Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
July 10, 2022
First Christian Church
There is an episode of the old TV series the Twilight Zone called “The Monsters Are Due At Maple Street.” It starts on a normal weekend afternoon on a suburban street when out of nowhere, the power cuts out and when I saw it cuts out, everything cuts out. Nothing works. At first the neighbors on the street were friendly toward one another and helping each other out. But strange things start happening and paranoia sets in. People become fearful that there is a monster out there. Someone grabs a gun and lo and behold someone is shot and killed. Accusations start flying and the once peaceful street descends into riot.
Looking from above are two aliens that are pleased their experiment has worked. They believe this is the best way to conquer the earth is by using this method, block, by block, by block. There were monsters on Maple Street, it just so happened the monsters had human faces.
What’s the problem in the text? The problem starts when Jesus enters into a conversation with a lawyer. The lawyer comes and asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what scripture says and Jesus responds he answered correctly. But then the teacher gets sneaky. He knows he is to love his neighbor as himself, but then he wants to know; who is the neighbor. Or to be more precise, who doesn’t he have to be a neighbor to? Who can he ignore? One version of scripture says he is looking for a loophole and that’s exactly what he is doing.
We all have this problem, especially these days. It’s the problem we face in our world. We might say with our hearts that we love everyone, but most of us have some breaking point where we don’t want to help our neighbors if they are different from us. After the 2016 presidential election, there was a story of a motorist in Ohio that was stuck in the snow. Another motorist comes by to offer help. The gentleman gets out of the car and is ready to help the driver, but he then sees a bumper sticker for Trump. The man takes a look at the bumper sticker and then drives off leaving the woman stranded once again. He took a picture of the car stuck in the snow and posted it on Facebook along with the message that he doesn’t support “Trump supporters, rapists, trafficking, or murderers. I believe in peace and harmony. Trump didn’t display that.”
He received a number of cheers for his actions.
But this isn’t the first time something like that happened. A few months earlier a Trump supporter who operated a tow truck refused to tow a woman’s car because she had a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on her car. Ken Schupe, the tow truck driver said the following to a television station: “Something came over me, I think the Lord came to me, and he just said get in the truck and leave. And when I got in my truck, you know, I was so proud, because I felt like I finally drew a line in the sand and stood up for what I believed.”
Looking for loopholes.
America is a place where don’t like each other. It’s become cliche to talk about how divided we are but there just seems to be some truth to that. It seems every week there is an article by some pundit that says America is going to split up very soon. It might seem petty to worry about how people react to seeing a bumper sticker on your car, but it tells you something about the limits of our compassion. We want to love people, we just want to make sure they are on our side. .
In this parable we read the man is left for dead. Now some versions of Scripture tell us that the man was half-dead. That probably meant he was unconscious. This meant he couldn’t speak at all. The man’s clothes were also taken which means he was stark naked. This means something when the priest is walking down the road and saw the man on the side of the road.
The priest wasn’t able to communicate with the man on the road and that mattered. If the man was conscious, he would know if the man was even alive. Touching a dead body would render him unclean and since the guy couldn’t talk, the priest didn’t know if he was dead or not.
On top of that, the man couldn’t speak, so he had no idea how this victim talked. The victim’s voice would also tell where the man came from and would tell him where the man came from. Again, his origin would indicate where he is from and that would determine if he was Judea or Galilee or even Samaria. He wasn’t willing to take the chance so he walks on by. Same issue with the Levite.
The good news then and now comes in the form of the Samaritan. He is considered a heretic, an outsider. But he is the one that takes pity on the man and cares for him. He is doing that at great risk, didn’t you know? By caring for the man he becomes responsible. If the man dies and the victim is known to be Jewish then his family could come after the Samaritan blaming him for the man’s death.
Did you know that in some of the earliest understandings of this parable, the Samaritan was Jesus? Jesus is the one who took a risk to care for broken humanity sitting on the side of the road. Jesus cares for the man even at risk to his life Jesus challenges us by asking the same question he asked the lawyer: who was the neighbor?
There are monsters on the Maple Streets of the world. The problem is the monsters are us. Will we ignore the monsters that keep us apart from each other or will we give in? Will we stop wondering who we can be a neighbor to and figure out how we can be a neighbor?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
April 17, 2022
First Christian Church
There is a scene in the movie Selma that is incredibly memorable and the odd thing is that is had nothing to do with Selma. The scene takes place two years earlier, not in Selma, Alabama, but in Birmingham. We see four black girls walking down the interior stairs of a church. They are talking about various things as we see them pass in front of the screen and then out of the scene. We will hear their voices carrying on with the conversation, until…
BAM! A bomb explodes and the screen is filled with flying wood and glass. What we saw was the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Those four girls were all killed by the bomb. I knew what was going on and I knew what was coming. And yet, I still jumped. I don’t know why the movie starts with this event, but my guess is that it was meant to get us into the mood for what was about the come. We had to understand the darkness that pervaded the film and to understand it you had to start with what seemed to be a nice normal scene.
Easter never starts in daylight; it always starts in darkness. Mary Magdalene is going to the tomb of Jesus. We aren’t told why she’s going to the tomb, but she was on her way expecting to visit a dead Jesus. The text opens with the phrase, “While It was still dark.”
While it was still dark. We don’t think about that when we think of the Easter story, but here it is in black and white the day of resurrection starts in darkness. Mary makes her way sensing the darkness. There is no hope at all. She was healed by Jesus and she saw others being healed by this same Jesus. Jesus had become a friend. Then out of nowhere, Jesus, her friend of many years was put to death by an uncaring empire. Another good man was executed by the state. She resigned herself to believe she would never see this man again.
While it was still dark meant that sin and evil are in power. God feels distant if not absent. Mary was feeling had to feel like God was distant. Where was God when Jesus was on the cross? Did God care? It’s hard to believe in God when it’s dark.
While it was still dark. The darkness that was depicted in Selma and what Mary felt in her heart is present in our world. This past week, the New York Times presented an in-depth story about the atrocities committed by the Russian army in the village of Bucha. They tell the stories of various Ukrainians who lost their lives during the Russian occupation. There was a woman who simply opened her door and was shot dead. A month later her body still lays in the doorway. A middle-aged man went out to get a loaf of bread made by neighbors. He was shot and his body was found in the middle of the street. It would be days before his family could reach the body and send it to the morgue. A gentleman comes back to his home only to find it ransacked. He goes downstairs to find a woman, dead clad in just a fur coat. Two bullets to her head put an end to her life. There were signs that this woman had been sexually abused before the Russians killed her.
There are other stories not just in the Times but in other publications that talk about the brutality of the Russian soldiers towards Ukrainian civilians, many of which are far too disturbing to share here. As Ukrainians prepare to celebrate Easter, they see that darkness. While it was still dark truly means something to them.
In my native state of Michigan, there is uproar in Grand Rapids over a police-involved shooting of a black man. A traffic stop over expired tabs ended up with the black motorist shot in the head.
It’s in this world that something miraculous happens. Mary comes to the tomb expecting to find a stone sealing the entrance. It was still dark, you know.
But she comes to find the stone is rolled away. She is shocked and after a while, she asks a stranger to help her find Jesus’ body. It was bad enough that a good man had to die, but now his body is gone? Then Jesus says her name, “Mary.” In a moment, Jesus reveals himself as the Risen Lord. The darkness that was so prevalent was now gone. Light pierced the darkness and everything changed.
We live in a world that is still dark. What I shared from the Times proved that, but I could share something from the news each day to find proof that there is darkness in this world. This darkness, this evil seems to be everywhere these days.
Why do we celebrate the resurrection? Why do we praise something that seems to defy logic; a dead person rising from the dead? Why should we do what Mary does and tell others that Jesus is Risen? We tell these stories to remind us that while Easter starts in darkness, it doesn’t end in darkness. Sin and evil are real in our world, but the powers of death never have the last word. There is darkness in our world today. It’s found in Ukraine, but it’s found close to home as well. Sometimes right through our hearts. On Thursday, it was found in Judas as he sought to betray his friend. On Friday, it was found the Roman officials sought to kill an innocent man. But on Sunday, while it was still dark, Jesus arose and death was lost.
For those of us who believe, and who follow Jesus, we know that the light has come. We believe Jesus is no longer in the grave. The disciples were not simply inspired by Jesus’ death, they believed that Jesus rose from the grave. We who follow Jesus believed Jesus was dead and then came back to life. We also believe that one day, we too will be resurrected showing that death will be ultimately defeated.
Maybe this morning you are dealing with your own form of darkness. It could be bad news in your life, a marriage breaking up, a lost job, a bad diagnosis. Maybe you are the depths of depression, an internal darkness. Whatever it is, all you know is that it is dark. But Jesus’ resurrection tells us that this darkness can’t stand. It has already been defeated through the cross and the empty tomb.
You will notice that among the lilies this morning you will find a few sunflowers. They’re up there for a few reasons. First, it is the national flower of Ukraine, and this is a way of showing solidarity with Ukrainians. Second, the formal name of a sunflower is Helianthus Annuus. The name comes from the Greek word for sun, which is Helios and anthos which means flower. The sunflower is a heliotropic plant meaning that before it is in full bloom, parts of the plant seem to follow the sun. When it has bloomed, the flower then faces the East to welcome the rising sun. Finally, the sunflower is a symbol of hope and peace. In better times when Ukraine and Russia were on friendly terms, sunflowers were planted at a Soviet base in Ukraine as a symbol of peace. They were planted at the site of nuclear accidents such as Chornobyl and Fukushima as a sign of peace and hope. Strangely, the sunflower can pull out toxins in the ground, so the planting of sunflowers is a hope to clean up the ground in nuclear contaminated areas.
Sunflowers are a reminder that hope is here. For Christians that hope is in the Son, the Son of God. The Risen Jesus reminds us that this is a hope that never dies and that darkness will not always rule.
In the life of our church, it has felt dark. We’ve lost members and we wonder if we have a future. We are selling our building and moving to a new place, but we wonder if the move will change anything or will we just decline in a whole new location? It has been dark in our lives, but we serve a Risen Savior. Someone that has a little experience coming back from the dead. We believe God will see us through this time and lead us to a new place where we can be a witness to our community. Especially if we face the Son, we will experience light and life even when it seems like darkness is all around us.
Our usual greeting on Easter is that Christ is Risen. We say every Easter, but do we really mean it? Because today, in my life and in your life. Christ is Risen. Death is defeated. Life and light shine. Christ is Risen, my friends. Christ is Risen indeed and for that we say, Alleluia! Thanks be to God. Amen.