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"The Mercy of Discipleship"
July 14, 2013
Today I continue what I began two Sundays ago, and that is exploring what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I have been doing this in part because I found that the scripture passages for these six weeks neatly coalesce around the theme of discipleship.
But that's only part of the story. You see, I've decided to focus so much on the topic of discipleship more for another reason, one you may or may not like. Frankly, I believe we need this concentration to help awaken us to a livelier demonstration of our faith, one in which we break out of the easy assumption that all it means to be a Christian is to be reasonably nice to people, avoid doing obviously wrong things, and go to church somewhat regularly (as long as it doesn't inconvenience my life too much).
Sure, those aren't bad things; there are certainly worse things. But why do we limit ourselves so much? There is far more to the life of one who knows Jesus than conventional morality sprinkled with a few religious practices. Very often, that ends up being an excuse for giving Jesus only a part of your life. But Jesus doesn't want a part of your life; he wants the whole thing. For that matter, Jesus doesn't invite us to be church members; he calls us to be disciples. And discipleship entails cost, joy, mercy, attention, freedom, and perspective.
Today we talk about mercy. This too is something beyond the conventional, and we find in our Bible passage this morning a challenge to us that may inspire us to put aside our tendency to control the extent of our discipleship by placing limits and conditions on our mercy.
One day Jesus became engaged in conversation with someone who came to hear him speak. It was an interesting conversation. Not exactly easygoing, but rather it was a conversation with an edge. A man, an expert in the law of Israel, was there in the crowd listening to Jesus. And he decided that he would test Jesus, because, well, that's what lawyers do, then as now. Or maybe it was because he felt he had a responsibility to help others figure out whether this Jesus could be trusted, whether he was really solid and worth listening to.
So the lawyer stood up to ask Jesus his question, “stood up,” it says, I suppose so that those around could hear him ask his question, and so Jesus would have to answer it in front of everybody. Yes, he was putting him on the spot.
“Teacher,” the man asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now this strikes me as a funny question, one that brings together two things that I'm not sure really belong together: doing and inheriting -- “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This strikes me as funny because, when you're an heir, then you don't have to do something to get what you will inherit. It's part of being an heir. Inheritance is not a matter of doing something. It's just something you get, because you're a spouse or child or someone else named in a will.
To be sure, you could do something horrible that would get you disowned. Heirs can lose their inheritance. They can act in a way that breaks the bonds of inheritance, or fails to abide by some stipulation in a will.
And maybe that's a piece of what was going on here. For surely this expert in the law of Moses would know: inheritance was bound up with the covenant God had graciously made with Israel, a covenant in which the major obligations fell, not on the people, but on God.
Maybe this was how the lawyer was testing Jesus, to see if Jesus knew what he knew. For surely the lawyer would know that the way for one to be part of the inheritance promised in the covenant was to participate in the covenant. It would seem, then, that what the lawyer is asking is not how does he get into the covenant, but rather how does he stay in the covenant of which he, as a son of Abraham, is already a part.
This is why, when Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer, he does so by having the lawyer say what is in the law, that is, what is written in scripture. And the lawyer right away knows the answer, of course he does, and he proudly recites by heart two passages from the Bible that summarize those obligations the people have because of the covenant God made with them: “Ahem. You shall 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.”
[Jesus claps sarcastically.
“A Plus,” Jesus tells him. “You've given the correct answer.”
Maybe the lawyer should have been satisfied with that, and sat down. But he presses on, because he just has to show Jesus, and everybody else there, not only that he knows this correct answer, but that he lives it.
So he asks another question ...a bit too eager, a bit too self-serving. “And who is my neighbor?” Surely he asks this so he can demonstrate in the specific delineating of “neighbor” that he has indeed loved his neighbors as himself.
I gather he liked his neighbors. I take it as certain that he felt a strong connection to his neighbors and his neighborhood. These days, maybe he'd be an active member of the homeowners' association. He and his wife would be the first to welcome new residents to the neighborhood with a visit in which they would cheerfully hand them a gift basket full of fresh baked cookies and directions to the nearest Home Depot. They would host parties and backyard barbecues. And he would keep an eye on things to make sure his neighbors and their property were safe. Because, you see, he knew who was his neighbor.
Which means that he knew who his neighbor was not.
Those outside of his sphere of regular association,
these were not his neighbors. And so the simple fact that he did not love them as he loved himself should not count against him, but rather should be taken as normal.
“Who is my neighbor?” the man asks. And Jesus comes right back at him with a story most of us know very well. We call it “the Parable of the Good Samaritan.” But such a title reveals too little about this meaningful parable, and maybe even conceals how radical and discomforting it should be to us, making it seem as if Jesus is merely urging us to have a first-aid readiness to be “good Sams” to others around us, to give out of our abundance (of cash or time or attention or skill or what-have-you) rather than to exhibit mercy that must really be described as shockingly active and deep.
We know how the story goes: a traveler is set upon by robbers, beaten up and left for dead. As he lies in misery along the road, feeling the grip of death beginning to take hold of him from shock and exposure, two good men come his way, one a priest, the other a Levite, one after the other, both of them men of authority and respect, men of religious bearing, men to whom the lawyer would immediately relate, men he would truly count as his neighbors.
And yet both of these fine, neighborly men, the priest and the Levite, in seeing the stricken traveler, first one then the other cross to the other side of the road and go on their way, leaving him there to suffer and perhaps to die.
But one man did not pass by, a third one who came along, one who did not at all look like a neighbor of the lawyer, who in fact did not strike any of those listening to Jesus that day as a neighbor. This was a Samaritan, despised by the lawyer and most of those gathered around, even some of Jesus' own disciples. (Remember them asking Jesus if they could call fire down on some Samaritans?)
The Samaritan came down that same road. And when he saw the broken and bloody body of the traveler, did he do as the other two had done, and keep right on going? Nope, not at all. It says that “he was moved with pity,” and then he acted on this pity in a tremendous way. He tended to the man's wounds. He took him to an inn and cared for him there. And then, the next day he gave the innkeeper a couple hundred bucks to cover things for a while and then said, “take care of him for me, and when I come back I'll pay you for whatever more you spend.”
Wow! That's generous. Who would make such an open ended commitment to a stranger on behalf of a stranger? Who would say, “just open a tab, and put on it everything accumulated in this man's care: medical supplies, room service, mini-bar, spa treatments, Pay-Per-View.” Who would do that? But this one did.
So on finishing his parable, Jesus asks the lawyer “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man attacked by the robbers?” And what could the lawyer say? The answer was obvious. “Um, it seems that it would be the one who showed him mercy.” To which Jesus said, “Go, and you do the same thing!”
That's one of those passage-ending verses that I think could be a perfectly good ending to many sermons, including this one. But not yet. First let me return to that question I just left hanging. With such an extensive, unlimited demonstration of mercy, who would do that? Who in the world would do that? Who is such a neighbor?
I'll tell you who. Jesus is that neighbor. Oh, sure, not him alone. But him especially. He is the Good Samaritan, the unexpected One
who rescues us in our trouble,
He is that neighbor. He has been and continues to be that neighbor to us.
And what Jesus, this hidden and revealed Good Samaritan is saying in this parable is that being a good neighbor, really a good neighbor, ultimately comes down to identifying with him, with the One who shatters our notions of neighbors and neighborly behavior, shatters them by expanding them, so that mercy is extended, unconventionally, to those not normally considered as candidates for our mercy.
Yes, without a doubt, a disciple of Jesus is the one who has received such mercy, and having received it desires to share it with others,
with those who would not normally be counted as neighbors,
For discipleship is characterized by mercy, and the disciple of Jesus will seek to be merciful, even to those with whom there is little to connect them. The disciple will live out her or his discipleship with an eagerness to understand “neighbor” far beyond the conventional.
This has big implications. It has a bearing on the things we do as a church that connect with those not in this church. It even has a bearing on how we use this wonderful property we have here, the whole thing, how we use it, to whom we make it available.
Every once in a while, I hear someone ask whether a program will bring new people to our church. Almost as often, I hear someone ask whether making the church's facilities available to outsiders will result in our church growing.
I said this to the deacons and elders on Tuesday night. And I'll say it to you. There's something backwards about this thinking. Or maybe it's just that something is missing. You see, churches don't grow because their buldings are open. They grow when their hearts are open. If you want the church to grow, don't look first at your buildings. Rather, look first at your hearts.
But when our buildings are closed, unavailable to the community, I have to ask whether that reflects an inward reality. I have to wonder
if closed buildings mean closed hearts,
I have to question whether our understanding of “neighbor” is woefully limited, un-expanded by encounter with the merciful Good Samaritan, the ultimate Stranger who became Neighbor, Jesus Christ our Lord.
So, my friends, let us strive to drop the limits and conditions we put on our mercy. Let us strive to be merciful to an expanding circle of those we count as “neighbors.” Let us be merciful disciples. Let us identify with Jesus, our Good Samaritan, who shows us amazing mercy, and then tells us, “Go, and you do the same.”