Faith Without Walls: Not in Control

Luke 10:29-37 (The Good Samaritan)

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

I want to start out with a little experiment. Close your eyes – imagine a bright and shiny afternoon. Birds in the air. A nice cool breeze. You see a dad driving down the road with his kids in the back seat. Smiling faces. Enjoying the beautiful day driving with the windows rolled down to feel the air. You can hear them singing your favorite song at the top of their lungs. The dad looks back at the kids for a second, so happy to share this moment with his kids. And as he turns his head back around to face the road … what happens next? Eyes open. How many said he crashes into a pole? Goes off a cliff? T boned by a truck? I’m sure there are lots of yesses out there – and lots of people too embarrassed to admit you thought the same thing.

Brene Brown is one of my favorite authors and researchers into human emotion – she calls this phenomenon catastrophizing. She says that she used to gaze upon her infant child and no matter how much joy and hope she would feel in that moment, her mind would also jump to worst case scenarios. What if the house catches fire tonight? What if a flood washes away the nursery? What if all sorts of horrible things happen? For a while, she felt like she must be a horrible mother because she couldn’t help but think about all these awful possibilities for her precious child. But her experience is far more common than not. The greater our sense of joy and hope in life, the greater the likelihood that we will experience the fear of everything coming crashing down.

In some ways fear is second nature to us. Humans, like most animals, are hardwired to run from danger. Scientists have actually done brain scans to help understand how we respond to various sounds or images. They’ve found that our brains are capable of sensing that something is wrong and initiating a fight, flight, or freeze response before our conscious mind has had a chance to figure out what’s going on. Our bodies can literally start turning to run before our brain knows what’s wrong.

This is an incredibly valuable skill to have … if you are fighting for survival on the plains of the Serengeti. If you see the grass begin to rustle, it’s a good idea to run the other way immediately. You don’t need to pause long enough to analyze whether or not there is a lion waiting to pounce on you. Just run. There is no downside to playing it safe. Of course, the people in this room pretty much never find ourselves on the Serengeti. Those hardwired survival skills don’t do us much good when it’s really just a family member or maybe the lawn guy we hear rustling in the grass.

We almost never need the same capability of split second decision making these days; but it remains a deeply wired part of who we are. Maybe flying down the freeway it comes in handy to have a great reaction time, but the problem arises when we view all of life through that very same self protective system. We have a tendency to look around and subconsciously run everything and every person through that same kind of filter – is this normal or not? Is that person safe or evil?

We often aren’t even conscious of the criteria we’re using to draw the dividing lines. When we have a gut feeling that we shouldn’t trust someone, it’s usually something our brain has noticed but can’t put into words. If you get the feeling that someone really can’t be trusted but can’t say why, it’s usually for the best to go with the feeling. We notice way more than we can put into words. But with this reality comes a responsibility. In a way, we are wired to assume that “not normal” is roughly the same as “evil and dangerous;” and at the same time Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Every time we encounter someone who looks and talks and acts differently than us, there will be a temptation to assume the worst; even if we aren’t consciously aware of why.

But if God is not locked up inside these walls; if God is already present and active in the lives of all God’s children; then we have to put in the work to discern the difference between danger and diversity. If I had to point to one single thing that has held the global Christian church back in the last few decades it might very well be this – we far too often simply equate difference with danger; change is the same thing as evil. I told you two weeks ago, I’m a third generation Aggie and at least a third generation Methodist. I love tradition and I don’t like change; but God is not locked up inside the walls of the way things have always been.

Our life together is better when all God’s children find a seat around the table of grace. Just because someone doesn’t look or think or talk or act like us, doesn’t mean we can simply write them off as an optional part of the family of God. In Jesus’s day, one of the most hated, most offensive, most out of bounds kind of people was the Samaritans. The Samaritans were just close enough to jewish that an outsider might confuse the two, but to the Jewish people of the day, samaritans were radical heretics. Saying Samaritan is the same thing as Jewish is about the same as saying Star Wars is the same as Star Trek. If you don’t know the stories, you might nod along and say they’re pretty much the same. If you’re a fan of either, your blood pressure probably just rose 10 points.

Yet it is a Samaritan who plays the hero in one of the most well known stories of scripture. Jesus was speaking to an almost entirely Jewish audience and he had the gall to make the Samaritan the hero and the Jewish leaders into an example of what not to do. Jesus told the story –

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. This was a treacherous, wilderness road that anyone in the audience would know about. There were winding roads and mountain sides that often provided cover for thieves. The fact that the man was beat up and left for dead would not have surprised anyone. What happened next is what might start a riot.

A priest passed by the man left for dead. Then a levite did the same. I’m sure they had their reasons. Plenty of us might very well wind up doing the same simply because we’d sense something is wrong and be afraid it could be some kind of elaborate set up. We might be busy or distracted or pressed for time. There’s no point in blaming the priest and the levite too much for passing by. The Samaritan’s response is clearly the real point of the story. A Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

This is where Jesus really starts stepping on toes. The samaritan bandaged his wounds, put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The Samaritan paid the stranger’s medical bill and told the innkeeper he’d pay the rest whenever he returned. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ If you paid any attention at all, the answer to Jesus’s question is obvious. The samaritan, the one who showed mercy to the beaten up man left for dead on the side of the road, that’s who the neighbor is.

Jesus said, go and do likewise. Already it should be clear that this is a world upside down kind of challenging call from Jesus. We are so busy that most of us don’t have time to stop and care for the people who need it most. We are so focused on where we’re going that few of us would even notice if there was someone on the side of the road in the first place. We are so fearful that many of us would just assume a hurting stranger was inherently too dangerous to help. And no matter what our individual situation – we all have a lot to learn from this good samaritan… we all could stand to show more mercy and compassion for the people in our day to day lives.

Being this kind of good samaritan is such a catchy image that even random news organizations will use the title. A stranger doing a random act of kindness is often called a good samaritan and is rightly given credit for going out of their way to help someone in need. If you hear this story and find in your heart a desire to act with more compassion and mercy like the good samaritan, then great! That is a calling from God on each of our lives and I would love to help you respond to that call and find more ways to serve.

But I have to also say that taking this lesson from the story; assuming that we just need to be more kind to strangers in need – doesn’t actually push us anywhere near as far as Jesus wants us to go. Be merciful to strangers is a crucial first step and a deeply challenging call in many ways. But it also has a way of assuming a faith behind the comfort of walls. That kind of message lets us be the one in control. It lets us be the one who gets to decide whether or not to help the stranger in need. It lets us be the one who risks nothing by choosing to give up a moment of our time and a bit of our strength and then move on with life as it was before.

Reading the story closely shows that Jesus has something much more challenging in mind. The story comes up because Jesus is asked by a lawyer what we must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked the lawyer what he read in the law. The lawyer said “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.’ So Jesus said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ This is where today’s reading picks up. The lawyer has given the right answer – in essence, Love God, Love Neighbor, and you will live. But, the lawyer asks, who is my neighbor?

Jesus tells the story of the good samaritan and leaves no ambiguity about who the neighbor is. The lawyer is taking our place to ask the question we’ve all thought about but don’t want to have to ask. Who is my neighbor, who are the people I am supposed to love? The neighbor is the good samaritan. Which means that we who ask the question are the guy left half dead in the ditch.

This is not just a challenge to be a little more kind. It’s hard to adequately draw the analogy to how offensive Jesus’s message would have been. The samaritans weren’t just annoyingly similar to the Jews. The samaritans were the ones who were polluting the purity of what it meant to be Jewish. They were the ones challenging the Jewish memory of the way things had always been. They had the audacity to say that God was not centered in Jerusalem.

As a nation we’re divided enough that I don’t feel comfortable trying to draw too clear an analogy to the offensive nature of a Samaritan. I’ll simply ask you imagine whoever it is that you see as the root of the problem. Who is it that is polluting what it means to be us? Who is perverting the good, right, and joyful way things ought to be? Who is removing God from the one place God is needed most? Jesus tells us that very person is our neighbor. That person might just be the one who is needed to save our lives. I cannot imagine a more challenging or offensive way for Jesus to make the point about loving a neighbor than the particular story he told.

When we try to love our neighbors from behind the safety of our church walls, we have this way of assuming that we are the ones who have everything the world needs and it is our job to go out and show them what they’ve been missing. We have all the answers, we have all the gifts, we have all the resources, we have all the power, we are in control. And our neighbors can take or leave what we have to offer. We never stop long enough to realize what it means that God isn’t locked up inside these walls. God’s love is bigger than the little boxes we draw.

We aren’t supposed to be the hero of the good samaritan story. We’re supposed to be half dead in the ditch, not in control, dependent on the generosity and gifts of our neighbor to keep us breathing, even if that neighbor is someone we instinctively despise. That is a fundamentally reversed approach to the work of the church. Faith without walls assumes that the gifts of our neighbors are just as valuable for our life together as anything we have to offer to them. Faith without walls assumes that our goal in sending out work teams isn’t just to fix houses; our goal is just as much to encounter the work that God is already doing through the lives of the neighbors we meet.

Faith without walls requires an incredible amount of trust in the Lord. We are not the point or center of God’s story any more than our neighbor who has not yet set foot in this building. Living with that kind of trust – encountering God in the wrong kind of person can be one of the most terrifying things we ever do. Fear so often arises before we even have the chance to form a conscious thought about another person. We see difference and are hard wired to assume it’s a lion on the serengeti. But so much more beauty is possible if we let go of fear and learn to trust.

Trusting in the Lord doesn’t mean that we come to know every right answer and every right strategy for what to do next. Trusting doesn’t mean that we will never doubt again. In fact, the opposite of trust is not doubt. The opposite of trust is control. Control is what happens when fear arises so we hold on tighter and strengthen our grip on the way things have always been inside the safety of our 4 walls. Trust is only possible when we give up control and learn how to accept that the gifts and experiences and hopes of all God’s children are just as valid as our own.

Our life together is better when we love our neighbors, near and far. It is better together when that love is not simply shown in token acts of kindness, but when we start to recognize that our very life depends on bringing the gifts of all God’s children to light. Faith without walls doesn’t lead us to act for others because we are in control. We act because God’s love bridges the gap to our heart and empowers us to do the same for our neighbors.

In a world that is increasingly based on fear of our differences, one of the most profound things we can do is join together in the sacrament of communion. This is a table to which all of God’s children are invited. We are not in control of who God will bring to the table. When someone different shows up it is one of the most human things possible to immediately respond in fear, to pull back, to assert control. Faith without walls requires that we don’t settle for fear and control; that we take the time to learn how to trust in what God is doing; that we hear the words of Jesus, knowing that sometimes it is the very person we hate the most that will be the one to save our life.

We are not the ones in control of the world. We are not the ones who have all the answers or all the gifts or all the power to bring God’s kingdom now. But we are invited to the table of grace where God will show up, where God offers strength for the journey, where all God’s children are made new. God changed everything, not by taking control through a mighty show of power but by giving up his very life to empower new life for us all.

 

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