I haven’t updated this blog in a while with sermons, though I’ve given plenty. I thought I’d start uploading the one’s I thought were worth reading, beginning with the one from this past Sunday. Below are the remarks from the greeting that opened the service and set the tone, as well as the sermon.
They were given at Warrenton Baptist Church in Warrenton, NC, where I am currently serving in an interim capacity.
The Christian Greetings
It says in your bulletin that I am going to deliver to you Christian greetings before we begin. The Apostle Paul when he greeted his fellow Christians did it this way – he said “Grace and peace be with you.” Mixed up in what seems to be a simple saying is a complicated reality. When the Greeks greeted each other, they would say, “Chi-ray.” When the Jewish people would meet each other they would say, “Shalom,” which is “eh-rey-nay” in Greek. When Paul greets his Christian sisters and brothers, he says “chi-reese” and “eh-rey-nay,” both the Greek and Jewish greeting, grace and peace. He was not just covering all his bases or just trying to be inclusive; no, he was making a profoundly subversive statement in a divided church. You might say that in a church where it would have been easier for Paul to say, “All Lives Matter,” he said, “Greek Lives Matter” and “Jewish Lives Matter.”
If you’ve been tuned into the news this week, you have seen some truly horrific things. Alton Sterling, a black man, was shot and killed by police while he was detained. He was shot, almost execution style, while he posed no significant threat. Alton Sterling should still be alive today. Philando Castile was shot when stopped for a broken tail light. While trying to comply with the officer’s orders, he was shot in front of his little girl and his girlfriend. Philando Castile should still be alive today. Five police officers were killed in Dallas this week, doing their job guarding a peaceful protest on behalf of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. They died and several others were wounded doing their job. They should still be alive today. It is insufficient in the wake of this week to say, “All Lives Matter.” We must, like the Apostle Paul, be specific.
When we ask for grace and peace, which is the Christian greeting, we must be specific. Racial tensions have always existed in our country because they have been a part of it since its inception. The United States of America did not have an immaculate conception or a virgin birth. This is not a new problem. Similarly, none of us were born exempt or apart from the racial crisis that plagues our country. We all have our part to play and we have all already played a part. If the Christian greeting is “grace and peace,” we need to seriously consider what that means in our day.
If “grace and peace” is a message that is distinctly Christian, we must not be afraid to be like Paul and be specific about the divisions in our society.
If “grace and peace” is the Christian greeting, as Christians, we must be able to say “Black Lives Matter” just as readily as we say “Blue Lives Matter.”
If “grace and peace” in its specificity to Jew and Gentile alike is the Christian greeting, we must know that we cannot say “All Lives Matter” when Black lives clearly don’t matter.
If “grace and peace” is a Christian greeting, we must condemn the violence in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights just as fast as we condemn the violence in Dallas.
I don’t say those things because I think I’m some sort of prophet. I don’t say those things because I think I’m self-righteous. I don’t get a high or some sort of great satisfaction talking about social issues from the pulpit. I don’t say those things because of any political persuasion. I say those things because I am a Christian. I say “Black Lives Matter” because I worship a God who said “grace and peace” to me.
Now, it’s easy to come up with enough objections and counter-points that we can safely ignore these deaths and move on as if nothing had happened.
It’s easy to say that Alton or Philando could have done something differently, come up with some excuse to avoid the horrifying nature of their deaths.
It’s easy to dismiss the concerns of protestors as naïve young people or ungrateful citizens, come up with some excuse to ignore their message.
It’s easy to tune into the news sources that tell us what we already want to hear, come up with some excuse to interrogate our fallen world.
It’s far more difficult, but far more Christian, to say “grace and peace.”
Hear these Christian greetings from the Apostle Paul:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Welcome to worship.
The Gospel passage we heard today was that of the Good Samaritan. In telling this parable, Jesus followed in a long-held Jewish tradition of examining God’s expectations for the people of God and the old tradition of doing so by overturning the listener’s expectations. The priest and the Levite are supposedly righteous people, doers of God’s good deeds, proclaimers of God’s good word, and interpreters of God’s good law. The Samaritan, on the other hand, is despised. The Samaritan was not just a foreigner to the Levite, the priest, the man in the ditch, and all of Jesus’ listeners. No, the Samaritan was an idolater, an outcast from the lost tribes of Israel.
Samaria, hometown of our good traveler, was in the historic Northern Kingdom of Israel, comprised of the tribes that split off from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which included Jerusalem. The Samaritans followed God via a temple in Samaria, not the one in Jerusalem, and were despised for it. Yet, Jesus presents this Samaritan, this heretical foreigner, as the one who follows God. This is not the first time that God used this border between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms to teach them a lesson. It wasn’t the first time God used this border to show what it meant to be a good neighbor, which is what God expects of all of us.
Amos, who we will be spending time with this month, was a foreigner in his ministry, as well. Amos was from the Southern Kingdom, sent to the North to prophecy centuries before Jesus came. He was sent by God from Judah to Israel in the opposite movement of the Good Samaritan parable to challenge his Northern neighbors and remind them of God’s expectations for them. It’s helpful to know a little something about Amos before we dig into his prophetic message, which Mary Catherine read for us earlier in the service.
Amos was not a religious leader by profession or birth. We heard him protest in our passage for this morning, “I am no prophet! I’m not even a prophet’s son! I am a herdsman, a dresser of sycamore trees.” Amos was a herdsman and, in some ways, also a farmer in a time that was not kind to herdsmen or farmers. He lived in a divided land, which I have already called the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. If you remember the stories of King David, the slayer of Goliath, you will remember he ruled over a united Israel. After the reign of Saul, David and his son, Solomon the Wise, united the tribes of Israel under one crown and one throne.
As charismatic as David may have been and as shrewd as Solomon may have been, and as much as those qualities had helped them unite a tribal people, their heirs were not able to hold the kingdom together. Rehoboam, the king on the throne in Jerusalem and son of Solomon, got into a violent dispute with the leaders of the Northern Tribes and they seceded from his kingdom. They proclaimed Jeroboam I king of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and Rehoboam’s smaller kingdom became known as Judah, the Southern Kingdom.
By the time Amos was born, Jeroboam I, King in the North, was long dead, and his descendant who took his name, Jeroboam II, was on the throne. Jeroboam II led the North into its most prosperous era. He was at relative peace with Uzziah, the King in the South, and the North enjoyed material and financial expansion. They amassed riches and territory such that it was the most prosperous period in Israel’s history. A time of relative peace came over the kingdoms, both kings reigned for a long time, and they expanded their power.
As you might expect, not everyone benefitted from this period of great prosperity. Wealth and land reached a pinnacle in the North, to a height it would never again reach. But it did so in a time of gross inequality between the elites in Northern cities and the poor, concentrated in its countryside. These poor were herdsmen and farmers like Amos. There was, during the rule of Jeroboam, the formation of an upper crust who benefited from the crown and the court’s wealth, but the rest of his people saw little of that prosperity. The wealthy grew at the expense of the poor and increased their power and wealth.
Of course, a little-known farmer from a little-known town in Judah would not have cared much about that mini history lecture. Such a man wouldn’t care much about or much for these wealthy elites and kings with fancy numbers behind their names. The only interactions a farmer from the small town of Tekoa like Amos would have had with such rich elites was their system of credit and debt. The rich gradually forced out long-time farmers and landowners in favor of expanding their own holdings, displacing the poor or making them into indentured servants. Little farmers like Amos didn’t have much power in this system, so it’s little surprise that God’s call to Amos might not have made a lot of sense to him or those around him. But God called Amos anyway.
God called Amos into conflict with the authorities of his day. In the passage we read for today, we get a glimpse of Amos’ conflict with Amaziah, priest in service of Jeroboam, King in the North. Amos had already been prophesying against the inequality in the North, Israel, and offering a scathing critique of their society. Naturally, this made Amaziah uncomfortable, so he sent word to the King. Amos posed a threat to the status quo between the North and South, between the kings and their subjects, between the rich and poor. Amos’ words were fighting words, and Amaziah recognized them as such.
What words got Amos in trouble with Amaziah and Jeroboam? He recounted a vision from God. “This is what the Lord showed me,” Amos tells us. “The Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand.” God asked Amos what he saw, and Amos answered truthfully, if confused. “A plumb-line.” A plumb-line is similar to the level you use when hanging a picture in your house, just on a much larger scale. We have more advanced equipment for this task now, but a plumb-line was what you used to make sure you built a wall right. You use the plumb-line to make sure the wall sits right on its foundation, that it stands up straight. You use a plumb-line to make sure the wall meets expectations.
“See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people, Israel,” God told Amos. And Amos relayed, “I will never again pass them by. The high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste. I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” God was saying that his plumb-line showed that Israel was not meeting expectations. Israel was not sitting well on its foundations. Israel was not standing up straight. Jeroboam and his people did not meet God’s expectations. All the unjust economic arrangements, the exploitation of the poor, it was not what God expected of them.
They failed the plumb-line’s test. And what do you do with a wall that fails the plumb-line’s test? You can’t build on it. You can’t add other walls and build a house. You can’t depend on a wall that fails the plumb-line. The only thing you can do is destroy the wall and start over, which is what Amos said God planned to do with Israel.
The lesson Amos has for us in today’s passage is simple – mind the plumb-line. Make sure you pass the test. Through Amos, God named several ways Israel failed the plumb-line. In Amos 2,
“Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of Israel, and for four,
I will not revoke the punishment;
Because they sell the righteous for silver,
And the needy for a pair of sandals.”
In addition to economic exploitation, God condemns them for idolatry and sexual violence. God accused them of a corrupt justice system and society, saying
“Ah! You that turn justice to wormwood,
And bring righteousness to the ground!”
But Amos’ prophecy continually comes back to the treatment of the poor. From Amos 5,
“They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
And they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor,
And take from them levies of grain,
You have built houses of hewn stone,
But you shall not live in them.
You have planted pleasant vineyards,
But you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
And how great are your sins,
You who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
And push aside the needy in the gate.”
For all these reasons, Israel failed God’s plumb-line test. But God gives them, and us, instructions on how to pass that test, how to mind the plumb-line:
“Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
And so the Lord, the God of Hosts, will be with you,
Just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good, and establish justice at the gate.
It may be that the Lord, the God of Hosts,
Will be gracious to the remnant of Jacob.”
God demands that they right the wrongs of injustice, that they mind the plumb-line. And God demands the same things of us in our day. We, too, must mind the plumb-line.
There are many debates about what the plumb-line demands of us, so many that I could not hope to even list them all today. Thankfully, we have in the words of Jesus a plumb-line appropriate for today. Because when a lawyer stood up to test Jesus and asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he was asking about a plumb-line. What kind of life must I lead to be a wall that God can depend on? What kind of life must I lead to be a wall that stands the test of time?
Jesus asked him in return his knowledge of God’s plumb-lines, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
And the lawyer answered well, “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.”
That’s a pretty good plumb-line. It’s straightforward and to the point. Right? Jesus said as much, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But the lawyer has an extra question. The plumb-line apparently wasn’t specific enough. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks.
And that’s when Jesus tells the story that we all know. That’s when Jesus lays down a plumb-line that would have done Amos proud. And notice, Jesus doesn’t answer the man’s question. He doesn’t tell him who his neighbor is, but how to be a good neighbor.
“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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” He failed the plumb-line test. “So likewise, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” He failed the plumb-line test. “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went 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.
“The next day, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”
And then Jesus turned and asked the lawyer the question with an absurdly obvious answer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Of course the lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Now, we could spend a long time talking about the dynamics of the Samaritan being a Samaritan like I mentioned earlier, but I talked about the Stranger last week (it’s a sermon version of this article that I wrote for Baptist News Global, sermon link forthcoming). Since we’re talking about plumb-lines, let’s look at the plumb-line the Good Samaritan sets out for us. What made the Good Samaritan a good neighbor?
- First, the Good Samaritan did what was right without ever asking why. He just did it. He never asked if the man deserved it or if there were extenuating circumstances. He gave every benefit of the doubt to the stranger that needed help. With no regard for his own gain and less regard for his own safety, the Good Samaritan simply did what he knew was right – he saved a life. The Good Samaritan knew that above all else, life was to be prized. That was his primary goal – save a life, and ask all the why questions later. Too often, in our culture, we don’t look to save a life, we look to end ones we perceive as threats. Whatever we want to call it, stand your ground, self-defense, or whatever, it is a guise for the fact that we live in a culture of death and call it life. The Good Samaritan begs us to save a life without ever asking why.
- Second, the Good Samaritan was a good neighbor because he gave of his own power and resources. What the Good Samaritan did was costly. It was not cheap. A culture that honors life recognizes that there is no expense when it comes to life. To be a good neighbor, we must give of our power and resources to save the lives of others. We cannot stand by idly while they die of starvation, thirst, homelessness, destitution, or at the other end of a gun. The Good Samaritan was armed with some kindness and a donkey to spare, and he used these resources in his power to care for the stranger whose life was in danger.
- Third and finally, the Good Samaritan is a good neighbor because he recognized that someone else’s plight disrupts his life. He didn’t just let the other man’s plight disrupt his life, he recognized that this man’s suffering constituted a disruption of his own life. While in prison in Birmingham, Alabama for his activities in the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King wrote the following:
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
What Martin King and the Good Samaritan understood was that a threat this a stranger’s life is a threat to their own. The loss of freedom and life anywhere in the world was a personal loss to Martin King and the Good Samaritan. It is a mark of a good neighbor, then, to recognize that the suffering of others is an injustice that threatens us all.
To recap, the plumb-line that the Good Samaritan outlines for us is this (1) Do what is right unconditionally. (2) Give of your own power and resources. (3) Recognize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Now, we might do well to consider this plumb-line, and ask in all the events of this week, how do we measure up? Is our country a wall that would stand the test of the plumb-line?
Regardless, what did Jesus say of this man, this good neighbor, this plumb-line? “Go and do likewise.” This is what God expects of us.