A number of years ago, I led a youth retreat where I preached on the Good Samaritan eight times in four days. Having studied the text deep and wide, I wrote a modern version of the parable to share with the students in worship. It was a good exercise for me--and I thought you might find it helpful as well--to remember that compassion really can transcend any boundary.
Then the president of the Woman’s Missionary Alliance stood up to test Jesus. "Jesus," she said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (And everyone around got all quiet and listened because frankly, they were surprised that she had to ask such a question. Everyone knew that! For heaven’s sake, those words were printed on the city light poles, on banners at the local schools, and on the brand new welcome sign down at the local lake. It was so important, that they’d made it the town mission statement. What was she up to?)
And Jesus said to her (without any sarcasm in his voice at all), "Well, sister, what is our mission statement? How do you interpret it?"
She answered, "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 responded, "Yep! That’s it! Just do that, and you will live a life that glorifies God not just now but for all eternity."
She had another question, though. "But Jesus. Exactly who would you say is my neighbor?"
Jesus said, “Let me put it to you like this:
"A business man was in the habit of exercising after work. At the office, he’d change from business attire to gym clothes, place his valuables in his backpack, and walk over to the downtown YMCA for a work-out before going home. One night, as he headed back to his car over near his office, he was jumped from behind and mugged. They stole all his credit cards, his iPhone, and his laptop. Then, they beat him and left him--broken, bloody, and unconscious--to die.
“Now by chance, the senior pastor of World’s Biggest Church was leaving a ministry meeting in the city and happened to walk right by the unconscious man. The thing was though, he still needed to update WBC’s website and Facebook page before he could go home; he hurried on to his office, asking Siri to remind him to look into the matter later.
“Likewise, the leader of the homeless ministry happened upon the injured man; of course, any other time, she would have stopped. (She would have!) But that night, she was on her way to B-SUB (Bible Study Under the Bridge), and she knew there would be a big crowd waiting on her. She kept walking.
“Then, an Afghan immigrant came along. When he saw the man, his eyes filled with tears, and he knelt beside the man. He noticed the guy’s t-shirt: torn and bloodied, it’s graphic and slogan spewed hate. No matter, the Afghani carefully removed his own head scarf, folded it, and used it as a pillow for the man’s head; then he took off his cloak and carefully draped it over him. The immigrant called 911, remained with the man while awaiting the EMT’s, then followed the ambulance to the hospital. Once they arrived and he saw that the man was getting the appropriate care, the Afghan immigrant stopped by the front desk. He gave them his credit card information to cover the man’s medical expenses and his cell phone number just in case there were any additional needs he might address.”
So, Jesus asked the woman, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who was mugged?”
And the woman said, “Um, well, in that story, I guess it would be the . . . uh . . . the one who showed him mercy."
We always draw the attention of strangers as we—nearly 20 of us—claim our spot on the beach. It’s impossible for our cumbersome crew to go unnoticed: a half-dozen pale-skinned adults slick with sunscreen, eight bathing-suit-clad Caucasian cousins ages 9 to 18, and one African preschooler whose skin tone matches the color of rich, dark chocolate. So even on South Carolina beaches where almost anything goes, we are the exception.
It all started when my cousin lost her ever-loving mind. I found out from my mother, who called me to give me the news.
“You are not going to believe what your cousin Kathi is doing. You are. Not. Going. To. BeLIEVE it.”
Kathi is about ten years older than I am. Despite a life laced with heartbreak and disappointment, Kathi has done well for herself. She’s always been employed: factories in the early years, grocery stores for most of the last twenty. She owns her own home and has developed a network of faithful friends and beloved family. Her two sons, who she raised without the help of her ex-husband, their dad, grew into responsible, hard-working, family men.
“Kathi is taking in a 3-year old African child,” Mother said.
“Come again?” I figured I’d misheard.
“Your 50+ year old cousin is taking in a toddler from another country.” Mother proceeded to tell me the rest of the story. (For the sake of privacy and protection, I’ll refer to the child as Little One.)
Little One’s mother, a friend of a friend of a friend, was incarcerated and needed someone to keep her child for just two weeks. Kathi didn’t know the mother and neither did the woman who called her. To sane folk, the whole thing sounded like a legal disaster. We cautioned Kathi. We advised her. We insisted she procure some official statement of custody. She listened, but as I said, she’d lost her mind right about the time she learned of this child in need. (It might also be possible that Kathi’s mind was right where it was supposed to be, being transformed.)
Little One moved in and soon everyone who loved Kathi loved the child. Two weeks came and went ten times and after five months the mother saw fit to reclaim her child. By then, the bond between my cousin and Little One was strong enough to last.
So for the last three summers, Little One has been with us on the beach: playing in the surf, building sand castles, looking for shells, never out of sight of this new family-in-love. And at some point, salty and sleepy, Little One seeks out Kathi and climbs into her lap.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Kathi says in response to our praise of her selfless actions. She enfolds the sandy brown hand resting on her knee into her own; the child leans back, snuggled against the shoulder that has proven so reliable. “Little One needed a place to stay. God told me to offer my home. So I did.”
And to Kathi, it really was—is—that simple.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
The church of my childhood met in this space back in the 70's. It's where all my friends were and I loved it.
“When I was a kid,” my octogenarian friend told me, “I went to church every time the doors were open. But I didn’t necessarily go to learn about Jesus; I went because that’s where my friends were.”
I could relate; truly, the church was the hub of my social life until I went to college. Vacation Bible School, church camp and ice cream socials were highlights of my summer. All year long, I attended Sunday school, Training Union and any special event scheduled at the church. That’s where all my friends were. Why wouldn’t I want to go?
Of course, to be fair, in those days, there wasn’t much else to do on Sunday.
I grew up in the 1970s and back then, blue laws kept most stores in my part of the country closed on Sunday. Movie theaters didn’t open either, except for a few drive-ins which opened for the late movie (which was at 8, not 10). No way could you find a bowling alley open on Sundays, though, if memory serves, I did play a game or two of mini-golf after Sunday night church on occasion. The skating rink might open for a church party on Sunday if you prearranged it, and most public swimming pools opened on Sundays (but only from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. so as not to conflict with services). Thus, when I was a kid, and certainly in the 1940s and ’50s when my senior friend grew up, church was just about the most fun you could have on Sundays without breaking a law.
The same applied to Wednesday nights when most Protestant churches (which back then were the only ones that counted anyway) had Bible study and family activities. I am certain I never had homework on a Wednesday night until late into high school — and that was likely because I had procrastinated and was playing catch-up. My brother’s little league sports never scheduled events — games or practices — on Wednesdays. The same was true for any civic or community activity. Whether it was Boy Scouts or dance lessons, Wednesday scheduling was out of the question. You might as well go to church. You didn’t have any valid excuse for missing.
Not true today.
In 2017, we can visit any number of fine restaurants and enjoy a leisurely Sunday brunch before catching a matinee at a nearby cinema. We can then follow that up with any activity we like: craft brewery anyone? Exception: if our kids play travel ball of any sort, they probably have games on Sundays, games that are out of town and require us to go on Saturday and spend the night.
On Wednesdays, kids have just as much homework as they do any other day (which is way too much, in my opinion, but that’s another column). Performances, practices and lessons happen just as frequently on Wednesdays as they do on other days. Wednesdays, once protected by societal norms from conflicting activities, are now fair game.
I hear lots of complaints about this perceived disregard for church culture. “Back in my day,” I’ve heard, “no business would dare open on Sunday. Little League ball games on Sunday? Not a chance.”
The thing is, though, businesses don’t open if they don’t make money. And they can only profit if they have customers. Same goes for kids’ ball games. You know why games are held on Sundays? Because children and their fee-paying parents participate on Sundays, that’s why. Plain and simple.
Parents tell me, “You would not believe how much homework little Johnny has on Wednesday nights. He couldn’t come to church tonight because he had too much work for school.” That sounds exactly like parents have no choice, doesn’t it? I mean, the kid has to do their homework, right? OK, but just to be clear, when we had essentially no other choice, we went to church; now, when we have a conflict, church is absentmindedly kicked to the curb.
Me, I think it is good that now we have to make a choice. It is harder, yes, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, usually the more difficult a task or decision, the more valuable it is or will become. Gone are the days when we can just follow the masses to church without ever actually following God’s Son, Jesus Christ. But isn’t that good? Isn’t it better that we must choose how to spend our time and energy now? Isn’t it better that we make conscious choices to turn towards Jesus and away from other distractions?
So how about this: how about we stop wringing our hands about the things of the past that we can’t bring forward to our present day? Why don’t we step up to the challenge and choose church, choose Christ? If we do, I’m pretty sure that’s one choice we’ll never regret.
Back in 2011, I wrote this little parody of the classic children's story "The Little Red Hen." From time to time, I pull it out for the children's sermon. Today's message was from Acts 2:42-47; it felt like a good time for a retelling of The Little Red Church.
Once upon a time there was a little red church. The little red church had lots of friends. She had friends who were very old. She had friends who were adults but not too old. And she had friends who were still quite young. One day the little red church needed to bake some bread to send to God’s hungry children. The little red church went to her friends and said,
“Who will help me bake some bread to deliver to God’s hungry children?”
“Not us,” said the very old friends. “We baked bread before, but we are tired now. We are too old to bake the bread.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “We are busy busy busy. We have work to do and families to care for. We can’t take time to bake bread for people in need.”
“Not us,” said friends who were still quite young. “We are too young to bake bread. We don’t even know how. We will bake bread later when we are older.”
So the little red church sighed. She could not bake the bread herself.
But soon, the little red church tried again. Some of God’s children were sick, so she asked her friends,
“Who will help me visit God’s children who are sick?”
“Not us,” said the very old friends. “We have our own aches and pains to worry about. We cannot go visit the sick.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “We have too many appointments to attend: not just for ourselves but also for our parents and for our children. We cannot go visit the sick.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were still quite young. “We are not allowed to go to hospitals. We are much too young. We cannot go visit the sick either.”
So the little red church sighed. She could not visit the sick herself.
Before long, though, the little red church heard of another need: some of God’s children had just moved into town. So she asked her friends,
“Who will go and welcome God’s children who have just moved into town?”
“Oh, my, not us,” said the very old friends. “We have nothing to offer new people in town. They are young and we are old. We cannot go visit new people in town.”
“Not us either,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “Perhaps you could have them come to our offices. Or hey! We know. Tell them to come to the Civic Club meeting next Tuesday at 7. We will welcome them there.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were still quite young. “Stranger Danger!”
So the little red church just sighed. She decided to take a nap. She was so, so tired. The little red church slept for a very long time.
While the little red church was sleeping her friends began to get worried. They missed the little red church. They missed her singing. They missed her laughter. And they even missed her questions.
The friends who were very old talked together and decided, “We may not be able to do as much as we used to, but we could surely bake bread.”
The friends who were still quite young overheard them talking. “We have lots of energy but we do not know how to bake bread. Will you teach us?”
And so the friends who were very old and the friends who were still quite young began baking bread.
Meanwhile, the friends who were adults but not too old talked together and decided, “It doesn’t really take too long to visit someone who is sick if you plan ahead. We are very good at planning. Let’s make time to visit the sick.”
And some of the friends who were very old overheard their discussion and some of them said, “We would like to go and visit the sick, but we don’t like to drive downtown. Could you take us with you when you go to visit?”
And so the friends who were adults but not too old and the friends who were very old, began to visit the sick together.
About the same time, the friends who were still quite young began discussing the new students in their schools. “We can welcome these new children even though we don’t know their languages. Let’s go play with them.”
And the friends who were adults but not too old listened and thought, “We can welcome these children’s families too. Let’s have them share a meal with us.”
And so the friends who were still quite young and the friends who were adults but not too old began welcoming strangers.
In the little red church's yard, children were playing and laughing. In her kitchen, people were cooking and eating; in her sanctuary, people were praising and thanking God for gifts of hope and healing.
And so (naturally) the little red church woke up.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42
When I stepped onto her hall, I could see her slippered feet just outside the door frame of her room. In her wheelchair, she rocked heel to toe, toe to heel, back and forth and back again.
“Hey, there,” I said, crouching to her height and attempting to push her chair back so I could get into the room. (Imagine a 5’4” duck wearing jeans and a tie-dye T-shirt pushing a wheelchair backwards; you get the picture.) I managed it, then pulled a stool right up next to her chair so I could speak directly in her ear. Nonagenarian ears aren’t especially known for their acuity, you know.
She does not know me; when I began my job at her church, she was already at the point of needing care. . . .
Church services cancelled due to the weather? Well, don't let that stop you from connecting with your church family. Here are just a few home activities you might consider:
Use the pictorial directory as a prayer list. (Know families who aren't in the directory? Add them too!)
Visit the church website and listen to recorded services.
Write encouraging notes to church family members.
Live close to church friends? Hold home church. Early Christians often included a meal with any communal worship experience. Invite friends over to share food and fellowship.
Use the latest bulletin or newsletter and prayerfully consider upcoming events.
Make a call. (This is one day when using your cell phone during church is allowed.) Who do you know who hasn’t been to church lately? Give them a call and let them know you care.
By yourself? Consider calling a church family member, put the phone on speaker, and hold a virtual worship service. Share scripture, prayers, and even hymns together.
And if you are going virtual, maybe you could have church through some form of video chat. In fact, you could video chat while listening to the sermons your church has online.
Other ideas? Tell us in the comment section.
When the sun comes back out, you might even continue some of these practices outside the worship hour. Still, nothing can replace face-to-face connection long-term; so, when you have the opportunity, get back to worship. We are better when you are with us.
One more thing. Did you know that whenever a church cancels services, its budget suffers? People just forget to send in their contributions; it’s not intentional. (Which is why I actually use automatic withdrawal—not an ideal solution as I prefer giving my offering at church, but I’m just too scatter-brained to be consistent any other way.) So, here’s your reminder: whether you go to church or not, send your offering. The church finance committee will thank you.
Whether you listen to Fox News or NPR, read the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, check FiveThirtyEight or Investor’s Business Daily, you’ve probably gotten the same general story. “This is the most divisive election in our history!” “Corruption in Washington has never been this
Imagine preaching on the same parable, to the same group of 75-100 people, eight times in a row, in just four days. Now imagine that group being made up mostly of adolescents ages 12-18.
Yep. That was me.
Be jealous. Be very jealous! (Seriously. It was fantastic! Shout out to Kaitlin Mundy for the connection.) I loved it! I had a wonderful time with the kids and I gained lots of new insight into Jesus’ parable, The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
For example, the road between Jericho and Jerusalem—it’s crazy steep; like over half a mile descent in just 15-20 miles. Also, it was widely known as a danger zone; robbers hung out there all the time. And did you know that it was not uncommon for priests and Levites to live in Jericho and work in Jerusalem, travelling that road to get from home to temple and back again? (I didn’t.) Oh, and the answer that the lawyer gives to Jesus? It’s a verse from the Shema (a passage from Deuteronomy that all good Jewish children learned from birth) paired with a passage from Leviticus (equally well known to the associates of Jesus).
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:4
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:18
Then there’s this: 2 Chronicles 28:5-15 a text that Jesus most definitely knew when he told the story of The Good Samaritan. Read it when you can, but for the moment, let me just summarize it for you. Some soldiers from the North (the Kingdom of Israel—capital city, Samaria) captured a whole bunch of folks from the South (the Kingdom of Judah—capital city, Jerusalem). They weren’t nice to them. God didn’t like that. So God callied a guy named Oded to shake his prophetic finger at Israel and tell them to straighten up, dadgumit. The offending soldiers, Samaritans, responded like this:
“. . . those who were mentioned by name got up and took the captives, and . . . they clothed all that were naked among them; they clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them; and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kindred at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria.” (2 Chronicles 28:15)
Crazy, right? Could it be that Jesus, a lifelong student of scripture, took an ancient story and repurposed it for first century listeners? I mean, we can’t know for sure, but what a cool thing to consider, right?
Make you want to burst out in song? Go ahead!
“The B-I-B-L-E! Yes, that’s the book for me!” (Join me now!)
“I stand alone on the Word of God! The B-I-B-L-E!”*
I do so love Bible study. During those focused days, I learned lots of little details and interesting facts about The Good Samaritan. I also learned something far more important. You see, I’ve read this parable many times; but only now have I realized that I had misunderstood something about Jesus’ answer. See, in my mind, Jesus said that the people you serve (the people in need--those people) are your neighbors. But that’s not what the parable teaches. No. Jesus says, “Neighbors are those who act with compassion.” Neighbors, according to Jesus, are people who actually see need and respond. Neighbors are those who cross boundaries to show compassion. Neighbors are ones who behave as if your value is equal to their own.
Do you want eternal life? Jesus says to love God so much that your heart spills over with that love and splashes up on your neighbor; because loving others is how you get to experience the Kingdom of God—on earth, just as it is in heaven.
That, as they say, will preach!
*Want to sing the whole song? Here you go. You're welcome.
Each month, I write a column for the Baptist News Global. This month, I wrote about a growing group of preachers who are unfamiliar to many Baptists. To read the column, click here. Then hang around over there at baptistnews.com for great articles on issues that really matter.
My pastor and his wife have been in Ireland for the past couple of Sundays and so, while I'm not usually the one delivering the message, I have been the last two weeks and will be again this coming Sunday. I love to preach and am so grateful to be in a church that welcomes different voices in the pulpit. But this week . . . With the incidents in the US this week, I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of proclaiming the Gospel in the midst of this national crisis.
Yet, I am glad to be fully aware of my inadequacy, to be reminded that Christ's strength is made perfect in my weakness. Thus, leaning into that promise, I approached the task of proclamation, beginning with the morning prayer (below). I preached from Colossians 1:1-14. You can find the audio of the message here, or you may download it using the link below.
Loving God, Holy Lord: you are our strength and our shield. You are the God of Mercy, the God of Peace.
We ask Lord that in this place and at this moment, Oh God, let your Kingdom come; let your will be done. So that right now on earth, we will experience blessed peace, divine mercy, and Kingdom justice.
Lord we ask that you will remind us from whom our help comes. Remind us that you are the source of all provision.
And forgive us.
Forgive us when we fail to recognize our own sins, so attentive are we to the sins of others.
Forgive us for failing to hide ourselves in you, so intent are we to step out with false pride in our own humanness.
Forgive us for relying only on ourselves: idolizing our own strengths and cursing our weaknesses.
Forgive us when we slip into these godless behaviors and forget that only you are holy.
We ask, Lord God, that you would guide us through the temptations of our lives.
The temptation of our chosen addictions: substances, attitudes, or actions.
The temptation to over-simplify complex issues.
The temptation to offer quick fixes and consider ourselves blameless.
Deliver us Lord, from our selfishness, from our knee-jerk reactions, from our mindless pursuits.
Remind us once again that we are called, through your infinite love and unyielding grace:
We are called to be your people.
We are called to be one people—one unified Body of Christ
We are called to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you.
We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We are called to love you with our whole hearts.
Bring us into this moment unfettered by our own egos.
Still the voices in our heads that cry out for attention.
Voices that say, “Make sure you do this, and don’t forget that.”
Voices that say, “What’s in this for me?” or “This is a waste of my time.”
Voices that say, “I’m not worthy,” or “I don’t belong.”
Make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek To be consoled as to console, To be understood as to understand, To be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.*
Lord, in your Mercy, Hear our Prayer.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.