Saturday, July 30, 2016

Whose Will They Be?

I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad / Buy all of the things I never had / I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine / Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen

Bruno Mars’ song captures the spirit of the age.  We want to be rich.  We think it is the solution to all of our problems.  More stuff.  More ability to get stuff.  The latest this, the upgraded that, the new model of those.  It permeates our existence, the need to have, to own. To have and to hold.  

I can hear you rolling your eyes already.  I’m still writing and you won’t see this for a while, yet I can see your sighs.  This again.  This old argument, this warning that we’ve heard a thousand times.  Yeah, we know.  And it’s not that we disagree, you say.  We know it is true, we know the stories of the suddenly rich whose lives go off the rails spectacularly.  Someone should have told Bruno that.   Maybe he wouldn’t have been so freaking desperate. We aren’t desperate.  We know better.  We know that stuff isn’t salvation.  We know that it’s the love of money tat gets us in trouble.  So, we just use it.  We aren’t defined by it.  It’s a necessary part of living in the world we have.  Besides we do good stuff with it.

And not a single tummy around me would know what hungry was / Eating good, sleeping soundly / I know we all have a similar dream / Go in your pocket pull out your wallet, put it in the air and sing // I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad / Buy all of the things I never had / Uh, I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine / Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen.

Yeah, we know better.  And yet when it comes time to give it up we find that surprisingly difficult.  I know I haven’t used that, read that, worn that, in a very long time.  But I just might want to someday soon!  And when we have to be away for an extended period of time, we come back and discover we missed our stuff.  The unimportant, non-defining stuff.  Still we missed it.  My chair I like to sit in, the table I like to eat at, the shelves of books and closets of clothes.  No big deal, except that I know I’m home because here is my stuff.  The late comedian George Carlin said home is just a place to keep our stuff.  Except when we run out of room and have to rent storage space.  One of the fastest growing business in our country, storage facilities.  We’ve got too much stuff.

Luke 12:13-21 Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." 14 But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" 15 And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."
     16 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' 18 Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' 20 But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." 

Does anybody else find Jesus’ answer to the guy in the crowd a little problematic?  “Friend, who set me to be a judge over you?”  Well, I thought you did.  Or God did.  I kinda thought that was the plan here, Jesus the judge.  Now he’s saying that He isn’t that judge.  That seems odd.

Some say it means He isn’t going to judge our stuff.  That He is only interested in the spiritual stuff, I mean, the spiritual matters.  He only judges our souls, He isn’t concerned with our real lives, our mundane, day to day, who gets the stuff lives.  Which doesn’t really make sense to me at all.  I mean, given all that He talks about in the Gospels, it seems that one of His main points is our lives are whole.  We can’t compartmentalize our life of faith from our life in the world.  In fact if we try to do that, and we do, we are only fooling ourselves.  Jesus tells us that it is our doing that matters, all of our doing.  What we do behind closed doors, that’s what matters.  Family doors, office doors, legal doors, commercial doors.  All those doors matter to Him.  Why would he now say, “hey, don’t look at me, kid.  Sort out your family stuff on your own!”  

Unless that isn’t what is going on here.  Jesus isn’t really dodging the issue.  Maybe it wasn’t a “leave me out of this” question.  Maybe it was a real question.  Who set me to be a judge over you?  And the guy in the crowd, who is us, by the way, was supposed to say, I did.  I do.  You are the measure by which I want to live my life.  You are the arbiter to determine what is of value.  Whatever you say, I’ll go with.  To which Jesus might have said, “Really?”  And the guy would have nodded his head and said “Really!”  And Jesus might have smiled and said, “OK then, let them have it.”  And the guy in the crowd might have said, “Can I change my earlier answer?”

Don’t assume by this conversation that Jesus doesn’t care about the stuff.  Or rather that Jesus doesn’t care about our attitude toward the stuff.  He cares deeply.  He cares for our very souls, He cares for our well-being, our satisfaction, our ability and desire to cling to Him above everything else.  Our heart to serve, our compassion, our eyes to see beyond the horizon of our own making.  And He knows that the stuff of this life can get in the way of all of that.  And we get turned upside down and inside out by greed.

Beware of all kinds of greed.  All kinds.  Why in the world would He say it that way?  Probably because He knows how good we are at convincing ourselves that our kind isn’t all that bad.  Isn’t really greed.  It is prudence.  It is right thinking, self preservation, it is being wise as serpents in a difficult world.  He’ll understand that, surely.

He tells this story about a farmer.  A farmer who makes good.  Has a bumper crop.  It presented him with the problem of what to do with it all.  It was more, he had more than he could hold.  So, he has to figure out what to do.  Since there isn’t a storage place in his town, he does the smart thing and creates his own.  Did you know that in Fort Wayne there is a storage facility called “Infinite Storage”?  Wow, infinite.  That’s kind of amazing.

Anyone else telling this story would have made the farmer the hero.  He was blessed, in the theology of the day, blessed by God.  Someone who has that kind of income, that kind of abundance, must be one of God’s very favorite people.  He would have been written up in Forbes Magazine and interviewed by Oprah.  But Jesus seems to have a problem with him.  Doesn’t Jesus like success?  

Where does the story turn, for Jesus?  Is it at the beginning?  “The land of a rich man produced abundantly”?  Some say yes, that’s the problem.  To be rich is by definition to make someone else poor.  Wealth is a zero sum game, winners and losers.  This guy was a winner, others were losers.  Too bad for them.  That’s the problem, the game is rigged.  Well, maybe.  But I don’t think that’s where the problem rises.  I think it is later.  After a dizzying succession of personal pronouns.  This is a self-centered rich farmer.  Me, my, mine, he said too many times in this little story.  And the only one who benefits is himself.  You fool, says God.  What makes you think you are immortal?  What makes you think it’s all about you?  Now that you’re gone, who will get the stuff?  

We’re about to begin the sorting out phase of mourning and caring for parents.  Lots of stuff to go through, and that will be a question we’ll have to ask.  Who wants this?  All this stuff, old and new, useful and not, whose will it be? It makes me tired just thinking about it.  There is an odd little translation problem in this passage.  In verse 20 when God is revealing the foolishness of the rich man, there is a phrase we’ve translated as “your life is being demanded of you.”  A passive tense.  But the verb is actually a plural active tense.  They are demanding your life from you.  “They”?  The stuff.  That’s what I think.  The stuff eats your life away.  Drains you.  Occupies your thinking, makes you worry.  That’s why Jesus keeps warning us about stuff.  It kills us.  We think it gives us life, but it doesn’t.  Only He can do that.  “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.  And the stuff?  Whose will it be?


Saturday, July 23, 2016

How Much More

A word of warning.  I’m tired.  No, wait.  I’m ... really tired.  La Donna and I just got back from a week at Mission u, the Indiana Conference United Methodist Women’s mission education event.  We taught a course, as I mentioned last week, on The Bible and Human Sexuality.  And let me tell you that dancing around topics is really wearing!  No, actually we had a great time. Eight hours of teaching over four days, with other worship and plenary gatherings, not to mention planning meetings and then intense presentation planning times while La Donna and I got used to different teaching styles and learned to work together.  I think we did quite well, even if I do say so myself.  But then on Saturday we had the fun task of taking those eight hours of teaching and stuff them into a one hour slot.  Oh, my goodness that was difficult, deciding what not to say was as tricky as deciding what to say in the beginning.  

Plus, in the middle of it all, I got a call from the facility where we hoped to place dad.  He had been approved when did you want to move him in?  So, after our session on Tuesday, I drove up to Frankfort, to Wesley Manor, United Methodist Home and signed lots of papers and wrote some pretty big checks.  Then on Thursday, my brother Hank drove dad and a selection of his worldly goods and we unloaded them and moved him into his new apartment.

Plus, plus, it was hot.  All week long.  The hottest it’s been all summer so far, I’m sure.  Hot and muggy and sticky and hot.  And hot.  On Thursday, my weather app said that the temperature was 91, but that the humidity made it feel like 116.  Unloading the truck was sweaty and draining work.  Just walking from the classroom, to the dining room to the dorm across the campus of DePauw University was sweaty work.  Draining.  Hot.  I worked up a sweat teaching in the air conditioned rooms.  Air conditioning that couldn’t really keep up.  At least for me.  Some of the women were wearing jackets and complaining about being cold.  Someone said lets ask them to turn on the heat.  I prayed.  I really prayed.  Good Lord, no.  No, don’t let them.  How much more can we take?  How much more?

Luke 11:1-13 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." 2 He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." 
5 And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' 7 And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 
9 "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

We’re talking about prayer in worship this week.  Jesus seems eager to talk about it.  He interprets the question from that disciples as license to tell them not just how to pray, but also how to pray.  Uh, proofreader, you missed one.  Not only how, but also how?  Whoops you’re right.  That not quite right.  Jesus took the opportunity to not only tell them how to pray, and then how to pray, but he also told them how to pray.  That’s better.  Isn’t it?

The disciples showed up, like the collie pups that they are bounding around, wagging their tails at the great idea they had, and spoke to Him.  “Hey, Jesus, you know John, John the B, the guy in the river, remember him?  Well, turns out John’s disciples have a prayer to pray that identifies them as his.  So, we were thinking, since you didn’t like the “Jesus’ Squad” tattoo idea, that maybe you could give us a prayer to pray.  So, when everyone hears it they’ll know we’re on the J-Team!  So, whadda ya think, Jesus, huh, how about it?  Huh?  Come on Jesus, give us a prayer to pray.”  

They weren’t really asking about prayer.  They wanted a slogan, a catchphrase, a chant to out-chant John’s disciples.  But Jesus, being Jesus, is not one to turn away from an opportunity to do more than he was asked to do.  To give them more, much more than they thought they wanted.  So, instead of prayer they could pray, he gave them a framework for praying.  When you pray, he told them, you start with God.  You start with the relationship you have with God because you know me, Father, you are holy, and we can’t wait until all that you have in store for us and this world comes to pass.  Then, he told them, then you can talk about you, how dependent you are on him, how much in need of grace you are, and how much you need God to surround you so that you have the strength to say no when things get difficult.  That’s how you pray.  

The disciples look at each other to see if anyone had written it down.  Levi did, he was always writing stuff down.  So, they said thanks and turned to run off.  But Jesus raised his hand.  I’m not done answering your question.  You asked how to pray.  I told you how to put the words together.  The order of things.  But now I need to tell you how to pray.  Peter says, “But...” before the rest of them clap hands over his mouth and nod to Jesus to go on.  Suppose one of you has a friend...Did any of them have friends, beyond the ones hovering around looking uncertainly at Jesus?  I’m sure at one time they did.  But did they still?  I mean they gave up everything to follow Him, didn’t they?  So, they looked puzzled.  Jesus waved his hand at their confusion.  It’s a metaphor.  They all relaxed a little bit.  Oh, ok, a metaphor.

The metaphor says, keep praying.  Don’t give up.  Keep praying until the need for which you pray is resolved, one way or another.  Jesus says pray with persistence. That’s how we pray. Keep the lines of communication open.  Turn to God first no matter what the need is.  Don’t just go to God for the “spiritual” stuff, whatever that is.  But go to God with everything.  And keep at it.  Teach us how to pray, here’s how, with persistence.  No matter what.  No matter how bleak, no matter how hopeless, no matter how late, pray and trust that God is going to take care of the problem, in one way or another.  Maybe it will be removed just the way you want it to be.  Or maybe you’ll be strengthened in order to continue facing the problem.  But it will be answered.  So keep pounding on that door late into the night.  Ask, and ask, and ask.  And keep looking for the answer, looking for the action, looking for the activity of God at work in your life.  Knock on that door.

Nods all around, they’ve got it now, He gave us the how, the words the framework for every prayer, God first then us.  Then He gave us the how, the activity of prayer, the persistence of prayer.  Keep at it, don’t stop.  Pray without ceasing, they thought and then said, no, that’s crazy.  But keep at it.

They got up to run away, but Jesus had grabbed the lapel of John’s sport coat and they came to halt like they were joined at the hip.  Jesus smiled that smile He has when He knows they are still missing something, but are about to get it.  How do you pray?  That’s what you asked me, right?  Well, let me tell you.  “But you just ... mumph, mmph.”  Go ahead Jesus the rest of them said.  If your child asked for a fish, would you give them a snake?  If he asked for an egg would you give him a scorpion?  Well, would you?  Furrowed brows all around.  They looked for the answers on the top of their shoes, shuffled their feet in the dust.  Um..  Thaddeus tries.  “No?”  Of course not! Jesus shouts, to Thaddeus’s relief. No, you wouldn’t.  So why would God, who is Goodness to the extreme do any less than give good things to those who ask for them?  That’s how you pray.

They all nod, heads indicating agreement, eyes revealing they didn’t have a clue.  So, Jesus sighed and said, how do you pray?  Hopefully.  Expecting good things.  Expecting just what you need.  You can give good things to your children, how much more will God give us just what we need, the Holy Spirit.  That’s what we need.  The Holy Spirit of wisdom, the Holy Spirit of encouragement, of strengthening, the Holy Spirit of discernment, of acceptance, the Holy Spirit of putting one foot in front of another.  

Someone who knew a little of my story told me they were praying for me this week.  I don’t know, she said, how you keep going.  Because you prayed, I told her, because you prayed.  How much more will God give?  Ask and see.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Choosing the Better Part

How did I get here?  No, that’s not an existential question, or even a religious philosophical question. It’s simply a logistical one.  How did I get here?  Here surrounded by more than I can handle, more than I can successfully navigate, more than I can do well or even passably?  How did I get here in a role I wasn’t supposed to play, trying to parent my parent?  I know I’m hardly the first one in this position, the first one to make this leap.  But there is just something fundamentally wrong about it. And everyone feels it.  Not just me.  We’re all unsettled by this.

We’re all overwhelmed these days.  It is a condition of life in the world we have shaped around us. The lists are long and the responsibilities legion.  Most of the time we just keep going, doing what needs to be done.  But once in a while we get lost in the midst of it all.  Once in while the carefully constructed jenga tower of obligations and opportunities becomes unstable and we are left in the rubble of unfinished tasks, feeling like we’ve let everyone down, like we’ve disappointed those most important to us, like even those we run to are pushing us away because we’ve become a liability.  We can’t carry the load anymore, so we lash out.

The teetering edifice of solutions for dad was beginning to wobble more than I liked, and when my siblings asked a couple of legitimate questions, I lashed out at them, saying “no one cares that you’ve left me to do all the work by myself!  Tell them then to help me.”

Luke 10:38-42 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." 41 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

OK, that wasn’t exactly what I said.  But it was what she said.  Martha.  Poor Martha.  Oh my goodness, have we given Martha a rough time.  And often for the wrong things.  She wasn’t spiritual enough, some claim.  She should have set aside the dinner preparations and sat down with Mary and listened to Jesus.  He wasn’t going to be there forever, after all.  Don’t miss an opportunity to listen.

Well, I guess we can’t argue with that.  We do need to listen to, and listen for Jesus.  Nobody, especially not me, is going to tell you to stop paying attention to Jesus.  That’s one of my most constant messages, don’t squeeze Jesus out of your busy life.  Take time to listen, to be present, to sit at his feet and be loved into transformation.  But that doesn’t mean we have to drop everything.  St Paul says we are to pray constantly.  How are we to do that and live a life engaged in the world around us?  We have to learn to listen while we work.  We have to learn to be alive to the Presence even while we are elbow deep in family issues and household chores.  Brother Lawrence, a late 17th Century monk known for wisdom amidst the domesticity of life, said I hear God best when I’m washing dishes.  Sounds like a Martha wanna be.  At least what I think Martha wanted to be.  Needed to be.  Could have been.  But instead she got in her own way.

It wasn’t what Martha chose to do that was the problem.  It was the self she chose to do it in that tripped her up.  At the top of the list of social and religious law among the people of Israel was the importance of hospitality.  It was a law woven into the very concept of what it meant to be God’s people.  It was taken very seriously.  You don’t say to visitors, “oh just make yourself at home.”  No, you help them know they are at home.  That they are valued and welcomed and catered to.  It’s hard work this hospitality thing, just ask Martha.

Which is why many churches aren’t very good at it.  Not because they don’t want to be. Not because they are unfriendly.  Friendliness isn’t really the issue.  Sure, we want to be friendly while we greet folks.  That’s the easy part, really.  Being nice is something we church people excel at.  And we should.  We want to present a pleasant face to the world.  But if being nice was all it took then we would succeed at everything.  Hospitality takes hard work, and at the top of the chore chart is setting yourself aside.  Remembering that what you do is not for your own satisfaction, your own growth, your own spiritual lift, but about sharing Christ by serving people, by making them feel like this whole event (worship, discipleship, evangelism, stewardship, mission and witness) is for their benefit.  It is designed for the purpose of bringing them into the presence of the living Christ.  Of lifting them up out of the loneliness of modern living, out of the emptiness of existence, out of the hopelessness of a dog eat dog climbing to the top of the heap kind of life.  Of welcoming them home like a prodigal for whom we’ve been straining to catch sight of every single day.  We don’t do what we do for us.  We do it because we are always with Him and everything He has to offer us is already ours.  We do it because we live the party and we desperately want everyone to join in.

That’s what Martha forgot for a moment.  Luke says she was distracted by her many tasks.  You know the feeling. Being distracted by our many tasks.  That’s a completely different feeling than when we are invested in our many tasks.  When we are doing what we do because we know in some small way the world is better because we do it. We know, we believe, we hope that all that we do is making the Kingdom of God a little more real, a little closer, within reach to those who have lost sight of it. That’s what we want to do.  That’s how we find God in the washing of dishes.  And scrubbing of floors.  But, like Martha, we need reminding now and again.  

Because we don’t feel the Presence any more.  Instead we feel the weight of the dishes we are carrying, we feel the strain on our backs as we knead another lump of dough to make more bread for these hungry disciples who are eating us out of house and home.  We count the costs, we feel the burden, we wipe the sweat from our brow and notice that there are others not carrying their share of the load.  And we snap.  “Lord, don’t you care...”  What a way to start.  Don’t you care.  Nobody cares.  Poor me.  Do it yourself.

That’s what I snapped to my sister and brother when they asked questions I didn’t like.  Do it yourself.  I wonder if Martha dropped a tray of dishes at Jesus’s feet.  Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Don’t you care?  Tell her then to help me.  If you care, if you really cared about me, that’s how you’d show it.  By telling her to help me.  

Jesus did care.  Does care.  About the burden you are carrying.  Mostly because of how it is affecting you.  “You are worried and distracted by many things.  There is need of only one thing.”  One thing? What’s that one thing?   Sometimes I think church growth strategies are about finding this one thing. If we just do this, whatever this is, then everything will go well.  One thing.  Apparently some commentators suggested that he meant a simpler meal would be better.  Don’t cook a roast, but crackers and cheese will be fine.  Somehow it seems more profound than that.  The one thing.  

Mary chose the better part, Jesus said.  So, it’s the sitting at his feet thing.  That’s better than working in the kitchen, right?  Well, no.  The one thing is being fully present with Him. Whether sitting at his feet, or fixing Him dinner, or singing His praise, or feeding His hungry, or loving His children. Are you aware of His love and support?  Of His grace and compassion for you?  And does it radiate from you in the kitchen or the classroom, in the sanctuary or the street corner, in the office or the shop floor?  Choosing the better part isn’t a specific act, it is a way of acting, of believing, of being.  

Next week I’m off to Mission u to teach for a week on the Bible and Human Sexuality.  You know, easy stuff.  It’s not the right time, I’m way too busy, overwhelmed with responsibilities and duties. I have barely been in the office for weeks, I’ve got Dad to get settled, kids to transition and there still isn’t a marker on mom’s grave and it is starting to bother me.  I know I’ll be on the computer and on the phone all week in between sessions at Mission U.  But it is my prayer and my hope that I will be present with them, even as I attempt to stay present with my other responsibilities.  And when I start to crack under the stain (because I will), I may say, Lord, don’t you care?  And I’ll listen for the voice that says, “you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing.  Me.”  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. 


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Half Dead on the Side of the Road

It’s been a long time since I wrote in this space.  The last time I posted here I was on the brink of going to spend a week with Senior High Youth at Epworth Forest for an awesome week of worship and laughter and tears and fun and faith and the constant reminder that I’m an old guy.  I was looking forward to it.  Then halfway through the week I got a call from the facility where my mom was telling me that things didn’t look good.  My sister was there already, I spoke to my older brother, he was heading down.  The next day I packed up and went down.  

It’s an eight hour drive from Fort Wayne.  I hit a traffic jam crossing the Ohio, a torrential storm crossing Kentucky and got a call when I was still about an hour from Paris, Tennessee, the little town where my mom and dad retreated to when life in Indiana got messy some thirty-six years ago.  It was my older brother who simply said “mom’s gone.”

When I got the call on Wednesday from the nursing home I thought it would be a good thing.  Mom had suffered long enough, if she could just go to be in heaven with her brother and parents and her beloved son Stephen, that would be a good thing.  I had said good bye when I was there before, I was at peace with it.  But having driven that far I wanted to be there, to talk to her one more time.  “Mom’s gone.”  To be honest I considered turning around.  Except now I knew there was a lot to be done.  Mom was gone, but dad was there.  And all the myriad things that have to be done when death comes into the family.  So, I kept driving.  Wishing I could pass by on the other side.

Luke 10:25-37  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 26 He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" 27 He answered, "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 your neighbor as yourself." 28 And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 30 Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" 37 He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

The priest and the Levite get a bad rap in this story.  And no, it’s not a union thing that makes me want to defend them.  It’s a human thing.  It’s a me thing.  There are just to many things that are easier to walk by than to get down and get your hands dirty by trying to help.  I write this on a weekend where the security of our nation is shaken, not by an outside enemy, but by a persistent racism that is so deep we can fool ourselves into thinking it isn’t there anymore.  Two young black men were killed in Minnesota and Louisiana by police this past week.  Then Thursday night a young black man, shot and killed five white Dallas police officers and wounded seven more before being killed by a robot with an explosive device after negotiations with the shooter failed. Passing by on the other side seems the safest, if not sanest response.  Pointing fingers and making accusations, finding fault and casting blame aren’t really the same as helping, yet that is what many choose to do.  Better to pass by, don’t you think?

Back up a moment.  Let’s look at the text, that’s what this is supposed to be about, right?  What do we learn here?  Well, we learn that Luke doesn’t like lawyers.  Not sure why exactly, but he casts this one in a negative light, even though the dialog doesn’t support such negativity.  Teacher, he says, an address of respect, what must I do to inherit eternal life?  Maybe he really wants to know.  This isn’t an attack by a roving gang of teachers of the law, or scribes and pharisees.  This is one guy, who interrupts a private moment (see vs 23) with a question.  What must I do?  Not the usual lawyer kind of question.  Not, what must I know, or what must I prove, or where does it say, or what is the law.  He didn’t ask anything like that.  What must I do?  But Jesus prods him a little bit.  You know the law, you’re a lawyer, so you tell me.  And he does.  As completely and eloquently as Jesus does on the occasions that Matthew and Mark tell us about.   Even Jesus is impressed.  See, this answer which seems so simple for us, since Jesus laid it out, is not as evident to them.  The lawyer had to put together two ideas that don’t sit side by side in the Hebrew text.  They’re in there, but you have to go and find them, and put them into one simple package.  

Any good Jew, lawyer or not (and just to be clear, lawyer in this context means he knew the bible really well, it was his profession to interpret the Hebrew texts), would know the first part.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.  It’s called the Shema, the most precious prayer of every Jew.  Oh, he expanded on it a bit, since “mind” isn’t in the original.  But he was covering his bases, I’m guessing.  Doing the lawyer thing.  So, that wasn’t surprising.  What was surprising was the second one, which is simplified as “and your neighbor as yourself.”  That he put those two together is incredible, really.  Jesus commends him and seems ready to end the dialog.  Go and do.

But the lawyer has another question.  Luke again casts a negative sounding light on the question, “wanting to justify himself.”  Give him a break, Luke, maybe he really did want to know.  But he was a lawyer for heaven’s sake, used to talking in subordinate clauses and parties of the first part and parties of the second part.  He needed a definition he could run with.  

Who is my neighbor?  It’s a question we live with every day.  Like a waitress in a busy restaurant, we want to know which is our table to serve.  Like a manager in a large corporation, we ask which employees are ours to supervise.  Not my problem, not my backyard, not my issue.  Not my row to hoe.  If Luke is right and he was wanting to justify himself, I suspect it was that he was wanting to know if the definition for neighbor that he had known all his life was still valid.  Am I loving the ones I’m supposed to love?  The ones near me, the ones like me, the ones in my camp, my tribe, my family?  

So Jesus drops a little bomb in the midst of his preconceived notions about life and his place in it.  The good Samaritan.  It’s become a cliche for us, a label, something to aspire to, we have good Samaritan laws, a good Sam club of RV’ers, we’ve come to accept the description.  But for this poor lawyer it was incomprehensible.  A what?  A good what?  No such thing.  They, those Samaritans, defiled the law, polluted the race, gave up on God, they are dirty and lazy and hateful and no ... good.  Just no good.  

The priest and the Levite, the good ones, came and saw and passed by.  Never mind why, the reasons are many.  But they did.  The dirty, lazy, hateful Samaritan came and saw and had compassion.  Then he acted.  He saw and had compassion.  Not fear for his life or worry about his reputation or disgust over the stupidity of the man who must have been asking for it when he got beat up, not suspicion over motives and circumstances.  He had compassion. He saw a man, a fellow human being, a brother, a neighbor lying half dead on the side of the road.  He did what he could, went out of his way, put himself at risk.  Out of compassion.

That’s what will save us as a nation, when we learn to have compassion.  Because the truth is we’re all half dead on the side of the road, longing for someone to come and give us life.  Needing someone to turn aside for us, even as we turn aside for others.  We need someone to bandage our wounds, our fears, our doubts, our prejudices, our emptiness, even as we - out of compassion - bandage the wounds of the other.  Maybe that’s what loving the neighbor as yourself really means, knowing that we are as needy, we are as wounded, we are as half dead as the ones we stop to help.  I drove on to Paris and found all my time and energy and effort going to help dad who appeared beaten and robbed and lying half dead on the side of the road.  We’re still tending those wounds, even as we attempt to grieve the loss of our mother.  I wanted to pass by all of this, to be honest, the urge is still there.  But instead I’m unpacking the bandages and pour the oil on troubled waters and hoping there’s enough to bring healing, while feeling half dead on the side of the road.  Because there are many who come to show mercy.  Thanks be to God.