A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon (July 10) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "There Is No Them"

     “Let me begin by saying that I have really been enjoying this presidential election year,” said nobody ever.
     “It’s just so encouraging to know that our politicians are kind and gracious toward each other, and that our political parties are getting along so well,” said nobody ever.
     I know you should never start a sermon with cynicism and sarcasm, but I can tell by your reaction, that you totally understand where I’m going with this. We live in a “We/They” culture, don’t we?
     People are polarized. Just mentioning the name of a particular politician can cause extreme visceral reactions. Even the person who is incredible at having a poker face cannot hide their facial expression when you mention the name of a certain politician.
     They will grimace, their face will contort, and their jaws will clench when the name of some politician is verbalized. Here’s a word of advice. When introducing yourself to someone, it’s probably wise to not ask the question, “What word comes to mind when you hear the name)”… and then insert the name of a known politician.
      Instead, start with something light and non-controversial, like sharing your favorite sports team. Well, wait a minute, that might not be a good idea either.
     Many of you know that I’m a Pittsburgh Steeler’s fan. Even from here, I can see many of your faces grimacing, and your jaws clenching just saying the name of that team. Some of you want to say, “Amen” right now, but you’re just being polite.
     So, I was back in my home area which isn’t too far from Baltimore, Maryland, and I decided to play a round of golf.  I was alone that day. When I got to the 10th tee, the guy ahead of me had to wait for the people in front of him, so he asked if I wanted to finish the round with him.  And I said, “Sure, thanks.” Seemed like a nice guy.
     As we were there waiting, we exchanged pleasantries. At some point, he mentioned that he was a Baltimore Ravens fan. Assuming that I was a Ravens fan since we were playing golf in that area, he asked me, “So, how do you think we’re going to do this year.” He assumed I was a “we,” but he was speaking to a “they” person.
      I should have just answered “yes,” and changed the topic, but instead, I told him that I was a Steelers fan. He grimaced, his face contorted, and his jaws clenched. And then he said a bad word which I can’t say here, and he actually started trash talking me.
     But I had the last laugh, because then he asked me what I did for a living.
     Priceless! His face grimaced. His face contorted, and his jaw clenched when I said that I was a pastor. Sometimes, it’s so nice to play that clergy card on people. The expression on his face!
     Friends, we live in a we/they culture. Instead of seeing ourselves as fellow human beings who have the privilege of being alive at the same time, we tend to label each other and dis’ each other. What’s up with that?
     “Oh, you’re one of them.” I don’t want to associate with you.” It’s so easy to just dismiss people. That’s our culture. This is the time that we live.
     You would think that we would have learned to get along with each other by now. History is on our side, right? Wrong!
     Jesus told a parable that exposed the “we/they” culture of his own day. We know it as the parable of the Good Samaritan.
     On the surface, it seems like a nice moralistic parable about taking the time to help someone who has been beaten up and thrown into a ditch, but actually, there is a lot more going on here. These are the kinds of stories that got Jesus into trouble with the people of his day.
     Someone once said, that we won’t understand the bible until we first understand what it meant to the people who first heard it. So how would they have first heard this parable in 1st century Israel?
     Well, in some ways, they would have reacted like we probably react to the beginning of this parable. We are alarmed to hear that some guy was robbed and was beaten up and was then left for dead in a ditch. We also wonder if anybody will help this poor guy. Will he be in the next episode of “Unsolved Mysteries?”
     We then hear about two Jewish people who see this guy bleeding to death in the ditch, but they walk on by. They could probably cite bible verses to show how they were being “biblical” by not helping this man. Sure, just go ahead and blame the bible for your spiritual apathy, like, nobody has ever done that before, right?
     So anyway, these two Jewish leaders pass the crime scene with a clear conscience because of their religious convictions. And we’re all left wondering, if anybody was going to help this man. Where is Jesus going with this story, we wonder?
     By this point in the story, we are probably getting a little annoyed with Jesus.  It seems like he is insinuating that we are those first two Jewish people who have passed by this poor guy who was dying in the ditch.
     We’re even starting to tense up, but we decide to let Jesus finish the story. Maybe he’ll surprise us by saying that a third man came by and stopped to help the dying man in the ditch.
     We are thrown for a loop, because the third man in the story wasn’t Jewish at all. Worse yet, he was a Samaritan! You know. One of THOSE people.
     Samaritans and Jews just didn’t interact because of a long history of hatred and suspicion between these two groups. We might have already assumed that it had been a Samaritan who threw this man into the ditch. Samaritans are the bad guys.
     Well, the kicker of this story is that Jesus makes this third person walking by, a Samaritan, the hero of the parable. Our worst fears are realized. Jesus really is trying to get under our skin. How dare he make someone who wasn’t even one of our own people, the good guy in the story!
     And Jesus makes his point loud and clear when he says that this Samaritan not only called for an ambulance, he also paid for this guy’s medical bills. Jesus couldn’t have made the contrast any sharper. Ouch!
     Jesus is exposing the shallowness and the superficiality of our definition of what it means to love our neighbors. It’s easy to love the neighbor down the street who watches your cat while you’re on vacation. It’s another thing to go out of your way to help the person who lives on the other side of the tracks, or the river, or the wall, or whatever boundary that would feed into our “We/They” culture.
     Jesus, knowing full well that we weren’t going to like this parable in which he makes the bad guy, the hero, ends the story by asking us this haunting question.
     “What do you think? Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
     The only answer of course is the one who showed mercy.
     Jesus is helping us to see that the way to live out our faith is to show mercy and compassion to all people, especially those who are very different from us. We may even be surprised at how freeing this can be. Sometimes when we help someone we don’t even know, it gets us out of our own ditch in life.
     A friend of mine recently shared that not too long ago he was stranded on the side of the road. He said that he cursed his vehicle and pretty much everything within earshot.
     He said that a sheriff was kind enough to stop, hold a flashlight for him, and give him some encouragement as he changed his first flat tire ever.
     He then told me that one week later, he was happy to return the favor. As he was driving up Rt. 33, he noticed a young couple on the side of the road standing by their car. For about an hour, this couple had been trying to figure out how to change the tire of their car.
     My friend said that since he was now an expert on changing flat tires, he was able to return the favor, and he helped them to get back on the road in no time. He then shared that it felt good to pay it forward and that he is going to try to pay it forward more often.
     Our faith will always mean more to us when we overcome the boundaries and walls that divide us.
     In one of the communities where I served, some churches got together to help people who were living in poverty in our community. It’s called, “Sharing Hope.” We were tired of hearing people in the community say that the only reason people don’t work is because they’re lazy or because they don’t care.
     Those kinds of attitudes simply feed into a “we/they” culture. They don’t help in any way, shape, or form. In fact, those kinds of comments just make things worse.
     We wanted to approach the problem of local poverty differently. Instead of ignoring the problem or casting blame, we wanted to look at poverty from a relational perspective.
     “Sharing Hope” is where people of a variety of economic levels come together on a weekly basis to eat a meal together and learn from each other. People who are living in poverty learn from the people who are financially stable of what is needed to get on your feet financially and have ongoing sustainable income for your family.
     But just as important, the people who are financially stable are learning from the people who are living in poverty as well. They are learning that getting out of poverty is not as easy as it may first appear. 
     It’s extremely difficult when you do not have transportation, job training, and key relationships, just to name a few of the many challenges that people face when they are living in poverty.
     “Sharing Hope” is more than a program. It’s building relationships with people from a variety of backgrounds and economic levels and it’s helping to remove the unhelpful stereotypes that we often use in referring to people.
     It’s what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism sought to do in England when he encouraged those early Methodists to not think about ministry TO the poor, but to be in ministry WITH the poor.
     Jesus doesn’t give us the name of the person who was in a ditch and in need of help, but maybe his name was Carlos.
     Born into generational poverty, Carlos was taught to steal at the age of four by his father who was abusive to his mother.  After Carlos and his mother left his father, he recalls staying in homeless shelters and strangers’ homes. 
     He would often go hungry because they just didn’t have any means of support.    At age six, he was taken into foster care and became very isolated because of his feelings of abandonment.  He didn’t like social workers since they took him away from his mother.  At the time, he also viewed college students as spoiled and stuck-up.
     For thirteen years, Carlos was a drug addict because in his words, it took the pain away both internally and externally.  Many times he slept in his car at night and sometimes he didn’t have his own car.  He had no idea of the horrible path he was following.
     His life turned around through a “Sharing Hope” program in Springfield, Ohio.  This program helped Carlos to see a different picture.  It was a picture of measurable goals, how to build relationships, and new attitudes to help him overcome poverty. 
     Thanks to the support of some folks who saw Carlos as their neighbor, he has been able to go to college and pursue a career. I often wonder what would have happened to Carlos if this group of people didn’t come across him at a time when he couldn’t pull himself out of the ditch.
     Would he have sunk into even greater despair? Would he have given up on the little hope he had to make it in this world? All it takes is that one person, or in Carlos’s example, that one group of people who were willing to see him as a fellow human being who simply needed a helping hand.
     Does it even matter if that helping hand is the hand of a Republican or the hand of a Democrat or a person of wealth or a person who is homeless or a Jew or a Samaritan?
     Really, if someone is in a ditch, are we really going to yell out, “Before I help you, what religion are you?” “Are you gay or straight?” “Are you a Steelers fan?”
     None of that matters. What matters is that we offer our hand to whoever needs help because there is no “them” in God’s kingdom. There is no “them.”

     There’s only us. There’s only us. Amen.

There Is No Them
Small Group Questions
Luke 10:25-37
July 10, 2016

It seems that we are living in an ever increasing "we/they" culture where we tend to label people and keep our distance. The story of the Good Samaritan is a "we/they" story between Jews and Samaritans.

Share some examples of where you see an unhealthy "we/they" mentality in our society.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example of how we are called to see each other as "children of God" instead of as "Republicans, Democrats, Poor, Rich, etc.

Share where you have seen a diverse group of people come together to work toward one common purpose.

Have you ever been in a ditch and needed help from someone? How was God present in that situation?

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