Tag: Psalm

Who Is My Neighbor?

lovethyneighborPsalm 25:1-10
Luke 10:25-37

Fill in the blank:
“Into a bar walks a Rabbi, a Priest and a…” Minister.
“Moe, Larry and…” Curly.
Donald Duck’s nephews are Hey, Dewey and… Louie.
Not into cartoons? How about the movie: The Good, The Bad and… the ugly.

These sets of three we just KNOW. They’re tied together. Jesus’ time had them too. One of these sets of three was a Priest, A Levite and… an Israelite. So if you wanted to tell the bar joke, it would go: A Priest, A Levite and an Israelite walk into a bar…” Usually, the joke continued that the priest only wanted to study the law. The Levite only wanted to do the law. And only the Israelite is smart enough to both study God’s Word and do God’s word.

Jesus sets up this set of three in today’s story. First — the Priest passes the man in need. Then, the Levite passes the man in need. We know how the joke goes, right? Here comes the Israelite to save the day and do better than both of these ‘men of God.’

But instead of an Israelite, Jesus says the third person to come along is the backwards, persecuted, dirty, outsider Samaritan.

… it would be as shocking as if I opened with a joke going, “A Rabbi, A Priest, and an ISIS Suicide Bomber walk into a bar…” That’s not how the joke goes, and really… it’s crossing the line from joke to insulting.

… Politically correct was never Jesus’ way. Jesus’ way is God correct. Politically correct means to think about your words, and not use words that harm others. It’s a very good thing!

But God correct means speaking the Truth of God even when that truth is painful to hear, or acknowledge.

The lawyer — someone extremely educated in the scriptures and laws of the time — had asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of simply giving the lawyer the answer, Jesus did the true Rabbi thing of answering a question with a question.

Jesus asked, “What is written in the law? You’ve studied it a whole lot – how do you interpret it?” Both men acknowledge the Bible has a lot of ways to read it, and lots of different understandings. However, they have the same reading: to inherit eternal life, one must “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

DOING this love is how one lives eternally.

But this is a lawyer. It’s his job to nail down the facts. So… just who is my neighbor? Just who am I responsible to love? And that’s when Jesus gets politically incorrect and tells his story about the Priest, the Levite, and the Enemy. “Which of these three, do you think, acted like a neighbor to the man?”

The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say “The Samaritan.” He can’t admit that dirty, dirty word; that enemy. He changes it to the softer but still true phrase, “The one who showed mercy.” Whomever was merciful.

Jesus’ answer?

Go and Do likewise. Go and Do.

Go and love your neighbor.
Thy homeless neighbor.
Thy Muslim neighbor.
Thy black neighbor.
Thy gay neighbor.
Thy white neighbor.
Thy Jewish neighbor.
Thy transgendered neighbor.
Thy Christian neighbor.
Thy Atheist neighbor.
Thy racist neighbor.
Thy addicted neighbor.
Thy neighbor.

Love them. Show them kindness and mercy. Love yourself. Show yourself kindness and mercy. Love God – by showing all of God’s children the very same kindness and mercy God has shown you.

When Jesus tells this story, Jesus never identifies who the man is other than what crime happened against him. He was beat up by robbers who took everything he owned. The man is stripped of anything to identify him: he may be Jewish, he may be a Priest, he may be a Levite, he may be a Samaritan. He could be rich or poor. Young or old. Jesus keeps the details sparse so we can imagine ourselves as the man.

When you are so, so desperate for help… your neighbor is ANYONE who helps you out.

I read about a church where a woman was going through a messy divorce. Her fellow church members told her, “Keep your chin up. God will take care of you.” Her minister told her, “We are praying for you.” There was another woman in the community who had three kids who didn’t name anyone as their dads. She went to the woman and said, “Let’s get coffee; I’ll buy. Bring your kids, they can play with mine. You need a friend and I want to be one.”

Everyone in the church was well meaning, but none went out of their way to help. The outsider, the stranger, the one judged… she went out of her way to someone not like herself. But she knew what it was like to need a friend; what it was like to raise kids all by yourself; and she acted as this woman’s neighbor.

Who our actual next door neighbors are isn’t the message of this parable. Rather, it is about who is acting neighborly: a neighbor is anyone and everyone who goes out of their way to help another. Anyone and everyone who provides for our needs and who takes care of us.

Jesus’ story goes two ways then: it asks, are we neighbors? and who are our neighbors? In other words… are you going out of your way to help others; and are you letting others go out of their way to help you?

It’s that second one that really sticks in my craw; you too?

I spent a lot of time and energy trying to be invulnerable. Trying to be a self-sustaining one-woman island. I don’t need other’s help – I’m fine. I HELP OTHERS. OTHERS don’t help me. I donate to charity. I don’t take charity. I give out favors. I don’t rack up debts. I never want to be a burden. I give compliments, I don’t take them and I assuredly don’t take your pity and aide.

*tch* We rural folk, we’re strong. We survive it all. And this do-or-die-independence Jesus challenges. Jesus says being a neighbor involves not only giving help, but also being willing to receive it — and receive it especially from those not part of our immediate family and friends.

That hits me right in the chest.

When Jesus invites us into this parable as the beaten man, Jesus points out we’re all vulnerable. We all have times when we NEED assistance and help. We all have times when there are too many bills, or too much house work, or our bodies aren’t working as they ought, or we just are sad or lonely. We have times we’re stuck in the gutter and left in the ditch. And most of us choose to stay there, drag ourselves out, wallow in the mud, get infected wounds and suffer… rather than lifting a hand up and asking for help. Asking for someone to lift us back to our feet.

We ask God, if we ask anyone at all.

But what if God is working through those around us, and the answer to our prayer: God, help me through this! is God placing helpful people willing to be our neighbors in our lives?

Our psalmist writes, “God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble God’s way. All the paths of God are steadfast love and faithfulness,” Humble. Humble enough to give love. Humble enough to receive love.

It isn’t often socially acceptable to receive help… as in, by asking for help or receiving help you’re somehow less than others… but this humility and openness is a necessary way of following God’s path.

It is through giving AND receiving help, we build a web among us, a community among us. We knit the body of Christ closer and closer. One who only gives, and one who only receives, is like a dropped stitch; or like a tractor that only has forward or reverse but not both. You can work around a dropped stitch or a tractor missing gears… but it’s a whole lot harder than if you just had both. Giving and receiving, receiving and giving, is what makes us neighbors. So go and be loved by your neighbor!

Be open to being loved by
Thy homeless neighbor.
Thy Muslim neighbor.
Thy black neighbor.
Thy gay neighbor.
Thy white neighbor.
Thy Jewish neighbor.
Thy transgendered neighbor.
Thy Christian neighbor.
Thy Atheist neighbor.
Thy racist neighbor.
Thy addicted neighbor.
Thy neighbor.

And do likewise. Love them back. Amen.

Blame Game

Isaiah 55:1-9
Luke 13:1-9

Who’s to blame? Jesus’ disciples are trying to get their heads around the idea Jesus is preaching. An idea that isn’t popular in Jesus’ day, or our own day…

That message is don’t blame victims for their plights.

In our reading, Jesus is speaking privately to his disciples, but people keep bringing him more and more issues to address. There are so many, the scripture says the people began to trample and step on one another. And someone in the crowd calls out, “Rabbi! Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” And Jesus is upset with how greedy and lacking empathy the people coming to him are.

Some other person in the crowd comes and tells Jesus about an attack. Pilate murdered these worshipers as they brought their offerings to the temple. The person telling the story suggests, “Surely God protects God’s own people. So since these good faithful worshipers were killed in the middle of worship… they must have actually been sinners and made God so mad, God used Pilate to kill them. Right Jesus? So we can go boycott their funerals right?”

Jesus replies, “Ah, so then the 18 people who died in Jerusalem recently when that building fell – they must have been the 18 worst sinners in Jerusalem, right?” I think the crowd must nod. Yes, that’s right.

Jesus says, “No, I assure you. They weren’t the worst sinners. But unless you repent, you will perish just like they did.”

Who’s to blame when bad things happen?

When bad things happen – we, like the crowd, often lack empathy and we blame the victim. We say they weren’t a victim at all. They brought this on themselves. This is their own fault.

If a woman is pestered by a man, catcalled, touched: it’s because she shouldn’t have worn that clothing. She brought his attention on herself.

If a kid is bullied in school, he should be more of a man and stop crying. No one likes a whiner.

If a man is cheated on, he really should have been a better husband. Good husbands have faithful wives.

These people deserve their fate.

Do you remember how many preachers were saying hurricane Katrina was God’s response to Mardi Gras? It was God punishing the sinners of Louisiana? Surely Louisiana is the most sinful state of the US. So they deserved all that death, destruction, disease, and destroyed families.

How many preachers and politicians right now are saying the US is not flourishing because of “those sinners.” Depending on who you ask, those sinners are women seeking reproductive health care, gays and lesbians, non-Christians, or drug users.

Surely God is punishing the US, and that is why we aren’t the world’s only super power.

No! Says Jesus. No!

No to all of this! Each of these cases heap burdens on those already burdened.

Do not judge lest you be judged.

Nations rise and fall; hurricanes happen; good men are cheated on; all kids are bullied; and a woman isn’t responsible to police men.

Blaming those already in hurt turns us into sinners: into people who are hypocrites because we preach love but do harm.

One’s luck in life – whether good or bad – is NOT because of one’s sins. And, unless we repent of judging others, repent of harming others, repent of sin… we will perish. We will die on the inside. We will be heartless, and cruel, and continue to judge others…. continue to play the blame game and tell victims they deserve their bad luck.

Jesus, when no one understands what he means, tells a story about a fig tree. The land owner wants to cut it down, because the tree doesn’t produce figs. The gardener says, “No! Let me change the tree’s environment. It may be a bad tree, if so – then cut it down. It’s a bad tree. But give this tree the benefit of doubt. Give it a chance. Change the environment and you may be surprised.”

What does that mean?

… Often, we are victims of our circumstances, our environments, and not wholly to blame for our deeds.

Did you know one of the largest, if not THE largest, mental health institution in the US is the Cook County Jail in Chicago? It houses 9000 people, of which 35% are mentally ill. That’s 3150 mentally ill people at all times.

It didn’t always used to be like this. There had been social workers working the streets, and mental health places, and homeless shelters… but the city cut the funding for these projects. They said having these aids available encouraged people to be homeless. And, they said that with “Obama Care” everyone has health insurance, so now there is no need for free and low-income mental health help.

If you make too little money to afford health care insurance, you get a paper from the government that says you’re excused from purchasing it. So in reality, many people still do not have health insurance. Mostly the poor.

If you are able to get health insurance, next to none of them cover the full cost of prescriptions. Mental health drugs are expensive – $100 a pill at times. Even a good insurance plan that pays 80% of drug costs leaves a person paying $20 a day for their medication… and that is $20 most poor people have a hard time coming by.

Food stamps don’t cover medication.

In cities like Chicago, in cities like Columbus, like Lancaster, and even in rural areas like ourselves… the mentally ill fall through the cracks, often don’t have family or friends to help them, and end up homeless, hungry, and off their medication for months.

They do things like Daniel at Cook County did. His family was very rough growing up, and since he was 11, he’d been battling depression and PTSD. These things happen when you see your own relatives murdered.

When he turned 18, he was too old for foster care, he couldn’t get the money for his prescription antidepressants. So he went cold turkey. That was way too hard. He couldn’t afford a doctor, or the health care insurance, or the prescription drugs – but he could afford alcohol and street drugs. So he used these to self-medicate. One day, cops picked him up for loitering and found the drugs on him.

Daniel, like many in the Cook County Jail, are glad to be in the new environment. In jail, there is food, access to the right medication, and people to help kick addictions. But he worries when he gets out… where will he get this support?

Back on the streets, back to being homeless, now with a criminal record – so it’s harder to get a job – back to being without access to his medication… what is he going to do? Will he still produce good fruit when his environment is so bad?

Daniel is one of over 3000 people DAILY in this jail suffering from mental illness. Daniel is one of 9000 people there DAILY who are there because of something they did, some crime, but untold thousands of them did the crime because of circumstances outside of their control. They are victims of their environments. With different environments, with some fertilizer and a caring hand, with some love – they may just start producing good fruit.

Jesus is telling us that we are fruit trees, and supposed to produce good fruit: fruits like love, patience, kindness, forgiveness…. We’re supposed to produce the same fruit our parent tree, God, produces.

Here, this church, is a garden. We invite the gardener in to tend to us, to give us a good environment, to give us a place of welcome and forgiveness.

Jesus’ controversial teaching to his disciples and the crowd, his hard message to us today is that good people don’t have God’s magical protection barrier around them. Jesus is saying that bad things happen to people regardless of how much they sin.

Indeed, Jesus is saying that good people don’t go to heaven.

Forgiven people go to heaven.

For as our psalmist writes,

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord,
that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God,
for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

We are not good people. We try to be. But our environment, our circumstances, means we often sin. Instead, we are forgiven people. People who know what its like to rely on mercy.

Jesus came for the sinsick. Came for fruit trees like you and me who need a better environment. God, who’s ways aren’t our ways and thoughts aren’t our thoughts, abundantly pardons us when we ask for forgiveness.

God is merciful with us. Let us be merciful with one another. Let us forgive each other. Let us forgive ourselves.

Let us not play the blame game, but worship God with love for God and one another. Amen.

Resource http://www.vice.com/read/what-life-is-like-inside-the-massive-jail-that-doubles-as-chicagos-largest-mental-health-facility?utm_source=vicetwitterus))\

House Sparrows

1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11

Psalm 84

Great big monuments – monuments like the Statue of Liberty, like the Eiffel Tower, like Stonehenge and the Sydney Opera House- all share one big woe…

Birds.

Sparrows.

Like the little house sparrows who like to live in each and every little crevasse they can fit into within our own homes. I’ve got one family in a nest in a little nook between my chimney and my house; and another in between the beam and the siding of my shed. I can see a nest in the eaves of my neighbor’s porch, and I think there is one in each of the bird houses he’s put up all about his drive.

And still they want more nesting space. One keeps trying to turn a ledge against my window into a nest. There just isn’t enough of a ledge for her.

Today’s scripture is about the magnificence of the first temple. It is a sampling of pages of description. When it was wrote, the people were in exile and so wrote these remembering a fond building that was no longer around. It is a verbal tour of a remembered sacred spot. They wanted to record what an amazing building the temple was, and to keep its memory around.

The psalms about the temple, however, include humorous little insights about temple life. For instance — birds liked to nest in the temple eaves. Nations rise and fall, sacred buildings are built and destroyed – but sparrows continue to nest in eaves.

It doesn’t matter if that eave belongs to the first temple to God… or to a desolate ruin in a war-torn land… respectful or shameful, the birds nest there.

Although it is just a little insight, a small part of our reading, the lines about the sparrows nesting in the temple speak to me about God. Speak to me about who God is and God’s relationship to us.

Sometimes, I think I am a sparrow. In more ways than one.

For instance, some evenings I feel like I’ve felt the whole day flying here and there, to and fro. Like a sparrow, I’ve been busy all day but I don’t have anything to show for it. No stores of food gathered, nothing checked off my to do list, but yet I was busy all day it seems.

I know I landed on a few branches to take a breather just because it was so hectic!

But what did all this rush accomplish?

Other days, I feel like a sparrow seeking a dry spot from a storm. I huddle into this little eave but the wind buffets me here. I shoot over to that little branch and hope it is dryer, but it’s just as wet when I get there. I hide under a bush and cats startle me. I hide in places I thought were safe – like under a car – but it turns out they’re not. I go to people I thought were safe, friends or family – and it turns out they’re not. I’m weary to my bones and I feel like I’m dragging myself place to place but there is no rest.

Where is there safe shelter when it rains?

And some days, I am a sparrow below notice or care. The blue birds get special boxes made for them, the hummingbirds get special feeders made for them. I get chased out of my nests with brooms and angry curses. I get chased away from feeding on grain and feed by barn cats and yappy dogs. The green heron is protected and I am shot for sport. The cedar waxwing is photographed, the oriole praised for his song, and I am called a dull, drab nuisance bird.

Even the pigeon, called by some people a rat with wings, is said to sing prettily with those wings when it flies.

When everyone seems to get preferential treatment but me, I don’t feel special or wanted. Who cares about me? I’m not one in a million, but one OF a billion mes? As common as common can be.

Some days, we are sparrows. Pests. Getting into places we ought not. Rushing. To and fro without getting anything done. Common. Not flashy, not note-worthy, not on TV or YouTube. When we are sparrows – and we are sparrows more often than peaceful doves or proud cardinals I think – When we are sparrows, how does God feel about us? Where do we turn for comfort?

Usually we turn to the Bible for comfort. But it speaks of doves. Praises those rats with wings. It speaks of the dove of the Holy Spirit descending, the dove of peace with the olive branch in her mouth returning to Noah, the doves offered in the temple. But sparrows?

Because some days, I know I’m not a pure white dove. I’m a sparrow – common. I don’t stand out in the least. But I sing nevertheless. I raise my family. I sunbathe and splash in shallow pools. I gather thistle seed and millet. But this makes me common. A pest to some. A welcome song to others. And below the notice of most.

And yet, Jesus notices us.

The word for ‘sparrow,’ or a small bird, in the Bible is used by Jesus to represent the smallest of things. According to some scholars, sparrows were the meat of the poor. Hotdogs. Spam.

Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew, “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny?” and in Luke, “Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies?” So sparrows are a buy four get one deal! … we have buy one get one on hotdogs all the time. They’re not valuable. Other parts of the bible talk about snaring sparrows, and making them flee – catching and eating the little birds. But no one brags “I caught a sparrow for dinner!” Just like no one brags, “Come over for a Thanksgiving dinner of hotdogs!”

Cheap meat.

In Matthew Jesus continues, “Yet not one of these sparrows fall to the ground outside of your Father’s notice. Even the very hairs on your head are all numbered.” In Luke, Jesus continues, “Yet not one of these sparrows is forgotten by God. Indeed, even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.”

You are worth more than many hotdogs, and yet God even notices and cares for that cheap meat, too. God knows how many sparrows there are, and how many hairs are on your head. God knows. God notices. God cares.

Our Psalmist writes how in the temple are sparrows making their nests up in the porch, and in the eaves. The very least of meat, the very least of birds, the most common and not noteworthy are right there, with God. Living right under God’s protection, nesting in a place of honor.

No one and nothing is beneath the notice and care of God.

And the least are the most important to our loving parent.

The least – the ones who are without honor. The ones who keep messing up. The ones who need assistance to get by. The ones who need God’s forgiveness and mercy. God gives them love, welcomes them in, and provides for them the honor and security they don’t have in the normal world.

The normal world is cruel. The person who tries to do good is often burned, hurt, because they chose to follow their morals. The people who lie, cheat, steal, and speak badly about others seem to get ahead.

In the normal world, those who forgive are call weak. Those who do kind deeds are said to be self-righteous, or out to get something. Those who call themselves Christian and go to church are mocked in the public eye. Those who call themselves Christian and go to church and disagree with some of the things other Christians do and say are alienated, isolated, and told they are not true Christians for not being so radical. In the cruel normal world, no good deed goes unpunished… right? And the nice guy finishes last.

But we – we who know the temple of God – we who see the sparrows in the eaves – we know God envisions a new world. God is making, is speaking, is dreaming a new reality. In this to-come world, there is harmony. There is peace. There is justice. Even the lowly sparrow, the cheap meat, the pest, has a place and purpose. Has honor. Is wanted and welcomed. Even the lowly sinner, the one who keeps falling short, the one who society scorns has a place and a purpose. Has honor.

We, here today, are invited to live in this new world NOW. We who call ourselves Christians are standing with the sparrows and the outcasts. We are standing with one foot in the new world. We are dreaming with God and working with God to make the kindom – the land of mutual kinship – NOW. Heaven is not distant, the kingdom of God, the kindom of creation, is not far off in the future: it is now. And the more we live into it, the more we welcome it, the more visible and accessible it is to all people.

We have eternal life – we have life always new, always abundant – we have the promise of rebirth, of life after death and defeats – we have the promise of God’s abiding presence and love. There is no need to be afraid, to be silent, or to hang our heads in shame. Let us praise our God like a sparrow tweets over seed – let us praise God with sheer delight – for our God is love! And in this love, all have a place!

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore Ohio, 8-23-15