Sunday, July 15, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 15
Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-10
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Unto thee, O Jehovah, do I lift up my soul.

I think that there are some texts that have become too familiar. Take the story of the Good Samaritan, for instance. Think of the last time you really read the story – I mean, read the story as if it was something new. As a matter of fact, we all probably just skimmed over it during our reading this week and on Sunday I imagine most of the people in the pews will tune out during the reading. It is a story with which we are all very familiar. It has been taught to us since we were small children. It is a favorite for Vacation Bible School and Sunday school curriculum writers. We can tell the story from heart, many of us word for word out of the scriptures.

On the one hand, this familiarity can mean that this Word of God has been written on our hearts. We know it, and we know the lessons Jesus meant to teach through it. It has become part of our life of faith and for most of us it has become a word of guidance and encouragement. On the other hand, it has become so familiar that we no longer listen for what God has to say, thinking that there is nothing new in the story to help us along the way.

In both cases we can sense a lack of humility. It is truly wonderful to have such a deep knowledge of the Lord that His stories are written on our hearts and in our minds, and yet we can get to the point that we think we know it all. Unfortunately, our recollection and interpretations of stories such as this one are not always perfect and we eventually get to the point that we are telling the story in our own way rather than in God's way. We use our knowledge of the scriptures to justify our own point of view and our own actions.

That is what was happening with the teacher of the Law in today's story. He was so familiar with God's word that he was quickly able to site the right answer to Jesus' question. He knew that eternal life came with the obedience of the two laws – to love God and neighbor. He knew it so well that he also knew the loopholes. He knew his neighbors and his enemies and he could justify those relationships based on the Law. He was able to take God's word and make it work to his benefit, fitting people into neat little boxes and basing his righteousness on his good works.

When we stop listening to the stories of God's people with a fresh mind, we get caught up in our own ideas and we establish our own interpretations that become as important as or more important than the Word itself. This isn't to say that the Gospel changes with each generation or that we should keep listening with an ear that makes God's word conform to our time or place. But we should never forget that we are indeed sinners and that what gets written in our heads is not always the perfect word of God.

Have you ever tried to play a board game with a child, one who is 'teaching' you how to play? They begin by giving the most basic information, just enough to get the game started. Then, in the course of the game, they bring out new rules, especially when it will benefit them in the game. They speak up during the play, saying, "You aren't allowed to do that," or "There is a rule that says I can…" It is not that the children are necessarily willfully cheating. In many cases these children do not even realize what they are doing. Selective memory is something that plagues us all at some time or another.

Unfortunately these rules eventually become the norm and they cause confusion when the children try to play with others who have learned things a different way. When questioned, they respond "That is the way I learned to play the game." It is true; the children have played the game enough with their rules that they become the truth. I know that I still play Monopoly with some rules that I created or learned when I was a child, rules that aren't found on any instruction sheet but that make the game more interesting.

So, as we become so familiar with the stories of God that we stop listening, we remember them as they relate to our lives, not willfully twisting God's word to fit our needs but our recollection is not always according to God's intent for the story.

The teacher of the Law knew the Law, but he also knew his interpretation of the Law and had forgotten God's intent. So, he wanted to justify himself before Jesus. "Who is my neighbor?" He was expecting Jesus to name those whom he considered neighbors – his family, friends, other Jews and people who were approved by the Law.

Jesus turned his world upside down. To the teacher of the Law, a Samaritan was a half-breed. He was outcast. He didn't worship in the right place and he certainly did not know the word of God. The Samaritan was like an enemy, one who was to be avoided. A Samaritan could not be called "good" and his lifestyle was not one to emulate. Jesus showed him a different point of view, a better understanding of the laws that the teacher thought he knew so well.

That is why it is necessary for us to take the time to listen, really listen, each time the story is read. The teacher of the Law thought he knew what it meant to love God and neighbor. Jesus told him a story that showed him a deeper, richer understanding of the Law. Loving God meant recognizing the opportunities to show mercy. Loving neighbor meant being merciful, no matter who needed the mercy. At the end of the story, Jesus asked, "Which of these three, thinkest thou, proved neighbor unto him that fell among the robbers?"

The priest and the Levite did not do anything wrong according to the Law. As a matter of fact, they were doing exactly what was commanded in the Law. They were to remain clean and helping the beaten and dying man meant becoming unclean. They could not serve God if they became unclean. They did not pass by because they had no compassion. They passed by because they had interpreted God's Law to mean that they could not risk their holy position for the sake of one dying man. Though it is possible they were looking at the situation from a self-concerned point of view, they might have even been thinking about the whole congregation of Israel. Mercy for the one would mean the inability to provide mercy for the masses.

There is a story about a boy on a beach that is filled with starfish that were dying because they were out of the water. As a man walked by, he noticed that the boy was picking up one starfish at a time and throwing them into the sea. The man laughed and said, "Boy, you'll never save them all." They boy continued throwing the starfish into the sea and answered, "You might be right, but I did save that one."

We live in a world full of problems. At times it is overwhelming the work that we could do. There are so many who are sick and need our loving touch. There are so many who are mourning who need a word of comfort. There are so many who are hungry and naked and cold who need our resources of food, clothing and shelter that it is impossible to take care of it all. The world is beaten and bleeding by the side of the road and we want to help. We build programs and set up ministries with the hope that we'll solve all the world's problems. We try, but sometimes we miss the opportunity to save tree while we lament the loss of entire forests.

While it is good for us to join together to do all we can to touch the world with our resources – the work of two is not just double the work of one, it is magnified. However, we get so caught up in the big picture that we miss the every day needs that are brought before us. We seek to change the world and we forget to see the individual lives that would be changed by the grace and mercy of God. We forget to be humble before God, seeing His call to be merciful to the neighbor in need who crosses our path.

The Samaritan was humble; humble because he saw the need and took care of it. He wasn't concerned with the robbers on the road or the people before him that did nothing. He saw his neighbor in need and had mercy. Sometimes we are so busy with the big things – arrogantly thinking that we will be the one to change the world – that we miss the beaten and dying person that has fallen on our doorstep. Humbleness and love of God opens our eyes to the real opportunities of service that can change lives.

When we read a passage like our Old Testament text, it seems as though God is telling us that if we obey Him, we will be rewarded with good things. The reality is that God has blessed us with good things and obedience to His commands will keep us from suffering the consequences of disobedience. Obedience does not earn us the goodness of God, but it keeps us within the blessedness of the relationship that He has already built with us.

"For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off." What is the commandment? The teacher of the Law knew the answer to that question. He didn't recite the Ten or list his favorites from the six hundred and thirteen in Leviticus. He listed two – love God and love your neighbor. The Ten and the others help us to do that. They help us to live according the way God has ordained for us to live, loving Him and others. Though the laws can be reduced to two, that doesn't mean that Jesus intended for us to stop obeying them – he even took them to an extreme. It wasn't enough to not do murder, Jesus said that we should not even be angry. How can someone obey such a command? How about the command to tell the truth? Can we really go through our entire lives without ever telling a lie?

When we read about the expectations of Jesus Christ and the commandments of our God, we do wonder how we can keep that which God has given. But obedience to the commands is not by our ability but by God's grace in our life. His Word is near us, in our hearts and in our mouths. So, obedience is simply living according to the Word that is near us, dwelling in it – in Him. It is not hard to dwell in the heart of God and to be blessed by His presence.

That is not the end, however. We are blessed to be a blessing. God has blessed us with certain gifts and certain opportunities through which we are to do His work in the world. We are called by faith not to live on a mountain top separated from the world, but instead to take the lovingkindness of God into the world to share with others. That is a lesson St. Benedict shared with the world in his humble life of faith.

Benedict came from a noble family. He was on a course of education and higher learning meant to prepare him for a life of power and position in the Roman Empire. When he was young, barely twenty years old, he gave up his books and his prestigious life to enter into a humble life of service to God. About seven years later, his nurse accidentally broke an earthen vessel and she was devastated over the incident. As Benedict prayed to comfort her, the vessel was perfectly restored.

This incident brought a great deal of attention to Benedict, attention that he did not desire. He had opted to live a simple, quiet life of faith serving the God that he loved. The miracle brought notoriety and Benedict fled to a hermit-like existence at Subiaco. At Subiaco, Benedict established and enhanced a way of life for those who desired a closer and simpler walk with God. Benedictine life was not meant to be for those set away from the reality of the world, but was designed to put God in the middle of it all. The monks at Subiaco and at the other monasteries founded on the rule of St. Benedict worked with their hands and got dirty with the work of daily living. St. Benedict said, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul.”

Prayer at a Benedictine monastery came after work. Benedict believed that humility was the first and most important form of prayer, humility in recognizing God’s presence in the ordinary. Thus, a person who works with his hands knowing that God is present in the activity is praying. Public prayer is next in importance; common prayer was the center of the common life they lived together. Least in importance was private prayer and is dependent on the individual’s gifts. Benedict wrote, “If anyone wishes to pray in private, let him go quietly into the oratory and pray, not with a loud voice, but with tears and fervor of heart. Our prayer ought to be short and with purity of heart, except it be perchance prolonged by the inspiration of divine grace.” That was all he had to say about personal prayer, except that he believed it was a natural response to the observance of a godly life. A person who lived well in the every day would easily grow in grace and maturity of faith.

Benedict knew that the miraculous power of God was not something that should be used for his own benefit. He left when it seemed as though the people were focusing on him rather than Christ. He was afraid they might want to make him a saint, so he went to another place where he could live the simple life of faith working with his hands for the glory of God. His rule and the monastic order that bears his name continue to help the ordinary person – the average Christian like you and I – live a life that will glorify God and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

The people in Colossae had been given the Word of truth and they believed. However, other teachers came and taught the people messages that contradicted the grace and mercy of God. It isn't hard for those messages to be easily received since they often meet human need – self-satisfaction and pride. The heresies that were making their way into the Christian community at Colossae have been around since the beginning of the Church. Even today there are those who follow those same false messages.

False teachings – several – had become part of the message they were sharing. Ritualistic requirements, mandatory self-denial, angel worship, diminution of Christ, special knowledge and reliance on human wisdom – both Jewish and Gnostic – were becoming the norm in the congregation. Paul was concerned that the message of Christ was being lost to the fallible human message that was being integrated into the Gospel.

Paul's letter lifts up the faith of the people in Colossae, but not by thanking them for being faithful. He gives all the credit to the One who deserves it – God. He thanks God for their faith, their love and their hope. He prays that God will continue to fill them with knowledge of Christ and keep them worthy to walk with the Lord. He lifts up Christ, reminding the people of Colossae that He is supreme and that it is by Him, through Him and for Him that we are saved.

The Benedictines did not separate themselves from the world in which they lived or reject the things of the flesh. They did not sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. They did not try to solve the world's problems in big or miraculous ways. They met the needs of those who crossed their path, giving of themselves as they saw the opportunity. They dwelt in the presence of God, even while living mundane and simple lives, sharing the love and mercy of Christ with those who were suffering in their world. They learned to live for one another, to love God and their neighbor with their whole hearts. Most of all, they lifted their souls to God, humbly themselves before His presence in every aspect of their lives.

That is the lesson we learn from the Good Samaritan. We learn to see the needs of those whom God has set before us, recognizing His presence in the pain and suffering in this world. The service we are called to render may not be special. It may not be big. It may not change the world. However, as we remain humble, dwelling in His love and mercy, obedience to His commands comes naturally and His mercy overflows into the world in which we live. It is there that lives are changed. The work that needs to be done might seem overwhelming, but we are called to take care of one need at a time. Like the boy on the beach. We won't save the world, but we can make a difference in the life of one soul.

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