Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cliche to Salvation

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

"Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Jesus and Satan were having an argument as to who was the better programmer.
This went on for a few hours until they agreed to hold a contest with God 
as the judge.   
They sat at their computers and began.
They typed furiously for several hours, lines of code streaming up on the 
Seconds before the end of the competition, a bolt of lightning struck, 
taking out the electricity.  Moments later, the power was restored, and 
God announced that the contest was over.  He asked Satan to show what he 
had come up with. 
Satan was visibly upset, and cried, "I have nothing!  I lost it all when 
the power went out."
"Very well, then," God said, "Let us see if Jesus did any better."
Jesus entered a command, and the screen came to life in vivid display, 
the voices of an angelic choir poured forth from the speakers. 
Satan was astonished.  He stuttered, "But how?!  I lost everything, 
yet Jesus's program is intact!  How did he do it?"
God chuckled, "Jesus saves"

“Jesus Saves” is, to put it mildly, an abused phrase in the English language. You can buy a t-shirt that says “Jesus Saves: he passes to Moses who shoots and scores!” in four or five different versions. My favorite refers to nerdy role-playing games: “Jesus saves; everyone else takes full damage.”

The problem when a phrase is overused and “tired” is that it loses meaning. If you repeat a word or a phrase long enough you reach “semantic satiation”; all meaning disappears and all you’re left with is the sound.

Not that the sound of Jesus is unimportant. There’s a delightful hymn about “something about that name” and we sang this morning with the praise band “call upon the name of the Lord.”

But when we reach “semantic satiation” as a culture, well, we’ve got to see things in a new light.

Jesus, of course, was The Light. Perhaps he was curing a bit of “semantic satiation” when he responded to that “teacher of the law.” The first part of Jesus’s summary of the Law is known as the “S’hma Yisrael” – in Deut. chap. 6 -- It’s the most important prayer in Judaism: “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One!” Observant Jews say it when they rise and when they go to bed. It’s called out in service.

We should try that. Let’s say it together.

Let’s try it again.

Once more.

Perhaps if we did this all the time, we’d reach semantic satiation. I can tell you, as a former Episcopalian, that “the Lord be with you and also with you let us give thanks it is right to give thanks and praise it is a right and joyful thing at all times to give thanks and praise” can pretty easily turn in to background noise. So much so that we’d open our mouths silently with the clear and lovely bells.

My teenage friends and I even stopped saying “and also with you.” We said “right back at ya!” Of course some folks were a bit taken aback, but it did a good job of reminding them why we were saying those words.

So how does Jesus play with semantic satiation here?

He takes the first part of the S’hma. Jesus says: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'

What he doesn’t say is the rest of the S’hma: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”


Two good reasons, I think. The first is that he was talking to a crowd full of Jews. Everyone knew the rest of the S’hma as surely as if I said “I pledge allegiance” or “who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” in a classroom of first graders.

The second is our more important reason. Jesus was not summarizing the law; Jesus was prioritizing the law. This is something that happens throughout the New Testament. The prioritizing over summarizing speaks to the nature of why Jesus came – the ol’ “spirit of the law vs. letter of the law” only without ambiguity. Jesus came because we were getting it wrong. We were focusing on the law without understanding the law.

So Jesus does not say the rest of the S’hma because the part he leaves out is about following the commandments that the Jews are about to receive. Jesus doesn’t want his audience then or now to think about those 613 mitzvot. And continuing to quote the S’hma is going to put us in that mind-set.

No, what Jesus wants us to think about is the commandment that he is about to give. I think you can argue that Jesus tells us to do three things: forgive each other, sin no more, and this commandment that He sets only below (and directly parallel to) loving God.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you’re reading along, you’ll notice that Jesus is quoting here, from Leviticus 19:18.

Jesus then says that no commandment is greater than these. That is, if you’re doing what Jesus has just said, you’re doing what God wants you to be doing.

Even knowing this puts you, like the teacher of the law “not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Now folks who are caught up in the idea of sola fide might get a little uncomfortable here. Sola fide, for those of you who don’t know is “by faith alone,” the idea that we are justified and saved solely through faith. The ol “faith not works” argument.

‘Course I think it’s hogwash. Because first and foremost, we’re not saved by anything WE do. Thinking that we are responsible for our salvation is hubris which is like arrogance but worse and it discounts the purpose of Jesus’ life and sacrifice. No, we’re not saved by anything we can do. We’re saved by God’s grace shown to us through His Son’s sacrifice. That’s why we’re saved.

Now, we’ve got to accept that. And that’s where the sola fide folks stop. But that’s not where Jesus wants us to stop. If we’ve accepted that God has saved us from death, brought us into a new life, birthed us again we cannot go around acting like we used to.

It’s not faith versus works, brothers and sisters. It’s that without works how do you know that you have been saved and how can you tell others?

We should never be secure enough in our righteousness that we feel we can leave the works Jesus has called us to alone. Because any righteousness we have is a gift from God. We’re broken, we’re sinners, all we deserve is to be flung like trash on the fires of Gehenna. Everything we have is a gift from God and what we ought to do is the work God asks us to do?

And what is that?

Well Jesus says it clearly don’t you think?

God is one. Love God with all you have. Love your neighbor as yourself.

If you rewrote the testimony of the Gospels as a powerpoint presentation with bulleted lists I think that would be a good first slide. You can understand all of what Jesus says and does with those two equally important commandments – now we know they’re equal because Jesus says none of the other commandments are as important as they are. The second comes from the first but they’re both important – just like the Father and the Son.

So what’s the next question we should ask ourselves, as followers of Jesus who thank God every day that the darkness was lifted long enough from our eyes that we called upon the name of the Lord and were made free?

We know we’re supposed to love our neighbor – but how do we do that?

Well like I said, the Greatest Commandment is a good way to understand scripture, especially the New Testament. And Jesus happens to have a nice parable about what it’s like to be a good neighbor.

That’s another cliché we all know, right?

“Like a Good Neighbor. . .”

(you’re humming it even if you aren’t singing it).

And in chapter 10 of Luke’s account – just after Jesus gives the Great Commandment, the teacher of the law asks “who is my neighbor?”

And Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan:

A Jewish man was traveling on a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side. Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’

I’m not sure how many of you know this but “despised Samaritan” doesn’t really come close. This is worse than if a Gator fan were stranded on the side of the road and a Bulldogs fan helped him out (you thought I wouldn’t talk about football, didn’t you?). The Jews and the Samaritans loathed each other. They each accused the other of blasphemy and false religion. They had been hating each other for the better part of 7 centuries at that point. They were so foul and low in the eyes of the Jews that when the teacher responds to Jesus, the teacher of the law can’t even say “Samaritan.”

“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked. The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

So, a neighbor is not someone you like or who looks like you or who you agree with. A neighbor is someone whom you help and love because God has created you to do so.

Were we perfect our neighbors would be the whole of the people in the world.

We aren’t perfect, though, and so we can, with God’s help, make neighbors of all we meet.

Now some of you may be uncomfortable at the thought of helping that beat-up looking bum in the street who happens to be of an ethnic or religious group you and your whole family hates. It may terrify you to reach out and touch that man, pull him up close to you, clean his wounds, take him in your car and drive him where he needs to be.

So you might plunk an extra dollar in the offering plate.


What God wants us to do – what Jesus is asking us to do when we are neighborly is to have some faith and to have some follow-through.

Pregnancy counseling clinics get a bad name. Do you know why? Because most of them employ a sonogram tech and they show the mom a picture of her baby and get her all teary-eyed and she decides not to have an abortion and she goes out the door and then what?

Nothing. Nothing but a baby born in poverty to a mother who doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into.

If you’ve seen the movie Charlie Wilson’s War or if you just paid some attention in the early 1980s, you’ll know that the US armed and trained all those mujahadeen in Afghanistan that first Bush and now Obama are so diligently trying to kill.

Why? We trained ‘em to fight the Commies of course. And when they won that war – when they drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan and won back what had become a bombed-out shell of a nation, what did we do?

We left them out to dry. Packed up our money and our muscle and left.

If we give a man the tools to make his own life he will. If we give him a burger and our pocket change we’ve proven to him that begging works.

Charity – caritas – dearness – should be the word “agape” – unconditional love and kindness is not giving out trinkets. Loving our neighbor as ourself means we treat our neighbor as we would be treated – as we would have Jesus treat us.

This is why it’s at once easy and impossible to follow Jesus, brothers and sisters. The next time your heart is moved to help your neighbor, remember the Good Samaritan. To be a neighbor you must show mercy – and you must discover and give what is needed for healing, not just immediate succor but for new birth. It’s hard. It’s impossible to do on your own. But it’s easy with God – and with God you’ll know what to do.

This “easy way” brings us back to sola fide. Those people who think that faith is “enough” – they just don’t want to work.

Jesus may have said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” – but, people, it’s still a burden. Belief is a burden. It’s also a blessing. The Army isn’t “the toughest job you’ll ever love” unless it’s the Lord’s Army.

Mark 12 and Luke 10 are about Jesus talking to teachers of the Law. Some try to trap Him with logical puzzles. But this one teacher – he doesn’t want to make himself look good, he wants to know what it is to be good.

So Jesus gives him a straight answer. No parable, no hidden meaning. Nothing to puzzle over.

Yet we have puzzled. We have fought against this clearest commandment. We have cursed our brothers’ shortcomings while ignoring our massive failures. We have behaved, not like the filthy, ignorant, hated Samaritan, but like the priest – either the one who walks by or the one who gives his tithe with fanfare and a sense that the size of ones donation to the church equals the size of ones influence; we have assumed that the single, jobless mother would magically be able to feed that baby – that the Afghans would magically rebuild their country from rubble and ash – that the broken man on the street would be healed because we dropped a dollar in his hat.

In short, we have not loved. We have not loved fully and unconditionally. We have not cared enough to answer the needs of our neighbors and instead we answer the calling of our own selfish desires. So we have no neighbors.

And yet we are ignorant and arrogant enough to wonder why we are all alone in this world. To wonder why churches decline and babies are murdered and wars increase.

When the answer is simple. We refuse to be neighbors. We refuse to follow the most important commandment of them all. The pillar and ground of the law – we refuse to follow.

And so we are refuse.

And so we pray,

Lord, we know we are worthy only of fire;

if we must be trash

let us warm the hands of the homeless

let us fill the hearts of the needy

and employ the hands of the idle.

You have shown us how to be neighbors, Lord.

Melt our hearts that

our fears

our desires

our stumbling blocks

may be removed

that we may be a neighbor to those in need

and to all the world.

In Jesus name we pray,


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