Sermon: Holy One of God

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark opens his Gospel not with the birth of Jesus, but his baptism. And just a few verses later in chapter one, while preaching in a sanctuary Jesus casts out a demon from a possessed man. Many were surprised with the confidence with which Jesus did his work, and that he exhibited power over an “evil spirit.”

Although we may not possess power to perform exorcisms, we do have a power as a Christian people to be a strong, positive influence in the lives of others. Several stories of “evil people” have one thing in common — they joined a radical movement (for instance, the white supremacist movement) because it was a group with whom they finally felt accepted.  What if we were able to get to them first?

But we cannot go at it alone. As followers of Jesus, we go to church and worship among our community of believers to develop our practices of piety. Those practices of piety prepare us for works of mercy. And it is only then — when we love our neighbor — that we achieve holiness.

“Holy One of God”
Sermon by Dr. Robert Foster
Mark 1: 21-28
Jan. 28, 2018

Sermon: “The Quality of Mercy”

Jesus tells us how to deal with those who sin against us, and not surprisingly, it’s countercultural. Where in society when we confront disagreement it’s so easy to block someone on Twitter, or unfriend them on Facebook, Jesus says we should first go talk to the person, face-to-face. Because when we talk to someone, there’s something about our humanity that makes us want to reconcile.

Jesus also tells us that forgiveness is unlimited. As Christians, we above all people should recognize mercy — God has given us endless forgiveness. And through God’s people, we have continuously been shown the love and mercy of God. We are only here because of the boundless generosity of God.

Sermon

“The Quality of Mercy”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Matthew 18: 15-35
Sept. 24, 2017

Sermon: Who is the Good Samaritan?

“Who is the Good Samaritan?”
Sermon by Dr. Jodie Lyon
Luke 10: 25-37
July 10, 2016

The Word in Song: “Prayer for Today”

Sermon

I

“Who is the Good Samaritan?” (Oconee Street, 7.10.16)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan more times than I can count.

The problem with hearing the same story over and over again is that it usually has less and less of an impact on you with each retelling. In the final years before my grandpa passed away, he would tell me the same story every time I visited. He was taking a college class, and the professor insisted he would only award one A for the course. My grandpa was tied for the top spot with a female student. The competition was close, but the night before grades were due the female student and her mom invited the professor over to their house and hosted a private piano concert for him. She got the A, and my grandpa, apparently, never quite got over that.

As I heard this story more and more frequently toward the end of my grandpa’s life, I became understandably less and less shocked at the outcome of the story. I of course feigned moral outrage every time my grandpa told the story, but by the 100th time, I wasn’t really even listening anymore. I was just nodding my head as I entertained other thoughts in my mind, trying to remember to look appropriately shocked and indignant at the story’s climax.

It’s like that with this parable. We all know how it’s going to turn out, and it’s no huge surprise what happens. But this isn’t just a story about your grandpa’s shady professor and a grade-grubbing student. This is a parable of Jesus, and we can’t afford to let the story lose its power to shock, outrage, and motivate us. So I’m going to begin today by offering three retellings of the story of the Good Samaritan—three attempts to set this story in a modern context in the hopes that the story speaks to us in a fresh way this morning.

The first retelling comes from Katy Hinman in response to the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in Minneapolis, and the five police officers in Dallas. These stories should be fresh in your minds, so I won’t rehearse the details, I’ll simply get to the parable:

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

‘What is written in the Law?’ [Jesus] replied. ‘How do you read it?’

He answered, ‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’

In reply Jesus said: “A man was selling CDs outside a convenience store…

‘A man was driving in a car with his girlfriend, her daughter, and a broken taillight…

‘A man was standing guard at a peaceful protest…’

Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.”

Perhaps we are no longer surprised that a man gets robbed and beaten in Jesus’ parable, but the senseless deaths of two black men has shaken many of us this week to the core. The man in the parable is just a fictional character, but he’s supposed to bring to mind the real victims of violence and injustice in our present world, people like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. People like the officers who were killed, and the officers who were injured in the anger and outrage that followed yet another story of racism and tragedy. If we are going to be the neighbors that Jesus calls us to be, we cannot afford to skip over the horror of the man who is beaten, the women who is killed, the children who are abused. We must be willing to stop and be moved to tears on their behalf. To be a neighbor, we must hurt with the hurting, and feel the outrage of the injustices committed against them deep in our souls. If we don’t, we will never be moved to action, never compelled to speak up for the rights of the oppressed, never motivated to fight for justice denied.

You may have noticed that Katy Hinman did not end her telling of the parable with a Good Samaritan. She leaves us hanging. No one helps. No one is the neighbor. Instead, she ends it with a cry to God for mercy. Mr. Rogers once said that his mother told him that when something scary happens, he should look for the helpers, for there are always people who help. That’s good advice in a terrifying world, but we must also not be too quick to jump to the conclusion of Jesus’ parable, to the person who helps, for it might make us forget the horror of the problem itself. We have to be shocked and outraged and hurt by the deaths of these men. We cannot forget. Lord, have mercy. And Lord, help us to have mercy.

The second retelling of Jesus’ parable is set in the context of the Stanford rape case. If you’ve forgotten the story, several weeks ago Stanford college student Brock Allen Turner was convicted of sexual assault in the rape of woman who had attended a frat party with her sister. After leaving the party, Turner assaulted the woman as she lay unconscious behind a dumpster before he was found by two Swedish students riding their bikes. They intervened and called the police, holding down the rapist until the cops arrived. The story became national headlines not simply because of the crime involved, but because of its outcome. Turner was sentenced by Judge Aaron Persky to only six months in jail for his three felony convictions because the judge was worried about the “severe impact” prison time would have on the young man’s life. And Turner’s father wrote a statement complaining about the “steep price” that his son had to pay for “20 minutes of action.” With that in mind, Jennifer Tweat wrote this version of the story of the Good Samaritan:

“The Good Swedes”

But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, “and who is my neighbor?”
And Jesus answering said,

“A certain college student left her house to go down the street to a party, to keep her sister company. And she was attacked by a man, who stripped her of her clothes and raped her, and ran away, leaving her behind a dumpster unconscious and bleeding.

In the year that followed, the rapist’s dad heard her story but decided that his son hadn’t raped her enough to deserve punishment in jail.

In the year that followed, a judge heard her story but decided that the rapist’s future was more important than hers, and he passed the minimum sentence required by law to give the rapist 6 months, time served.

But by chance, two Swedish guys on bicycles happened by and when they saw what was happening they had compassion on her; they shouted and stopped the rape and chased down the rapist and called the police.

Which now of all three, [do] you think, was neighbor to she who fell attacked by the rapist?”

Jennifer’s version of the story is powerful because it highlights not only the injustice done, but the excuses that we use to avoid being good neighbors. The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable had plenty of reasons, I’m sure, not to help the man in the street. He was probably carrying his money in a way that invited attack. He was probably walking through the wrong part of town unaccompanied. He was probably not a temple-goer, so he deserved what he got.

If someone in our society is sexually assaulted, we are ready and waiting with reasons why it was justified or why the perpetrator shouldn’t be held responsible for it. She was drunk. She was wearing a revealing shirt and too short of a skirt. She shouldn’t have left the party alone. She kissed him, so she must have consented. It was a shame that this happened, but she kind of had it coming, you know? This sort of thing doesn’t happen to the good girls. He is a swimmer with a possible Olympic future. He has never been in trouble with the law before. It was only 20 minutes of action out of a 20 year life. He really shouldn’t have done this, but come on, let’s not be too harsh, you know? Boys will be boys.

Before we get too holy and condemn the college student, his father, and the judge, let’s be honest with ourselves. What are our excuses for failing to be a good neighbor? I know I have mine.

The final retelling of the Good Samaritan highlights a few of own excuses. It’s a story about me and an experience I had last fall. It’s entitled:

“The Good Muslim”

But the college religion professor, wanting to justify herself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus answered saying,

“A certain college student taking a large introductory religion course was mourning the death of her grandmother and trying to juggle work, school, and friends, and fell behind on her assignments, to the extent that she was in danger of failing the course.

And when the student’s TA came to the religion professor’s office, wanting to discuss the student and her missing assignments, the professor lectured him on academic integrity, the necessity of allowing students to fail and learn from their mistakes, and the student’s responsibility to seek out help.

But the Muslim TA quoted the Qur’an and implored the professor to show the student compassion, the compassion that God requires all those who profess faith to give toward to those in need.

Which of these two, do you think, was neighbor to the one who fell behind in her assignments?”

This final version of Jesus’ parable highlights what would have been the surprise ending of the story for Jesus’ original listeners. The righteous one in the story, the one who lives out the commandment to love God and neighbor, is not one of the expected characters, but the completely unexpected one. It’s the Samaritan. Because this parable is so familiar to us, most of us if we heard the word “Samaritan” would automatically associate that word with the adjective “good”. Of course the Samaritan is good! I’ve heard the story 100 times! But Jesus’ listeners would have heard “good Samaritan” as an oxymoron. Those are words that simply do not belong together. Good priest, yes. Good Jew, yes. Good Levite, yes. Good Samaritan? No way. It’s like saying “Good Florida fan” in a room full of Bulldawgs. That just can’t be, Lord!

So to surprise and shock us, to fully grasp the intent of Jesus’ parable, we need to insert another noun after the word “good.” We need to think about the people that our society and culture would deem evil, and realize that they may be the ones who live out the love of God when we don’t. I chose “Muslim” for my version of the story because Muslims are currently one of the largest targets of societal hatred, and because I had an experience with my TA that clearly demonstrated how I can be put to shame by the followers of other religions.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks Jesus.

There’s an internet meme that I think answers that question quite succinctly. It says at the top, “Love Thy Neighbor,” and then underneath it lists all the neighbors that we should love:
• Thy homeless neighbor
• Thy Muslim neighbor
• Thy black neighbor
• Thy gay neighbor
• Thy white neighbor
• Thy Jewish neighbor
• Thy Christian neighbor
• Thy atheist neighbor
• Thy addicted neighbor

I could easily end the sermon right here, but that would only give you false hope for shorter sermons in the future, and I don’t want to burden Pastor Joe with your unrealistic expectations for brevity. So I’ll go on.

And I also don’t want to end the sermon right here because I want to change directions a bit. I left out one of the “thy neighbors” from this list that I just read. I left it out because, I’ll be honest, it’s a group of people that I don’t want to love, that I don’t want to be a neighbor to. I left out: “Love thy racist neighbor.” Please Lord, not the racist. Let me be a neighbor to anyone but them.

It’s long been a belief of mine that the best sermons are the ones that are preached to oneself. They are inwardly directed, not outwardly directed. Both preaching and teaching, sermons and lectures, are best done staring into the mirror. Not to admire the image one sees reflected, but to recognize the failings and shortcomings and sins one sees staring back at oneself. It’s the evil that we know that we can most effectively and honestly speak against. Those sermons and lectures are the hardest to write, because they force us to face our own demons, but they are often the most powerful because they are written from a place of authenticity. So today I am attempting to battle my own demons by taking this sermon and pushing it farther than I would like.

It’s easy to use the story of the Good Samaritan as a weapon to beat others over the head. The church has a long history of using Scripture in this fashion, condemning others by selective quotations of the Bible. And the Good Samaritan story seems so relevant now, as it’s a text that speaks against the “us versus them” mentality of our culture, even our Christian culture. When I see Christians who fail to see racism and sexism and bigotry in the world, I want to shout this parable to them. I want to scream ‘til I’m red in the face, “You have to love Muslims! You have to love gay people! You have to acknowledge racism and sexism! Black lives matter! The rights of women matter! You can’t vote for Donald Trump and ignore his disgusting rhetoric that threatens to tear apart our nation at its seams! STOP IT NOW! I can’t take it anymore. Love is more important than our gun rights, our national security, our middle class jobs, our taxes, our whatever. WE ARE CALLED TO LOVE ABOVE ALL ELSE!!!!”

This parable says all of that, so perhaps I need to keep proclaiming that truth even if no one listens to me. Even if I get unfriended on Facebook or lose some friends in real (non-virtual) life.

But I also imagine that Jesus’ parable is supposed to have a meaning for ME, not just a message for other people. So I have to be willing to ask Jesus:

Who is MY neighbor? Who is the neighbor I’m neglecting out of self-righteous indignation and anger? Who would I pass by on the street, perhaps even crossing the street to avoid the taint of being associated with them? Who would I treat with hostility rather than mercy, contempt rather than love? Who is the neighbor that I refuse to see as a rightful recipient of my time, my energy, my finances, and my love?

At this point in my life, it’s not the black community, the LGBT community, the undocumented students and their parents, the victims of rape and sexual violence, the refugees, or the poor. I know those people are my neighbors, and I know that I have the obligation to love them, to feed them, to fight for justice for them, to listen to them, and to stand up for their rights. I’ve been at Oconee Street for three years now and I’ve been convicted time and time again by the sermons I’ve heard and the testimonies of those of you who live out your faith in tangible ways. Our mission statement proclaims loudly to all that we consider those whom society condemns and marginalizes to be our neighbors, and I’ve watched in awe as you have repeatedly demonstrated to me how to live out this calling. I have a long way to go in being a neighbor consistently to these groups, but you have at least set me on that path. I pray that I will daily increase in my ability to be their neighbors.

But I’ll admit that I not have an even bigger neighbor problem. I have a hard time being a neighbor to those on the right. I have a problem being a neighbor to the person who wants to build a wall to keep out the undesirables from Mexico, and suggests via Facebook meme that perhaps adopting a policy like North Korea’s and shooting illegal immigrants would be a better border protection policy than our current one. I have a difficult time being a neighbor to the person who responds to the #blacklivesmatter movement with an indignant post about how #alllivesmatter. I don’t want to be a neighbor to the person who proclaims that healthcare isn’t a universal right, or that gay and lesbian folks are an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.

But if I were to ask Jesus who my neighbor is, I imagine he’d tell me a story where a racist, sexist, homophobic Trump supporter was the hero, the merciful one. THAT’s the story of the Good Samaritan set in my context.

Or perhaps, Jesus wouldn’t throw all of that at me at once, but he’d start with John Piper. “Your neighbor, Jodie, is John Piper,” I hear Jesus saying.
Most of you don’t know John Piper. I don’t personally know him, but he’s my theological nemesis, nonetheless. Piper is an extremely influential Reformed pastor and author. Reformed is basically another name for Calvinist, so imagine a pastor who believes that God predestines some people to heaven, and passes over the rest of humanity, allowing them to burn eternally in Hell for their sins. I’ve often said that Methodists can believe almost anything and still qualify as Methodists with one exception: you can’t believe in predestination. That is entirely contradictory to everything Methodism stands for. John Wesley would roll over in his grave if a Methodist endorsed predestination. Now I’ve known some predestinarian Methodists, but I prefer to call them “Baptists who keep showing up to the wrong church on Sundays.” So you know already that John Piper and I see God and Christianity quite differently.

I will spare you the laundry list of reasons I disdain John Piper and just give you one more: he actively campaigns for traditional gender roles. Not only does he spend a good deal of time teaching and preaching that women are to be subordinate to men in the home, and not preach or teach in the church, but he thinks that women should submit to men in society, too. Women professors? Totally suspect in Piper’s book. You can see why I’m not a fan.

I have to love John Piper. I have to be his neighbor, because “Love thy neighbor” doesn’t exclude anyone, not the person you like the least, not the person you think is most unworthy of your love, not the person you are convinced is wrong, wrong, wrong. How do I do this? How do I love the person who thinks every aspect of my private and professional life is a violation of God’s gender norms? I’ll confess that I don’t quite know the answer, but I have some thoughts, and hopefully as we continue our spiritual walk together, I will learn more from you about how to be his neighbor.

But for now, I don’t think loving my neighbor means that I shouldn’t speak out against them. I truly believe that I have a moral obligation to speak out against John Piper’s teachings, not only because his teaching on gender roles is harmful and sanctifies the sinful practice of sexism, but because his theology as a whole misidentifies the nature and reality of the God I know and worship.

But yet I’m called to be John Piper’s neighbor. How do I do that?

When I imagine Heaven, I imagine a great feast. The idea of a huge heavenly banquet is not only a biblical image of the afterlife, but essential to my understanding of a good God. If you know me, you know I love food. So if God is good, heaven must be a place where I can eat to my heart’s content, no longer burdened by my numerous food allergies, and not get fat. Seriously, ya’ll, this is ESSENTIAL TO MY THEOLOGY. Last week a student in my summer class was giving a presentation on the afterlife in Judaism, and he asked for feedback about what we would imagine Gan Eden, the Jewish version of paradise, to be like. My hand shot up first. “PIZZA! There will be PIZZA and I can eat it!!”

But when I show up for the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet in the afterlife, I imagine that there will be assigned seating. And the assigned seating will be partly God’s little joke and partly God’s poignant demonstration of the sinfulness of human divisions. God will, I’m pretty sure, sit me right next to John Piper. Piper will be my neighbor in heaven, whether or not I was ever willing to be his neighbor on earth.

Perhaps that is even an unstated point of Jesus’ parable. The people I dislike the most, the people who I’m sure are doing religion all wrong are going to be the people I’m literally going to be neighbors with after life on earth is done. Jesus preaches both the present reality and the future fullness of the kingdom of God. John Piper is my heavenly neighbor and if I can live into the teachings of Jesus I will make our neighborly relation a reality on earth, too. I will have my eyes opened and see him for who he is: a beloved creature of God who is both sinner and sanctified, both theologically wrong and right, just like me. If I lived into the teachings of Jesus, I’d probably look at Piper and instead of seeing him as the “other,” the person who is messing up my correct version of Christianity, I’d simply see myself reflected back. I’d see me, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and seeing myself, I’d have to stop judging so harshly and love instead. I’d have to show him mercy, the mercy that the Jesus praises the Samaritan for in the gospel of Luke.

Mercy is a gift we can offer others only when we recognize the common humanity and common frailty of the people we encounter. The only way I can show mercy to John Piper is to recognize myself when I look at him. When I’m being honest, that is what I see. Me.

When I was in tenth grade, we were paired up in English class and given an assignment to write and deliver an introductory speech about our partner, imagining that we were introducing them at a function 10 years in the future. My partner, Camille, decided that in the future I would be an overachiever, and quickly came up with a long bullet list of my imagined accomplishments at the ripe old age of 26. I don’t remember most of the grand achievements she envisioned for me, but I do remember she wrote that I would become a doctor and find the cure for AIDS. I asked her to change it and say I found a cure for cancer instead. I don’t think I revealed to her why I asked for the change, but the truth is that as a high school sophomore, I was convinced that AIDS was a divine punishment on the gay community for the sin of transgressing God’s intentions for human sexuality. I didn’t think God wanted anyone to find a cure, and perhaps wouldn’t even allow it.

I’m horrified and embarrassed to admit that I believed that. But that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. I believed people on welfare were generally lazy, and that the government shouldn’t be giving them “handouts.” I was certainly aware that racism still existed in the 1990s, but I was also convinced that an over-reaction to racism had spawned reverse racism, and that many white people were now treated unjustly because of affirmative action practices. I also thought women preachers were sinful, and that women who put their children in daycare were selfish and were abdicating their God-given responsibility to put their families first. I could go on and on, as I haven’t even mentioned my views on Muslims and immigrants yet, but I think I’ve made my point. I was one of “them.” I was one of those people that today I feel a righteous indignation against, one of those people that I feel a moral obligation to oppose. I was one of them: a sick, sinful person in need of the mercy of Christ and of my neighbor.

So here I am now, at a place I would call politically and theologically and socially left of center. Here I am now, in a church that is also politically and theologically and socially left of center. The question for me, and I would imagine, for us, is how to be a neighbor from the left–how to be a neighbor not only to those who are also on the left, but to those on the right, because they need mercy, too.

I have to be a neighbor to the John Pipers of the world, even as they tell me I’m a sinner for preaching and teaching and leading as a woman. I have to be a neighbor to the Franklin Grahams of the world who warn Christians that the Qur’an teaches violence and that Islam is an evil religion. I have to be a neighbor to the Robert Jefress’s of the world, the Dallas pastor who rails against illegal immigration and chastises Christians for their prideful refusal to support Donald Trump, the obvious “Christian” choice. These are my neighbors. These are our neighbors. These people need our mercy, too, and Jesus’ parable tears at my heart because I don’t want to show mercy because they are wrong. And because they are making a mockery of my religion.

But mercy is about recognizing that I am no better than them. I am simply at a different place in my journey to God, perhaps further along or perhaps simply on a different fork in the path. IF I have made it further, it’s not because of my efforts. I don’t deserve some sort of credit for it, as if we’ve all been offered equal opportunity to become more generous, open-minded people, and I rightfully accepted the way forward while they stubbornly stood back and refused. I am who I am today because God graciously saved me from myself. God sent the right people into my life to guide me out of my place of bigotry and lead me to higher ground. I was rescued. It was God and not me. So when I see the John Pipers and the Franklin Grahams of the world my response should be to beg for mercy for them, too. They need rescuing, for they are drowning in the sinful mindset of the world.

And so am I. So am I. Because no matter how many times I’ve heard this parable, no matter how many times I’ve been challenged to be a neighbor, I still walk smugly every day past people who need mercy. I am still drowning in sin, because I keep being unwilling to admit that oftentimes, those people I dislike are the actual heroes of Jesus’ parable. That often, John Piper, despite all the things I think he’s wrong about, is the one who shows the neighborly self-sacrificial love of Jesus to others when I pass them by. So all I can cry is: Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy, and Lord, may we learn to reflect your mercy. Amen.