For five weeks now, we’ve been preaching through Richard Stearns’ book, The Hole in Our Gospel.
During that time I’ve received quite a lot of ‘feedback’ from many of you.
Feedback such as the death-grip handshake one of you, my brothers in Christ, laid on me two weeks ago as you left the sanctuary and with your free hand poked me in the chest and said:
‘Why are you subjecting us to your liberal, socialist, redistributionist agenda instead of preaching the Gospel?’
To which I replied-in love:
‘Didn’t you know? It’s Dennis’ liberal, socialist, redistributionist agenda.’
And then there’s the feedback like the email from a gentle sister in Christ that greeted me one Monday morning over my first cup of coffee:
‘Of course being a Christian is all about serving the poor- duh!!! Why are you making us read a book, by a Southern Baptist no less, to hear what we already know???! Are you trying to turn us all into conservative evangelicals???’
To which I replied: Delete.
In his book, Richard Stearns describes the ‘hole in our Church’ as the priority we fail to give to poverty.
But I wonder if the hole in our congregation (if not the American Church in general) is actually more like a divide.
With a blue Jesus on one side and a red Jesus on the other side.
On the red side of the divide are all of you who might call yourselves ‘personal savior’ Christians. To you, Christianity is fundamentally about God’s forgiveness of sin, about a relationship with Jesus, its about having faith in him that you’ve been saved by him and that you’ll have eternal life with him.
On the the blue side of the divide, are those of you who might call yourselves ‘social justice’ Christians. For you, faith without acts of mercy, concern for justice and advocating for political change isn’t genuine faith. For you, any Messiah whose teachings lead him to die by capital punishment is unavoidably a political Messiah.
One thing your feedback has revealed to me is that there are two kinds of Christianity represented here at Aldersgate., and many of you define your kind of Christianity by how you’re not like the other.
So very often if some of you leave here on a Sunday morning thinking you’ve heard the Gospel, the other half leave here thinking you’ve not heard it.
What’s a preacher to do?
So I thought what I would do today is preach two sermons in one.
One sermon for the red Jesus, personal savior Christians out there and another for the blue Jesus, social justice Christians.
So here goes. Sermon # 1 is for all you blue Jesus, social justice Christians. And since I know how much you all like stories, it begins with an illustration:
Mitchell Grammaticus, the protagonist from the recent novel, The Marriage Plot, has just graduated from Brown University. Having become a Christian in his final semester, Mitchell travels to India, searching for eternal life, by working in Mother Theresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes.
At first Mitchell is frightened by the sheer messiness of the dying and for a month he busies himself with simple tasks like passing out medication.
But then one day another volunteer, a beekeeper from Arizona, grabs Mitchell by the arm and says: ‘Just in time. I need a hand.’
The beekeeper leads Mitchell to a man lying on a bed. Even among the other destitutes, the man looks especially emaciated.
‘This man needs a bath,’ the beekeeper says.
So they carry him, inexpertly, to a yellow stone bathroom lit only by the light sneaking in through the stone lattice window. Slowly, Mitchell pulls off the man’s hospital gown over his head.
Underneath Mitchell sees a soggy bandage covering the man’s groin.
Frightened as he was Mitchell decides then and there that this is it. This is what he came searching for. So he takes scissors and snips away the adhesive tape and pulls away the pus-stained bandage, revealing an angry-looking tumor the size of a grapefruit.
The beekeeper turns on the spigot and tests the water’s temperature. He and Mitchell then fill plastic buckets with water and pour it slowly and ceremoniously over the old man.
“This is the Body of Christ’ the beekeeper intones as he pours the water.
Then they refill their buckets and repeat the process, each time whispering:
‘This is the Body of Christ.’
“The only important thing in life is love, charity’ Mitchell overhears another volunteer say.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
He says he’s looking for eternal life, the lawyer who confronts Jesus.
This lawyer’s just been eavesdropping on Jesus telling the disciples that the rich and the powerful, will never see the truth of God right in front of them.
And this lawyer, who definitely belongs squarely in that list of people Jesus has just rattled off, confronts Jesus with this question about getting into heaven.
Jesus turns the question back on him: ‘What’s the bible say?’
And the lawyer shows off how well he knows scripture.
To which Jesus replies: ‘Yeah, that’s right. Now go and actually do it.’
You see, when it comes to questions of eternal life, Jesus and the lawyer are on the same side of the question.
They both agree on the answer.
But for Jesus having the right beliefs and having salvation aren’t the same thing because Jesus doesn’t tell the lawyer: ‘Good job! You got the right answer! Gold star!’
Jesus says ‘Go and do.’
It’s the going and doing that trips the lawyer up because immediately he comes back with the question: ‘Well, who is my neighbor?’
The question’s intentionally reductive. Asking ‘Who is my neighbor?’ is really asking ‘Who is not my neighbor? Whom can I excuse from my sense of duty?’
So Jesus responds with a story about a man who’s robbed, beaten and left to die in an alley.
That so many could walk by him without helping probably means the man was poor, probably means that he had the kind of complexion and belonged to that class of people that make it easy for the white collared to walk right on past.
Even a pastor and a lay leader so caught up in their personal piety that they either ignore or are blithely ignorant to the suffering at their doorstep.
The cast of characters isn’t accidental.
It’s the polite church people so confident about their personal, eternal salvation- none of them DO anything for the poor man.
No one helps until the Samaritan shows up, a surprising stranger who sounds a little like Jesus himself, and shows the man love and compassion that goes beyond simple charity or convenience.
At the end of the story, Jesus repeats the lawyer’s question back to him but by then the answer’s already clear.
Not only is this what we should do to have salvation.
This is how we reflect our savior.
– – – – – – – – – – –
So go and do, Jesus says.
Love God and love your neighbor as much as you love God and you love yourself.
And just as God encompasses EVERYTHING that is, so too does ‘neighbor’ encompass EVERYONE that is.
If you want to know salvation, if you want to have eternal life, then go and do.
Sermon # 2- this one’s for you red Jesus, personal savior Christians, and since you all actually read your bibles, I don’t need to hook you with an illustration. I can just begin smack down in the scripture.
There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ Samaritan.
Not if you’re a Pharisee. Not if you’re a Levite. Not if you’re a priest or a lawyer or a Jew.
Back a chapter ago, in Luke 9, a Samaritan village- maybe its the same town Jesus has in mind when he casts his story- rejected Jesus and the disciples.
The Samaritans didn’t just reject Jesus’ message; they refused to treat Jesus with the basic hospitality obligated by the Torah. So nasty were the Samaritans back in chapter 9 that Jesus actually has top stop the disciples from trying to destroy the whole, calling fire down on them like Elijah.
There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ Samaritan.
Elsewhere Jesus tells his disciples not to bother traveling through Samaritan territory.
And elsewhere still when Jesus tells his disciples not to waste their words or deeds on anyone but the House of Israel, it’s the Samaritans he’s got in mind.
If you’re a priest or a Levite or an ordinary Jew or even a disciple, there’s no such thing as a ‘good’ Samaritan.
– – – – – – – – – – –
So if Jesus’ point to the lawyer and his listeners is that eternal life comes by serving the poor and the suffering, then Jesus wouldn’t have cast a Samaritan as the savior in his story- someone that no one in his audience, not even his twelve disciples, would stomach as a hero.
If Jesus’ point were a moralistic one, that our salvation hangs on how we serve others, then Jesus should’ve made the Samaritan the man in the ditch where at least he’d be a victim who appeals to our altruism.
If you’re listening to Jesus’ story 2,000 years ago, there’s no such thing as a ‘good’ Samaritan.
– – – – – – – – – – –
That’s where assuming that we’re the Samaritan makes us deaf to the point of the parable and blind to the heart of the Gospel.
The Gospel is not that if we serve the suffering selflessly we’ll be saved.
The Gospel is that when we were in the ditch and could not save ourselves God lifted us up in Jesus Christ and brought us home to the Father.
So you see- we’re not the Samaritan in the story.
Jesus makes the savior in the story a Samaritan because the point of Jesus’ parable is that Jesus is the savior.
Christ is the savior.
Christ is the one we despised, like a Samaritan.
Christ is the one we rejected and condemned, like a Samaritan.
Christ is the one we crucified.
And Christ is the one who nonetheless stoops down, lifts us up and puts us on our feet again.
The one who who takes off his outer robe and washes our soiled feet and wounded places.
The one who rides into town on a donkey but because of how bad off we are, he comes all the way down to pick us up and, like a servant, bears us as his burden.
The one who carries us away from punishment no matter what it costs him, who brings forth life when death seemed a sure thing, and who promises to return one day to settle accounts.
Christ is the only Good Samaritan.
And if you want to know salvation, to have eternal life, it starts with recognizing that in Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh became our Neighbor to rescue us from death.
What it means to love God and love our Neighbor is to love Jesus Christ.
Now if I wanted to avoid any more church-line confrontations or grouchy emails, then I could leave you with those two sermons; so that, most of you would leave here feeling you’d heard your version of the Gospel, red or blue.
The problem with those two sermons is that they both avoid the scandal of Jesus’ parable.
If I was going to preach a third sermon, one that didn’t try to make anyone happy or worry who it made uncomfortable, then I might begin that sermon with a bit of trivia: how in Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it and littered it with the remains of human corpses- either bodies they dug up or killed.
So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised and ostracized.
They weren’t just considered heretics.
They were considered enemies.
If I was going to preach a third sermon, I might use that tidbit to point how none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve identified with the Samaritan.
All of them would’ve identified with the man in the ditch- an ordinary Jew. That is, everyone but the lawyer.
If I was going to preach a third sermon, I might tell you to notice how the lawyer starts out by asking ‘Who is my neighbor?’ but by the end of the story Jesus turns it around and asks him ‘Which of these three was a neighbor to the man in the ditch?’
In other words, the lawyer thinks of himself as someone who can speculate casually about heaven because he pretty much has everything else in his life worked out.
Yet Jesus casts him as the one in the ditch, desperate and dying, a neighbor in need of rescue.
And his salvation comes from the last person he’d ever want it.
If I was going to preach a third sermon, one that didn’t care who it upset, then I’d make it plain to all you social justice Christians that Jesus’ parable isn’t a moralistic story meant to inspire us to serve the needy.
It’s meant to show us, in our puffed-up self-images, that we’re the ones in desperate need of rescue.
And I’d make it plain to all you personal savior Christians that Jesus’ parable isn’t meant simply to proclaim that salvation comes through Christ.
It’s meant to reveal how the savior God sends us comes in the form of a despised enemy.
And if I didn’t care how that sermon was received, then I might point out how the problem with the blue, social justice Gospel is that it too often treats us as benefactors and the poor as objects of charity, instead of regarding them as brothers and sisters who are in the very same ditch as us and who might be able to help us too.
And I might point how the problem with the red, personal savior Gospel is that it fails to appreciate how our Savior comes to us in the form of the enemy, and so it fails to look for Christ in the faces of our enemy. And if we do not look for Christ in the faces of our enemies then we can never hope to love them.
If I were to preach a third sermon, then I might bring it home by explaining that when Jesus says ‘Go and do,’ he’s saying ‘go, and seek the face of your Savior in the faces of your enemies.’
That when Jesus says ‘Go and do,’ he’s saying ‘Go, and realize you’re weak and impoverished and in need of rescue- because only then can you treat the poor not out of pity or obligation but from a recognition of your own plight and out of gratitude that you’ve been rescued.’
Of course, if I preached a sermon like that, a Gospel that was neither red nor blue, I’d have to be ready for your “feedback” at the church door or in my inbox. I’d have to be ready for you to say you didn’t like that message.
And I’d have to be ready with a reply, something pithy but disarming.
Something like: ‘Well, of course you shouldn’t like it. After all, we killed Jesus because of stories like this.”