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Sermon for July 29, 2009

The Limits of My Love
Romans 7:14-25; Luke 10:25-37

I need to tell you something about me. It’s kind of 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. Other times I can ignore it. Most of the time I just feel numb from it. Well . . . enough stalling. What you need to know about me is that I am a sinner. It seems like the harder I try to fix it, the worse it becomes. I’ll do something that I regret, say something when I should have kept quiet, keep quiet when I should have spoken, or fail to act when I think comfort is more important than risk.

I wouldn’t ordinarily share this during on a Sunday morning, when we are all here trying to look and behave our best, but I have a wild hunch that I am not the only one suffering from the effects of this condition. In fact, I’m going to 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. But, for the sake of full disclosure, you should 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? As I brew my morning coffee, the kids start arguing, the dogs are barking frantically out the window at something ridiculous like a blowing leaf, then someone calls to ask if I want to re-mortgage my house, my wife and I have double-booked some meetings on the calendar, and the overdue library books are lost. Welcome to the first 20 minutes of the day. This is the point where I make my first bad choice of the day. I’ve decided to behave one way but then I do something completely different. I am resolved to do good, but I can’t really do it. I’ve tried everything, but nothing seems to get me on track.

I think the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading might know what I’m talking about. If anyone knows what God expects of one’s behavior, it is this man. His job is to copy 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 Scripture. He’s a scholar and a teacher – he’s esteemed as an 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. He thinks to himself, “If I can ask Jesus a trick question, he’ll mess up the answer. He will say something that goes against the law and then we’ll have him.” Even more, it seems like this law expert is trying to prove something. Scripture says he wants to justify himself. For some reason, he needs to establish that fact that he’s righteous. He wants Jesus to know that his knowledge and wisdom and law-keeping are enough to make him acceptable to God.

So he says, “Jesus, what do I need to do to have eternal life.” And 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 done. 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 is really just repeating stuff he learned as a child: “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. And Jesus agrees. But then the lawyer does something that we sinners like to do. He looks for a loophole. He asks, “But who is my neighbor?” In other words, “OK, Jesus, I know I’m supposed to care, but what are the limits of my love? When can I quit?”

I‘m right there with you, Mr. Teacher of Religious Law. I do the same thing. I want to know the minimal obligation. Tell me what the rules are, and I will make sure to meet all the requirements with as little effort as possible. And if I can’t meet the minimum standard, then I will try to redefine the command in order to arrive at the lower limit. 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 will reinterpret the command to mean that I’ll love God to the best of my ability. That way, if I mess it up, I don’t have to confess or repent. I’ll just rely upon my own self-righteousness. 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 love 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?”

But Jesus knows something the religious expert doesn’t. Jesus knows the difference between heart religion and works religion. Works religion wants to put a box around what God expects of us. It 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 an ego--focused religion which is 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.”

And then Jesus blows apart the lawyer’s narrow vision of love by telling a story of a poor traveler who has been robbed and beaten 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 Levite...an “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 those folks 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 centuries old. Samaritans were seen as half-breeds who had perverted the Jewish race and profaned the true religion. By the time of Jesus, the bad blood toward Samaritans was so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid even walking on Samaritan soil. The hatred between Jew and Samaritan in Jesus’ day was at least as deep as the feeling between some Jews and Arabs today.

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. Then he brings the Israelite to an inn and makes sure that he has all the resources needed for healing. 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.” We are left with the feeling that the one who is admired for his grasp of religious law won’t be able to do it. Jesus nudges him towards heart religion. It is different than works religion. In heart religion, God’s acceptance isn’t granted on the basis of what we do and don’t do. In heart religion, right-standing with God is not claimed. It is given. I will never achieve perfection by my own hard work. In fact, I don’t have to. God exposes my inability, cleans me up, and gives me a new chance. I am 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 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’s going on in your life that tempts you 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 us. 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. That’s works religion. The Samaritan focuses on the injured person. Believe me, there are plenty of injured people around us: men and women with deep wounds and deep needs, friends, acquaintances, even enemies, who suffer more than they let on. Jesus is saying 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 victim 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 realize that our self-righteous behavior keeps us from loving God and loving our neighbor.

God’s new and abundant life has nothing to do with defining the limits of love. 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. Afterall, it’s the same kind of love that God shows us in Christ.

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