Friday, May 25, 2007

Sermon for May 20

The Limits of My Love
Luke 10:27-35 (Romans 7:14-25)

I would like to tell you something about me. It’s somewhat embarrassing, but I might as well be up front with you right from the beginning. It’s a sickness, really. And as much as I hate it, I can’t do anything to cure it. I begin to feel the pains of it about five minutes after I wake up – if it’s a good day. The malady affects me throughout the entire day. Occasionally it even bothers me in my sleep. Sometimes I barely notice it. At other times, I can ignore it. Most of the time, though, I just feel numb from it. It seems like the harder I try to fix it, the worse it becomes. Well . . . enough stalling. What you need to know about me is that I am a sinner.

I’m sharing this news because I have a wild hunch that I am not the only one suffering from this condition. In fact, I’m going to take a leap and guess that some of you here today might also be fellow sinners. It’s nothing we’re proud of – we’re not bragging about it. I just want you to be aware that there are some sinners sitting with you in your pews today. I don’t think they’ll hurt you or anything. In fact, most prefer just to keep their sins to themselves.

If you are a sinner like me, by the way, you are in good company. The Apostle Paul described our condition perfectly. He was one of us. He says that it all begins when we try to do good by following our interpretation of the Bible to the letter. We make a list of all the things we should and should not do so that God will be pleased with us. And then we begin our day checking the items off. “OK, God, today is a new day. I am not going to lie, and I’m not going to swear and drink – at least not too much. I’m going to eat well and exercise, and find some volunteer service to do. I’ll return my overdue library books, and I won’t yell at my kids when they drive me crazy. Today is the day I act like an angel.” Then what happens? I go to make breakfast and the kids start arguing, the dogs stand at the window and hysterically bark at something ridiculous like a blowing leaf; then my wife and I realize that we double-booked some events on the calendar and since we can’t be two places at once we nave to negotiate whose event is most important; and the overdue library books are lost. Welcome to the first 20 minutes of the day. This is the point where I do something I’ll regret later. So, I’ve decided to behave one way but then I do something completely different. I am resolved to do good and follow God, but I keep messing it up.

I think the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading might know what I’m talking about. If anyone knows what God expects, it is this man. In the days before printing presses, he’s one of the people who copies Scripture by hand. Unlike the general population at the time, he can read and write and he’s familiar with every detail of the Hebrew Scriptures. He’s a scholar and a teacher –an esteemed authority in the interpretation and application of the law.

One day this expert in religious law approaches Jesus – he’s actually trying to test Jesus. Scripture says he wants to justify himself. He wants Jesus to know that his knowledge about religious law is enough to make him acceptable to God.

So he says, “Jesus, what do you think I need to do to have eternal life?” Jesus says, “You are the expert in the law. You tell me.” The lawyer responds with a good answer. He quotes Scripture -- love God and love your neighbor. But, don’t be fooled into thinking that the Lawyer has a moment of insight here. Almost every Jew could summarize the law exactly as the lawyer has. You could have stopped anyone on the streets of Israel and asked the same exact question and you would have gotten the same answer. The Lawyer regurgitates information that he’s known since childhood, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength; and your neighbor as yourself.” It’s a good answer. He should have shut up right there. But he doesn’t. He looks for a loophole. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, “OK, Jesus, I understand I’m supposed to care, but what are the limits of my caring?”

That sounds so much like me, sometimes! I want to know the minimal requirement. Tell me what the rules are, and I will make sure to meet all the requirements but nothing more. If I can’t meet the minimum standard, then I will try to redefine it in order to arrive at an even lower standard that is more achievable. For instance, God says to love the Lord with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength. I know I can’t love God perfectly, so I reinterpret the command to mean that I’ll love God to the best of my ability. God invites me to love my neighbor, but I know there are some people who really annoy me. So I reinterpret the command to mean that I love everybody, but I don’t have to like them. I can see what the law-expert is up to. He’s trying to define the limits of love. He wants to make a list of his neighbors so he can respect those people and ignore everyone else. He’s really asking Jesus, “Who can I serve, and who can I bypass? What’s the least I can do to still be considered a good person?”

Jesus knows something that religious experts don’t. Jesus knows the difference between heart religion and works religion. It’s the difference between faith based on being and faith based on doing. Works religion wants to put a box around what God expects of us. Works religion says, “God requires this much of me – no more and no less. If I do these things I’ve satisfied my obligation to God.” It’s concerned not with the needs of others but with meeting my quota of good deeds.

Jesus says to the lawyer, “If you think you can get eternal life by fulfilling love’s minimum requirement, go for it. If you can keep the law perfectly then do it and you will live.” Then Jesus blows apart the lawyer’s narrow vision of love by telling a story of a traveler on the treacherous stretch of road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Stripped, clobbered, and left for dead, he is a random victim in a randomly violent world. Then, who comes along but a priest. If anyone could be expected to stop and help, it would be a priest. But wait. The priest is not only not coming over to help; he’s passing by on the other side of the road. No reason’s given. Some suggest that, as a priest, he feared being defiled by a corpse, but the truth is if a priest on a journey found a corpse, he had a duty to bury it. Perhaps it was fear. Those who beat the man in the ditch might be lying in wait to beat him as well. Perhaps it was simple revulsion. Have you ever come upon someone after a bloody accident? It’s ugly. Whatever the reason, he passed by on the other side. Some hero!

No matter. Here comes a “assistant” priest. Maybe he will come through with some help. The text says he came to the place and saw the bloodied Israelite, and he too passed by on the other side.

Enter character number three - a Samaritan. The GOOD Samaritan! Nowhere else in the Bible do we find the words “Good” and “Samaritan” next to each other. For the people who first heard this story, the phrase “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron - the only GOOD Samaritan would have been a DEAD Samaritan. No hero here. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans was hundreds of years old. Samaritans were seen as half-breeds who had perverted the Jewish race and profaned the true religion. The hatred toward Samaritans was so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan soil.

So, a Samaritan sees the Israelite, but instead of distancing himself, he comes closer. He’s moved with pity. The Samaritan bandages the man’s wounds. He brings the Israelite to an inn and makes sure that all of the expenses are paid in full. End of story. Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question about the limits of love with a fable and then he turns the question back to the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” The concept of a GOOD Samaritan is so distasteful that the lawyer can’t bring himself to even speak the name.

And what does Jesus say? “Go, and do likewise.” Jesus calls him towards heart religion. It is different than works religion. In heart religion, entrance into the kingdom isn’t granted because of what we do and don’t do. In heart religion, a relationship with God is not claimed. God gives it to us. God exposes my inability, cleans me up, and gives a new chance to live the values of the Kingdom – not because of what I’ve done, but because of God’s love for me. I still make bad decisions, but I’m no longer bound to the brutal tyranny of trying to always do good in order to make God smile.

What have you been doing to justify yourself before God? What is it that might be keeping you from accepting the fact that God’s love for you and everyone else is flooding over us at this very moment? What is going on in your life that tempts you to want to limit your experience of God’s grace?
· Some people will justify their behavior by bargaining with God. How many times have we said, “God, if you only do this one thing for me, I promise to be a good person” -- as if God could be manipulated by a promise of good behavior that we will never be able to keep?
· Others will justify their behavior by counting the cost. We are afraid that when Jesus ups the ante, the new requirement will be too hard and too costly. So we decide to stick to our plan. We like to figure out in advance how much we have to give up – how much our mercy is going to cost. But real love isn’t planned out like a trip itinerary or a balanced budget. Real love isn’t downsized when the costs creep too high.

There’s another option. It’s the model of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan isn’t concerned with what is required or what is proper. The Good Samaritan isn’t thinking about meeting obligations. The Samaritan focuses on the injured person. And believe me, there are plenty of injured people around us – men and women with deep wounds and desperate needs; friends, acquaintances, and even enemies who suffer more than they let on. Jesus says that it would be better if there were more people who showed love without limits . . . if only there were more people who would think of the sufferer instead of the rules.

By the end of Jesus’ story, we learn something that is critically important to our faith journeys. The kingdom of God belongs to those who admit their weaknesses.
· It belongs to the sinners.
· To the small.
· To the broken and the imperfect.
· To the lost and the last.
· To those who have come to realize that all of our self-righteous behavior was really keeping us from loving God and loving our neighbor.
The kingdom is for those who, admitting their inability to make themselves right with God, have put their faith in Christ. It’s for those who wake up in the morning and know that we will mess it up, but who also appreciate new chances to practice unbridled, limitless love.

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