Turn Back: Turn Back to the Stranger

Scripture: Leviticus 19:33-34; Hebrews 13:2

Once in a while you can go down some real rabbit holes preparing for a sermon, and that’s what I did this week.  As I thought about what I wanted to say today, I vaguely remembered a board game I played with my family as a kid where the object was to learn about safety.  You moved around the board and answered questions about, like, what to do if you got lost.  (Looking back it doesn’t really sound that fun.) Of course, when I asked my mom what this game was called she had absolutely no recollection that we had ever played anything like that.  Neither did my brother.  At that point it became not just about a sermon, and instead about proving that this suddenly very crucial part of my childhood had actually existed.

After some extensive internet research and Facebook crowdsourcing, I’m about 80% sure that what I was remembering was probably this game called Don’t Talk to Strangers.  Which delighted me, actually, because that’s where I was going with this anyway.

We (at least in the US, in a certain era) tend to learn early in our lives that strangers are people we cannot and should not trust. (I understand that might not be the case in other cultures or even older generations here.)  I think there are good reasons to want our kids to be smart in their interactions with others, and even to be appropriately cautious ourselves – after all, anything can happen.  The result is, though, that for many of us, the word “stranger” tends to have an ominous undertone to it.  A stranger might just be someone who stops you on the street to ask for directions, but there’s also this picture in the back of our minds of someone driving around the neighborhood in a windowless van offering candy to children.

If that’s true for you, I’m not going to tell you that the Bible says everything you learned as a kid is wrong.  Well, only sort of.  The biblical authors know that hospitality can carry a risk.  And yet the Bible, throughout Old Testament and New, repeatedly tells us that the stranger is someone to be welcomed.

Let’s say you are doing your devotional reading one morning out of the book of Leviticus.  Let’s say you make it past all the instructions on what kind of burnt offering is appropriate for which occasion and what to do if you think you have a skin disease, and you come to chapter 19, verses 33-34.  You’d read this: “When an immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the immigrant.  The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you.”

The word immigrant there is the Hebrew word ger.  It’s from the verb meaning “to sojourn,” which depending on your translation, may also be rendered alien, resident alien, foreigner, sojourner, or stranger.

This is a command that reappears over and over again in similar forms throughout the law books of the Hebrew Bible, in Exodus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, and later the prophets call the people back to this same command as well. The ger the biblical authors have in mind here is a “stranger” because they are in a new place, a place where they don’t quite belong.  Please note that if you yourself are an immigrant or “sojourner” in this country, I’m not trying to make a claim or assumption that you don’t “belong” – though it’s certainly possible you’ve felt that way or been made to feel that way; and it’s certainly possible that those of us who were born here have felt like that for any number of reasons too.  In any case, the Hebrew Bible recognizes that the ger is someone whose other-ness, in the place where they find themselves, makes them potentially vulnerable – someone who needs an extra bit of divine protection.

If you then turned in your (long) devotional reading to the New Testament, you might come to Matthew 25, where Jesus famously tells a parable about good sheep and bad goats, and he tells the sheep “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”  The sheep say, “When did we do that?”  And Jesus says, “whenever you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”  In Romans, Paul exhorts the church to “extend hospitality to strangers.”  And in Hebrews, the author of that letter refers back to a story in Genesis where Abraham and Sarah welcome three travelers who end up being messengers from God when he writes, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  It seems to me that the idea of a stranger has broadened, here – we are no longer just talking about foreigners, but anyone unknown and in need of a good welcome.

This Lenten season we’re talking about turning back, to God and the people God calls us to love – and over and over, in passages like these, the Bible calls us to turn back to the stranger: to the traveler, the newcomer, the one who doesn’t quite belong.

Let’s go back to that verse from Leviticus.  The Israelites are commanded to treat the immigrants and travelers among them well.  Did you catch the reason God commands them to do that?

Right – for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

The story of Exodus tells us that the Israelite people once lived in Egypt as slaves, which is of course not exactly the same as being an immigrant, but does make for a good example of how not to treat people who are “strangers” among you. Even once the Israelites are free and settled in the Promised Land, God wants to be sure that they don’t forget.  They have been in this place too.  They too have been the ones labeled strangers, and they should treat people always with that memory in mind.

Whether we are immigrants ourselves, whether we’ve lived somewhere else for a period of time, or traveled, or just gone to an unfamiliar place locally – most of us have probably had the experience of being new and unknown somewhere, at some time.  Have you had an experience (good or bad) of being a stranger, that then influenced how you treat other people in the same situation?

I have.  When I was in seminary I had the opportunity to spend a summer in South India, at a seminary in the city of Madurai.  I was so excited about this grand adventure.  And then I got there and I realized that I was both completely alone, and completely terrified.

I was there for an independent study, so I didn’t have a program I was part of or a schedule to adhere to.  I didn’t know how to cross the street – I’d been prepared for the fact that people drove on the left side of the road, but not for the complete disorder of cars, buses, autorickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and random animals all basically maneuvering at wildly varying speeds wherever they could find an open space on the road.  I didn’t speak Tamil.  I didn’t have anyone.  I cried myself to sleep for probably weeks straight.  I thought about just going home.

But one day after a morning chapel service, I met a student named Nyimang.  She recognized me as new or out of place, which I clearly was, introduced herself, and then she invited me over for dinner.  She, her husband Bimol, and their toddler son Manna adopted me and became basically my surrogate family while I was there.

I remember that at one point that summer I was planning to take the train to another city for a couple of days, but of course I didn’t know how to take the train.  So the night before I left I asked Nyim and Bimol how it all worked.  But instead of just giving me directions, they got up early the next morning, met me at my guest house, walked the mile to the train station with me, and helped me get settled in the right place.  When I was terrified and lonely in a new place, they helped me feel like I wasn’t alone.

The thing you should know about Nyimang and Bimol is that they were strangers, too.  It was their first year at the seminary, and the semester was just starting.  They came from a completely different part of India, up in the northeast near Burma.  They didn’t look like most of the other students there.  They spoke about as much Tamil as I did.  They didn’t know their way around, either.

But instead of allowing this fact to make them fearful and withdrawn, they recognized someone who was even more of a stranger than they were, and they said welcome.  And when I did finally come home at the end of the summer, I came home resolving to welcome other people like Nyimang and Bimol had welcomed me.

A few years later I sent Bimol another sermon where I talked a little bit about them and my experience there, and Bimol responded ,“We never realized the significance of the little help we extended to you in Madurai.”  It’s possible he was just being humble.  Or it’s possible that he and Nyimang just really found it so entirely natural to invite a stranger over to dinner and walk a mile to the train station at 6 in the morning for a trip they weren’t even taking that they really thought nothing of it, and that’s the kind of person I’d really like to be.

The truth is I’m not that person, not really, and of course there are plenty of reasons.  Sometimes it’s social anxiety.  Sometimes it’s liking my friend group the way it is and not wanting things to change.  Sometimes it’s a sense of a bigger risk involved.  Sometimes it’s just that I’m wrapped up enough in my own stuff that I don’t really have my eyes open to who could use a little extra welcome.  Some of us are more naturally endowed with the spiritual gift of hospitality than others, and that’s OK, but I think at least some of these reasons apply to all of us, sometimes.

But it’s Lent, and it’s a time of turning back.

How is God calling you to turn back to the stranger this season?  How will you turn back to welcome someone who might be new, feeling out of place, or overlooked?  There are big ways you can do this, like volunteer to teach ESL, or talk to Sarah about getting trained to accompany people to deportation hearings.  There are also smaller ways you can do that, like striking up a conversation with someone new.  Please don’t make assumptions about people and how new they are or how much help they need based on how they look or dress or talk, because that can go in the unwelcoming direction really quickly.  But do break out of your usual fellowship time conversation group, or invite someone new in.  Go meet the neighbors who just moved in down the hall.  Stand up for someone who’s being harassed for being different.

I think we also have the opportunity to turn back to the stranger as a church, together.  At Arlington Temple we strive to be and believe ourselves to be a welcoming community – and I think we succeed in that, in a lot of ways!  I also think it’s good, once in a while, to revisit that mission and how we are or aren’t actually living it out.

I told you we’d be talking more about that in light of our recent United Methodist General Conference and its tightened restrictions on LGBTQ+ people in the life of the church, especially in the areas of ordination and marriage.  In the wake of this decision and the publicity it’s received even in the mainstream media, I’ve seen a lot of churches rushing to advertise that “All are welcome here.”  But when I see a church claim that, I always wonder what “welcome” means to them.  Does it mean that LGBTQ+ people are welcome to come in and be a part of that church’s worship attendance statistics for the week?  (No one’s saying no to that.)  Does it mean that they would be accepted as leaders in the congregation?  Does it mean that they would be welcome to get married in the sanctuary they worship in each Sunday, just as any heterosexual couple would?  The church signs rarely specify.  The thing is that it’s easy to say that people are welcome, but there’s welcome and then there’s welcome.  I believe that if we’re going to advertise ourselves as welcoming, we’d better be clear on what that means.

I should note that the “strangers,” here, might even be people who have been in our churches for a long time; it’s the church itself that has decided they don’t quite belong.

But the question of how far our welcome extends isn’t just a question of our wedding policy.  Last week I had to be reminded to go unlock the street level door for someone who couldn’t get up the stairs to the main entrance, and I thought not only about the ways we’re not terribly accessible to our neighbors with less mobility – something that will definitely change as we look at renovating our building – but also about how that so often isn’t even on my radar until it someone is already subtly excluded.  We’re also a church in the middle of a really diverse area, with neighbors from all over the world.  And that diversity is reflected here to some extent, at least.  I also know that as a white pastor, raised in the dominant culture, I might not always even be aware of ways we’re not entirely living up to this image I have of us – maybe in ways our worship reflects my expectations, or what our leadership looks like compared to the church as a body.

We’re going to be talking more about these things, and these are questions I want you to have rolling around in your heads.  Because there’s welcome and there’s welcome – but God calls us to welcome.  Fully.  Because we’ve been strangers, too, and maybe we still are.

The good news is that this is not just a command, but also a promise.  Abraham and Sarah showed hospitality to strangers and ended up having dinner with angels.  The sheep of Jesus’ parable welcomed the stranger and found out later it had been Jesus all along.  The promise is that in turning back to the stranger, whoever that is, we are also meeting God in a new way, and there is a blessing there – not just for those we welcome, but also for us.

By God’s grace we have been welcomed, and by God’s grace, Jesus keeps showing up, in the newcomer and the traveler and the person who just doesn’t fit in.  And we’ll never know what divine blessings await – unless we talk to strangers.

 

 

Turn Back: Turn Back to Creation

Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17

You may have heard, if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, that we have a bit of a plastic problem.  By “we,” I mean us here in the United States, since we are undoubtedly producing more than our fair share of plastic trash, but also the world as a whole.  You may have heard that there’s currently a huge Texas-sized “island” of floating plastic in the Pacific,[1] or that, according to one recent, study, by 2050 there’s going to be more plastic by weight in our oceans than fish.[2]  We’ve heard the stories of whole countries banning plastic bags[3] and more recently have heard the call to ban plastic straws as well.[4]  Even the promise of recycling isn’t what it used to be, since China, which used to take a lot of our plastic for recycling, said at the beginning of 2018 that it wasn’t going to do so anymore.  It didn’t want to be the world’s “garbage dump,” it said.[5]

I’ve been hearing a lot about our plastic problem lately, so this year, for Lent, I decided to give up single-use plastic.

I never expected this to be able to do this perfectly.  It’s hard to imagine going to the grocery store and not coming home with food wrapped in all sorts of disposable plastic, and unfortunately, I’m not about to start canning fruit or making my own cheese at this point in my life.  It’s a rare morning when I even have time to brew my own coffee.  But I did figure there were probably some areas in my life where I could make some intentional changes – like the fact that I usually get takeout for lunch, with all the plastic containers and plastic silverware that entails; or the fact that when I’m away from home a lot of my water comes in bottled form.  I thought Lent could be a time to think about those changes I could potentially make, even if I wasn’t technically giving up plastic all the way.

It was one of those times when I thought I had a great idea on my own, but then it turned out that a lot of other people had that same idea too, kind of like the year I went as Sarah Palin for Halloween.  In fact, enough individuals and churches decided to give up plastic this year that there were whole newspaper articles about it, including one in the Washington Post.  In that article, the well-known Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas was interviewed about the idea, and he thought it was a bad one.  “They’re giving up plastic as a way of doing something that seems to make the world a better place. It’s a confusion of categories,” he said. “Giving up plastic is aimed at a different set of problems than what Lent is about. Lent is about confession of sin.”[6]

I can see his point.  I do think that sometimes these days, in an effort to make Lent less bleak and penitent, we can succumb to the temptation to make it about self-improvement instead, like it’s a time to renew those New Year’s resolutions we’ve already given up on.  It’s not.  Still, I think I would respond to Hauerwas that for me, giving up plastic – or at least trying – is about confessing my sin: the sin of my unsustainable lifestyle, the sin of my complicity in a culture of consumption, the sin of living mostly for myself, without much thought of how the byproducts of my life do and will affect others.

I’m not saying these things to make us all feel bad, which I think is what articles on plastic islands and climate change and sermons on creation care often do, at least for me.  They point out our guilt for things which are too big for us to fix.  In fact, some of my friends would likely point out that this emphasis on individual responsibility when it comes to the environment and climate change is just what big corporations want, because it takes the burden of change off of them – and they’re the ones who can actually make a difference.  Scientifically and politically, they might be right.  But theologically, at least, when I think about who is responsible for all of this, I always come back to me.  I’m the one consuming those products and that energy that the big corporations create.  The problem is bigger than me, definitely.  But it’s also me.

So, for me, my Lenten plastic fast is a form of confession and repentance.  Our focus this Lent is on turning back to God, and this is a way of turning back to God by turning back to God’s creation.

You may recall that in the Bible, God is always making these things called covenants.  A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties where each party usually has some obligations to fulfill.  It’s like a contract, but with a more relational emphasis.  In the Hebrew Bible, God makes a covenant with Abraham: God will make of Abraham a great nation, and Abraham will make sure all the males in his family are circumcised as a sign of this new relationship.  God makes a covenant with the Hebrew people through Moses: they will be God’s people, and God will be their God.  God makes a covenant with David: that a descendant of David will forever reign over Israel.  Later the prophet Jeremiah talks about the promise of a new covenant, by which he means a new relationship between God and God’s people once the people have returned from exile, but which Christians have traditionally taken to point ahead to Jesus, who embodies an even newer relationship of love and mercy between God and God’s people.

The first covenant that God makes in the Bible, however, isn’t just with one person or group of people.  It’s a covenant with all of creation.

In the beginning, as the story goes, God creates the heavens and the earth.  God calls forth light from the darkness, gathers the waters together and creates land; God fills the seas with sea creatures and the land with land creatures and the air with flying creatures; and then God creates human beings in God’s image.  And God gives humankind dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth, and God sees that God’s creation is good.  In fact, not just good – but very good.

And yet it’s not long before things begin to go awry.  It’s not the fault of the fish of the sea or the birds of the air or the creeping things on the earth, though all of them suffer for it.  It’s the fault of humankind, whose “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).  So what does God do?  God decides to wipe it all out and start over.  Not the way we usually tell the story in Sunday School, but there you go.  God decides to flood the earth.

But before God does so, God finds one righteous man named Noah, and God saves Noah and two of every wild and domestic animal, and they ride out the flood in an ark, and when the flood subsides, God announces the first covenant.  “I am establishing my covenant,” God says to Noah, “with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you.”

Just in case Noah didn’t catch it, God helpfully repeats it several times in the next few verses: “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you…””I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh…” (With who, God?) “Between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”  The writer of this passage must really want to drive this point home: humankind may still have dominion – power and responsibility over the rest of creation – but those animals of the earth and birds of the air and fish of the sea are, without mistake, our partners in this covenant.

I told you that a covenant generally has two parts – one part for God to uphold and the other part for God’s covenant partner to uphold.  In this case, though, the covenant seems to be pure grace on God’s part.  There’s nothing for Noah or us to do; God simply says that God will never again destroy the world with a flood.  It’s not a hard covenant for humankind to keep.

But the thing is, if we forget our partners in this simplest of covenants, then there’s a sense in which we’ve already broken it.

My aim, today, is not to point out all the things we’re doing wrong or all the ways we are covenant breakers.  I think we probably already know that most of us (especially here in the US) buy more than we need, create more carbon emissions than the world can sustain, and produce more trash than has any place to go.

Most of us probably also know, on some level, that the harm we do to our environment isn’t just about ruining “nature.”  It’s about those fish in the sea, swallowing our plastic microbeads.  It’s about the creepy crawly things on the ground that we’d honestly rather be rid of but that are actually pretty fundamental to life itself, the diversity of which is decreasing rapidly.[7]

It’s also about each other.  It’s about the fact that trash and pollution usually affect the poorest people in society long before the rich are ever forced to see the problem, and that people of color suffer disproportionately from the effects compared to white people.[8] It’s about the high school kids who took to streets and parks all over the world last week to protest our impending climate change crisis and the fact that the grown-ups don’t seem to be doing anything about it.  I do wonder sometimes what this world is going to look like by the time my children have grown up, if we will have made headway on any of these problems by then.

Turning back to creation isn’t just about turning back to creation.  It’s about turning back to each other, turning back to our neighbors near and far, turning back to our children, and turning back to God.

If you asked me how my plastic fast this Lent is going, I’d have to tell you that results are mixed.  I’ve made some small changes.  I now have a metal fork in my desk at work so I don’t have to keep taking the plastic ones from Chipotle.  I ordered reusable produce bags and shampoo that comes in a bar instead a plastic bottle.  I’ve started bringing my own cup to Panera for my morning coffee.  (I didn’t even know you could do that, until I asked.)  I’ve even managed to bring my lunch to work a couple times recently, on days when I’m feeling particularly on top of life and there happen to be leftovers in the fridge.  Most of these changes feel sustainable.  They’re new habits I can get into, and am.

I also keep coming back to how much bigger the problem seems than me.  Trying to give up plastic has made me really aware of all the plastic in my life that I can’t avoid – or at least that it seems really hard and inconvenient to avoid.  It’s made me think more, by connection, about my non-plastic waste, and even about my carbon footprint and how I’m contributing to global warming through the lifestyle choices I make.

But on the other hand – I am more aware of these things, and I have this Lenten practice to thank for that.  It may be a small turn, but it’s a turn nonetheless – a turn back to God and neighbor and creation and this covenant in which we are all partners together.

Again, it’s easy to get depressing when talking about all this, and that’s not how I want you to walk away feeling.  I learned in seminary that a sermon always has to have “good news!”  But I don’t want to make it sound like it will all be OK no matter what.  Greta Thunberg, the Swedish high school student who addressed the World Economic Forum a couple weeks ago, told the people gathered there “I don’t want your hope.  I want you to panic.  I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.  And then I want you to act.”  (According to the New York Times, the applause was “tepid.”)[9] It seems clear if we listen to both scientists and children that something really does need to change – and something big, and something soon.  God loves us and forgives us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t face the consequences of our own choices and the systems we create.

But there is good news, because I believe that even now, God’s grace is bigger than our brokenness, bigger even than the brokenness of our world, and God continues to call and welcome us home.

God’s grace means we are loved and forgiven, but it also means that change is possible.  Grace means we don’t have to be captive to the destructive habits we’ve learned from family or culture – that we can be free to make new and faithful choices, even when we’re up against something much bigger than ourselves.  Grace means we recognize the road we’re headed down and turn back.

So: what’s one choice you can make this Lenten season that is part of turning back to God and the covenant we’re part of with all creation?

God is calling us back, to God and each other and creation.  All we have to do is turn.

 

 

[1]https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/science/2018/03/22/great-pacific-garbage-patch-grows/446405002

[2]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/01/20/by-2050-there-will-be-more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-worlds-oceans-study-says

[3]https://www.newscientist.com/article/2176417-new-zealand-becomes-the-latest-country-to-ban-plastic-bags/

[4] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/07/news-plastic-drinking-straw-history-ban/

[5]https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/11/world/china-recyclables-ban.html

[6]https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/03/05/latest-lent-challenge-churches-give-up-plastic

[7]https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/as-insect-populations-decline-scientists-are-trying-to-understand-why/

[8]https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/03/11/702348935/study-finds-racial-gap-between-who-causes-air-pollution-and-who-breathes-it

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/opinion/climate-change-children-greta-thunberg.html

Turn Back: Turn Back to Your Neighbor

Scripture: Luke 10:25-37

“Who is my neighbor?”

It’s a question we know is flawed from the start, first because we know it’s not a genuine question, and second, because we know were aren’t supposed to like the person who asked it.  Not – by the way – because he’s a lawyer, which in this case just means expert in the law.  But because Luke tells us he asks his initial question to “test” Jesus, and this second question to “justify” himself.

But the thing is if we didn’t know that, we might think it’s not that bad of a question.  We, like the lawyer, know the two most basic commandments of both the Jewish and Christian faiths: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  But also those are pretty broad statements, and we might be forgiven for wanting to flesh those out a little.

He might have asked, “But what does it mean, to love?”  Instead he asks, “But who is my neighbor?”  In other words, who counts?  Who does this apply to?  Who, exactly, am I supposed to love as myself?

“Neighbor,” if you think about it, is a complicated concept.  There are all sorts of neighbors.  There are the neighbors you say to hi on the street or in the hall, but don’t really know anything about each other’s lives; maybe you know their dog’s name, but can’t remember theirs.  There are the neighbors who mean well, but are always all up in your business.  There are the neighbors who report you for making noise even when you were seriously making a normal amount of noise.  There are the neighbors who get your mail and feed your cat when you’re on vacation.  Which of those neighbors count?

And then there are the neighbors who aren’t even really neighbors: the people you ride the Metro with every morning, the customer who comes into the coffee shop where you work, your classmates or work colleagues, the people who sleep in the shelter up the street or in the woods a few blocks away, the people you’ll never meet in person but read about in the newspaper, the local or international section.  Surely we can’t love them all in the same way, so really, who is our neighbor?

Last week we talked about Lent as a time of turning back to God, and as Jesus and our lawyer would both admit, if we’re going to turn back to God, we have to turn back to our neighbor too.  It’s just that if we’re going to turn back to our neighbor this Lenten season, we do kind of have to know who that means.

I know it’s a flawed question from the start, but to be honest, I’m a little bit interested in the answer.

Unfortunately, though, it’s a question Jesus never exactly answers.

I hate it when people don’t answer the question.  It’s such a politician-y thing to do.

Except for Jesus.  I love it when Jesus does that.  Because when Jesus refuses to answer the question, he always has something better to say, and a lot of times, he says it in a story.

A man was going down one day from Jerusalem to Jericho.  That walk is about 18 miles, and it’s steep, and sometimes narrow, with lots of crags in the rocks for would-be bandits to hide in.  And so that man “fell into the hands of robbers,” who mugged him and beat him and stripped him naked and left him for dead.

A while later a priest came walking down that same road, but when he saw the man lying there, he crossed over to the other side of the road and kept going, careful to always keep looking ahead.

A little while after that a Levite, from the tribe of Israelites set apart to be assistants to the priests, also came walking down the road.  He also saw the man lying there, and he also crossed to the other side of the road.

A little while later still, a Samaritan came down the road.  Samaritans lived in the region just north of Judea, and Jews and Samaritans did not like each other.  So if the priest and the Levite refused to help, we can be pretty sure the Samaritan would do so even more quickly.

But the Samaritan didn’t cross to the other side.  Instead, he turned back.  He came close, and saw that the traveler was still alive.  He bandaged his wounds, lifted him up onto his donkey, brought him to an inn, and paid for his stay.

Again, Jesus never answers the question.  Jesus finishes his story and then he asks the lawyer a question of his own: “Which one of these people was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The lawyer says, “The one who showed him mercy.”  And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Who do you identify with most in this story?

It’s the priest and the Levite who capture my attention most.  I’ve always wondered about them and why they didn’t stop to help.  Jesus doesn’t tell us anything about their motivations.  I’ve heard it said that the issue was one of religious purity: if the priest had gotten too close to a dead body, he would have had to go through a ritual of cleansing before he could engage in any of his priestly duties, and so he would have been delayed in those.  I do think there’s something powerful there in making us asking ourselves how our religious commitments might sometimes make us less compassionate and ready to help, instead of more.

But Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says that reading is wrong.  For one thing, the guy on the road isn’t dead, but even if he were, it was the moral and religious obligation of any Jew, including priests, to bury a neglected corpse.   For another thing, the purity laws about touching a dead body weren’t relevant to Levites.  And for another, it’s not even clear that the priest and the Levite were headed toward Jerusalem, and toward their ritual duties, instead of home.[1]

Sometimes, as Christians, we have the tendency to read the worst into Jewish law and people in Jesus’ day, just so we can talk about how Jesus fixed it.  But that’s not really fair either to our Jewish brothers and sisters or to Jesus himself, who came out of that tradition and embodied the best of it.  The truth is, Jewish law demanded the very kind of compassion that the Samaritan exhibited, and the priest and Levite didn’t.

And that means their motivations for not stopping to help were probably just pretty human ones.  What do you think they might have been?  Maybe they were tired.  It had been a long day, and they just couldn’t deal with it right now.  We’ve all been there, right?  Or they were in a hurry – on their way to something important, people counting on them, no time to stop.  Or they were afraid: afraid of what they would find if they got closer, afraid of what kind of commitment it would entail, afraid of who might still be lying in wait in between those craggy rocks.  How many people have you ever not stopped to help because you were afraid?

I don’t know about you, but I find myself making those excuses all the time.  There’s a guy who used to sit outside Safeway up on Wilson Boulevard, asking for change as people came out.  Since I moved to Springfield I don’t go to that Safeway much anymore, so I have no idea if he’s still there or if someone else has taken his place.  I didn’t usually have change to give, but I offered once or twice to buy him something from inside, which he accepted.  He sometimes asked for more than I wanted to buy.  And he was always still there the next time, asking for change.  And so I found myself going to that Safeway less often, which I’m sure is exactly what the people who ran that store were afraid of.  I’d walk by and see if the guy was there, and if he was, I would keep going.

To be honest, I don’t really know if I was in the right or the wrong not to want to buy him groceries every time.  I know there are other food resources in the area.  None of us can help every person we pass, every time.  None of us can support every good cause we believe in with our time and our money.  And when we think we have to, I think that’s when this Christian life stops being liberation from our own fears and failings and starts being too big a burden to carry.  The part of that I regret is not necessarily that I didn’t buy him something every time.  It’s that I walked past.  It’s that I didn’t want to be confronted with that need, because that would make me feel guilty.

When it comes to who I identify with in this story, it’s the priest and the Levite, and not just because I’m a religious figure.  It’s because I’m pretty sure that priest and that Levite are all of us, sometimes.  It’s not always that we physically walk past people.  Sometimes we turn past them in the pages of the newspaper; or we look the other way when we see racism or misogyny or homophobia or Islamophobia at work.

We’re making this Lent a time of turning back: of turning back to the God we’ve turned away from, and as part of that, turning back to the neighbors we’ve turned away from.  And because repentance begins with confession, turning back to our neighbors starts with realizing how we’ve turned away – the times we’ve walked past, the times we’ve crossed to the other side, the times we’ve made excuses about being too busy or tired or it being too risky to help.

But there’s also more to be said about the unlikely hero of our story, the Samaritan.

As I said, Jews and Samaritans were neighbors, in a geographical sense, that didn’t like each other.  Samaria was once not a foreign country but the Northern Kingdom of Israel, but which was taken over by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE.  The Assyrians forcibly relocated the Israelites, moved other people in from elsewhere in the empire; those people mixed, and ended up with a religion that was an awful lot like Judaism but not enough, which was way worse than just having a totally different religion.  And so the Jews and Samaritans became enemies – the kind of enemies that you can only really be with someone who lives next door, the kind of enemies where it’s not just theoretical but personal.

The priest and the Levite are people we should have expected to help.  They are not only fellow Israelites, but people dedicated to the service of God.  The Samaritan is the person we should have expected to cross over and pass by on the other side.

In the end, it’s the person who had every reason and excuse not to help who did.  And so, with this story, Jesus shatters our excuses for not being a neighbor.

But that’s not all he does.  Jason Micheli, the senior pastor at Annandale UMC, preached a sermon on this Good Samaritan story in early 2017, right in the wake of the 2016 election season and President Trump’s inauguration.  As he sees it, maybe the traveler on the road is the character Jesus wants us to identify with in this story.  “It’s not,” he says, “that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need.  It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.

“Jesus tells a story where a feminist or an immigrant…is forced to imagine their salvation coming to them in someone wearing a cap that reads Make America Great Again.

“Jesus tells a story where that Tea Party person is near dead in the ditch and his rescue comes from a Black Lives Matter lesbian.

“Where the confederate clad redneck comes to the rescue of the waxed-mustached hipster.

“Where the believer is rescued by the unrepentant atheist.

“A story where we’re the helpless, desperate one and our salvation comes to us from the last type of person we’d ever choose.”[2]

Those are all Jason’s words, which have stuck with me and convicted me ever since I read them.  Because yes, I think, I’m the traveler on the road, not wanting to admit or imagine that someone I think has gotten it all wrong might end up being someone I need – might end up being someone who would do such a thing for me.

The beauty of answering a question with a story, though, is that it’s open-ended, and I think Jesus is telling us both.  We are the priests and the Levites, making our excuses and crossing to the other side of the road.   We are the traveler on the road, weighed down both by our desperate need and our lack of imagination about who our neighbor might turn out to be.  We’re all of them, but we don’t have to be: we can turn back, to the man in need and to the Samaritan, who are equally our neighbors.

I’m not saying go out and save the world.  Again, none of us can do everything or help everyone, and I don’t expect you to try.  What I do want you to do is think of one neighbor you might turn back to this season.  One person you might be making excuses not to help even though you see their need.  Or: One person you know you harbor some prejudice against, who might be different if you just got to know them.

Jesus never answers the lawyer’s question, or mine.  Except he does, I think.  “Don’t worry about who your neighbor is,” says Jesus.  “Your neighbor is more people than you could even imagine.  Instead, go and be one, with no restrictions.”

I love it when he does that.

 

 

[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories By Jesus, p. 90-94

[2] http://tamedcynic.org/the-parable-of-the-good-deplorable/

Turn Back: Turn Back to God

Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Here we are at the beginning of Lent, which is easily the least sexy season of the church year.

In Advent, we get to talk about hope, peace, love, and joy.  At Christmas we get to talk about how God loved the world so much God came to walk among us and to know what it is to be one of us.  At Easter we get to talk about new life and God’s love overcoming the powers of evil and death.  Pentecost is fire and wind and being sent into mission by the power of God’s Spirit.

During Lent we get to talk about death and repentance.

Death on its own, maybe, isn’t such a bad subject to talk about, culturally.  It’s certainly something we all have to face as we come to grips with the mortality of people we love and, eventually, our own.  I’ve heard about Death Cafés becoming a popular thing – places for people to gather to talk about death over coffee and pastries.  It’s still a subject many of us are uncomfortable with, but there’s also a movement to break the taboo, to get these things out in the open rather than carrying them around inside.

But I’ve never heard of a Repentance Café.  Maybe some people would say that’s what church is.  And maybe because of that, I think a lot of us, myself included, try to go out of our way to ensure that that’s what church is not.  And so we’re in this space where, especially if we’ve been steeped in religion for most of our lives, we know repentance is supposed to be a thing we do.  But we don’t really want to talk about it, except maybe sometimes to talk about how other people need to do it, and we would definitely never bring it up if we were going to invite someone to church.  We don’t want people to think we’re one of those “sinners in the hands of an angry God” kind of Christians.

At the same time, we repent all the time, often in a purely secular kind of sense.  We repent of what we eat, we repent of the things we say, we repent of how we act – “I’m really going to do something differently next time,” that sort of thing.  We probably don’t call those things repentance, and they may or may not be things we actually need to repent of.  But we are no strangers to feelings of shame and guilt and the sense that something about us needs to change.  We just don’t like to talk about it.

Lent may be the least sexy season of the church year, but deep down I think it’s one we know we need.  And I don’t know about you, but many years by the time Ash Wednesday rolls around, my soul is even craving it.

I love talking about hope and joy during Advent.  But the truth is there are plenty of times I feel neither hopeful nor joyful.  And I love talking about resurrection at Easter, but the truth is that resurrection sometimes feels hard to come by.  And I love talking about fire and mission at Pentecost.  But the truth is that sometimes I’m tired, and I don’t really feel up to the task.  I’m glad for the opportunity to sit with my own brokenness for a time – knowing also that this season won’t last forever.

Of course, it’s easy to say that.  And then you read from a prophet like Joel, which is a classic Ash Wednesday text.  And Joel lays on the repentance language pretty thick.  “Blow the trumpet in Zion!” he announces.  “Sound the alarm on my holy mountain!  Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the Day of the Lord is coming – it is near: a day of darkness and gloom; a day of clouds and thick darkness!  Like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes.”

Now – no one knows what exact event Joel is referring to.  Throughout the book he talks about this army of locusts.  What’s not clear is which part of that is the metaphor – is it a plague of locusts, as powerful as an army, bringing destruction and famine in its wake?  Is it a literal army, of soldiers so numerous they seem to swarm like locusts upon Jerusalem?  What’s clear is that as Joel sees it, this is not just a chance impending disaster, but a day of a divine judgment.

But he also believes there’s still a chance to avert the disaster.  “Yet even now,” says the Lord, in the words of the prophet, “return to me with all your hearts, with fasting and with weeping and with sorrow. Maybe I will change my mind.”

In other words, repent, sinners!  Repent, and maybe the literal-or-metaphorical locust army won’t completely obliterate you.

Again, not the kind of language I’m going to put on a flier inviting people to church.  Even during Lent.  In fact, passages like this make me really want to just talk about good old death.

It might be tempting for us to think, well, yeah, this is Old Testament God.  Old Testament God talks like that.  Old Testament God is all about the judgment and the clouds of thick darkness and the locust armies, but somewhere along the way between the Old Testament and the New Testament God has a change of heart, and by the time Jesus comes along God is all love and puppies and rainbows.

So what do you think are Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark, right as he leaves the wilderness and begins his ministry? “Now is the time, and the kingdom of God is near.  Repent, and believe the Gospel.”

He doesn’t start off by healing people, or casting out demons; he doesn’t tell people they are loved and welcomed just the way they are, he doesn’t fight with the institutional religion hypocrites – all of those things for which we love Jesus – instead, he invites people to repent.  (Invites or commands, depending on how you want to see it.)  And because it’s a general invitation, addressed to no one in particular, we can’t just pretend he’s only talking to those other people who we know need to repent.  He’s talking to all of us.

Jesus knows that repentance is something we need to talk about it.  Jesus knows that nothing in this world is going to change unless it’s us.

I learned in seminary that the Hebrew word that gets translated as “repent” is the same as the word for “turn”: shub.  That’s still captured in some of our semi-modern repentance language: ever heard a street preacher telling people to “Turn or burn?”  But at the same time, “to turn” sounds so fundamentally different than what I’ve come to understand “repent” to mean that when I learned this word, it made me think about repentance in a whole new way.  “Repent,” to me, has all those connotations of hellfire and damnation and locust armies.  But “turn” doesn’t.  “Turn” sounds more like when you are lost and going in the wrong direction and you finally get your bearings and head the other way.

There was this one time a couple years ago when I was driving home from Annual Conference and I missed my exit.  I missed it by like 40 miles.  I didn’t even realize I had been going the wrong way all that time.  And it’s true that when I figured it out, it wasn’t a great feeling.  I perhaps said some words that pastors aren’t supposed to say.  But it did allow me to get headed on the right direction on the road back home.

Lent, the season of repentance, is a good time to ask the question: what way am I going?

When the prophet Joel writes, in God’s words, “Return to me,” that word, return, is that exact same word in Hebrew, shub.  And I like that even better than just “turn,” because “return,” to me, sounds like coming home.

I know that maybe not all of us have great nostalgic associations with “home” by which I mean the place where we grew up, or where our family lived or lives, or even where we spend our nights now, but hopefully all of us have some place that feels like home to us, whether it’s a coffee shop or here at church or just the presence of a certain friend.  When we start to talk about returning, sometimes that’s when we realize we left in the first place.  That’s when we realize we’re 40 miles down the highway going in the wrong direction.

Even though the prophet Joel with his locust armies has some pretty dire words for people, even he’s not just talking about turning away from something – from impending destruction and gloom.  He’s talking about turning back toward something – or rather, someone: God.  God, who is “merciful and compassionate, patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.”

God, the father in the Prodigal Son story, running out to meet his returning son on the road.

God, who we know in Jesus, who invites us to put on the brakes, wherever we’re headed, and turn back toward God’s Kingdom.

This Lenten season, we’re going to focus on turning back.  This is not repentance as “turning away from,” though there may well be things we need to turn away from.  This is repentance as “turning toward.”  We’re going to talk about turning back to our neighbor, turning back to creation, turning back to the stranger, turning back to our enemies, and turning back to the cross.

All of these, of course, are ways we also turn back to the God who created us, who created this world, and who created our neighbors and enemies and those who are still strangers to us.  And I use the language of “turning back” because I really do believe, as did John Wesley, that when the Bible says God created human beings in God’s own image, that means that God who is love created us fundamentally to be loved and to love, God and each other.  To turn back to these relationships is not to seek something completely new, but to return home.

Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, I want to suggest that repentance begins with confession.  This may sound obvious, but repentance is also more than confession.  It’s more than saying you’re sorry: you actually have to turn around.

But, to paraphrase something our friends in AA would tell us: the first step is recognizing you’re going the wrong way.

When Joel calls God’s people to repentance, it strikes me that he doesn’t single people out.  He doesn’t say you’re a sinner and you’re a sinner, and you all need to go home and think about what you’ve done.  He calls the people together.  All the people: the elders, the children, the babies, the newlyweds, the priests.  Repentance is sometimes a thing we do on our own.  No one else knows how you treated your family member or what kind of feelings you’re hiding in your heart for someone who has wronged you or how many homeless people you walked past on your way to work without looking any of them in the eye.  But repentance is also a thing we do together.

I think of how, in the wake of Governor Northam’s recent blackface scandal, it wasn’t just Gov. Northam who needed to repent.  He did and does.  But as his own past was exposed in old yearbook photos, more and more people came out and said, I did this too.  This was part of my reality too.  And others said, you know, I may not have ever used blackface, but I’ve used words I’m not proud of.  I’ve bought into stereotypes that aren’t true.

It was about Gov. Northam but it was also about something bigger than him: the fact that Virginia is a state that was founded and grew on the backs of slaves, and that isn’t as far removed from that history as some of us might like to think.

I think of how, in the wake of General Conference and new, tighter restrictions on the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Church, those of us who hoped for a different outcome might like to point fingers at the people we see as responsible.  And yet all of us are responsible for who our churches include and exclude, in ways both overt and subtle, and how far our welcome extends.  Repentance is communal.

Each Sunday this Lent, we will gather, confess our sins together, and I’ll challenge you to think about how you, and we as a body, can use this season to turn back to God and God’s people: to neighbor, creation, stranger, or enemy, or to that centerpiece of our faith, the cross. Because repentance isn’t just about turning away.  It’s about turning toward.

I don’t think repentance is ever easy, even when we put it in terms of turning toward and returning home.  It’s certainly harder than just giving up chocolate or beer for six weeks – at least if we’re doing it right.  It’s hard because often, we have gotten really lost, so much so that maybe we’re not even sure what the way back is or what road we’re on in the first place, and as I well know, it hurts to realize 40 miles down the road that you need to turn around.  But the whole story of God’s people is a story of turning away and turning back and turning away and getting lost and turning around and coming back and finding the way home again – time after time after time.  And God’s arms are always open.

I have to believe that that’s why Jesus started with repentance – because turning back is what allows us to embrace and live into the good news he has to share.

So here is your question to ponder this week:

What is it you need to turn away from?

What is it you need to turn toward?

And how are you going to do that?

No one ever said it would be easy, but God invites you home, again and again and again.

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday: One of Those People

Scripture: Matthew 6:1-8, 16-21

There are people – we all know them – who only give for the recognition they get.

Names on academic buildings, thank you cards or social media acclaim – the recognition they seek may be big or small.  Of course, they would never sound the trumpet themselves.  But they’re watching to make sure someone else does.  And if no one does, someone is going to hear about it.  Or maybe they’ll find a subtle way to talk about it on Facebook, not in a way where it seems like they’re outwardly fishing for compliments about what a good person they are, but in a way where they manage to mention their good deed in the context of something else – a joke or a wry observation, maybe.  And then if people want to comment on the good deed itself, so be it.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.

But then one day I was donating to someone’s GoFundMe cause and I had a little internal debate with myself – do I make this donation anonymously, or not?  Because, you know, I don’t want my name to be out there just announcing to all the world that I needed the credit.  But also, you know, I wanted the credit.  I wanted this person in need to know that I had done something to help meet it.  At the very least, I didn’t want them to think I hadn’t done anything.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, someone who was only generous for how it would make people think of them.  But then one day I went out of my way to help a neighbor move.  And, you know, it’s not like I expected a card or anything, but surely they could have been a little more thankful than they were.  Didn’t they even appreciate what I had done?

 

There are people – if you’re part of a church, you’ve probably known them – who like to put on a show when they pray.  If you’re the type of person who knows a lot of pastors, you probably especially know these people.  It can never just be simple, right?  There always has to be some attempt at poetry involved, some sort of backstory to each petition, as if God had to be filled in.  I’ve always wondered who those prayers are really for: are they talking to God, or are they talking to the people with their heads bowed?

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.

But then it became my job to pray out loud, sometimes, and I found myself hunting for just the right turns of phrase to make my prayer sound good.  Sometimes I would write the prayers out beforehand, and I would do my best to make them poetic and powerful.  When I worked at a big church and didn’t preach every Sunday, those prayers were my chance to get my word in, the things I would have said if I’d had the opportunity.  Sometimes, though, I would pray extemporaneously, and I would find myself trying to take the pulse of the crowd as I did, finding the parts that seemed to resonate and laying them on thick.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, someone who used prayer as a performance, but then I thought back to how even well before I was a pastor, I thought that I could sway God with just the right words, that if I sounded pious and holy enough, maybe my prayer would carry extra weight.

 

There are people – I don’t know if you know any of them – who fast just so they can tell you about how they’re fasting.  I say I don’t know if you know them because I think fasting has largely gone out of style in our culture, in a religious sense at least.  You probably know people who are eager to tell you about their latest diet, or their juice cleanse, but to be fair, Jesus isn’t talking about them.  He’s talking about people who do their religious duties not because those duties are part of a life devoted to God, but because people will see and hear and know that they are holy.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.

But then a couple years ago I decided to bring fasting back, into my life at least, and of course I had lots of good reasons for doing it.  I wanted to have some small experience of the hunger people know here in our community and around the world.  I wanted let God teach me that life isn’t all about abundance, at least not in the ways we think; that it’s OK to not have everything I want.  I wanted to give myself a chance to discover what, deep down, I was really hungry for.  And if I ended up losing a few pounds in the process, I wasn’t going to complain or anything, but that certainly wasn’t my goal.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, who just did it all for the show, but then I was surprised to hear myself slip the fact that I was fasting into conversation.  Oh, I can’t have lunch with you that day, I’m fasting, you see.  Wow, I’m pretty hungry!  Why, you ask?  I’m fasting today

 

There are people – I’m sure you’ve probably met them – who wear the ashes we wear today with a kind of pride.  I went to church.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.  But the truth was I liked the distinction, even as I maybe felt a little bit self-conscious about it.  I liked the knowing looks from other ash-wearers and side glances from people I passed on the street and even the comments from well-meaning strangers who told me I had a little something on my forehead.  I liked the fact that this smudge marked me somehow as holy, and that was why I always tried to go to the early service, so I could wear those ashes all day, not just at night when no one would know.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, until I realized that that was exactly what those ashes meant: that I was.  And that I am.

I realized, at some point, that those ashes weren’t for anyone else.  They were for me.  Each time I reached up to push my hair out of my eyes and had to stop myself; each time I got a sideways glance from a stranger, I would remember that I was marked: not as holy, but as a sinner.  A hypocrite.  A broken, mortal, finite being.  The kind of person who still believes a little bit that God is tallying up all my points in heaven, and hopes that other people will take note – without my having to say too much.

“Don’t be one of those people,” Jesus says, but I am one of those people.  I think we all are.

I used to think that ashes made me holy.  Now I realize it’s not the ash but the promise of what’s beyond them: not the best life that I can live but the life that only comes through dying to myself; not my own spiritual accomplishment but the grace I can only find in my own failings.

They are death and life and sin and grace and resurrection, offered even and especially to all of “those people.”