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Sunday, July 11, 2010

First Show, Then Tell

A sermon preached by Luke 10: 25-37
Charles J. Tomlin
Zion Baptist Church
Homecoming, July 11, 2010

Last year, I read an interesting little book entitled “When the Buddha meets Bubba.”  It’s a very uncommon fiction story written by southern writer Richard “Dixie” Hartwell”.   It tells of a red-neck, whose life is falling apart and who’s Christianity, which he inherited from his parents, wasn’t worth a “plug nickel”.   Bubba’s life is wayward, lost, and going downhill, until he comes upon a little “Buddha” who pops out of a suitcase and begins to teach him ancient spiritual teachings about life, living and loving.   Actually, the spiritual truth which the Buddha teaches Bubba is as much Christian as it is Buddhists.  He teaches him how to forgive, how to treat women and people with respect, and how to find peace for his troubled heart by accepting himself and making peace with people around him.  

But didn’t I just tell you, this is also a “fiction” novel?  

What seems so “fictitious” is not whether or not there are great saving lessons to be learned from ancient spiritual truth, but what seems most fictitious today is a person actually contemplating or considering what needs to be done to “save” their lives.  Who has time to “save” our lives when we have so much to do to live?   Even in the story of fiction, Bubba doesn’t think about saving his life without a lot of arm twisting from The Buddha.

In our text, Jesus has to do some spiritual “arm twisting” too; and this is non-fiction.  For you see, the great story line here is not just how this lawyer comes to Jesus asking about eternal life, but how Jesus teaches him what it means to have God in your life right now. To answer his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life”, Jesus gives this lawyer a whole new question, not simply an answer. 

Notice how the conversation starts with a rather “casual” question about “inheriting” eternal life, which the lawyer already knows how to answer.   There is already a problem.  Do you see it?   In order to help this lawyer find true healing springs of salvation, Jesus has to move him from thinking he can “inherit” this from his parents, from religion or from what he already knows, and moving him to ask about “who” he should show love to right now.  Have you ever thought about the question “Who is my neighbor?” as the ultimate “saving” question?   Most of us don’t think about our faith this way.  We normally think about faith in regard to what it means for ourselves and how to get to heaven when we die.  So did this lawyer, that is, until Jesus passed by. 

Jesus’ conversation with this lawyer help us rightly define “how” God saves us.  It helps us see how showing love to others is a very important part of the “plan of salvation”.  Most evangelistic tracts don’t include this part, and that’s part of why I don’t like “soul-winning” tracts.  Besides the fact that “tracts” are seldom about the soul and seldom very winning, my main problem is not with what they do say, but it’s because of what they don’t say.  Remember how Jesus’ word to this lawyer is latter echoed in the living church when John asks in his letter: “How can we love God we can’t see, when we don’t love the person we can see?”  (1 Jn. 4:20).  This question of “how” to love the ones we are with is, according to Jesus, not the afterthought of God’s plan, but it is the first and the greatest “saving” question of all.  It means more than all the religious viewpoints, teachings, interpretations and doctrines altogether in the Bible or in the Church. 

But do we get this?  We haven’t always.  Remember how the Catholic Church once condemned people to death for heresy during the inquisitions, but did not realize their murderous approach to enforcing their viewpoints was a worse sin?  Don’t you know how even today, still there are people who will resolve to ‘hate”, even their own brothers and sisters in faith who have differing opinions or understandings of faith.  But if we want eternal life, but we don’t know the truth about loving our neighbor, Jesus says to this lawyer and to us, we’d better think again.

When I was a child growing up in church, I remember one man who almost missed his chance to forgive, show mercy and love.   It was one of those difficult moments every church has, when it gets hard for people to love.  The church needed to make a decision, which some would be for and some would be against.  The decision being made was about the cemetery.  Up to that time, the cemetery was maintained by sand.   The entire cemetery was covered with several inches of sand and had to be constantly maintained by hand weeding and raking.  This was the easiest way it could be done until modern lawn equipment.  But it was being reasoned by some in the church that it was right time to sow grass.  So, since we were a “democratic” church, it had to come to a vote; and as you can imagine, some were for the change, and others were against.

What shocked me was not that my neighbor was one of those “against” the change, but what I could not understand, as a child of the church, was how it made him so angry he decided to he had to leave the church.  I just couldn’t understand how someone could “love” how you should take of the “dead” over loving and trying to get along with the “living”.   We humans, both inside and outside the church, can be and do some really “strange” things when it comes to being loving or neighborly.  We can get our values, our ideas, and our ideals all mixed up and we seldom like to admit that we saw or said it wrong.   Do you ever hear this Lawyer admitting Jesus is right?   What we all know too well, whether we admit it or not, is that it is a lot easier to love the God we can’t see, than it is to love “love” the neighbor we can.   This is especially true when we don’t agree with them or when we don’t believe in what they do.  My neighbor wasn’t a mean, bad person.   He was a sinner, like you and I.    He fell short of the glory of God every day…just like we all do.   What he couldn’t do, however, was love and live with the person and the neighbor, he thought was wrong.  Even if his judgment of the situation was right---that is, even if the cemetery did need to stay sand, he should have valued loving his neighbor for more than getting his way, even if the vote was wrong.

What I don’t want you to think is that my neighbor was a bad person.   Though he decided to go to church somewhere else, he remained in the community and was a good citizen.   Maybe he just couldn’t stomach losing the vote.  I really was too young to know why he did what he did.   But I can tell you what he almost didn’t do.  He almost didn’t come to realize, until much later in his life, that learning how to love and live with his neighbor (even at church) could be as much the right “saving” response for his life as saying he loved God.   After our neighbor left the church, years went by and I missed having my neighbor at church.  But one day, many, many years later, after I had grown up and moved away, I heard from my parents that my neighbor finally came back.  For some reason, and I never asked him, he decided to come home and back to the church to be with the people who were his neighbors and was suppose to love. 

Understanding that way to “eternal life” to be a path that leads toward our neighbor as much as it leads to God was big step of growth for this lawyer, as it could be some of for us.   But we still haven’t even yet arrived at the main course of this conversation.   Before I get to the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, I want to know how important this question has come for us.  

Put yourself into the historical context of Jesus’ conversation with this lawyer.   This lawyer was not just another lawyer.  He was a religious scribe.  In that world, there was no separation of church and state.  The law the lawyer was supposed to know was God’s law, but he had missed the point of it.   He wanted eternal life, but he was still unsure about loving his neighbor.  

As you think back to that lawyer, think also about Jesus.  Jesus was not just a teacher or savior, but scholars remind us that Jesus was an “apocalyptic” prophet.  The end of the world was coming.  For Jesus this meant his impending death on the cross.  For this Jewish lawyer and scribe, this meant within 40 years of Jesus’ discussion, there would be no nation left.   The Romans would come and destroy Jerusalem and most everything would be gone.   There would be no law, no community of faith, and no life left at all; nothing, unless something eternal could rise up out of the dust.

When you think about eternal life, not just of the individual, but the future of a community of or people of faith, do you ever think about the future of the church?  I first started to entitle my message for homecoming: “Saving Zion”.   I would have been referring to Zion as Jerusalem and the hope of Jesus that God’s Zion would be able to rise up out of the death, destruction, and dust that was coming.   I believe Jesus wanted to save Zion so that it could one day rise up with a new kind of religious life and love; a love not just for God which could easily be faked, but even more  so, having a love for their neighbors, which cannot be so easily faked.   But how this story Jesus tells would save Zion could have a double meaning.  I want us to look straight into this story to see what it can say about our own future, as both individuals and as a church.  
The story Jesus told this lawyer begins with an unknown person having a very unfortunate, life-threatening moment, anyone can have.   He was beaten and robbed.  The Jericho road was known to be a dangerous, risky road, just like life is also dangerous and risky.  Life cannot only kill, one day it will kill us, all of us.   You don’t have to take a trip to the Holy Land down the dangerous Jericho Road to understand the road this unknown traveler was on.  It is the road we all travel.  Some fortunate ones get through without much trouble, but for others, without giving us any explanation, evil can open up and try to swallow you whole.   That is the given of this story as it is the “given” of life.

The next part of the story, may or may not be surprising to us in the church.    As we watch both of these religious leaders walk by this hurting person lying on the side of the road, we can already know who Jesus is talking about.  They are part of the religion that is about to meeting people only with judgment or worse, neglect.   Theirs is the kind of religion that is about themselves, their own salvation, the salvation of their own people, but it is the kind of religion that has no real future.

Finally, we come to the most surprising part of the story.   The person who actually stops to care for this injured person is not who this lawyer would have expected.   He is a Samaritan.  A Samaritan is not only a half-breed Arab, but they also have their own differing place of worship and they have their own differing translation of the Law.   They are the people whom this Lawyer would say do not have eternal life.   They may think they serve the same God, but this lawyer, who knows his Bible begs to differ.  He thinks they don’t have a clue who God is and no matter what they do it doesn’t give them salvation.  

Jesus has a very differing view of this outsider called a Samaritan.   Jesus believes that this Samaritan has more of God than this Jewish lawyer.   In a turn of a events, it is this Samaritan who has salvation and this Jewish lawyer who does not.  It is this Jewish lawyer who need to learn the way of salvation from the Samaritan, and not the Samaritan who needs to learn from the Jew.

Can the world, know more about “eternal life” than even the church.  Sounds really strange, but I believe Jesus would answer “yes!”  When even the world, the Samaritans, the Buddhists, the Hindus, or the Muslims or even the secularist, knows how to love the neighbor they Jesus says we should go and “do likewise” if we want eternal life.   When the church doesn’t know how to love its neighbors and only knows how to pass judgment or pass by on the other side; then the world ends up closer to Jesus than we do.

Do you know what I think this story of the good Samaritan can teach us, not just about being the church, but about saving the church for ministry in God’s future?  I think it is tells us that we want to live, if we want this church to survive, and if we want even our own faith to mean something, then we too must understand how we too, must learn from this Samaritan, who very much like Jesus, “when he saw him (injured on the road), he had compassion.  So he went to him.” (vs. 33).  And do you see what else, speaking of real evangelism; this Samaritan did not go to this guy and try to win a convert or meet a soul-winning quote, but he went to the person to meet him in his hurt.  What Jesus wants us to see very clearly and not overlook is that even the person who loves like Jesus is with Jesus, even when he doesn’t know he’s with Jesus.  But this lawyer who might think he’s with Jesus, is far, far away from gaining eternal life.

If those who love like Jesus share in the future with Jesus, what does this story say to us, the church who really wants to continue to be God’s church and who want to minister to this world of sin, hurt, pain and tragedy in the name of Jesus?  I started out this sermon speaking about the difference the right question can make in getting the right answer.  I also spoke how in our text, Jesus had to figuratively twist this lawyer’s arm to get him focused on the kind love that saves; not just love for God, but also love for neighbor.  Now, I want to conclude about another little word that can make all the difference in the world. 

In a very important book about the future of the church, entitled, “The Eternally Focused Quest: Becoming the Best Church FOR the Community, the authors, Rick Swanson and Rick Rusaw, open the book with some challenging words to the church and he comments, as this text has shown us, that “one good question changes things.  Let me give you the full quote:
“Christian magazines love publishing lists of the best churches---“The 100 Largest Churches,”  “The  50 most Innovative Churches,” “The 50 Faster-Growing Churches,” and so on.  Some pastors whose churches make these coveted lists often frame and hang these outcomes to display to the world that they are doing a good job.  But what if “largest,” “most innovative,” and ‘fastest-growing” were the wrong measures?  Is there something else we could be working toward?
            One good question changes things.  One great question has the power to change a life, a church, a community and potentially the world….   [Once our] big, provocative question was “If your church were to close its doors, would anyone notice---would anyone in the community (outside the church) care?”….  Jesus was a master of asking great questions….How we answer such questions shapes our lives and our futures.
            We’ve discovered that questions are malleable and that rearranging a word here or there can result in a totally different answer.  “Pastor, may I smoke while I’m praying?”  “No!”  “Pastor, while I’m smoking, is it OK to pray?”  “Why that would be a wonderful idea!”  Changing the beneficiary of a question is a power way to transform a question into a quest.  As Martin Luther King Jr., noted, the question that the Good Samaritan asked was not “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”  but “If I DO NOT stop to help this man, what will happen to him”   A powerful question has implications for life…..
            Most churches, blatantly or subtly, have an unspoken objective----How can we be the ‘best church in our community?”---and they staff, budget and plan accordingly.  How a church answers that question determines its entire approach to its members, staff, prayers, finances, time, technology and facilities.  Becoming an eternally focused church is not about becoming the best church in the community.  The eternally focused asks, “How can we be the best church FOR our community?”  That little preposition changes everything….”  (From “The Externally Focused Quest: Becoming the Best Church FOR the Community,  by Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw, Jossey-Bass, 2010, p. 2).

One way we could actually begin to act on this strategy is to think about how the ministry of Jesus was basically a ministry of mercy and how this is what Jesus recommended for this lawyer to do, when Jesus told him, “go and do likewise.”   How can we become a church that focuses more on the needs in the world than our own needs?   

One church took on this ministry of mercy in a very simple way.   Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, LA is not a place to play church….   They do something God specifically commanded the church to do each Thursday.  They feed close to 70 widows in this small, very poor community where the average income is $8,900.   When the widows can’t come to eat at the church they go house to house and give them their meal as they pray for them.   These are people the world has forgotten, but this church proves that God hasn’t…. A whole lot of ministry and life took place in that church, which gives everybody love and hope for a future in God.   This church listened to Jesus’ words and said to themselves, “Mercy is God’s attitude and action toward people in distress.”   Their qualification for our ministry to them is not worthiness, but distress, not merited favor, but undeserved favor and grace.  

Mercy is also what the Good Samaritan did when he saw the man, had compassion, went to him and bandaged up his wounds and took him to a place to rest and covered the cost, without any strings attached; pure mercy.  Jesus tells this lawyer and us, “to go, and do likewise”.  Jesus does not say, go and think likewise, go and believe likewise, but he says “go and DO likewise.”  If we become an externally focused church, doing what Jesus did, I believe we can become a church with the promise of eternity for the future.  

All the way back in the Old Testament, the great prophet Micah does not say “God wants us to go out and tell people about fairness and justice, and mercy, but Micah says, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”  Did you notice that with the prophets, as also with Jesus, how we do justice and mercy comes before walking with God.  It does not come before because it is more important, but because doing justice and loving mercy is what it means to walk with God.   That’s why I titled this message, “First show, then tell.”   If we want to be a church with a future, we are must show who we are, being compassionate in Christ, before we can ever think about telling who Jesus is. 

So how we do take hold of the future?  We don’t.  If the Samaritan had asked how to survive or how to guarantee his future, he’d done nothing.   It was all too risky and dangerous.  But the Samaritan took great risk and paid great costs to show mercy.  This was his ministry and Jesus wants us to know this is his ministry too.  Will you take this moment to think about “how we will love our neighbor by being the best church FOR our community?”   I believe this is the best way to celebrate not only the history of Zion church, but also to continue to work toward our future in ministry with  Jesus Christ who is offers all people to partake in his eternal life.  Amen.  

© 2010 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min

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