Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sermon for January 17, 2010

Jesus, Smasher of Stereotypes
January 17, 2010

"And who is my neighbor?" In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." Luke 10:29-37

We know nothing about the victim except he was a man robbed and left for dead. We do not know if he was rich or poor, a traveler or a merchant, a farmer or a family man. We do know a few things about the hero of the story. We know he was a Samaritan who was wealthy enough to own a donkey. He gave the inn keeper the equivalent of two days wages for the care of the victim. We do know this much: The Jews hated the Samaritans. The Samaritans hated the Jews. You need to know this to understand the parable. A Samaritan is not only of the hero of the story, but honored as an example for Jesus’ Jewish followers to imitate. If Jesus told the parable today, he might tell us a story about the good Klansman, the good Communist, the good Al Qaeda member. No Jew would ever think anything worthwhile could come from a Samaritan, let alone follow the example of a Samaritan. We expect that the good guys in the story will stop and help the victim – the Priest or the Levite. But, it's the stranger -- the unexpected person, the one we fear -- who stops to help and to heal. One man breaks barriers of ethnic hatred, religious stereotyping and centuries of biblically sanctioned bigotry rooted in fear. One man has the courage to be a healer and show us the very face of God, blowing away stereotypes in a rush of dazzling grace. Jesus implies that Samaritans are capable of goodness. It is subtle yet revolutionary. It is a step in eliminating the stereotypes, breaking down the prejudice, and healing the hatred.

We stereotype people more often then we may realize. What is the first thing that comes to mind when I mention these people? The homeless, elderly, immigrants, stay-at-home-moms, career women, single fathers, teenagers, atheists, homosexuals, alcoholics, athletes. When we automatically judge the character of a person according to a stereotype or category, we close the door to seeing other possibilities. How many times do you think someone has been refused a job, award, scholarship, or gift based on a stereotype?

Things have not changed so much in 2,000 years.

Consider the stereotypes you may have around one word: Father. We call God Father all the time. But what images come with that word? In her book Memories of God, Church historian Roberta Bondi shares the struggles of growing up female and Christian in the 1950’s. She writes, “[I assumed] that my heavenly Father was like my earthly father, only more so. My earthly father, whom I worshiped and resented in equal measure, was a remarkable man. He was brilliant, funny, and full of life. He was a loving man, but in those years of his youth, he also tolerated no imperfections or weakness in other people, no laziness, no disobedience from his children or his wife, no sullenness, no arguing with him or asking ‘why.’ . . . He only respected men who were highly intelligent and would stand up to him and argue with him. These same qualities in a woman, however, he found contemptible . . . A good woman was sweet and compliant, quiet and obedient. I not only knew I could not be sweet, pliant, quiet and obedient; I also knew I did not want to be that way. But I had to be! How else could I be, if I were female? I loved my father so much, yet I knew I could never please him. I was angry with him and guilty over my poisonous secret, anger. I could not possibly believe my human father loved me as I was. And if this was true of my earthly father, how much more must this be the case with my heavenly Father. Surely, my heavenly Father’s standards for females had to be stricter than my earthly father’s.”

As Roberta grew older, she was able to shed the stereotypes. She writes “...being able to see him for the first time through adult eyes, I began to be able to see, not my childhood image of my powerful, mythical father, but rather my actual, flesh and blood, real human father. . . I began to learn that my father had changed over the years . . . I argued with him, for the first time in my life. He told me frequently he was proud of me. I found that as I no longer needed God to take care of me as I had before, as a little child, so I no longer needed my father to take care of me. …My father needed my friendship.”

That’s what smashing stereotypes is all about – seeing with new eyes, building new relationships with unlikely people, becoming free from old worn-out perspectives. When Jesus made the Samaritan the hero in the story, he spoke good news. He drew a picture of the Samaritan that his friends had not seen before. He offered the possibility of being free of the hatred and prejudice that endured for centuries.

Let’s be honest. Being part of a church does not free us from making judgments. Sometimes, being in a church causes us our faith and behavior to narrow. While we talk about loving neighbors, and loving enemies, and loving God, church people often become more critical and disapproving of others. It’s a shame, really, because robbers are still out there, just like in Jesus’ parable. We are not always aware of them, but they wait to pounce on us and our loved ones.

A man was on a journey. He fell into the hands of depression, robbed of joy, robbed of the will to even wake up in the morning. The depression was deep, so deep that it seemed like nothing anybody said or anybody did could do any good. It wasn't like he could just pick himself up and shake himself off and go on with the journey. You don't choose depression. It chooses you. Depression robs you just as surely as that man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho was robbed. This time the holy man and the holy woman did not ignore the cries for help. With the help of counselors, modern medical miracles, prayers and hard, courageous, painful work, the healing began. The church, the gracious, hospitable community where we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, is an inn for those who feel emotionally broken. We are both Samaritan and victim, care givers and care receivers.

A woman was on a journey when her marriage broke up. She was robbed of trust. Robbed of love. Robbed of self-esteem. She feared that the church she had always known as a place for families of one woman, one man, and 2.2 children would no longer be there for her. Would she be accepted? Could her healing begin here? Could the things she had done or left undone in her broken marriage be forgiven and forgotten? Imagine a church where, instead of judgment, she finds freedom to heal. She picks up the pieces. She builds new relationships based on mutual trust and respect. Imagine a church that becomes an inn for the broken, a house of wholeness, a community of care, so that those in need are healed and become healers sometimes all at the same time.

Some parents where on a journey. They watched their gay son get put down by the church just one too many times. Oh sure, the good church people said that they loved everybody. And Jesus loves everybody. And if their son didn't change, he would be punished by God. When that kind of church keeps hurting, keeps stabbing, keeps throwing Bible verses at them like knives and clubs? It’s like that man being beaten up beside the road, bloodied and left like some kind of pile of human refuse. Where will we find communities of faith that will really love and accept our son or your daughter for who they are? Where are the churches that see all people as beautiful and worthy creations of God?

Our sons and daughters were on a journey. Despite a solid upbringing in the church, some of them want nothing to do with its teachings and the values that you cherish so much. It hurts you. Maybe you feel robbed. Or you feel your children have been robbed. Or maybe you carry with you a secret burden, a loss, a disappointment, a struggle, a shame. Or perhaps you are experiencing a physical loss. Will the church be for you a community of Samaritans, a community of unlikely friends that sets aside stereotypes, and expectations and good old fashioned propriety with the same courage that led a Samaritan long ago to cross over to the side of the road, to cross over centuries of stereotypes, centuries of ethnic bigotry, centuries of Bible-blessed hate and indifference? Will the church be willing to cross on over to the side of the road and bend down and walk with you to find healing and joy?

We look at the broken people lying beside the road. We look in our conscience and review our traditions and how we have been taught to fear and hate and typecast. We listen to the moans of agony around us we can't turn back. In a moment of dazzling grace, we cross on over to the other side and bind up the wounds of the world around us, no matter who is over there.

Jesus reminds us that God does not see people according to our stereotypes and categories. God knows us intimately and individually. This is good news -- wonderful news. God can give us the ability to see people from perspective free of prejudice and stereotypes. God has promised to transform our minds and release us from the attitudes that harm others and ourselves. "Do this and you will live."


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