Monday, July 16, 2007

Better than Me

Psalm 82, Luke 10: 25-37

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC’s
July 15, 2007

So, about a week before we moved up here, a bulk mailing came to the house from an organization called Doctors Without Borders. They are an organization based, I think, in France, and they are one of those groups who go into global trouble spots, like the Sudan or Central America to treat refugees and displaced persons, who have no other options for medical care.

I really admire their work, and their willingness to go into really dicey situations and do what they do. And I know that it doesn’t matter to them who they treat. Christians, Muslims, animists, indigenous religions, it doesn’t matter. I really admire that. I admire the fact that they provide treatment without strings attached, and that their volunteers go because of their commitment to the people of the world. It is a commitment that may, in individual cases, be religiously or spiritually driven, but the organization, as a whole, is explicitly non-religious.

Now I have had conversations with people who wonder what the motivation is for “secular” people to do these things. Some say that it is really God working on them without their acknowledging it, and the motivation is really God pressing on them. Some Methodists even call that “Prevenient Grace”. Others say that you don’t need God for that, all it takes is the growth of empathy for those who suffer, and some even say that the religious motivation actually gets in the way. But the fact remains that we Christians see people who are not “us” doing work in service that we feel we should be doing. Somehow it is our responsibility, our jurisdiction, our bailiwick. If it was another Christian, maybe that would feel better. If it was another Methodist, that would be OK, because likely we’ve at least helped pay for their work through our ministry shares.

But when it is someone who isn’t Christian doing what we feel is the work of the Lord, there is sometimes a little pang of guilt. And it is that pang of guilt that Jesus is evoking from the young lawyer in our Gospel passage today. Let’s review the story a little bit. A member of the young man’s own ethnic group (we assume—Jesus never identifies his ethnicity) is mugged and left to bleed by the side of a road. Two religious leaders walk by, avoiding the man on purpose. Both are highly respected by the hearers of Jesus’ tale, one a priest and the other, a member of the tribe responsible for priests and religious law. The one that stops, helps, cares for and supports the beaten man is considered unclean, alien, strange. He’s the Red Sox Fan in Yankee Stadium, he’s the civil rights activist at the Klan rally. He’s the least likely to care for the beaten man, at least in the hearers’ minds, he’s the one you would expect to pass right by.

The choice that Jesus leads the young lawyer to is uncomfortable for the young lawyer, because he has to admit that one of the enemy, the convenient scapegoats, one of the untouchables, is the guy whose role is held up as proper.

Yes, part of the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that we should stop and help those who have been beaten. Yes, we should learn that religious hypocrisy is something to avoid. But I think Jesus is also teaching us here that good motivations to help others are not solely the province of those who explicitly follow Him. It is said elsewhere in Scripture by Jesus that “Those who are not against me are for me.” God’s work is wider than those who declare themselves followers. He is the creator of the universe, and all were created in his image, not just the ones who call themselves Christian.

The last bit of Psalm 82 says it this way; “Rise up, O God, and judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you.” It’s the last line of a psalm that places God at the head of the council of gods, and he holds them in judgment. This is where God judges us; “How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak an the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the week and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

It’s not by the quality of our singing, it isn’t by the spiffiness of our Sunday clothes. It’s very little with what we do on Sunday. It matters a whole lot how we act the rest of the week. And yes, sometimes, there are people who aren’t Christian, who even sometimes have very little use for any organized religion, who are doing things that are obviously to us God’s work. And we aren’t there.

And that’s OK. We all have our stages of life. Some go, and others stay and support. Some are called to mission in foreign lands, some are called to rebuild after hurricanes, some build and rebuild for the poor or the elderly.

Donna and I have a good friend named Phil Plunk who runs a permanent medical clinic in the mountains of Guatemala. When he was moving toward that phase in his life, he led numerous week-long trips to conduct roving clinics up in the mountains, shuttled around by van.

Donna and I have each been to Guatemala twice on mission trips led by Phil. Our motivations for going were varied, ranging from religious convictions to simple curiosity to the pure excitement of travel. But it was enough to get us to go, and Phil didn’t care what motivated us or anyone else. He didn’t demand religious beliefs of the people on his teams, and I’m pretty sure that that’s true now of the people who come to work in his clinic. But he knew that once he had you there, religious or not, you were doing the Lord’s work. And when you went back home, you would be changed, religious or not.

Here’s a bit of truth for you. Rarely, if ever, do people make whole careers out of groups like Doctors without Borders. The doctors who go will spend a season, a certain amount of time, and return to their own world, culture, where they came from. They may be changed, and their awareness of the world is wider, and more compassionate, but very rarely do these doctors make a life out of helping the poor and needy. The same is true for most religious missionaries. They are called to it for a season, a year, a few years, but their whole lives are rarely spent in such service. In short, they are no better than you are, they are just in the phase of life that allows or impels them to service.

To everything there is a season, Ecclesiastes says. God judges us not on just on the travel and mission fields. God judges us on the compassion we feel and show in the midst of our lives, no matter what phase of that life we are in or how we act upon it. No matter our religious convictions. I doubt that the Samaritan was on a mission looking for beat up and bleeding Judeans. He just was there and acted upon what he saw.

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