The journey towards the neighbor

File:Maximilien Luce - Le bon samaritain.jpg

The Gospel from last Sunday, the 2nd Sunday in Advent in 2018, was Luke 3:1-18, combining the Gospel readings for both the second and third Sundays in Advent. For an introduction to this Sunday see the post “And us? What should we do?

I want us to keep in mind, this morning, where we are in Luke’s Gospel. The passage we just read is from chapter three when John and Jesus are now adults. It begins the main section of Luke’s account of God’s work in Jesus.

I would remind you that Luke didn’t write his work in chapters. The chapter breaks were added at the beginning of the 13th century and the verse numbers don’t appear until the 16th century. For Luke this is one continuous account. It was meant to be read as a whole and not cut up into little pieces like we tend to do.

Reading the Gospels in these little fragments needs to be like an old movie you have watched again and again. When you know a movie so well, it’s possible to talk about just one scene, because you know where we are in the whole movie. If you don’t know the movie, the scene may be compelling, but we don’t understand all that it means.

I like the image of saying that somewhere along the way, we broke up the pearl necklace of the gospel into a box of pearls and lost track of its overall beauty. To make matters worse, we had four beautiful necklaces and lumped all the pearls and precious stones into one big box. The problem with the metaphor, of course, is that it still tends to look at the gospel stories as separate pieces when they are better understood as part of a whole – like scenes in a movie.

Because we have four “movies” of Jesus, when we talk about one of these individual scenes we sometimes loose track of which movie we are talking about. So I want to remind you where we are now in Luke’s “movie”. Luke’s story is the one with Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. It tells the story of the shepherds and all heaven singing (it doesn’t tell us the story of the magi, the wise men). Luke is the Gospel with the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s in Luke that Jesus tells us the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s in Luke we hear about the rich man who ignored Lazarus at his gate. Luke is the Gospel where Jesus on the cross prays for the soldiers saying, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” It’s Luke who tells us about the women who followed Jesus. And it’s Luke who tells us not only about the mission of the twelve during the life of Jesus, but the mission of the seventy.

And Luke’s story doesn’t stop with the resurrection; he tells us of the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the mission of those first followers. He tells us about the baptism of Samaritans and the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. He tells us how Paul participated in the murder of Stephen for blasphemy, and was then met by the risen Lord on his way to Damascus. It tells the story of Paul’s journeys to spread the message about Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world, and his eventual arrest in Jerusalem and transfer to Rome to have his case heard by the emperor

This is the movie we are talking about. It’s a powerful movie. And I want to emphasize again that it’s in this movie from Luke that we get the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Lazarus and the Rich Man. It’s also here we get this message from John when his listeners ask him “What then shall we do?” and John says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

As I wrote in the blog post at Watching for the Morning earlier this week, “The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.”

So, where are we are we, today, in Luke’s Gospel? Luke has opened his narrative with the account of the wondrous events that reveal God’s hand in the birth of Jesus. Zechariah is a priest who is chosen by lot to go into the temple and tend the candles and the incense. In the scriptures, things that happen through the religious practice known as casting lots are understood to have been directed by God. So Zechariah is chosen by God to go into the interior of the temple. There he is met by the heavenly messenger, Gabriel, who tells him that his wife, Elizabeth, will have a child. This is a wondrous thing, because Zechariah and his wife are old and barren – and so Luke’s story begins like the Old Testament with the story Abraham and Sarah and the promise of a child. The story of Jesus is going to fulfill the story of Israel. And this is one of the deep themes of the scripture: When it seems like there is no future, God creates a future.

Zechariah, however, doesn’t trust the message of the angel and asks for a sign. The sign the angel gives him is that he will not be able to speak until the child is born. (The song we sang today, by the way, are those first words Zechariah said after the child is born and Zechariah obeys the angel by naming him John.)

Six months after Elizabeth gets pregnant, Gabriel comes again – this time to Mary and announces that she will have a child and she is to name him Jesus. “He will be great,” says the angel, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary trusts the angel’s message an offers herself to God’s service.

Gabriel also tells Mary that Elizabeth is pregnant and Mary goes to visit her. At their encounter, Elizabeth’s child leaps for joy in her womb, and Mary sings that beautiful song we know as the Magnificat (that’s the song we will sing next week). In that song, Mary talks about God’s righting of the world. The powerful will be cast down from their thrones and the poor lifted up. The hungry will be filled with good things and the rich elites sent away empty.

After this, John is born and Zechariah sings his prophetic song. (Poetry in the ancient world was understood to be divinely inspired.) Then Jesus is born and the heavens sing and the good news is proclaimed to lowly shepherds. This child is for the poor.

Mary and Joseph go up to the temple to keep their religious obligations after the birth of Jesus. When they arrive, Simeon is guided to them by the Holy Spirit and he sings a song: “Lord, now let you servant go in peace according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” This child is for the whole world.

The 84-year-old prophetess, Anna, sees the child and begins “to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” That word redemption is important. It says the city and nation have become prisoner to greed, wealth and power – and God will buy it back, God will gain it’s freedom, God will make it God’s own again. Indeed it is the whole world that God has come to reclaim.

The child, Jesus, grows “full of wisdom and the favor of God,” and we get one story that gives evidence of Jesus’ destiny: at the age of twelve, Jesus travels with the family to Jerusalem for Passover (remember it’s at Passover when Jesus is crucified and raised). When the village caravan leaves, Jesus is left behind. His parents go back to find him, and they find him after three days! Jesus is in the temple among the teachers, and he answers his parent’s fear and anxiety by saying: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

The whole narrative to this point is filled with anticipation, with signs from God, with prophetic words, with grace to the poor and promises of the healing and transformation of the world. And then we hear our text for this morning: Into this world ruled by Imperial Rome and its client kings, priests, and rulers, God’s mighty, transformative Word comes to John in the wilderness. Beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness where long ago Israel had been made ready to enter the Promised Land, John calls the people to a new allegiance to God’s reign.

I was tempted to talk about who all these people are and what these names represent to Luke’s hearers – but it’s enough to just say this: Luke’s people live in the aftermath of the Judean war with Rome and these names all represent the people and powers that led them to destruction. Rome is not the great and glorious empire; it is the oppressive regime that crushed the nation. Annas and Caiaphas are not great spiritual leaders, but the high priests who were in bed with Rome and held a vice grip on power and wealth in Jerusalem for half a century. Into this broken world the Word of God comes to announce the dawning of a new governance.

John announces “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” a washing in the river Jordan to signify a new beginning for Israel. It is a baptism of ‘repentance’ meaning a washing that signifies a new allegiance to God. And it is a baptism for ‘the forgiveness of sins’ meaning that God foregoes God’s right to seek satisfaction for all their offenses against God.

The imagery is of Israel starting over, going out into the wilderness and coming anew into the promised land. But with this new beginning, John warns the people to bear the fruit that is appropriate to God’s reign.

These words of John are not just about John and the people out there at the Jordan River. These are words for all of us. This is what it means to show allegiance to God’s transformation of the world. This is what it means to be ready for the Christ. “The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.”

And the journey toward the neighbor is not only sharing bread; it is about love of neighbor. It is about seeing others as members of your own household. It is about seeing their humanity, about seeing your connection with one another and living out that connection.

I want to tell you again a story about two soup kitchens in Detroit. One was at a large, beautiful old church on Jefferson Avenue on the East Side of Detroit. It was a very blighted area at the time, yet right on the edge of a very wealthy suburb called Grosse Pointe.

The members of that congregation wanted to serve their community so they set up a soup kitchen. The members of the congregation were all white; the people they were feeding were all African–Americans. The doors of the building were locked while they cooked the food and set the tables. At the appointed time they opened the doors and the people filed in down the stairs into the basement. White folks stood behind the counter and dished out the food. The black folks sat down at the tables, ate it, and filed out.

It was important; people were getting fed. But on the other side of town there was another soup kitchen where they opened the doors in the afternoon when the first person arrived to start cooking. People from the neighborhood would drift in and help in the kitchen and set up chairs and tables, and have coffee as others came. When it was time to eat everyone sat down together and ate as one community. The second soup kitchen was a community meal where they knew each other’s names – or had the chance to learn them.

The journey to God is a journey to the neighbor. And the journey to the neighbor is not just an outward act of care; it is about seeing all others as members of your own household. It is about knowing that people have names and a story that matters.

There was a third soup kitchen in Detroit. The woman who was the heart of this soup kitchen was virtually blind. She was in the kitchen in the church basement preparing that night’s soup when she heard a terrific roar. The roof of the church had collapsed in on the sanctuary above her. After they dug her out, she said, “I knew something happened and figured you’d find me, so I just kept making soup.” They hauled out the tables from the basement and served soup for the community on the sidewalk. And in the days after they continued to cook in the basement and eat out on the sidewalk.

“The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.” The woes of the world are many, but we just keep making soup.

Amen

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If you’d like to know or follow up on some of the references in the message from Sunday, here are some of the links:

Because we have four “movies” of Jesus, when we talk about one of these individual scenes we sometimes loose track of which movie we are talking about. So I want to remind you where we are now in Luke’s “movie”. Luke’s story is the one with Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. It tells the story of the shepherds and all heaven singing (it doesn’t tell us the story of the magi, the wise men). Luke is the Gospel with the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s in Luke that Jesus tells us the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s in Luke we hear about the rich man who ignored Lazarus at his gate. Luke is the Gospel where Jesus on the cross prays for the soldiers saying, Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” It’s Luke who tells us about the women who followed Jesus. And it’s Luke who tells us not only about the mission of the twelve during the life of Jesus, but the mission of the seventy.

And Luke’s story doesn’t stop with the resurrection; he tells us of the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the mission of those first followers. He tells us about the baptism of Samaritans and the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. He tells us how Paul participated in the murder of Stephen for blasphemy, and was then met by the risen Lord on his way to Damascus. It tells the story of Paul’s journeys to spread the message about Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world, and his eventual arrest in Jerusalem and transfer to Rome to have his case heard by the emperor.

This is the movie we are talking about. It’s a powerful movie. And I want to emphasize again that it’s in this movie from Luke that we get the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Lazarus and the Rich Man. It’s also here we get this message from John when his listeners ask him “What then shall we do?” and John says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

As I wrote in the blog post at Watching for the Morning earlier this week, “The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maximilien_Luce_-_Le_bon_samaritain.jpg Maximilien Luce [Public domain]

 

Blessings

File:Harvest (13429504924).jpg

Saturday

Psalm 67

1May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
2that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.

We all want God to bless us. We want God to bless our homes and our children. We want God to bless our tables and our jobs. We want God to grant us prosperity and peace. We want God to protect us from all evil.

And when we are generous, we want God to bless every table – though the truth is we are more concerned with our own than those neighbors far away.

We think blessing is an end in itself, that it is good to be blessed, that it is good to have safety and security and abundance. We have a much harder time thinking of blessing as a means to an end. God intends to accomplish something through it. God is not just giving us an overflowing pantry. God is giving such a pantry that others might know God’s grace and power.

And it’s not this strange American perversion: “Look at me. I’m rich because of God. You can be rich, too.”   It’s rather, “Look at the abundance of God that there is plenty to share.”

There are two types of wealth in scripture. There is the wealth that comes from rich fields and timely rains. And there is the wealth that comes from profiting at the expense of others. The first is regarded as God’s blessing; the second as “unrighteous mammon”. But the wealth that comes from the fortune of good weather and land – wealth that is gift from God – is meant to be shared. If my fields prosper, I have the obligation to aid those whose fields did not. This is the failure of man in the parable of the rich fool. When his barns overflowed, he thought only of himself and not his obligation to his neighbors. He was at ease, but no one else. This is also the problem of the rich man with Lazarus at his gate.

So the psalm is a harvest song, calling upon all creation to recognize God’s goodness, God’s abundant generosity. The harvest is meant to bring joy to all – and give rise to praise from all. God’s blessing has a purpose: “that your way [God’s generosity and goodness and care for all] may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.”

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHarvest_(13429504924).jpg By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Harvest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons