Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Who Is My Neighbor?

Who Is My Neighbor?
Ps 82; Lk 10:25-37[1]
  We all know the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It’s at the heart of our faith.  Although it is associated with Jesus, it was the heart of the Jewish faith long before Jesus’ day.  It’s not even unique to the Jewish and Christian traditions.  Every world religion advocates compassion for one’s fellow human beings.  Jesus just set the bar about as high as it could go.  He insisted that we treat all people as brothers and sisters, as beloved children of God, as persons of value and worth.  That means regardless of where they live or what they wear or whether they went to school or even have a job.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” includes everybody.
  I believe this is the essence of the gospel lesson for today.  Unfortunately, the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” has become so commonplace in our society as to lose the impact it would have had in the ears of Jesus’ original audience.  These days we have made this parable so tame that travelers even have a club named “The Good Sam Club,” whose members pledge to stop and help someone who is broken down on the side of the road! But in Jesus’ day, there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan in the eyes of most of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries.  Samaritans were the “unclean Samaritans,” the “unwelcome Samaritans,” or the “hated Samaritans.”[2]  And although Jesus’ fellow Jewish men and women very well knew the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” those kinds of attitudes make it clear that the vast majority would never have thought to view a Samaritan as a “neighbor” whom one must love as oneself.[3]
  That’s what made the parable so shocking in the ears of Jesus’ original audience.  It would have been one thing for Jesus to tell a parable about a particularly righteous Jewish person who showed mercy toward a Samaritan.  That person would have been viewed as exceptionally compassionate, but the story would have left intact the Jewish people’s sense of ethnic and spiritual superiority over the Samaritans.  In other words, it would have been a story that would maintain the assumption that Samaritans aren’t normally included in the list of people they were supposed to love.[4]
  But that’s not the story Jesus told.  Jesus made a despised Samaritan the hero of the parable.  More than that, Jesus made him the example for Jewish people to follow if they wanted to obey the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  That was turning their world upside down.  The outcast became the ideal for those who viewed themselves above him.  That would have been like making a terrorist into a spiritual example for us to follow.  It was shocking; it was confusing; it was offensive to them.  There would not have been many who heard this parable who would have signed up to be part of a “Good Sam” club.[5]
  The Youth and Adults of the Presbytery of the New Covenant spent two weeks this Summer serving the poor and homeless population of Austin.  One of the key themes that the volunteers and staff there continually emphasized to us was that we were not working “for” them, but “with” them.  Whether it was washing clothes, or distributing food, or praying about their needs, the point was that in serving the poor and homeless people we met, we were recognizing that we are all equally loved in God’s eyes.  We’re all equally valued from the perspective of a merciful Creator and loving Redeemer.  I think it’s the same point Jesus was trying to make in his parable, but it’s a point we may not want to hear.  We may be more comfortable with “working for” them, because that maintains a sense that we are superior to them. 
  In Austin we learned that approximately twenty percent of the population there lives at or below the poverty line.  As defined by the federal government, that means persons with $11,000 per year or less to live on.  In Austin there are about 400,000 people living in poverty.  But we don’t have to go to Austin to find people living in poverty.  In the Houston metro area there are about 6 million people.  And it was estimated in 2009 that about twenty-eight percent of the population of Houston are living at or below the poverty level.[6]  That’s about 1.7 million people!  If you took the entire populations of Pasadena, the Clear Lake area, Pearland, Baytown, League city, Texas City, Galveston, La Porte, Friendswood, La Marque, Deer Park, Galena Park, Dickinson, and Santa Fe, that would only be roughly half of the number of our “neighbors” who are living in poverty in Houston.
  They are all around us if we will only open our eyes and our hearts to them. The question for us is whether we will do that.  Will we continue to favor those like us or will we “Give justice to the weak and the orphan” and “maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute” as the Psalmist calls us to do?[7]  I would say that is one of the Hebrew Bible’s definitions of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”  But in order to love our neighbors living in poverty, we have to first recognize their humanity.  We have to recognize the humanity of the homeless, the refugees, the migrant workers, and the single moms and elderly retirees on welfare in order to love them enough to truly work with them to improve their well being. That’s where compassion starts. This requires more of us than just feeling sorry for them, or giving money to causes that support them.  It requires recognizing “that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”[8]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/14/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 151: “This man who delayed his own journey, expended great energy, risked danger to himself, spent two days’ wages with the assurance of more, and promised to follow up on this activity was ceremonially unclean, socially an outcast, and religiously a heretic.”
[3] The question “who is my neighbor?” betrays the selfish desire to restrict the range of “love” to those who are just like “us.”  Cf. Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1018, 1021, 1028, 1035, where he points out that the important question, according to this parable, is not “who is my neighbor?”, but rather “how can I be a neighbor to others in fulfillment of God’s command?”
[4] Cf. Naim Ateek, “Who Is My Neighbor?” Interpretation 62 (Apr 2008), 156: “So long as we divide the world and our own communities into friends and enemies, neighbors and strangers, we feel no moral obligation towards those whom we have already designated as outsiders.”
[5] Cf. Robert Funk, “How Do You Read? A Sermon on Luke 10:25-37,” Interpretation 18 (Jan 1964): 61: ““The parable of the Good Samaritan is a language trap which the lawyer could not comprehend. He asked a straightforward question; he got an enigmatic answer. Jesus in effect is saying: If you knew what love means, you would not have asked the question.”  Cf. similarly, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 884: while the point of the story is that a neighbor is “anyone in need with whom one comes into contact and to whom one can show pity and kindness, even beyond the bounds of one’s own ethnic or religious group,” Jesus’ final question turns the lawyer’s effort to justify himself on its head.  The point is not define the “neighbor” as the object of mercy, but rather to define one’s own attitude and actions in terms of being a neighbor as an active effort to show mercy to others.  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:419.
[6] See the data at http://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-Houston-Texas.html.  The Houston Chronicle reported a lower rate of approximately 24 % in 2011.  See Renée C. Lee, “Houston poverty up, but so is income across the city: Local census data show mixed economic signals,” The Houston Chronicle September 19, 2012; accessed at http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Local-census-data-show-mixed-economic-signals-3879028.php.
[7] Cf. Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice, 60, where he defines this kind of compassionate justice in terms of recognizing “the intrinsic claim of every person to be considered a person.”
[8] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, reprinted inMinistry and Spirituality, 134.  Cf. also Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 97-98, where he says, “Fellowship with the crucified one cannot be lived in any other way than in fellowship with the least of [his] brethren.” 


Luke 10:1-11, 16[1]
  Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at what the Gospel of Luke has to teach us about faith.  It should come as no surprise to us that any study of faith leads inevitably to the call to discipleship.  That’s what Jesus did--he called people to faith by calling them to follow him in discipleship.  And we should also not be surprised that any study of Jesus’ call to discipleship also leads us to the Kingdom of God.  The heart of Jesus’ message was that God’s Kingdom, which is defined by justice, grace, and compassion, was a present reality for those who responded in faith to his call.[2]  Ironically, although none of this surprises us, most of us are surprised when we follow Jesus and we find ourselves faced with opposition, contradiction, and even hostility from the culture in which we live.
  Unfortunately, our culture has given its allegiance to other kingdoms than the Kingdom of God.[3]  Some give their allegiance to the kingdom of Wall Street.  It tells us that we have to make as much money as we can in order to have the lives we want.  Others have sworn allegiance to the kingdom of Hollywood.  It tells us that only those who are young, thin, beautiful, and rich have any value in this world.  Others have given their loyalty to the kingdom of Madison Avenue. It tells us that if you drive the right car you’ll be sophisticated and your life will be complete.  It tells us that if you wear the right cologne or drink the right adult beverage or buy your clothes from the right store then others will think you’ve arrived and will be drawn to you.  Unfortunately, more money doesn’t translate into fulfillment in life.   Spending hours in the gym or spending thousands of dollars to make yourself look like a celebrity won’t give you the happiness you long for.  And at the end of the day, a car is just a car, cologne is just cologne, and having the latest in fashion doesn’t make your life complete.
  So perhaps we should ask ourselves what to expect when we go out into a world like that carrying our commitment to following Jesus in seeking the Kingdom of God. Our gospel lesson for today addresses that, I think.  Jesus sent out seventy (or seventy-two) disciples to do what he had been doing--spreading compassion and mercy and telling people who respond in faith that “God’s kingdom is right on your doorstep!” (Lk. 10:9, The Message).  But there were competing kingdoms and contradictory loyalties in Jesus’ day as well, and he knew that some would not be willing to give that up.  And so what were they to say in that case?  Essentially the same thing: that the Kingdom of God was right on their doorstep (Lk. 10:11)![4]
  And so it is for us.  We are called to follow Jesus in discipleship, practicing the values of the Kingdom of God among a people who have given their loyalty to a lot of other kingdoms.  And we are called to proclaim the message to one and all: the Kingdom of God is right here.  Like Jesus’ original disciples, we should not be surprised that some will respond with faith and some will not be willing to give up their allegiance to other kingdoms.  And we should not even be surprised when some respond to us with opposition and even hostility.  After all, we are contradicting the principles that they believe define their worth as human beings.[5]  People can get pretty hostile when you start messing around with that!
  Of course, let’s be honest: I’m saying that we shouldn’t be surprised when that happens to us, but I think tend to be surprised when we face the contradiction of our world.  After all, most of us were raised to believe that we live in a “Christian” nation.  But if we look closely, it’s not hard to see that there’s not much “Christian” about our culture.  Yes, a lot of people go to church on Sunday morning, but as some have said, going to church on Sunday doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger![6]  And so the reality is that we shouldn’t be surprised when we experience the contradictions of living the Christian life in a world captivated by competing loyalties.
  It can be discouraging to face the continual contradiction between our faith and the way the majority of people in our society live.  It can be exhausting to swim upstream continually, day after day.  I think we can get weary from going against the grain all the time.  And exhaustion leads to discouragement.  I think one of the most significant temptations for Christians in this culture is to just give up and go with the majority.  It’s hard maintaining the effort of marching to a different tune while everyone around you looks at you like you’re crazy. 
  But I don’t think Jesus called us to follow him in pursuing God’s reign of truth and grace in order to simply make martyrs of us all.  He called us to this task because he knew that his call was about what’s really true in this world.  The Kingdom of God, which is defined by justice and compassion and peace and freedom, is the only true reality.[7]  It is the testimony of the Scriptures from the very beginning--especially in the Psalms--that God’s reign of compassion and justice is the truth that defines our lives.  All the other “kingdoms” may promise to make us happy, but only following Jesus in living out the values of the Kingdom of God can bring true fulfillment to life.  God’s reign of grace and truth and love and peace is the ultimate reality before which all other competing loyalties will eventually fade.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/7/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, “The Identity and Purpose of the Church,” Theology Today 42 (Oct 1985), 345:  “Though in the popular eschatology of his day the new era of blessing was to come through a dazzling display of divine power in which the cosmos would be thrown into disarray, Jesus pointed out that in everyday human acts of reconciling and healing, the Kingdom of God was ‘in the midst of you’ (Luke 17:21).”  Contrast Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, Fitzmyer, 848-49, where he agrees with W. G. Kummel that the verb form ἤγγικεν is to be understood as “has approached, has drawn near.” He adds, “The implication is that the day of the kingdom’s full arrival is still in the future.”  But cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.2.459-60, where he agrees that until the final day “the restrained ἤγγικεν [has come near] must be used” but he insists also that “all the time there is a secretly implied ἐλήλυθεν [has come].”
[3] Cf. Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, 39.  He calls our culture with its competing claims for our allegiance “The Domination System.” He describes this system as one that is characterized by “unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”
[4] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 145: “the message to those who accept and to those who reject is the same: ‘The Kingdom of God has come near’ (vv. 9, 11).”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 21: "Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience.  It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it."
[6] The quote originates with Keith Green. See http://www.wordoflifechristian ministries.net/index.php?p=1_45  The logic of the statement in this form is imprecise.  It should say something like, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s means you know how to cook a hamburger.” This sentiment originated with (in)famous evangelist Billy Sunday, who said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car.”
[7] Cf. Hanson, “Identity and Purpose of the Church,” 358: “By keeping alive an alternative to the ideologies and systems of our Modern, materialistic, power-loving world, and by preserving reminders derived from its sacred tradition that much of what we moderns call real is an illusion whereas much that we had dismissed as illusory is in a deep sense the most real, in other words, by being faithful to a heritage which is both ancient and radically new, the church has kept alive hope for an otherwise very troubled World.”

Friday, July 05, 2013

Following Jesus?

Following Jesus?
Luke 9:57-62[1]
  We live in a results-oriented world.  Everything from education to performance reviews at work to government projects are evaluated based on so-called “objective measurement.”  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  We need more accountability these days, and the tools that measure results can help with that.  But we seem to think that everything in life can be measured by objective outcomes.  I fear that if we approach the Christian life from the perspective of looking for results, we may be setting ourselves up for a serious disappointment. 
  The famous Catholic priest, professor, and author Henri Nouwen warns us against that approach.  He insists that our ability to continue to serve others is not based on the results we see, but rather on the hope that is firmly grounded in Christ’s victory over death itself, which demonstrates “that there is light on the other side of darkness.”[2]  On the other hand, Nouwen warns that many of those who base their Christian lives on the search for visible results “have become disillusioned, bitter, and even hostile” to the faith “when years of hard work bear no fruit.”[3]  In fact, I would say that most people who lose their faith were expecting some kind of tangible results from following Jesus in discipleship.
  I think our Gospel lesson for today has a lot to say about our expectations regarding what the decision to follow Christ means for us.  It’s a story about three would-be disciples who encountered Jesus.  The first volunteered, saying  “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Sounds like the ideal candidate.  But Jesus seems to be aware that he doesn’t fully know what “I will follow you wherever you go” means.  It means “not having a place to lay your head,” like Jesus.  It would appear that he had some kind of expectation of a payoff for following Jesus, and Jesus rather bluntly confronts him with the truth that his expectation is unrealistic at best.[4] 
  The second would-be disciple is one whom Jesus invited to follow him.  But he asked Jesus to first be allowed to bury his father.  It would seem to be a reasonable request.  In that day and time, the obligation to see to the proper burial of parents was part of fulfilling the commandment to “honor your father and mother.”[5]  But Jesus responded in a way that seems quite harsh.  He said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Although there is significant debate about what Jesus meant, it would seem clear that the commitment to the seek first God’s Kingdom that is inherent in the decision to follow Jesus outweighs all other priorities.[6] 
  The third would-be disciple also volunteered to follow Jesus, but asked permission to first go and say farewell to his family.  Again it seems a reasonable request.  Even Elijah allowed Elisha to say good-bye to his parents when he chose him to be his disciple while he was plowing his field (1 Kings 19:19-21).  But Jesus will have nothing of the sort. Echoing the incident with Elisha, he says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”[7]  Perhaps this would-be disciple was looking for some kind of recognition from his family for the fact that he was going to be a disciple of the Messiah.  It’s hard to say.  What seems clear is that all three would-be disciples decided not to follow Jesus
  The message of this unusual story is that following Jesus means the Kingdom of God takes priority over everything else in your life.[8]  Following Jesus means giving yourself away without thought of reward or recognition.  It means serving the purposes of compassion, justice, peace, and freedom simply because it’s the right thing to do, not for any payoff.[9]  And to all who approach the task looking for a reward, or a payoff, or recognition, it would seem that Jesus warns them to do themselves a favor and not start something that is going to result in the kind of disillusionment and even bitterness that Nouwen warns us against.[10]
  One reason why I mention Nouwen is because he knows whereof he speaks.[11]  After his ordination as a Catholic priest, Nouwen began to study the connection between pastoral care, psychology, and theology in Holland.  He finished those studies at the prestigious Menninger clinic.  Along the way, his message of acceptance and compassion earned him quite a reputation and a following to match.[12]  For twenty years he taught Pastoral Care at some of the most distinguished universities in the U. S.--Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.[13]  But he left it all behind to become the chaplain at the Daybreak community in Toronto.[14]  It is a part of the world-wide network of L’Arche homes where the mentally handicapped and their caregivers lived together with others in a community. 
  Nouwen’s story illustrates the kind of sacrifice following Jesus demands.  It means that the Kingdom of God takes priority over everything else.  It means working for compassion, justice, peace, and freedom simply because it’s the right thing to do.  It means giving yourself away in service to others without looking for a reward.  Giving something away without expecting anything in return isn’t very popular these days.  But it is the heart of Jesus’ call to follow him.[15]  The question is whether we will follow, or simply walk away like all the other would-be disciples

[1] ©2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/30/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Henri Nouwen, in The Wounded Healer, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 155.
[3] Nouwen, Ministry and Spirituality, 156
[4] Cf. the perspective of Karl Barth, Church dogmatics 4.2:535-36, where he insists that this would-be disciple “does not realise what it is that he thinks he can choose. He does not know how terrible is the venture to which he commits himself in the execution of this choice. No one of himself can or will imagine that this is his way, or take this way. What Jesus wills with His 'Follow me' can be chosen only in obedience to His call.”
[5] Cf. John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 544: “In Jewish tradition this obligation was so sacred as to override any other obligations of the OT law. Jesus’ words do not deny the normal claims of the pious duty to bury the dead, but, in a way that is harsh and even shocking, they insist that this man has a more pressing duty.”
[6] Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 836; Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 542.
[7] Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, 834: “Plowing for the kingdom means sacrifice; it can tolerate no distractions.” Cf. similarly, Barth, Church dogmatics, 4.2:536, where he says, “It is clear that this man, too, does not really know what he thinks he has chosen. It is certainly not the following of Jesus. This is commanded unconditionally, and therefore it cannot be entered upon except unconditionally.”
[8] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 144; Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 543.
[9] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 101, where he calls it, “the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus.”  Cf. also Luke Johnson, Learning Jesus, 201 “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity.  It is the very essence of Christian identity.”
[10] Cf. Søren Kierkegaard Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 89: Christ “never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents.  No, he calls disciples.  It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for.”  Cf. also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel According to Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:218, where he says, “the radical demands of discipleship require that every potential disciple consider the cost, give Jesus the highest priority in one’s life, and, having committed oneself to discipleship, move ahead without looking back.”
[11] Perhaps the most fitting epitaph to Nouwen’s life was written by Carolyn Whitney-Brown, a former member of the Daybreak community.  She said, “When I think of Henri, I think of two ‘books’: one is the book that Henri wrote 40 times, yet couldn’t quite live; the other is the book the Henri lived for almost 65 years, yet couldn’t quite write.”  Cf. Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri Nouwen, xv.
[12] cf. Ford, Wounded Prophet, 16-17 on Nouwen’s writing career.  Cf. ibid., 100-102, 105 on his growing following.
[13] Cf. Ford, Wounded Prophet, 95-97, 103-104, 135-36
[14] On his transition from teaching to serving at Daybreak, see Ford, Wounded Prophet, 145, 149-56
[15] Cf. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 283, where he puts it more succinctly by saying that following Jesus means that “I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life.”