Why Did the Samaritan Cross the Road? A sermon for Stewardship Kick-off Sunday

About a month ago I was listening to an NPR pledge drive. And Ira Glass, one of the hosts, took it in a unique direction. He was asking people to call in, not to pledge themselves, but to essentially tell on someone they knew who listened to public radio but who had never pledged.

This one woman called in and turned in her husband. She said he listened to public radio all the time. He loved all sorts of different shows. But there was just one problem; he had never actually given a dime to the station.

So, the poor guy. This is bad enough. But Glass takes it one step further. He calls him, and gives him a good-natured hard time about never giving. And the husband was actually incredibly good-natured about it too, and by the end he not only agreed to pledge, but was quite generous, saying that he was making up for lost time.

So, if about now you’re worried that this will be our new stewardship program here at church…let me ease your mind. There will be no turning your spouse in. There will be no phone calls, radio broadcast or otherwise. Giving to church should never be a shame-based affair, even when lighthearted.

But I did laugh, because when you’re asking people to give, it’s tempting to try just about anything.

You probably already know we are in the middle of our annual church stewardship campaign because you received your pledge packet at home. And every year around this time I preach a sermon about stewardship and why supporting this church is important. And every year I try to make it interesting, so, I’m always looking for good ideas.

Ira Glass’ method is out, so we’re going to have to settle for a sermon.

So, first, what is this word “stewardship”? It’s kind of archaic sounding. It sounds extra “churchy” and serious. Like, this is something that you need to do or God will be like a really mad Ira Glass, calling you up and demanding more.

But the truth is nothing like that. The word stewardship itself comes from the idea of “stewards”. These were people who were appointed to look over and manage prominent people’s property or money, like a king or a lord.

It applies to the Christian practice of giving because, at the root of it, Christians believe that all we have comes not from ourselves, but from God. And because we ourselves belong to God, we believe that all we have also belongs to God.

A friend of mine, Quinn Caldwell, is fond of taking up the offering at his church by saying this: “I’m not saying you’re a thief, but the money in your wallet isn’t yours.” In other words, what we have is not ultimately our own. It belongs to God too. But how we use it, that is our choice. And that is stewardship.

This morning we begin a three week sermon series on stewardship. This isn’t a three week series on why you should give to the church. I’ll only be talking about that aspect today. But this is an exploration of what it means to be a good steward, or good manager, of all that God has entrusted to your care, like money, time, abilities, and more.

We are using the Biblical texts that the UCC picked out for this year’s stewardship inserts. You have one in your bulletin today. And the overarching theme of their campaign this year come from the story of the Good Samaritan which we read today.

Layout 1I love the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s one of my favorites. But when we got the sample material for this fall, for the life of me I couldn’t understand why this was a stewardship text.

And so here we are wrestling with this story where a man is robbed and is left for dead on the side of the road. And as he lays there, people from his own community walk by. Religious leaders. Powerful men. They all stay on the other side of the road, avoiding him.

But one man doesn’t. He’s a Samaritan, a member of a group that was usually looked down upon. But he crosses the road, and bandages the man’s wounds. And then he takes him to the inn, and he gives the innkeeper money and says “take care of this man…I’ll be back to pay whatever it costs”.

Jesus tells this story to his disciples and asks, “Who was a true neighbor to this man?” They answer, “The one who took care of him”. And Jesus says very simply, “Go and do likewise.”

It’s a beautiful story, one at the very heart of our faith. But what does this have to do with stewardship?

I wrestled with that until one of you, unknowingly, gave me the answer in our Wednesday book group recently. You were talking about an experiment where seminarians, students preparing to be ministers, were asked to quickly write a sermon about the Good Samaritan. After they did so they were then sent to another building to preach it.

There was a catch. Some were given adequate time to write and get to the other building. But others were given short periods of time, so the scientists knew they’d be stressed out and hurrying.

What the seminarians didn’t know was that along the route from the first building to the second, they had an actor play a man in distress. He would ask the seminarians to help him. Keep in mind, these were people who had just read and written a sermon on the Good Samaritan.

What do you think happened? It’s not so surprising. The ones who had plenty of time stopped to help the man, the way the Good Samaritan did. But the ones who were rushed? They walked on past.

I don’t think that the second group was filled with bad people who wished ill on the man. Rather, I think something like this happened. I think they knew the man needed help, but they were counting on someone else, someone with more time, to do the helping.

And here’s where the Good Samaritan story makes sense for stewardship. When we are pressed for time, when we are pressed for money, when we have so much going on, we want to give, but we think and hope that the next guy will do it.

That’s human. I’ve done that. We all have. Even the guy that Ira Glass called on the phone. He said he had always just counted on other people to pledge, saying to himself that he would do it some day when he had more time, or more money. He had good intentions, but he never quite got there.

I think that’s true in churches, too. We have good intentions, but we depend on others to do the giving. And, they will. We have generous people in our midst. And we might think that the little we could give wouldn’t make much of difference.

But here’s the question: What if we all gave anyway?

I titled this sermon, “Why did the Samaritan cross the road?” The answer is, in fact, “to get to the other side.” But why did he want to get there? And I think the answer to that is because he knew he could make a difference.

And so, in the context of stewardship, what if we all crossed the road?

If you’ve ever tried lifting something heavy by yourself, and then tried lifting the same thing with others, you know that many hands make light work. The work of upholding this congregation and our ministries is heavy. A lot of good people hold it up. But can you imagine if we all lent a hand? How much higher could we be lifted?

And so how do we cross that road? And what keeps us from crossing it?

I think the biggest thing is our fear of not having enough. That’s acutely true around money. It’s not about our desire. We want to do the right thing just as much as those seminarians who were rushed for time probably did.

But when we are afraid of not having enough, our stress becomes very real. A few years ago the American Psychological Association did a study and found that 64% of Americans said that money is a “somewhat” or “very significant” source of stress. Additionally 31% of partnered people said it was a significant stressor in their relationship.

I’ll give you another statistic. I would wager that just about 100% of clergy would say that the stewardship sermon is a “very significant” source of stress for them.

I’ve told you before that stewardship season feels a little like the NPR pledge drive. And I don’t have Ira Glass to make calls for me. But the reality is this is about more than paying the bills. This is about more than money. And this is about more than even this church.

This is about investing in a life that is congruent with our faith. Billy Graham, as I’ve told you before, once said that if you want to see what you really worship, look at your check book. Update that today, and log on to your bank account, check your credit card statements.

How we spend our money is an act of our faith. And that’s why I’m crossing the road to have this conversation with you. Because this is about more than giving. Because overcoming the fear act holds us back, and aligning our values with our resources is all about faithful living.

I would be remiss to not ask you now to think about how you will cross the road to support this place that we all love. I’m not asking you to stress you out or shame you. There will be no Ira Glass phone calls. And who gives what is a closely guarded confidence at this church; not even I know, nor do I want to.

But I am inviting you to take a risk, and to cross the road. And if you already have crossed that road, I’m asking you to go a little farther. I’m asking you to be one of the hands that works together to lift us up so that we can thrive.

We have amazing things happening right now at church. We have a Christian growth program that continues to be strong, and grow. In Allan and David we have tremendous commitment and talent. We have monthly dinners for younger families, and weekly church school for elementary kids and youth groups for middle and high schoolers.

We have a mission and action committee that never rests, giving generously of their time, and also of our funds. We have Kim, our choir director, and voices that help us weekly to praise God. We have worship that gathers in an increasing number of friends and neighbors every week. We have a well-maintained historic building that houses not just us, but community events like blood drives and AA meetings, lectures and open houses. We have people like Mary, Jim, Faith, and Sharon who help this church keep running. And we have been blessed with so much more.

And all of these things are free to all who wish to enjoy them. Like public radio, they are just there for those who need them. The bill is not in your mailbox. But like public radio, this doesn’t just happen, and it doesn’t just happen for free. The responsibility falls on the gathered body of the church. They happen because we work together as a community to lift them this church up.

And so, don’t give just to pay the bills. You should never give to a church just to pay its bills. Instead, give because you believe good is happening here. Give because you see a bright future. Give because you are ready to cross the road. And give because God has made it possible for you to do so.

This week as you ponder how you will give, I leave you with this question: Why did the Samaritan cross the road? And why, and how, will you? Amen?

Crossing the Road from Safety: Sermon for July 10, 2016

This past year I’ve been reading a lot of books that I was supposed to read earlier in life. I was a big reader growing up, but of course you can’t read everything. And so, I went back and tried to fill in the gaps. I read Tom Sawyer last fall, and Huckleberry Finn this spring. And then, this week, I finally read a book that I probably should have read in elementary school: “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are a series of children’s books that reflect his, at the time new-found, Christian faith. Reading this particular book as a Christian adult, it’s hard to miss that he’s retelling the Gospel story. And it’s not giving away too much of the book to tell you that the four children who are the book’s central characters go in search of a lion named Aslan, who acts a whole lot like Christ.

When they are told about Aslan for the first time, one of the children wonders about this lion asking, “but is he safe?” And the answer comes, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

So often we want life to be safe, and too often we equate safety with goodness. And, to be fair, safety is indeed easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s always good, and that doesn’t mean that maintaining our safety is the right choice.

Today’s story from the Gospels reminds us of that. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, are asking him who their neighbors are. And Jesus tells a story, one that we have come to know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A man who is traveling is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the road. And as he is lying there dying, a priest comes along. He sees the man, but doesn’t stop. In fact he crosses the road to avoid him. And then a Levite, another religious leader, comes along, and he crosses the road too. And by this point two men who belonged to the same people as the beaten man, two of his religious leaders, had walked right by. Things looked grim.

But then a third man, a Samaritan walks by. Samaritans were considered so lowly that the beaten man normally would not even speak to them. But Scripture tells us that the Samaritan sees the beaten man and he is “moved with pity”. He bandages his wounds, and takes him to an inn, and pays for it with his own money. Then he tells the innkeeper to feed the man and take care of him, promising that he will return and pay for it all.

Jesus finishes the story and he asks, “So, who was this beaten man’s neighbor?” And the reply comes, “The one who showed him mercy. The Samaritan.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”.

Sometimes we ask the wrong question. We ask “who is my neighbor?” But the right answer for a Christian is simple. It’s “everyone”. But Jesus asked a different question here. He asked the religious leaders who was the neighbor of the man who had been beaten and left for dead. And in that instance, it wasn’t “everyone”. It wasn’t the two religious leaders who had left him crumpled on the side of the road. Instead, it was the man who had stopped, and given everything to save him.

Neighbors are as neighbors do. Loving our neighbors requires action, or else we aren’t really neighbors. And sometimes loving our neighbors means being willing to put our own safety and comfort at risk.

Jesus never promised us safety. It would be a mistake to think that. In fact, Jesus told us that we must be willing to risk everything to follow him. Or, to use the story from Narnia, of course Jesus isn’t safe. But he’s good.

I’ve wrestled with staying safe but wanting to do good. I’ve wrestled with saying I want to love my neighbors, and actually doing so. I think we all do sometimes.

And, I confess, that some Sundays I have wrestled between the safe option of preaching an easy and unchallenging word, and the good option of risking something in order to follow Jesus.

This was one of those Sundays.

This past week we kept waking up to bad news, in the midst of a summer of bad news. One morning we woke up and heard about Alton Sterling, a man in Baton Rouge, who was shot multiple times during an arrest. The next day, Philando Castile was shot five times while reaching in his back pocket for his wallet during a police stop.

I could get away with saying nothing about this today. We are hundreds of miles removed from the violence. We are not a congregation where most of us typically wrestle with what it means to be black in this country. And by bringing this up, I may be making some of you uncomfortable.

But the lectionary text today was the Good Samaritan. And the question Jesus poses about the man who is crumpled on the side of the road looking for help is “Which one of these was his neighbor?” And the safe answer is “we are all neighbors”. But the good and right answer is “the one who crossed the road to help him”.

I want to be a good neighbor. And this week I remembered what one of our literal neighbors said a little over a year ago when he stood in this sanctuary talking about race in this country. Rev. Bob Thompson stood here and told us that the only place he had ever been called the “n word” in his life was Exeter, New Hampshire.

And so, I can’t ignore my neighbor when he says that. I can’t pretend this is a sermon that should only be preached in Baton Rouge or Minneapolis this week. I can’t walk on by while someone waits for help.
There’s an old expression: “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t haggle over the cost of your garden hose.” You do what you have to do. You put out the fire.

Take that metaphor further, and there are some other things you don’t do either. First, you don’t deny that your neighbor’s house is burning. Your own house might be safe and comfortable, but if they are running out of theirs, you should believe them when they say they need help.

Second, as an illustration I saw this week showed, you don’t say “well, all houses matter” and then go around spreading water on every house in the neighborhood. True, no one’s house should burn, but if everyone else’s is doing pretty well, and your neighbor’s is on fire, you have to be able to say “this particular house matters” and turn on the hose.

QU7sepVDThat’s why I say “Black Lives Matter”. Not because they matter more or less than the lives of any others, but because right now too many of our African American neighbors are losing theirs. That was true last summer in Charleston. That was true this week in Atlanta where a black man was found hanging from a tree. People are dying. And if we want to be called neighbors, we have to be willing to cross the road and help those who do not have the option of safety.

I want to say this also. I don’t want anything I say this morning to be construed as anti-law enforcement. I have worked as a first responder myself, I have led trauma debriefings with law enforcement, and I have family members and friends who are police officers. I know that the vast majority of officers are good people, who put their lives on the line daily to save others.

And that’s why the shootings this week in Dallas broke my heart too. Five officers will never go home again. There is absolutely no justification for the slaughter of police officers, no matter how angry someone might be. And the man who did this, he was angry. He hated police officers, and he also hated the very same African American activists that were first blamed for this attack.

The reality was that the officers and the activists who led the march the officers were at had a longstanding, positive relationship. And when the shots were fired, they protected one another. While talking heads on television blamed one group, the reality is they were there on the ground, being neighbors to one another, even as they risked being shot.

And I am so tired of people being shot. I am so tired of people having to be afraid. I am so tired of looking at the Scripture for the week and thinking to myself, “And how do I preach about this text in the aftermath of another shooting? Of more hatred? Of injustice? Of xenophobic rhetoric from our so-called leaders?”

I think you might be too.

And if you are, I would say this: we are called to be good…not safe. Because we follow a Lord who, like Aslan, is good, but not safe. And the only hope I have now is that Jesus alone is Lord, and Jesus alone can guide us to a better way. 

We cannot allow our fears or the tools we use to calm them to be our lords anymore. We cannot offer excuses to not cross the road and tend to the broken. We cannot look away, and we cannot choose our own comfort.

I usually try to end my sermon with a comforting word. Something that will give you hope and make you feel good. But today, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you this: the time for being safe has ended. Now is the time to be good. We must each figure out what that means, and then we must each cross the street, and do what we must in order to earn the title of neighbors. Why? Because Jesus told us to.

Jesus. “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” And in the end, maybe that’s the best sign of hope that we could hope to have. Amen?

For thoughts on putting faith into action in urgent times, check out Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0829820299?keywords=glorify%20emily%20heath&pc_redir=T1&qid=1453486699&s=books&sr=1-1

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: A Sermon on the Good Samaritan for April 12, 2015

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

So, I’m going to guess that this is the first time you have come to church and read the words of Mr. Rogers in unison. Fair assumption? I know that call to worship this morning may have seemed a little odd, a little playful, maybe to some even a little childish. But bear with me, and I’ll explain.

When I was a child, like a lot of people who were children when Mr. Roger’s neighborhood was on PBS, I watched that show a lot. It was, in fact, one of the few television shows I was allowed to watch. And I remember how each episode started, with Mr. Rogers coming through the door, slipping off his work shoes, and slipping on his cardigan and sneakers.

Over time I got too old for Mr. Rogers and I didn’t think about him all that much. He was just the guy in the sweater with the kids TV show. But this week, as our church school students are starting a new story, I thought about Mr. Rogers again. Because there’s something about what he taught that never fails to reminds me of this Gospel.

Today’s reading is the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is asked by a man who is trying to trick him what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus tells him that he must love God with all his soul and strength and mind, but he must also love his neighbor as himself. And this is where the classic question is asked, the one you and I still ask 2,000 years later: Who is my neighbor?

Jesus rarely gives a straight answer. Instead he tells a story. He tells this story of a man who is traveling and who is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the road. And as he is lying there dying, a priest comes along. He sees the man, but doesn’t stop. In fact he crosses the road to avoid him. And then a Levite, another religious leader, comes along, and he crosses the road too. And by this point two men who belonged to the same people as the beaten man, two of his religious leaders, had walked right by. Things looked grim.

But then a third man, a Samaritan walks by. Samaritans were considered so lowly that the beaten man normally would not even speak to them. But Scripture tells us that the Samaritan sees the beaten man and he is “moved with pity”. He bandages his wounds, and takes him to an inn, and pays for it with his own money. Then he tells the innkeeper to feed the man and take care of him, promising that he will return and pay for it all.

Jesus finishes the story and he asks, “So, who was this beaten man’s neighbor?” And the reply comes, “The one who showed him mercy. The Samaritan.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”.

Mister-Rogers

Copyright, Pittsburgh Magazine

It’s one of the most important and most well known stories of our faith. But you still might be wondering right now, what does any of this have to do with Mr. Rogers?

Years after Mr. Rogers was a daily part of my life I went off to a Presbyterian seminary, and I learned that Mr. Rogers was also the Rev. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister.

When Fred Rogers graduated from seminary his classmates were ordained as parish pastors. But he made a very unusual request. He wanted to be ordained to a very different kind of ministry in a then new arena: children’s television. Mr Rogers believed that television presented a new opportunity. He didn’t love what he was seeing on TV at the time, but he saw potential for something better. And he wanted to teach children things like the value of respecting others, being kind, facing their fears, and, yes, being a good neighbor.

And so every show started with that song that we all know. The one where he crossed a line not usually crossed by adults, and spoke to children in a way where it was clear that, though he was still the adult, he had respect for them. And he asked them to be his neighbor.

He was a minister of the Gospel. He got what that meant. He knew that we who are Christians are called to be neighbors to the most unlikely of people, even the people on the other side of our television screens. And, though he never preached overtly on his television show, I think each episode had as much Gospel in it as any sermon.

Now, at this point, you might be saying, “Well, yes…it’s easy to love your neighbors in a place where everyone walks through unlocked doors and wears comfortable sneakers and cardigans. It’s not that hard to pick out neighbors from the Neighborhood of Make Believe. But what about the real world? The one where you and I live? The one where not all of our neighbors are what we expect?

I think he got that too. He was hosting a children’s show, and so he was speaking to kids using situations they understood. But if you read a little about his life, this was a man who seemed to always cross the lines to make new neighbors. When he wasn’t on camera, he often stood up for others. And he really didn’t make a big deal about it because that’s just what he thought anyone should do.

But the reality, unfortunately, is that we don’t live in a world of Mr. Rogers.

A couple of years ago I drove out to a friends’ wedding in Kokomo, Indiana. And the whole way out there we kept saying to each other, “Kokomo, Indiana…why do we know that name?” We knew something newsworthy had happened there once, but we couldn’t remember what.

So, we Googled it. And we found out that Kokomo, Indiana was in the 1980’s the hometown of a young boy named Ryan White. Ryan White’s neighbors found out that he had what was then a relatively unknown disease called AIDS.

Driving around town we learned that Kokomo, Indiana is filled with churches. But when his neighbors found out that a young neighbor had this disease, what most of the Christians did didn’t exactly resemble the Good Samaritan from Jesus’ story. They didn’t minister to him or his family, or try to support them. Instead, they barred Ryan from attending the local school, and eventually they ran him out of town completely.

And so, one day about thirty years later, when a group of people who had been kids in the 80’s rolled into town, all we knew about Kokomo, Indiana was that it was a place where one neighbor had been anything but loved.

My guess is that there are a lot of good people in Kokomo. And my guess is that thirty years ago they were as afraid as those two men who crossed to the other side of road and away from that injured man in Scripture. But I remember thinking as we were driving about how that legacy of turning its back on a neighbor is something with which that community will always have to wrestle. All it takes is one time, one choice to not love your neighbor, and the message goes out loud and clear.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Because there are other stories too. Stories like this one: I’ve always liked baseball and I’ve always been inspired by Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. I knew the part of the story where he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier. But I didn’t know what happened after he retired. Because it turns out, Jackie Robinson had to break another color barrier: the one he faced when he bought a house not in Mississippi or Georgia, but in Connecticut. And his neighbors weren’t happy.

The story goes that when Jackie Robinson moved there, his neighbors were so angry that they were sharing their neighborhood with a black man that they even ostracized the man who sold him the property. You might think that a man who had been a ball player and hero might be welcomed, but Robinson found his neighbors were as hostile as those early baseball crowds had been.

But one neighbor wasn’t: the Congregational, and later UCC, church that was just down the street from his house. And because they welcomed him and his family, not only did the Robinsons have a place to worship, but the church had a chance to show who they were. No one remembers them as “the church that turned Jackie Robinson away”. They just remember them as, “Jackie Robinson’s church”. End of story. It’s not a point of pride. It just is. As it should be, because we should never expect anything less from a church.

If we are serious about this whole following Jesus thing, we have to love with the same open-hearted abandon as the Samaritan. We have to love with the same willingness to embrace the newcomer as the church in Connecticut. We have to dare to cross lines in the road, and we have to build the unexpected relationships that will save not just one of us, but both of us. Let’s never make the mistake of thinking that the ones who cross the lines don’t also receive grace here.

But most of all, we have to ask that question Mr. Rogers asked so many times, and not just to the people we want to ask it of, but to everyone: Won’t you be my neighbor? No cardigan or sneakers or singing are required…just a sincere conviction in our hearts and this question that is so much harder than it sounds: Won’t you be my neighbor.

They are easy words to sing, but they are much harder words to say. But when it comes to being the church, really being the church, and to being Christians, there’s no option here. We can’t choose our neighbor, but we can choose community. And God will never fail to bless community. Amen.