Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Rescue Me

Sermon preached July 11, 2010

Texts: Colossians 1:11-14; Luke 10:25-37

Words. Words matter. Words are powerful and silly and precious and wasted. With words we proclaim our love, we assert our political views, we offer opinions on movies or music or clothing. Words can hurt and words can heal. Some of us grew up learning the phrase – “sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.” It is untrue. Sometimes a broken bone heals more quickly and more completely than a cutting insult. The Bee Gees, before “Saturday Night Fever” had a simple song in which they sang – “It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away.”
Words can be ambiguous. What’s black and white and red/read all over? A newspaper, or a sunburned zebra.
Biblical words, words of our faith, can be challenging sometimes. Take this phrase for instance. “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” We know something about forgiveness and if we are honest with ourselves we acknowledge our need for it. What does it mean to say that we have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ? We know what it might be like to be rescued from water if we were drowning. We know what it might be like to be rescued from being lost in the wilderness. We know what it might be like to be rescued from quick sand – at least if we have watched movies. We know what it might be like to be rescued from an addiction. What does it mean to be rescued from the power of darkness and brought into a new place, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ?
Here is where the beauty of lectionary Scripture readings comes in. The ecumenical lectionary is a set of readings for each Sunday on a three year cycle, and I most often use some Scripture from it as the basis for the Sunday sermon and worship service. There is a Psalm, usually another reading from the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, a text from one of the New Testament letters and a reading from a Gospel. Today Colossians, in which the phrase about rescuing appears, is matched with Luke, chapter 10 – a story. And I think the story answers the question I have been posing - What does it mean to be rescued from the power of darkness and brought into a new place, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ?
In Luke 10 we have a story within a story – and there is a wonderful richness in stories that abstract language cannot capture fully. The overarching story is about a lawyer, that is a person versed in Hebrew Scripture, who inquires of Jesus about eternal life. Another way of asking the question might be to ask what it means to be a part of the kingdom of God. Jesus replies with a question and the lawyer answers. “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.” Jesus commends the lawyer, he understands what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world. But the lawyer wonders about an abstract word – neighbor. Who is my neighbor? Then we get the story within the story about the man on the road, robbed and beaten and left for dead. Two persons pass by – a priest and a Levite, both respectable men in that culture. The hero of the story turns out to be the unrespectable Samaritan who cares for the man, who is moved with pity, who shows mercy. This story would have shocked Jesus’ listeners. They were all for poking fun at the respectable people, that has been a human sport for a long time, it seems. But to make a hated and despised Samaritan the hero, well, that goes kind of far.
But back to the question - What does it mean to be rescued from the power of darkness and brought into a new place, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ? The Samaritan helps answer this.
To be rescued from the power of darkness is to see differently. The first people who walked by the wounded traveler saw someone who might take up too much time in their busy lives. More tellingly, they saw someone who could mess up their other obligations. What if the man were dead, and not just half dead? Touching him would have meant ritual contamination and the need to engage in purity rituals. Perhaps both were on their way to perform services requiring their ritual purity. Taking time for, touching an unclean man, well, that could really mess things up. The Samaritan saw this wounded traveler as a human person in need of assistance, in need of help, and not as someone who was simply unclean or a complication.
Rita and Roy are having some problems in their marriage. This is a situation described by a therapist named Michele Weiner-Davis, so no one we know, though the situation may be familiar. Weiner-Davis describes Rita’s range of responses to Roy’s behavior in one part of their life. When she thought Roy was being spiteful, Rita considered punishing him. Compassion was the furthest thing from her mind…. When he was seen as overworked, sad, or depressed, her reaction was compassion. (Divorce Busting, 106)
How often we get stuck in our usual ways of seeing the world, and sometime those ways are not helpful. We need to be rescued so as to see the world with wider vision. We need to be rescued so as to see the world in ways that are humanizing and caring. We need to be rescued so as to see the world with more creativity.
The story of the good Samaritan also tells us that to be rescued from the power of darkness is to feel the world differently. The Samaritan not only sees a human person in need, but is moved by what he sees. The story says he was moved with pity, but that is a mild translation of the Greek. He was moved in the depth of his being, viscerally (William Spohn, Go and Do Likewise, 89).
I have a good friend who is a writer and a county commissioner – not in St. Louis County. Awhile back he forwarded me an e-mail sent to him by a woman about her experience with the church. He did a good job of disguising the woman’s identity, but wanted me to see what she had written. The woman, a United Methodist, had been active in church as a young person and continued to be so as an adult, but some things changed after she was divorced. “One minister even told me he didn’t believe in hit or miss attendance when my kids spent a weekend with their father.” She goes on about her experience with churches as a divorced woman with children. We moved a few times and were often treated as if we didn’t exist. One church going lady even said in front of me that they wanted to attract young families. I said, but I have a young family and she looked blank. My youngest even absolutely refused to attend Sunday School after she was given the third degree by a nosy Sunday School teacher. As a divorced older single person it has also been difficult to fit in. I don’t make very good bars. I have been drug to Bible study groups where there was an on-going argument over which version of the Bible was the REAL one.
Can we hear this story and begin to feel the disappointment and isolation? Are we open to the feelings of others who may have different life experiences from ours but desire a relationship with God and the fellowship of the church? Feeling the pain of others isn’t easy. Often we would rather close off some of those feelings, but that is to be trapped by the power of darkness, cutting off something of our own humanity. There used to be a term of derision – calling someone a “bleeding heart.” Well, I think we as Christians are to be people of bleeding hearts, caring deeply for the world and it hurts and pains. Bleeding hearts don’t imply empty heads – we need both, but if we don’t have the compassionate heart, we are in need of rescuing.
Lastly, the good Samaritan teaches that to be rescued from the power of darkness means to act differently. It is not enough that the Samaritan sees and feel differently, he acts on what he sees and feels. The lawyer gets it just right in the end. Who is neighbor to the man who is beaten, the one who showed mercy – the one who acted with compassion and mercy.
A Japanese coastal village was once threatened by a tidal wave, but the wave was sighted in advance, far out on the horizon, by a lone farmer in the rice fields on the hillside above the village. At once he set fire to the fields, and villagers who came swarming up to save their crops were saved from the flood.
To be rescued from the power of darkness is to find ways to make a positive difference in the lives of others and the world. It is to see, feel and act differently – see, feel and act like we are part of making God’s dream for the world a reality. Rescue us, God, from all that gets in the way of this kind of life. Amen.

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