“Welcome to the Neighborhood”

Meditation on Luke 10: 10:25–37

July 10, 2016

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

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 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

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He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

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    He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

      But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

       Jesus 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.

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Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

 

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So likewise a Levite when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

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But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

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He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them.

 

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Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

 

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The 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.’

 

 

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   Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

    He said, “The one who showed him kindness.”

     Jesus said to him, “Do this and you shall live.”

 

***

We sat around tables in the fellowship hall, like we usually did, after worship on Sunday about, oh, 15 months ago. I was serving a church in rural Minnesota. A man, who was not usually unkind, started telling jokes about Native Americans. Some of his audience, lingering over black coffee and cookie bars, wore guilty smiles. Some let out loud guffaws, while sending me sideways glances. They knew how I felt. They were not pleased with the mission trip I was planning with another church to Spirit Lake Tribal Nation last August.

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We were planning to teach an Outback-themed VBS at a community center and serve one full meal and snacks each day. Native Americans living on Reservations have some of the worst levels of poverty and unemployment in America;

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they report the highest rates of substance abuse and dependence of any ethnic group; 46% of Native American women have been victims of abuse.

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Children often live in single parent households or the parents are absent altogether–having left the Reservation; many grandparents are raising grandchildren.

Local churches on the Reservation, in nearby Devil’s Lake, ND, and in other parts of the country are responding to this mission field, reaching out with love and kindness, supplying food, clothing, toys and school supplies, friendship and faith–revealing the God of mercy who sent His Son to redeem and heal a broken world.

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We learned of these ministry opportunities at Spirit Lake Indian Reservation through the PC(USA) Website and Joe Obermeyer, a youth pastor from Bdecan Presbyterian Church, one of the churches on the Reservation.

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Few families on the Reservation of about 6,600 people attend church, but parents will drop their kids off for VBS. They see it as a safe place, free food for their kids, and “free daycare.” I had never led a mission trip or VBS before going to Spirit Lake. But when we learned of the children in need, the 20 or so people on our mission team who traveled to the Reservation were moved to compassion! We had to DO something to bring hope and joy and the peace of Christ.

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We were determined to go, despite the disapproval of some who didn’t believe that VBS on an Indian Reservation would make a difference. It was a waste of time and money that could spent in their own community.

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When we arrived at the Tokio community center where we would host VBS, members of Devil’s Lake Presbyterian church showed up with a picnic meal after our 6 to 8 hour drive. But I looked around at the un-air-conditioned building, the flies, the dirt, and the mugshots of local sex offenders barred from the premises, and I had my misgivings.

I thought, “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

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***

The Good Samaritan story is perhaps one of the most familiar passages of the New Testament. It has become a cliché. Everybody knows that a Good Samaritan is someone who comes to the aid of a stranger. Sermons often focus on the stranger who helps the Jewish man, who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead by the side of the road.

 

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The one who helps is of a faith, culture and ethnic group that happens to be an enemy of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time. Obviously, this point is important to Luke because the word for Samaritan is placed at the beginning of the Greek sentence for emphasis. The noun (subject) usually follows the verb and can even be at the end of the sentence or omitted altogether. Jews and Samaritans begin their mutual contempt in the 8th century BCE when the Assyrian conquest of Israel leads to the forced migration of foreign peoples into Samaria, the ancient capital, now on Israel’s West Bank.

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We see evidence of the adversarial relationship in the chapter that precedes this passage. In Luke 9, a Samaritan town refuses to receive Jesus on his way to Jerusalem; James and John want to call down fire from heaven on them, but Jesus rebukes them. (9:51-56). Some preachers focus on the self-absorbed, uncaring so-called religious people who pass by the suffering man and do nothing.

 

 

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What intrigues me is why Jesus is saying all this–and what it means for us! He is speaking not with his disciples, but a hostile man called a “lawyer” in the NRSV, but he is really a scribe– an expert in the interpretation of Mosaic law. He knows the Torah! We know he’s hostile because in verse 25 he stands up “to test” Jesus, asking a question that puzzles me.

 

 

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Friends, what do we have to do to “inherit” anything? Nothing! It’s a gift from a relative after they die. It’s a trick question, an open challenge to the authority and insight of this Galilean without any credentials as a “Teacher” of the law, which is exactly what the man calls Jesus, probably without sincerity! Jesus answers with a question. “What is written in the law (the Torah)? What do you read there?” Or as some translators say, “How do you read it?” The scribe answers with 2 verses from the Torah, connected and slightly changed. He adds dianoia — “mind” to Deut. 6:5, the command to love God with all heart, soul and might. And then he leaves out part of Leviticus 19:18, which is, in full, 18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Yes, that specific verse does refer to loving your own kin and community–which is the scribe’s point, when he asks Jesus, trying to “justify” himself by only caring about his own people, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answers by telling a story of a man moved by compassion to give of himself, his time, and his possessions for a man who isn’t his kin or from his community, a man that the scribe would think of as his enemy. Then Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The scribe answers, “The one who showed kindness.” “Do this,” Jesus commands, “and you shall live.”

What is the whole point of this exchange between Jesus and the know- it-all-scribe? Jesus wants to teach the hostile man that to love God and neighbor and to walk in the path of eternal life means being kind and compassionate to all. Jesus is also teaching us –and all the generations who hear God’s Word and take it to heart–to be kind and show compassion to all people. And just as importantly, Jesus is urging us to model and teach kindness and compassion to those who are hostile to the radical inclusivity of the gospel. The love and grace of God aren’t just for white people, Americans, Christians, English speakers, heterosexuals and people of a certain political party. John 3:16 assures us that God’s gift of eternal life through His Son is for ALL the world that God so loves!

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The question is never, “Who is my neighbor?” For everyone is our neighbor, especially someone who needs our help, someone whom God places in our path. The question is always, “How can I be a neighbor and show love and compassion, like Christ has shown for me?”

 

***

The first day of our VBS at Spirit Lake was pretty much a disaster–or at least it felt that way. The children were wild, unruly and uncooperative. They wouldn’t sit still. They wouldn’t sing. They were used to running around and playing with balls in the space that we had turned into centers for music, games, crafts and Bible. The only thing they seemed to be interested in was eating. They were hungry! We never had leftovers, not even salad! The kids ate everything on their plates or they took their plates and drinks home with them, carrying them around till it was time to go.

But on the second day, things changed. Maybe we had changed in our expectations. Maybe the Lord was just testing our faith. All the children came back. And more came! We served more than 50 children over 4 days, ending the program with a family program and ice cream social. The children came in like little lambs, put on their nametags without a fuss, and waited in line, without pushing and shoving.

We met the children at the door, surprising them by greeting them by name, with affection, despite their unruliness the day before. They responded to the simple kindness and generosity of strangers, who talked funny, had different colored hair and really white skin–or at least, some of us did. They hugged, laughed and sang with us, eagerly memorized their Bible verse with the motions and volunteered to recite it. They held our hands and climbed into our laps and onto the shoulders of their crew leaders. Yes, praise God, it was, “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

 

 

 

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Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we praise you for the work you are doing in our hearts and lives! Thank you for Jesus and for your Spirit that convicts us of our sin of prejudice. Forgive us for being unkind to even our own kin and community and our lack of compassion for people of different faiths and cultures that may frighten or bewilder us. Forgive us for holding onto our money and possessions, rather than using all that we are and all that we have to build up your Kingdom and your Church. Help us to love you with all heart, soul, mind and might. Lead us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to change the world with our words and deeds– so that the oppressed go free, and children are nurtured in your ways –and never go hungry for food or love. Let justice flow down like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

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“Go, Wash in the Jordan”

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Meditation on 2 Kings 5:1-14

July 3, 2016

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

 

 

 

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Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, was a leper.

 

 

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Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’

So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, ‘Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’ He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.’ But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.

 

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Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’

 

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     But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’

 

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He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean”?’ So he went down and immersed (dipped) himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

 

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Jim and I watched one of my favorite movies this week– “The Princess Bride.” The 1987 classic begins with an elderly man reading the fairy tale, “The Princess Bride,” to his young grandson, home sick from school. At first, the boy can’t tear himself away from his video game to listen to the tale, but he becomes more interested after his grandpa promises “sports” in the story– “fencing, fighting, torture, murder, pirates, revenge, true love and miracles.”

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Once upon a time, a beautiful maiden, Buttercup, and Wesley, a poor farm boy, fall in love. He leaves the village to find his fortune, planning to return and marry her.

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But the Dread Pirate Roberts attacks Wesley’s ship, Buttercup learns, leaving no survivors. She grieves and vows to never love again. Then, evil Prince Humperdink, chooses Buttercup to be his wife.

 

 

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But he hires 3 men –Inigo, Vizzini, and Fezzik–to start a war by kidnapping and killing her and blaming another kingdom for her death.

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Wesley, who masquerades as the Dread Pirate Roberts, returns just in time to save Buttercup.

 

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But the Prince captures him and sends him to be tortured in the Pit of Despair. Inigo and Fezzik go looking for Wesley to help them avenge Inigo’s father, who was killed 20 years before by a 6-fingered man.  They find Wesley, but he’s already dead. Not giving up, they take him to Miracle Max, and give him all the money they have (which isn’t much) to restore him to life.

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Max agrees when he learns that it will mean humiliation for Humperdink, who fired Max.

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Max and his wife, Valerie (Carol Kane), make a magic pill for Inigo and Fezzik to give to Wesley. “The chocolate coating makes it down easier,” Valerie says. “But you have to wait 15 minutes for full potency…And you shouldn’t go in swimming after at least…” “An hour,” Max finishes.

 

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“Have fun storming the castle!” they say, waving to Inigo, Fezzik and the still unconscious Wesley. Valerie asks Max, “Do you think it’ll work?” Max says, “It’ll take a miracle.”

 

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But everything works out perfectly, because it’s a fairy tale. After some adventures and misadventures, Buttercup is saved from the evil prince. The miracle pill restores Wesley’s health. Inigo’s father is avenged. Buttercup and Wesley and their friends ride off into the sunset–to live happily ever after.

***

A miracle is what the great Aramean warrior, Naaman, needs in our reading in 2 Kings today. What is startling, right away, is learning that the one who desires healing and seeks it in Israel’s God is Israel’s archenemy. Naaman, which means “fair” or “gracious,” is the commander of the army of Aram, also called Syria.

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Aram was one of Noah’s grandsons and one of Shem’s sons (Gen. 10-11).

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The two kingdoms that are almost continually in conflict are experiencing a rare peace when the “young girl” captured in a raid from “the land of Israel” and made to serve Naaman’s wife wants to help the one responsible for her capture and enslavement! She is the one who has faith in the God of Israel and God’s prophet Elisha–not the king of Israel. We don’t know exactly when this miracle took place, since neither the king of Aram (Syria) or Israel is identified.

Naaman is called “a leper,” but we aren’t sure what his skin disease actually was–or its severity. He doesn’t appear to be suffering from the “leprosy” that is known today as Hansen’s disease, which causes pain, widespread infection of the joints, eventual loss of limbs and gross disfigurement. He is not forced to live in quarantine. He isn’t ritually unclean or subject to the regulations of Lev. 13. Naaman learns of Elisha in Samaria indirectly from his wife, who listens to her young servant. Naaman, without hesitation, it seems, approaches his king with this information and the king of Aram, writes a letter for Naaman to take to the king of Israel. Strangely, the king of Aram fails to mention the prophet in the letter, and the king of Israel doesn’t turn to Elisha for help. The king of Israel immediately jumps to the wrong conclusion, believing that the Syrian king is looking for an excuse to go to war.

Let’s consider the gift Naaman brings. One talent is about 32 kilograms; a shekel weighs about 30 milligrams. Naaman’s total gift would amount to about 340 kilograms of silver (about 749 pounds) and 90 kilograms (198 pounds) of gold. This is an enormous amount!! He would need an army of horses and chariots to carry this gift! This speaks of Naaman’s great wealth, his determination not to be ignored, his great desire to be healed, and his willingness to pay a steep price for it.

Naaman’s request and the king’s fearful response somehow reach Elisha, who is probably still in Gilgal (where he was in ch. 4) with his students. Elisha sends a messenger to the king, saying, “Let him come to me that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” Naaman, with his parade of horses and chariots and silver and gold, goes to Elisha’s house, but Elisha isn’t there!

 

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There’s only a messenger, who says, “Go wash in the Jordan 7 times!” This is not the reception or cure that the mighty warrior expected, desired, or felt he deserved.

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He wants a miracle like Miracle Max –a chocolate-coated, magic pill–so that he can have life, just as he imagines it to be without his disease. “Washing” in the Jordan is an insult to Naaman, who is quick to defend the rivers of his homeland. But this healing isn’t just about Naaman being cured of disease–it is about his being brought to the faith–his conversion to belief in the gracious, merciful God of Israel. Elisha sends him to the Jordan because of its significance for Israel– who crossed it to enter God’s Promised Land.

 

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Elijah and Elisha crossed the Jordan together before the Lord took Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind.

 

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In the New Testament, John will call sinners to repentance in the Jordan. Jesus will be baptized there to show us the way.

 

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Just like at the beginning of today’s passage in 2 Kings, we find, at the end, that those with great faith and wisdom are those with the lowest status! When the mighty warrior turns away from Elisha’s messenger in a rage, his servants muster the courage to approach and ask, ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean”?’  The miracle is that Naamann listens–and his heart is moved to obey. He immerses or “dips” himself in the Jordan 7 times–and his healing is complete. The verb translated “immerse” or “dip” is unusual in the Old Testament, often referring to objects dipped in blood. Even when it refers to objects dipped in water (such as 2 Kings 8:15) or in other liquids (Deut. 33:24 and 1 Sam. 14:27), it is not a synonym for “washing.” His flesh is “restored like the flesh of a young boy”– language that brings us back to the young, innocent child at the beginning of his story, caught between the two warring kingdoms–the Israeli slave who stirred Naaman to search for his cleansing of body and soul, though he didn’t know it at the time. What Naaman needed more than anything was to be made whole.

Friends, we may be tempted to approach God like he’s Miracle Max in a fairy tale, wanting the magic, chocolate-coated pill that goes down easy and sweet–so everything can be how we want it to be–perhaps as things used to be, when we were younger. And we can be prideful and stubborn like Naaman–and stop listening to God’s word because it isn’t what we want to hear. We may end up making things more difficult for ourselves than they have to be. We may even miss out on the healing work God has planned for us and the opportunity to witness to God’s amazing power–and our own obedience to him.

After Naaman is healed, he returns to “the man of God,” in verse 15, and stands before him with all his horses and chariots and men. And Naaman says, “Now I know…” “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, save for Israel.” Naaman’s extravagant gifts are not needed. The Lord’s gift of wholeness–body and soul–is not something that can be bought or earned. But God’s mercy and grace should stir a heart-felt response in us, as Naaman’s healing does for him. The mighty warrior and former enemy of Israel vows to build an altar in his homeland of Aram so that he can worship and serve the One True God. Think of the witness that this man of great reputation will have in enemy territory! Think of all the conversions and healings that will come!

The words of the prophet stir us today to recall our baptisms, when we first tasted the Spirit-filled life and began to listen for God’s voice.

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Let us heed God’s call to love and serve with fresh commitment, not expecting a fairy tale life and “happily ever after” but simply to live in grateful obedience to the Lord. “Go, wash in the Jordan! Wash and be made whole!”

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Let us pray.

 

Holy One, thank you for your Spirit that continues to fill us, guide us, and wash us clean from all our sins! Thank you for our baptisms and for the way you continually respond to our cries for healing–and your desire to make us whole. Father, we are in need of your healing now for our bodies and souls! Forgive us for our stubbornness and pride wanting you to work in us and our lives the way we want you to do. Humble us and make us grateful for the miracles we experience and witness every day. Stir us to respond with loving service to you and your people, like the lowly servants in your Word. In Christ we pray. Amen.