Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Who is My Neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Do you know your neighbors?  A mother writes:  “While visiting a neighbor and her five-year-old son Andrew, Andrew pulled out his kindergarten class picture and immediately began describing each classmate. "This is Robert, he hits everyone. This is Stephen, he never listens to the teacher.  This is Sara, she never stops talking.  This is Mark, he chases us and is very noisy." Pointing to his own picture, Andrew commented, "And this is me.  I'm just sitting here minding my own business."

On the long running popular children's television show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, which aired for over 30 years, at the beginning of every episode, Fred Rogers would enter his house singing: “Won't you be my neighbor?”  Think about neighbors you have had over the years.   Have you had good relations with your neighbors?  Have you made an effort to help your neighbor?    Has your neighbor made an effort to get to know you? 

The parable of the Good Samaritan is about neighbors and arises out of a discussion between Jesus and a Pharisee.  “A lawyer stood up to put Jesus to the test - teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus knew he was trained in the law, so he asked the man: “What is written?”   The Pharisee answers: “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”   Jesus says: “Do this and you shall live.”   But the man asks a follow up question, “who is my neighbor?”  In other words, whom specifically am I supposed to love?  Where are the boundaries?  It’s a fair question.  In response, like he often did, Jesus tells a story.  

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.   It was called the Jericho road and had a fearful reputation.  It was nicknamed “The Bloody Pass”.   It was a dangerous stretch of rocky mountain road as we learned when our tour group traveled it in 1993.  It is a crooked, lonely, isolated seventeen mile trek dotted of caves.   Since the road was so often traveled by religious pilgrims and merchants, robbers hid in the caves waiting for their next victim.  Jesus would likely have taken this parable from real life events.

Who is my neighbor was a relevant question in Jesus’ day.   Were non-Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Persians, Syrians, whom Jews were forbidden to associate with by law neighbors?    Were Roman soldiers neighbors?   Were lepers neighbors?  Were Samaritans, who had a long history of enmity with Jews, neighbors?    It’s a relevant question today, don’t you think?   It raises complex issues about borders and immigration, and relationships with Muslims and strangers in need whom we encounter in our lives.  Not to mention the “I don't want to get involved” attitude which permeates our society today.

Jesus' answer is unequivocal, it's not the priest nor the Levite for both pass by the victim of violence who is lying on the side of the road.  It is the despised Samaritan who does the right thing, who stops to help a man who has been beaten by robbers.  The Samaritan proves to be the neighbor.

He shows compassion, kindness and concern.  He shows generosity of money and time.  He shows courage by stopping to help when the robbers could have still been in the area.     Does Jesus say he is a hero?  No, Jesus says he’s a neighbor.  This is what neighbors do; this is what being a neighbor means. 

I can think of at least three ways we too can be a neighbor to others and fulfill God's mandate.  I'm sure there are others that you could think of, but here are three examples.  

One is to be a neighbor indirectly and simply call for help or go and get help.  If you see someone in trouble, if you see someone stranded, rather than passing by, simply call 911 and let the authorities know that a person is in need of assistance.   From our point of view that may seem like a small thing, but from the point of view of someone in trouble, it is an answer to prayer.   I have made such calls at various times over the years as I'm sure you have as well.

Second, we can be a neighbor directly to someone in need or in trouble.  I think of the story about 10 year old Kevin Stephan of Lancaster, New York, who in 1999 was a bat boy for his brother's little-league baseball team.  During one game, a player who was warming up accidentally hit Kevin in the chest with a bat.  Kevin fell to the ground, unconscious.  His heart stopped beating.  Kevin says: "I remember that all of a sudden, I got hit in the chest with something, and I turned around and passed out."

Fortunately, a nurse whose son played on the team was able to revive him.  Kevin and his family later learned that the nurse, Penny Brown, was supposed to be at work that day, but had been given the day off at the last minute.

Seven years later, in January of 2006, the same nurse, Penny Brown, was eating at the Hillview Restaurant in Depew, New York, when she began to choke on her food.  "The food wasn't going anywhere, and I couldn't breathe," said Penny. "It was very frightening."  Patrons began screaming for someone to help. One of the restaurant employees, a volunteer firefighter, ran out from the back.  He wrapped his arms around the woman, applied the Heimlich maneuver, and saved the woman's life.

When the emergency was over, the patron and employee recognized each other. The person who saved Penny's life was 17-year-old Kevin Stephan, the same boy whom Penny had saved seven years earlier.

I also think of the story a couple of years ago of nine-year-old Chiara Rufus.  She had picked up the milk and bread her mother had sent her to buy.  As she left the store, a stranger was waiting outside in his car and asked, "Want a ride?"   Chiara refused and hurried toward home.   But then the stranger pulled up beside her and yelled, "Get in."  Afraid, the little girl climbed into the car.  At just that moment, Monique Williams, 34 years old, was driving home.  As she saw the young girl approach the car, she sensed that something was wrong.  A mother of three daughters, Monique as a little girl had also been approached by strange men who tried to lure her into cars.

Monique asked the man if he knew the little girl.  He said “yes.”  Then she asked Chiara, "Do you know him?"  Trembling, she said, "No."  Monique exploded: "You get out of the car!  Get out now!"  As the little girl jumped out, Monique maneuvered her vehicle in front of the stranger's car.  She began to yell: "You're wrong! You can't take a little girl!"

Within moments, the police arrived.  The same man had previously tried to lure kids into his car.  Police chief Gary Miguel said of Monique, "She saw something wrong and refused to look away."   Perhaps that's why Monique has two plaques in her living room.  One reads, "Civilian Commendation." The other: "To my guardian angel Monique Williams. I love you. Chiara Rufus."  Monique was truly a neighbor.

Third, we can also be a neighbor by acting to correct the underlying social conditions which have caused people to be hurt.  We seek to work against injustice by eliminating the conditions that hurt people's lives in order to bring about social justice.  We think of people like Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights movement and Caesar Chavez and the Farm Worker movement and Nelson Mandela in his fight against apartheid in South Africa

Ten years ago, Kirsten and Lee Hildebrand thought they knew where their lives were headed. They had just settled into their first home in a suburban community, where Kirsten practiced labor and employment law and Lee was working on a doctorate in counseling psychology. But when the couple attended Eastbrook Church, a nondenominational, inner-city Milwaukee church, they began to wonder: Did we settle down in the right place?  "Some of our friends thought we were totally nuts, but we felt led to move into an inner-city neighborhood."  Kirsten and Lee sold their suburban home and bought one in inner-city Sherman Park where neighbors take in the world from adjoining porches.   As the couple unpacked boxes, a question hung over them. "We knew we were led here for a purpose, but we didn't know why," says Lee.

Six months later, after they had remodeled their own home, the Hildebrand's noticed a foreclosure sign a few houses down. They tried, along with two of their neighbors to purchase it. The bid was unsuccessful, but their conversations during the process helped them identify a trend in their neighborhood—absentee landlords. "The landlords didn't care about the properties, didn't put the work in, let them deteriorate and then demanded high rent," Kirsten says,  "This isn't fair, everyone deserves a nice place to live. All humans do."

After many late-night conversations they decided to systematically purchase rundown houses, restore the beauty of the buildings, rent them affordably to the residents of their city, and hopefully change the trend. They registered their name as "City Ventures LLC" and brought their business plan to Legacy Bank.  The bank decided to invest and City Ventures bought a single-family house where they spent nights and weekends restoring it. The City Ventures partners juggled full-time jobs with the new worlds of plumbing, electrical work, rent collecting, and the realities of the inner city. The night could bring drug dealers into their construction sites. The morning light might reveal the scrawl of vandals on freshly painted walls or a pile of glass instead of new windows. But neither Kirsten nor Lee saw crime as the neighborhood's defining characteristic. "Ninety percent of the people are people who just want to live their lives."

Today, Sherman Park is a living illustration of the last six years of the Hildebrands' lives.  Seventy restored buildings boast colorful awnings and shutters, new bricks or siding…. "It's really exciting—the way we've started from a dream," Lee says. "We worked hard, and God's grace was at work with us. We give God all the credit. It's amazing how different the neighborhood is from six years ago."

Jesus calls us to broaden our circle of concern and increase our sensitivity and compassion for people in need around us.   It's easy to become emotionally detached, desensitized or callous to the needs of others.   Jesus says there really are no limits as to who is our neighbor in God’s family.    The command to love our neighbor is not to be interpreted in a narrow way.  Our neighbor is any person who is in need of love, any person who is in pain, any person to whom we can give life and hope through our presence or resources.   Jesus radically expanded the concept of neighbor.

A Christian truth is that one of the ways to strengthen our love for God is to love other persons.  When we love others, the love of God can flow in and through us in a free and unimpeded way.  God is able to give us greater wholeness of life, when we're sharing life in an unselfish way with others. 

Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?   The lawyer said: “The one who showed mercy on him.”  Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”  Amen

Friday, February 7, 2014

Come Unto Me (Matthew 11:28-30) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

You open your mail and surprise surprise there's an invitation.  What a joy it is to receive an invitation – to a birthday party, a super bowl party, an anniversary party, a graduation, or to a wedding.

In this morning's text Jesus utters perhaps the most tender and appealing words of his ministry:  “Come unto me!”  It is a gracious invitation.  These words have been immortalized in Handel's Messiah, in the famous aria in which Handel combines these words with others from the prophet Isaiah: "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd. Come unto him.”

What comes to your mind when you hear Jesus’ words?  How do you respond to Jesus’ invitation?   True, these words might sound hallow, empty to some: “No thanks Jesus, I've got it covered.”  

Pride can stop us cold.  It can shut out our hearing and accepting any offers of help. “A friend says, Hey, I'm sorry about what happened, but I'm here for you, you know that.  And you reply, thanks, but I'm fine, I don't need any help.”  Pride stops us from reaching out to others for support.  We're just too proud to say, "Jesus, I need help, I need you."

But when our hearts are receptive to Jesus words, we open ourselves to a whole new spiritual world.  When we can finally admit: “Lord, I can’t go it alone, I need you,”  Jesus’ words penetrate our hearts, they are a song in our soul, they are the most welcome and comforting and hopeful words in the world.  

Come unto me!   

“All who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens!” To be human is to carry burdens.   The question is not if we carry burdens, but when.  True, we carry different burdens and we handle them in different ways.  Burdens of guilt and shame,  burdens of stress, burdens of pain and hurt, burdens of failure, burdens of fear and anxiety, burdens of addiction, burdens of loneliness, burdens of resentment, jealousy and anger, burdens of low self-worth, burdens of feeling lost and aimless, burdens of a lack of meaning and purpose.  They come with parenting, friendship, marriage, divorce, being single, work, unemployment, illness, money problems, grief, and a crisis of faith.  Are you carrying a burden this morning?

Sometimes, even religion becomes a burden.  This was the context in which Jesus spoke to the people.  From the time the law was given to Moses, where God commanded the Jews to remember the Sabbath and rest from work, Jewish teachers had written hundreds of additional rules and regulations regarding Sabbath observance – the time between sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  The Hebrew word Sabbath means “rest.”  

But it was difficult to rest when you were worried about not breaking any of the religious rules.  For example on the sabbath you couldn't work: you couldn't carry anything, you could only walk a certain number of steps, you couldn't cook, you couldn't talk about business,  and you couldn’t help people or rescue animals – because that was work and the command was to rest.   Yes, anything, even religion, can become a burden.

Jesus continues: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart."  This morning, right now, Jesus is personally extending an invitation to you.  Jesus who is gentle and humble offers support, encouragement and an opportunity to learn from him.   Do you find it surprising that Jesus offers tired, burdened people a yoke?  When we are burdened we need an escape, a holiday, a party, a vacation, a trip to Disneyland, not a yoke. 

What does Jesus offer with this invitation? He offers to ease their strain, to lift their burden, to shoulder their load, to give them rest, to release them, to set them free.  Nobody else can do that but Christ, for he is portrayed in the New Testament as the supreme burden-bearer. He bore our burden of sin by His sacrificial death on the cross. " "Behold the Lamb of God who lifts up and bears away the sin of the world."

Jesus offers us a new kind of yoke.  Jesus likens the crowds he was addressing to oxen struggling to move while carrying a crushing load.  Jesus is referring to an agricultural method that was common in the first century. A yoke is the piece of equipment that binds the ox to the plow.  Whenever a young ox needed to be trained, he would be attached to the yoke of an older ox. The older ox would pull the yoke and the younger ox would follow in his footsteps and learn all the steps, even though he wasn't actually pulling any of the load.

Jesus is saying: “Yoke yourself to me.  Let me help you carry the load and I will  lead you and teach you how to live."  "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."   Jesus' words call to mind the poem Footsteps in the Sand.”

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.  Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.  In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there were one set of footprints. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to the Lord, ‘You promised me Lord that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there have only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?’ The Lord replied, ‘The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand, is when I carried you.”

And Jesus concludes his invitation – “I will give you rest.  You will find rest for your souls.”  What a comforting word -  Rest.  Do you get enough rest?  Are you tired – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?   Rest is indispensable.  We need rest in life.  Request is required to live.

Philip Melancthon, a 16th Century Reformed theologian, once said to his friend Martin Luther, “This day you and I will discuss the governance of the universe.” Luther said in response: “This day you and I will go fishing and leave the governance of the universe to God.” 

What does Jesus mean by "rest for your souls"? The Greek word here literally means “an intermission.”  Jesus makes a promise, he says: “If you accept my invitation; you will have an intermission, a respite, a reprieve, a break from the day-to-day struggles of everyday life.  You will experience spiritual renewal, relief, refreshment, a time of peace.”  

It takes humility to say: "Jesus, I' have run out of options, I need your power and your strength.”  When you arrive at that moment, where you can acknowledge your need for Him, Jesus will offer to yoke you to His YOKE and you will find rest.

In 2008 the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl due to a spectacular catch made by Giants receiver David Tyree.  Quarterback Eli Manning threw what looked like a desperate pass. Tyree somehow jumped high above defensive coverage, picked the ball out of the air, pinned it to his helmet, and fell to the ground for a completion. The Giants went on to win the game, 17–14.

In the wake of his new fame, Tyree has talked openly about a troubled past. He started drinking when he was in junior high. By his junior year in high school, he was regularly consuming 40 ounces of malt liquor and a half a pint of Jack Daniel's.  It was not uncommon for him to smoke marijuana in the same sitting. The habits continued throughout his college career.

After Tyree was arrested for selling drugs to pay off a fine he had incurred during his rookie season with the Giants, his pregnant girlfriend threatened to leave him. "I had no peace," Tyree says. "My life was obviously in disarray." When he picked up a Bible and read its message of redemption, he knew things would turn around. He decided to never drink again and started attending church for the first time in a long time. Tyree is now sober, married, and a Super Bowl hero.  Looking back on his life thus far, Tyree says, "It's more than just a feel-good story. It's about destiny and purpose."  I will give you rest, Jesus promises.

I close with Jesus word's from the contemporary language of The Message.  “Come to me.  Get away with me and you'll recover your life.  I'll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me, watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won't lay anything heave or ill fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Are you trying to live without God's help?   Jesus invitation is before you – “Come unto me.” Let us prepare our hearts to come to the Lord’s Table.  Amen!