut-wrenchingly raw and honest.

And this brings me to a second step: if you’ve confessed your ungodliness, then begin to ask Jesus to change you – just a simple, honest prayer, repeated every day. Last fall I began praying daily for a renewed relationship with God. That’s it. God, I want a fresh relationship with you. I’ve prayed it almost every day since then. And around mid-spring, I felt things between me and God begin to shift. I think that’s how prayer works: it is a joining together of our will with the will of God – a sincere turning and desire on our part, in which we join the current of God’s love and intention for us and all creation.

If you are mean-spirited or selfish or whatever, admit it. And then begin to pray, I want to be kind. Because such a confession and simple prayer is evidence in itself of a godly character within you that is trying to grow. And these prayers, sincerely offered over time, will not go unanswered.

I love the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Colossian church that we read this morning. It’s a young church, full of recent converts to the faith. Paul rejoices how, having heard the gospel and truly comprehending God’s grace, they immediately began living gracious lives themselves.

It’s not that they immediately became perfect – a bunch of “Over-Night-Mother-Teresa’s.” But they had set out on the path of perfection. That is to say, they turned their face away from the life they’d been heading towards and shifted course towards the path of heaven. They’d seen and experienced the character of God – God’s grace and mercy and acceptance – and sighed deep in their soul, Ahhhh, there you are. I’ve been wanting you a long time. I’m tired of this mess I’ve been living. And then they began the walk of faith that simply says, God, I want to do what you are doing.

I suspect that the way we live is a reflection of who – in our heart of hearts – we believe God to be. If you’re walking towards kindness and love of neighbor then that is what you believe to be true of God and you want to join God there. But if you’re still walking towards stinginess and criticalness, then it just may reveal who you believe God to be.

Beloved, I pray “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to God as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9b-10).

We are free – free from all fear and condemnation. Open your eyes and see: Our neighbors are no longer our competitors. Nor are they the source of our annoyance. There is no longer any reason to resent them or to be jealous of them. For God has turned everything on its head. So look around you: everyone is there to be loved, without boundary and without end.

“God has rescued us from the power of darkness [from smallness of mind and selfishness of spirit] and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13) where all is forgiven - where we are now free to love as God loves and to discover in ourselves the spirit of God, alive and true and filled with purpose and joy.

Go ahead and get the soccer ball out of the blackberries. So what if you get a little scratched? Help the lady living in her car. Be compassionate towards the Black Lives Matter movement and seek to understand what drives them. Write a letter of support to police officers who put their lives in danger to protect your safety. Be mindful of the person crying in the pew beside you. Where there is need – where there is want and tears and fear – pour yourself in. And there you will find God, for that is where God is to be found.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and [you shall love] your neighbor as yourself….Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:27, 28b).

Do this – because then you shall be truly living. Amen.

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