With Bands of Love

Hosea 11:1-11

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols. 3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. 4 I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.

5 They will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6 The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes. 7 My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up.

8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

9 I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment. 10 They will walk after the LORD, who roars like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. 11 They will come trembling like a bird, and like a dove from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.  (CEB)

With Bands of Love

Throughout Christian history there have been those who tried to characterize the God of the Old Testament as a wrathful and vengeful God, and the God of the New Testament as a loving, caring, self-sacrificing God. In the 2nd century, there was even a guy named Marcion who taught that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were two different Gods. As a result, he rejected all the books that were later canonized as the Old Testament. Marcion was one of the first notable heretics of the Christian faith. While the Marcionite Church died out by the late 5th century, some of Marcion’s basic ideas persist even today.

People sometimes have difficulty reconciling the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. Some people like the New Testament better than the Old Testament. Some people even believe that the Old Testament is concerned primarily with judgment, while the New Testament is concerned primarily with grace. The Old Testament is often held as less important than the New Testament. I own a book that includes only the New Testament and the Psalms, and I joke that it’s my Marcionite Bible. (I hesitate to call it a Bible because it dumps everything but the Psalms) .

Even the lectionary, which I really love, drops the Old Testament completely throughout the 50 days of the Easter season. It really throws off my attempt to give equal time to the Old and New Testaments in my preaching. For the record, as of this sermon the count stands at 23 Old Testament sermons, and 27 New Testament sermons in my time here at First UMC. (So those of you who prefer the New Testament are winning).

Those who are under the illusion that the Old Testament is less important, or that it’s only about judgment, might have their minds changed after reading Hosea 11. It’s been said before, and I believe this as well, that the Old Testament contains everything in the New, and the New Testament reveals everything in the Old.

What we’re shown in Hosea 11 is the most vivid portrayal in the Scriptures of the agony of God who is torn between the demands of judgment and the desire to show mercy. Hosea gives us the familiar images of a parent and child, and these images are used to show us the deep and immeasurable love of God. Yet, God’s love is continually spurned and rejected by a sinful people. So God struggles with judgment and mercy, and this struggle seems to cause God anguish.

The first four verses speak of God as a parent who has lovingly cared for a child. Hosea describes the helplessness of the child who could do nothing on his own. If God had not nurtured and loved it, Israel would not even have survived. And the tragic irony is that, “The more I called them, the more they went from me.” (NRSV).

Hosea describes for us the tenderness of God in a way that is almost unmatched in the Bible. Any parent who has raised an infant can relate closely to what’s being said. Anyone can feel empathy for the parental love God demonstrates in these lines: a parent’s pride and excitement at a child’s first steps, the love and joy of picking one’s child up and holding her close, the kind-hearted and loving parental guidance given throughout the child’s life. At the same time, we can empathize with God’s deep sadness when Hosea exclaims, “but they did not know that I healed them.” (NRSV).

While mothers and fathers alike are able to give such nurturing love and care to their children, Hosea seems to have in mind motherly affection when he describes God by saying, “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to feed them.” (NRSV). God is like a mother in her tender devotion to her child.

Then comes the difficult realization by every parent that, as much as we would like to think to the contrary, our children are not perfect. My campus pastor used to say that anyone who doesn’t believe in Original Sin obviously doesn’t have children. Our kids don’t hang on our every word. In fact, it sometimes appears that they ignore a good many more of our words than they choose to obey. As they grow and push our patience to the edge of the envelope while they assert their independence, they end up doing some really stupid things.

Even after you try to explain to them that you’re only telling them this for their own good—even for their own safely—they so often choose to ignore our words. If my mom had known about it when we were kids, she probably would have told us NOT to shoot each other with BB guns, or throw bottle rocket grenades at each other, or make chemical bombs, or burn a tree down by stuffing it full of paint cans, or…well, how about I stop there.

Before Charlotte was born, I told my son a thousand times not to hang over the safety bar on the top bunk of the bunk beds, but he would do it anyway…and he fell on his head. The result was that he vomited a lot through the night and he had to be taken to the Emergency Room in the wee hours of the morning.

Apparently that first lesson didn’t take because he did it again a few months later. Now he’s not in a bunk bed. I tell my daughter to not run in the house, but she does anyway and inevitably trips over her own feet or over some toy that had been left out, and she crashes to the ground in a heap of tears and wailing, clutching a carpet-burned knee. If they would just listen to mommy or daddy, then they wouldn’t have these self-inflicted wounds.

Israel was the same kind of child. God loves Israel deeply. But there were times that the people refused to listen to God. There were times when they were disobedient children. Justice demands that they be punished. So God says, “They shall return to the land of Egypt,” (NRSV). Egypt of course symbolizes bondage, “and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me.” (NRSV). These are harsh words, but justice demands that there be punishment for sin.

I’m not sure what kind of parent it makes me, but the second time my son ventured into the extreme sport of bunk bed diving and crashed to the floor, I wanted to spank him. Two of my greatest desires in the world are to be a good husband and a good father, but I was angry with my son for leaning over the safety bar again after he had been told a hundred times not to do it. I was angry because he hurt himself and he very well could have been seriously injured or even killed.

Yes, I wanted to spank the little turkey as he was clasping his aching noggin while his face bristled with tears. And for a moment, I weighed the options of justice or mercy, but even while I mulled this over, I was already moving toward him, getting down on the floor, examining my injured son, picking him up and loving on him. I didn’t spank him. I was still angry, and he lost the privilege of sleeping on the top bunk, but I was more concerned about him than my anger. All I could do was take care of him.

As God wrestles with the demands of justice and of mercy, he cries out, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.” (NRSV).

When the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were erased from the face of the earth, Admah and Zeboiim were destroyed with them (Deut. 29:23). But God, as a loving parent, draws back from the horror of it all—the punishment that justice demands—and decides in favor of mercy. Why is it that God’s mercy wins out over God’s justice? We don’t know: that’s just the way God is. “For I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (NRSV).

So God’s people, in spite of the judgment to come—a judgment they very much deserved, would not be utterly destroyed. The Assyrians came, and Israel went into exile. Its people were scattered. But Hosea promises restoration. God’s people will turn toward the Lord and “come trembling like birds from Egypt.” (Hosea 11:11, NRSV). Again, Egypt represents bondage. They will return to the Lord and to their homes.

Yet, God has moved even further than we could imagine. God moves beyond even mercy and extends grace to those who turn back to God. What they deserved was justice, but God gave them mercy and, even more than that, God gave them grace. The simplest definitions of justice, mercy, and grace are that Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you don’t deserve. God moves from justice to mercy to grace.

Like Israel, we have all sinned and therefore justice demands that what we deserve is punishment. But the good news of God is that he extends mercy to us. Therefore, mercifully, God chose to take the punishment of our sins upon God’s self through the suffering and death of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. God chose to bear for us the sentence of justice.

What a spectacular display of divine love! But then, incredibly, God doesn’t stop there, God goes much, much further. Through the unmerited grace of God we have been made children of God. God has washed away the stain of our sins and remembers our sins no more. God has brought us into his family and made us heirs of eternal life. We will be brought to our homes which God has prepared for us, and we will live with God forever.

Hosea teaches us that God loves us even more deeply than the love of a mother and a father. Through Jesus Christ, God has fulfilled the requirements of justice, the requirements of mercy, and extended to us grace—which is God’s very presence with us—which is beyond what we could ever ask or imagine. God is a God justice, a God of mercy, and most wonderfully, a God of grace.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Summer Fruit

Amos 8:1-12

1 This is what the LORD God showed me: a basket of summer fruit. 2 He said, “Amos, what do you see?”

I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again forgive them. 3 On that day, the people will wail the temple songs,” says the LORD God; “there will be many corpses, thrown about everywhere. Silence.”

4 Hear this, you who trample on the needy and destroy the poor of the land, 5 saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale, make the ephah smaller, enlarge the shekel, and deceive with false balances, 6 in order to buy the needy for silver and the helpless for sandals, and sell garbage as grain?”

7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget what they have done. 8 Will not the land tremble on this account, and all who live in it mourn, as it rises and overflows like the Nile, and then falls again, like the River of Egypt?

9 On that day, says the LORD God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in broad daylight. 10 I will turn your feasts into sad affairs and all your singing into a funeral song; I will make people wear mourning clothes and shave their heads; I will make it like the loss of an only child, and the end of it like a bitter day. 11 The days are surely coming, says the LORD God, when I will send hunger and thirst on the land; neither a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the LORD ‘s words. 12 They will wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they will roam all around, seeking the LORD’s word, but they won’t find it. (CEB)

Summer Fruit

Amos is a book that sets a great precedent. It does all of the things people say pastors and preachers should never do. I’ve been told more than once that pastors should not mix religion and politics. I’ve been told pastors shouldn’t talk about money or economics, either. Every time I open my mouth or make a post on social media about these things, someone inevitably responds that a pastor shouldn’t mix them together. It’s inappropriate, they say. You have offended me, they say.

I take their words as proof that I’ve gotten it right, because what God demands of us is offensive and uncomfortable. Will Willimon, one of my seminary professors, said that only a false god will never tell anything that’ll make you angry or uncomfortable. The Living God challenges us to choose something better than comfort and complacency. In fact, God wants us to choose righteousness! Not the false substitutes of self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement, or self-congratulations, but true righteousness where we make moral choices and live moral lives that benefit the community, not merely ourselves.

In fact, the only reason people say pastors and preachers should not talk about politics, money, economics and the like is not because we shouldn’t, but because they simply don’t want to hear it. If it challenges the way we live and think, we might get offended. The truth is we don’t want to come to church and hear that we might actually have to change, or have to consider another way, or—God forbid!—be shown that we might need to repent of the choices and assumptions we have made.

If anyone really, truly believes there is any issue anywhere that pastors and preachers should not talk about, then I fear that person doesn’t quite grasp the God we worship in Judaism and Christianity. Our God makes absolutely no distinction between so called religious and secular matters. How we act in our every day—the morality or immorality of each decision we make and how those decisions affect others—is of particular concern to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Amos, and us. Even if something is perfectly legal, God demands we consider whether or not it is moral, and we are to choose the moral path.

In fact, the entirety of Amos’s message is concerned about the immoral economic practices of the northern Kingdom of Israel in the middle of the 8th century B.C. Did you know that God is so concerned with economics that he would send a prophet to preach a message of judgment to a kingdom lost in immoral economic practices? Amos preached the message that Poor Lives Matter, Needy Lives Matter, Vulnerable Lives Matter, Disenfranchised Lives Matter, just as Jesus later preached, “Blessed are the poor,” (Luke 6:20).

Part of our hesitancy to hear about matters of economic injustice, such as what Amos condemns, is our distaste with the idea of God’s anger. In fact, one of the prevailing views of early Christianity as presented by Clement of Alexandria and Origen, was that we shouldn’t take these comments about God’s anger literally. Rather, we should interpret them allegorically. We don’t want to imagine that God can actually get angry, and so we find ways to gloss over examples of Divine anger in Scripture. It’s an embarrassing idea, after all, that God could be moved to passion.

And yet, how can we say that God can love and find joy in human goodness without logically concluding that God finds displeasure and can become angry at human evil and injustice? God is never presented anywhere in the Scriptures as indifferent to injustice. In Jewish theology, God’s anger is always tied to God’s love. God’s pathos is always tied to God’s ethos. In regard to Gods’ anger, the great scholar Abraham Heschel wrote, “It is because God is the source of justice that His pathos is ethical; and it is because God is absolutely personal—devoid of anything impersonal—that this ethos is full of pathos.” (Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 2, p. 5). God gets angry because God loves us, not because God has irrationally lost self-control. God’s anger is justice.

God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit and declares that the end has come upon Israel. the people will wail the temple songs,” and “there will be many corpses, thrown about everywhere. Silence. (CEB). We miss the connection in the English translations, but in Hebrew, the words for Summer-fruit and End sound similar. The summer-fruit, which represents to the people abundance, plenty, and the blessing of God’s providence now represents doom, death, and God’s absence.

Amos’s words should make us recoil. They’re intended to make us recoil. How does a prophet get the attention of those who have become indifferent to evil? With words and imagery like this.

What should have made the people recoil didn’t. What should have made people recoil with disgust were the economic injustices the wealthy were committing against the poor: cheating with false-balances, mixing in the sweepings with the grain, buying the poor into indentured slavery when they had nothing else with which to purchase the basic necessities of life.

The mistreatment and cheating of other human beings for personal gain should have disgusted them, instead the wealthy found it enticing. It was extra money in their pockets. So they accepted it. They hardened their hearts and showed indifference to the evil things they were doing. The problem is that indifference to evil and injustice is, itself, evil and unjust. How can we expect a God who loves to sit back and ignore such things? Do we really want God to sit back and ignore them? We certainly don’t when we’re the ones who are somehow wronged, so why would we desire God’s indifference if we’re the ones who wrong others?

When God gets angry, it is not arbitrary. God’s anger is always a response to human injustice and human choice to do evil. When God dishes out punishment, the punishment fits the crime. The dead bodies Amos says will be strewn about compare to the corpses of the poor who have already died as a result of immoral economic practices. We read about the death of Egyptian first-borns and think it was a harsh punishment, but we forget about the murder of Hebrew babies whom Pharaoh ordered to be thrown into the Nile as alligator food (Exodus 1:22). The punishment fits the crime, but we don’t like the idea that God might bring upon us the very things we have done to others.

The thing is, the call to justice: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as our self, sounds simple enough. But in a world that is systematically unjust and broken it’s not always easy to follow through with those very things. It’s easy to let the world deafen our ears, blind our eyes, and harden our hearts to others. It doesn’t just happen, we let it happen. We choose it.

The consequence of choosing to ignore God’s call for justice is that eventually, we won’t be able to hear or recognize God’s word for what it is. The days are surely coming, says the LORD God, when I will send hunger and thirst on the land; neither a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the LORD’s words. They will wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they will roam all around, seeking the LORD’s word, but they won’t find it.” (CEB). Remember, the punishment fits the crime. Those who refuse to listen to God’s word in the first place, will render themselves unable to hear it at all.

Let me recount a history lesson. Roughly thirty years after Amos preached this message, the northern Kingdom of Israel was wiped off the face of the earth. Assyria came in and carried God’s chosen, hand-picked people into exile, forcing them to relocate in a foreign land. The people did not listen to Amos. “I will turn your feasts into sad affairs and all your singing into a funeral song; I will make people wear mourning clothes and shave their heads; I will make it like the loss of an only child, and the end of it like a bitter day.” (CEB).

There is hardly another book of the Bible that speaks more clearly about God’s economics and demand for justice for the poor and oppressed. What would God say to us today? What would Amos preach if he came to the United States bearing God’s word for us? And how would we react to this prophet from a foreign land daring to tell us how it is?

I think Amos would tell us that God is concerned about our religious devotion. God is concerned about our politics. God is concerned about our economic practices.

And we would tell him not to mix religion and politics.

I think Amos would tell us that God is concerned with the money we earn, the possessions we accumulate; and not only what we accumulate, but how we accumulate them.

And we would tell him what we have and what we earn is our business, not his.

I think he would tell us that God is concerned with every sphere of human existence. And God is especially concerned about the poor, the disadvantaged, the neglected, the vulnerable, the abused, the used, and the abandoned.

And we would tell him to take his message elsewhere; that he’s not welcome in our communities.

You see, I don’t have a lot of confidence that we’re any better than the people of Israel in the 8th century B.C. What I do have confidence in is the power of God’s grace to change human lives; to take people lost in sin and make them righteous; to enable us to repent of evil and injustice and choose what is right, and just, and good. Only God’s grace can heal us and rescue us from the power of evil and injustice. But it still requires the courage of repentance. Do we have that kind of courage?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

A Samaritan

Luke 10:25-37

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (CEB)

A Samaritan

Human beings are creatures of story. We love telling story, and we love listening to story! We learn through story. We’re shaped through story, sometimes without even realizing the effect it’s had on us. We read our children stories like The Velveteen Rabbit to teach them about the power of love. We read them stories like Ferdinand to teach them about peace and pacifism. Some of those sitting here who know the story of Ferdinand are probably surprised at my suggestion that the story is about pacifism. After all, Ferdinand the bull is a big, powerful… Pacifist; who would rather sit peaceably and smell the flowers than try to impress anyone with his machoism, let alone get in a fight.

The Star Wars saga has defined generations since its release in 1977. Most people either identify with the Jedi or the Sith. And there are those who identify with a different path, like Ahsoka Tano. Even watching a comedic love story like, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, makes us want to snuggle up with our significant other and simply be in their presence.

We’re impacted by story. Who could walk away from watching Schindler’s List without saying, Never again! What married couple with children can watch Crazy, Stupid, Love, or Date Night, and not want to put more effort into your own relationships?

Those who write stories often use them as a vehicle for presenting things that matter to them. When I look at the stories I’ve written, almost without fail, an underlying theme is gender equality. I have a wife and two daughters, and I see the inequality they’re living in within our world, and it disturbs me that things are the way they are. I long for something better for them, so I put the ideas in a story, which makes it relatable in a way that it otherwise wouldn’t be. It’s the story that gets the message across.

It’s the story that engages people’s attention. Stories draw us in and make us a part of the world we’re experiencing as the story is being told. We often identify with the main characters of a story on some personal level.

Jesus told stories as a way of teaching. Most of Jesus’s teachings came in the form of parables. He could say something, but people would argue points. But when he told stories, that’s when he had people’s attention. Stories are powerful. Good stories are inescapable. And we remember stories that captivate us.

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of those captivating stories that everyone remembers. It presents, to some degree, the essences of Christian life and Christian purpose. But as the proverb goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Our familiarity with the story—and our deeply-ingrained interpretation of it—can cause us to view the story in terms that are almost too simplistic. It’s more than just being nice like the Samaritan, and it’s more than not disregarding those in need like the religious types who passed by, and its more than not being thieving jerks who lack all semblance of morality and goodness like the robbers.

The event that precipitated the storytelling was a biblical scholar—or lawyer as some translations put it—asking Jesus a question in order to test him. It wasn’t necessarily an antagonistic thing to do in the ancient world, so we don’t need to look at the lawyer as an enemy. Jesus does a very Socratic thing and asks the lawyer what he thinks the answer is. “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” (CEB).

And the biblical scholar actually gives a great answer: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (CEB). He expands on the quote from Deuteronomy 6:5 to include loving God with your mind (remember, he’s a scholar!), and he throws in the neighbor thing from Leviticus 19:18 for good measure. It’s a great answer! Jesus responds that this is exactly what a person needs to do to have eternal life.

But then, the scholar asks for a little clarification, a limiting-definition, of what exactly the word neighbor means. You see, it was all a little too broad for the scholar, a little too all-inclusive. He needed to lock down exactly what his responsibilities were by determining which people he needed to love as himself. It’s an important question, after all, because you don’t want to end up loving the wrong people. I mean, how awkward would that be? (Yes, that was sarcasm).

So Jesus tells this story about what we presume to be a Jewish man who has been beaten and robbed. At least two others, a priest and a Levite pass by without helping. They clearly see no need or reason to love the beaten man as they love themselves. But a Samaritan man stopped, not only to render aid, but to ensure the beaten man would be taken care of further.

No act of kindness like that of the Samaritan is done without thought. It’s not a typical automatic human response. The typical response is what the priest and Levite displayed: mind my own business, ignore the situation, keep walking. The person who was beaten and left half-dead is as much of an inconvenience for the Samaritan man as he would have been for the priest and the Levite. The difference is that the Samaritan chose to act. He didn’t let the inconvenience get in the way of showing kindness.

What’s more, the Samaritan chose to act on behalf of someone who would not have liked him. In order to recognize the shock this story would have had upon those who originally heard it, we might consider placing ourselves in the ditch and consider who is the last person on earth I would want to have stop and help me? Who is the person you would rather just die than have help you? Or, is there someone who might rather die than have us show up to help them? That’s the kind of animosity we’re talking about.

To put the parable in today’s terms, it would be like a person who hates Muslims and wants to block them from entering the United States and kick out all the Muslims that are here, getting beaten up and robbed, only to have a Muslim Syrian Refugee stop to take care of him and pay for his healthcare. There was nothing between these two people that should have led to any kind of amicable relationship. There was no reason to expect one to help the other, as we had with the priest and the Levite. We expected at least one of those two to render aid, but the Samaritan? We expected him to, perhaps, kick a rock toward the beaten man, spit, and keep going.

Regardless of what the Samaritan thought of Jews, he made a conscious choice to show kindness. Jesus asks the scholar what he thinks. “Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” (CEB). It says something about the dynamics at play when the scholar can’t even say the word, Samaritan. Instead, he answers, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” (CEB). Jesus answers, “Go and do likewise.” (CEB).

That word, mercy, can also be translated as kindness, compassion, and pity. By answering that way, the scholar, perhaps inadvertently, identifies kindness as the true mark of being a neighbor. Kindness. It’s not always easy to be kind to people. I mean, even in small ways it can be difficult to be kind. Just the other day, Joy and I were driving home and we got stuck behind someone who was going 10 miles per hour under the speed limit. And we weren’t in a hurry, but I was annoyed and I complained about the guy needing to find that thing called a gas pedal and use it.

Joy said, “That’s not very nice.” To which I responded, “I don’t care. I’d rather be a jerk than an idiot.” And then I remembered that I was preaching on Luke 10. Kindness is not an easy path. Kindness requires something deliberate and intentional of us. It’s a choice we make. And if we can fail in small ways, like complaining about the slowpoke in the car ahead of us, how horribly are we going to fail when something big lands in front of us, like taking care of someone whose guts we absolutely hate?

Kindness requires practice and discipline in order for it to become a habit. Clearly, I still have some work to do. God might have to put every slow driver in Southern Indiana in front of me for the next year just to teach me. But really, I don’t want to be a jerk either. The thing is, we are called to show the same measure of kindness we have received from God.

The thing about stories is that we usually like to identify ourselves with the hero. We read this story and we like to say, Yeah! We’re the Samaritan! The thing is, often times, we’re more like the person lying beaten up and robbed on the side of the road. Imagine that, for a moment. You’re half-dead, hurting, and desperate. People are passing you by, ignoring you as if you don’t exist. You call to them, but they pretend not to hear nor see you.

But then, this person from an ethnic group or an adherent of a religion that you despise comes along and starts to clean you up. They bandage your wounds, and all the while you’re saying, No! No! Not you! Not you! Anyone but you! You see, we’re almost always more like the person beaten and left dying. But our problem is that we sometimes don’t even realize we need saving. God is the Samaritan of the story. God is the one who picks us up, cleans us off, takes care of us in our mess, and paid the price for our continued care. When Jesus tells us to go and do likewise, he’s telling us to offer the kindness of God to everyone we encounter.

If this is the kindness God has showed to each of us, what can we do but show kindness as a response?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Freedom

2 Kings 5:1-14

1 Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease. 2 Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel. She served Naaman’s wife.

3 She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” 4 So Naaman went and told his master what the young girl from the land of Israel had said.

5 Then Aram’s king said, “Go ahead. I will send a letter to Israel’s king.”

So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. 6 He brought the letter to Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”

7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”

8 When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”

9 Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house.
10 Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”

11 But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. 12 Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.

13 Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.'”  14 So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean. (CEB)

Freedom and License

The story of Naaman and Elisha is, I think, very much a lesson in simple obedience to the Lord. It’s a lesson that every child has to learn. Children need to learn to be obedient to their parents and other authority figures. But for adults in 21st century America, obedience is not something we like hearing about because we put so much emphasis on freedom.

As a people who value freedom, we don’t want to hear about the requirement of obedience because we think obedience might in some way limit our freedom. But when we think that way, that obedience limits freedom, what we fail to understand is the ironic truth that our freedom actually comes through obedience. Our freedom is nothing less than a direct result of our obedience. When we exercise license, which is the opposite of obedience, it’s then that we actually find ourselves enslaved.

In fact, when you look up the word license in any dictionary you’re likely to find the word lawlessness as a synonym. License is the choice to be subject to nothing but yourself, abandoning and disregarding everything else. The irony of our modern age is that it’s through license that we’re enslaved, though we think we’re exercising our freedom; and it’s through obedience that we’re free, though we think it limits our freedom.

Take this story of Naaman and Elisha. Now, there are a lot of things going on here. Naaman was a great warrior, and he was the commander of the armies of the Kingdom of Aram. In fact, the Biblical text says he was “a great man.” The king of Aram really liked Naaman, because Naaman had led the Arameans to victory in battle over the Kingdom of Israel. We’re told that the Lord had allowed this to happen.

Naaman also had a problem in that he suffered from a skin disease, which would have been a source of stigma for him. Among the many spoils that the army of Aram brought back with them from Israel was a young Israelite girl whom Naaman had enslaved and given to his wife as a servant. It’s this slave girl who suggests to Naaman’s wife that the great warrior might find healing at the hands of the prophet who is in Samaria. So Naaman’s wife told Naaman, Naaman told the king, and the king decided to send Naaman to Israel—the land whose armies he had just defeated in battle—for healing.

You can only imagine how pleased the King of Israel was to see Naaman again. He read the letter that the king of Aram sent along with Naaman and interpreted it as an attempt by the king of Aram to pick a fight; as an excuse to go to war again with Israel and humiliate them even further. The king of Israel was so upset that he tore his clothes, which was a gesture of despair. He didn’t know what to do! All he knew was that he couldn’t cure Naaman because only the Lord can do such a thing.

Enter Elisha, the man of God and successor of Elijah. He hears of the king’s despair and sends him a message asking, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” When Naaman arrived on the doorstep of Elisha’s house, Elisha sent his servant to Naaman and told him, “Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

Apparently, Naaman had it worked out in his imagination how this meeting with the prophet would go, and he’s mightily let down by how it actually turns out. Naaman’s response indicates that his pride, his ego, has been wounded. He became angry and left Elisha’s house saying, “I thought that for me [because he is a great man and he obviously knew it] he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” His national ego has also been wounded. Naaman deems that the rivers of his homeland are better than all the waters of Israel combined. If he just needed to take a bath, wouldn’t it be better to wash in the refreshing waters of the Abana or the Pharpar instead of the little trickle that the Jordan is?

“Wash seven times in the Jordan? You’ve gotta be kidding me! My rivers back home are way better. Couldn’t I wash in them and be clean?”

At first, Naaman refuses to submit himself to obedience, and so he’ll remain a prisoner to his leprosy. He chooses license—his own will and his own way—instead of obedience and freedom, and so ironically remains enslaved. It isn’t until Naaman’s servants speak up and say, “Now think about this for a second, Master Naaman. If he had told you to go and do something difficult, you would have readily done it. How much more should you be willing to submit yourself in obedience to his command to find true freedom when all he said was ‘wash in the Jordan seven times and you’ll be clean?'”

So Naaman decided to give obedience a chance. He went to the Jordan, immersed himself seven times just as Elisha had commanded, “and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” Through obedience to the word of the man of God, he found true freedom.

True freedom requires obedience. The freedoms we enjoy as American citizens are guaranteed to us by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of The United States of America. But we’re only able to enjoy those freedoms when we’re obedient to the words and laws contained in those documents. It’s when people choose license, which is lawlessness and lack of responsibility, that freedom is extinguished not only for those who exercise license, but for others as well. On the other hand, obedience to the Constitution by all, guarantees true freedom for all.

The Scriptures talk about something quite similar here. When we choose to be obedient to Jesus Christ we find freedom from sin and death which, before we believed in Jesus, held us as captive as slaves. We were enslaved to sin, and the result of that enslavement is death. But in choosing Jesus Christ, in being obedient to the word of God and the teachings of Jesus Christ, we’re able to find freedom from all the things which try to hold us captive.

When talking about the teachings of false prophets, Peter says, For they speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them.” (2 Peter 2:18-19, NRSV).

License or licentiousness looks good, it looks like freedom; in fact it’s almost always concealed in the guise of freedom. It sells itself to us as freedom, and we buy it thinking it is, indeed, freedom. But what we really get through license is slavery, “for people are slaves to whatever masters them.” What we get through choosing our own selfish way instead of God’s way is slavery.

One example. God has given each of us everything we have, and God wants us to give a tithe—10%—in return, both as acknowledgement that God alone is the source of all we have, and as a sign of our thankfulness for having received all these things. God knows that money has a way of enslaving us in such a way that almost all we can think about is having enough, and almost all we do is done with the aim of getting more so we can have enough, and we can’t stand to give it away because we need it: every penny! We rationalize reasons for ourselves why we can’t give.

A few Annual Conferences ago, Bishop Coyner addressed a question about one of the largest churches in Indiana that hardly gave a penny for their tithe to the Conference, District, and General Church. He said, “If you’re looking for an excuse not to give, you’ll find one.” The problem with what that church was doing is that it’s license: it’s choosing my way instead of being obedient to God’s way. It is, at its root, disobedience and it leads only to our continued bondage, even though we may falsely think it’s freedom.

The only way to find freedom from our enslavement to money is to be obedient to God’s command and learn how to give generously. When a person is able to give money away, that person is no longer a slave to money, but is truly free. Believe me, tithing feels really good! And it isn’t just the act of giving that feels good, it’s everything that goes along with it: joy, peace, gratitude, contentment. These are some of the byproducts of tithing. People who give a tithe find joy in giving. There is a kind of release that comes from giving the stuff away.

Tithers generally don’t worry about money and financial issues because there is an overwhelming sense of peace that comes from giving. Tithers usually find that once they start tithing they are more grateful for the things they have than they were before they started tithing. Tithers find contentment with what they have and don’t get caught up in the highly frustrating game of keeping up with the Jones’s. Freedom truly comes through obedience.

This is true with every area of human life, not just the command to tithe. Love your neighbors; Love your enemies; Pray unceasingly. Everything God commands us to do calls for obedience, and in that obedience we find very real and true freedom.

On the other hand, license, lawlessness, lack of responsibility, choosing our will over God’s commandments, ironically leads toward our enslavement every time. Obedience to God’s commandments in all things is what gives us true freedom. It’s how Naaman found freedom from his skin disease, it’s how Christians find freedom from all the entanglements of life that tie our hands and haul us off bound and gagged. In all of this we have a simple choice: license and slavery, or obedience and freedom. It’s our choice; choose wisely.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!