Back on Track: Practices For Mission

The Good Samaritan, fresco by Ben Long, Charlotte, NC

Isaiah 1:16-17, Micah 6:8, Matthew 23:23-24 and Luke 10:25-35 (preached on March 8, 2009)

So, you think you know all there is about God, do you, Jesus, thinks the middle-aged scholar. You just waltz in here with no formal training, no Doctorate degree in Hebrew Scriptures, and you believe you know better than an esteemed expert like me who has spent his entire life devoted to every single word spoken by God through the prophets! Well, let’s just see how good you are when I throw you this curve ball about inheriting eternal life. Only the best scholars know this one.

Jesus, knowing the arrogant scholar is trying to test him, responds by posing the same question to the man: Well, since you’re an expert in the Hebrew Scriptures, how would you interpret the answer to your question about inheriting eternal life?

Ah, you want to get in a scripture quoting contest and a little theological scrap, do you, Jesus, thinks the scholar. Let’s see what you do with this impressive answer. And with a tone of righteousness in his voice, the man quotes a passage from Deuteronomy saying: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus responds: You are correct! Do this and you will inherit eternal life.

What!?! , thinks the scholar. I see what you’re trying to do Jesus, instead of engaging in a debate that you know I’ll win, you’re just going to be agreeable, is that it. Well, I didn’t spend four years at Jerusalem University for nothing, buddy. And so the frustrated scholar, in an effort to justify himself, asks Jesus, Who is my neighbor?

Jesus, always one step ahead of the scholar, replies with a story about a Jewish fellow who is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is mugged by robbers.  The thieves strip the traveler of his clothes, beat him to a pulp and leave him naked and half dead on the side of the road.  A few minutes later, a priest comes along and when he sees the wounded man, he crosses over to the other side and keeps on going.  Some time passes and then a Levite, who was on his way to assist in the temple, approached and when he sees the man writhing in agony he sidesteps around-trying desperately to keep his distance.

Don’t you just love the way Jesus sets up a story? You see, here is this Hebrew scholar, this expert of the law who really doesn’t get what God or Jesus is about.  Sure, the guy’s smart and he knows his scriptures, but he doesn’t know how to put them into practice.  The scholar prefers to embarrass others with his knowledge.  He wants to regurgitate everything he knows to prove he’s smarter than anyone else, especially Jesus.   He is way off track. Jesus knows it. And he proceeds to tell a story in which two men who know the rule of their day, who know the lessons of their religion-like the arrogant scholar-have gone just as far off track by avoiding the man whom God in the scriptures tells them to nurture and love!

There are a lot of so-called experts, scholars and religious leaders who are also off track in today’s climate-from media pundits to politicians to economists to religious leaders

…it is yak, yak, yak, yak, yakety, yak, yak, yakattack!

24 hours a day, 7 days a week, people are bombarded with a constant barrage of expert opinions on everything, particularly the economy, the presidency, health care policies and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And someone is always trying to one-up someone else, to embarrass another with the amount of knowledge they have.

And the pummeling continues until many folks are stripped of all they have, beaten to a pulp and left on the side of the road, bleeding and half dead-ignored and abandoned by the very same experts who claim to care so much about them!

Jesus might say to the modern talking heads what he shouted at the religious experts of his day: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe…and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Jesus, who not only knows the scriptures but is God’s fulfillment of the scriptures- God-with-us and God-faith-in practice-tells the so-called experts that they have forgotten how to practice the very commandments of God they have memorized so well.

They have forgotten the words of the prophet Isaiah who said “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” and the prophet Micah who shouted, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”

The so-called experts are not doing justice, loving kindness or walking humbly with God. They are off track and walking self-righteously by themselves while someone lies bleeding on the side of the road.

But all is not lost. Hope is on the way.  Someone is coming who will get us back on track, back in touch with those ancient practices for faith that Dave preached about last Sunday.  Someone is coming to heal a hurting people and help a broken world find its way again, to keep moving forward on the path toward God’s kingdom in which all are loved and made whole.

For the traveler who was mugged, that someone, Jesus says in the parable, is the Good Samaritan. The Jewish people and religious leaders in Jesus’ day didn’t like Samaritans. They considered the Samaritans unclean, descendants of mixed marriages who practiced their faith in some different ways from the Jews.   It’s fitting then that the person who stops to help the wounded traveler is not one of the so-called experts on God’s ways but is instead a “despised” individual who practices God’s ways.

The Good Samaritan, says Jesus, comes to the traveler, bandages his wounds, puts him on his own animal (probably a donkey) and takes him to an inn to care for him.  The next day, the Samaritan takes a day’s wage, hands it to the innkeeper and says: Take care of the man I brought in.  When I come back, I’ll repay you whatever additional money you might have to spend.

After finishing the story, Jesus asks the scholar: Of the priest, Levite and Samaritan, who was a neighbor to the traveler who was robbed and beaten? The scholar answers: The one who showed him mercy. Jesus says to him, Go and do likewise.  It seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Go and do likewise. Go and do the same as the Samaritan by showing mercy to others.

And yet there are those who struggle so mightily with that command from Jesus. There are those who put more energy into expert opinions and talking points than by putting the words themselves into practice.   They constantly release hot air until they are depleted of any energy to actually practice and do what God wants done for people in the world.  They get off track and ultimately become useless to themselves and anyone around them.

But, as Dave said in his sermon, if we can rediscover those ancient practices of faith (those practices of breathing, praying, Sabbath tending, resting, soul searching and serving-the latter of which is not to be done hastily) then we can and will get better at practicing goodness, kindness and justice in the world.

During the Lenten Retreat on Saturday, about 30 members of this congregation learned that if we engage in the practices of faith-if we allow God to fill up our lives-than we will overflow with an abundant amount of goodness, kindness and justice for others in need.   And just like the Samaritan, we will do more than just glance down at the person who is hurt as we hurry by them.   We will even do more than just tend to the person’s wounds.   We will also, in our practices, tend to what one pastor calls the “sick societal structures that keep plunging people into conditions where they will die without the kindness and compassion of others.” We will do more than just give blood; we will also look for ways to stop violence. We will do more than just feed the poor; we will also look for ways to end poverty.

The Christian author and activist Jim Wallis puts it memorably in the following metaphor:

We are walking-humbly, prayerfully, contemplatively, with God-down a road by the river. Then we hear someone screaming for help, caught in the current. We wade out to rescue him. Now we have shown kindness. Then we hear more screams and pull out a few more drowning people, each time showing more kindness. Eventually, as a crowd gathers and more and more screams for help fill the air, we need to say, “Quick! A bunch of us need to go upstream and find out who’s pushing people into the river and stop them!” That’s doing justice.

Commenting on this illustration, a friend of Wallis’ writes: “If we weren’t walking humbly with God, perhaps we wouldn’t have the courage and compassion to wade into the river on behalf of the stranger. If we didn’t get wet with kindness, we wouldn’t understand the urgency of justice.”[i]

In the summer of 2002, a few weeks before I began my studies at Columbia Seminary, I took a youth group from my home church in Birmingham to the Montreat Youth Conference.  The keynote speakers were Jeff and Kerri Peterson-Davis.  And to this day, I’ll never forget his comment about the popular WWJD-What Would Jesus Do?-bracelets (I’m sure many of you heard him and Kerri say this often at Pleasant Hill) :  So many people get so focused on What Would Jesus Do that they forget about GADL –Go and do likewise.

Let us remember what Jesus did, is doing and will do. For us, the broken, Jesus is that someone who will get us back on track, back in touch with the practices for faith and for mission.  Jesus is that someone who is moving forward on the path and coming ever so closer to the cross in which justice will be poured out for all.

Thanks Be to God! Amen.

[i] Finding Our Way Again: The Return of Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren, 2008


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