Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sermon: 3Lent (24 Feb 2008)

3 Lent: 24 February 2008
(Exodus 17:1-7/Psalm 95/Romans 5:1-11/John 4:5-42)
How Much More

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

Would you be willing to answer truthfully twenty-one personal questions in the presence of family and friends and in view of hosts of strangers – questions designed to be compromising and humiliating – all for the chance to win $500,000? That’s the challenge posed to a contestant on the new FOX Television reality/game show Moment of Truth. There’s a polygraph and money and humiliation – a voyeur’s dream. Maybe that’s why the show is popular in twenty-three countries.

I’ve never seen the program, but on one advertisement for it a young, female contestant is asked whether she really cares about the starving children in Africa. She looks stricken by the question. She pauses to consider her options and then the commercial moves on before she answers. I really don’t understand her response, or lack of response. Ask me that question and I can answer immediately: Of course I care about the starving children in Africa, and not in Africa only but in Haiti and Sudan and in countless villages and refugee camps in third world countries scattered around the world. I care about the hungry children and adults in Appalachia and in the slums of our American cities and under the overpasses in our own community. Now, ask me if I care about these hungry children as much as I care about my own daughter. Once again I can answer immediately: No, I am obviously less concerned about meeting the most basic needs of these children than in satisfying the desires of my own daughter. That admission humbles me, but it is demonstrably true. I spend more money on my one child each year than I do on all the world’s hungry children combined. I devote more thought and time and energy to her than to all the rest. I do care about the world’s children, just not as much as I do about my own child. The world’s children are abstract, my own daughter personal. They are far away while she is near. And in concern and prayer I find that proximity and relationship are crucial. It is much more difficult for me to pray meaningfully for impoverished third world children in the abstract than to pray for Xiomara, Majory, Karin, and Nehemie – children that either Trinity Church or my family sponsor, children with whom we have a relationship. And pastors and churches in restricted countries or under difficult ministry circumstances? Well, knowing Stephen and Florence in Nigeria or Daniel in Ghana – reading their letters, seeing their pictures – that makes all the difference. For me, proximity and relationship are factors in my concern and my prayer – not the only factors, but important ones nonetheless.

Our gospel lesson poses a Moment of Truth question to Jesus: Do you really care about the Samaritans? As the account begins, Jesus and his disciples are in Judea baptizing – conducting a ministry paralleling John’s. In fact, some rivalry apparently develops between Jesus’s disciples and John’s disciples, with the Pharisees keeping score; Jesus is in the lead, baptizing more disciples than John. This kind of attention is unwanted and unwelcome at this point in Jesus’s ministry so he decides to retreat to the relative safety and anonymity of his home in Galilee to the north. There are two travel options available for him: an eastern route along the Jordan River valley to the Sea of Galilee – a route favored by most Jews – and a shorter, more direct route through Samaria. Generally, there was no real contest between the routes; Jews did everything possible to avoid the Samaritans and would choose the Eastern route for this reason. Why the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans? The hard feeling between them extend back to the exile. When the northern kingdom of Israel, including the region of Samaria, was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C., the majority of the populace was deported and the land repopulated with exiles from other Assyrian-conquered nations. These peoples assimilated with the few remaining ethnic Jews – mainly the poor, aged, and infirm – to form a new people and culture, the Samaritans, who retained only an adulterated and deficient form of Jewish faith and practice. Some two hundred years later, when the Jews from the southern kingdom of Judah returned from their own captivity – returned to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem and to repopulate the land – the Samaritans opposed their incursion into the central region of the country and the resettlement of that region. That’s all the reason the Jews needed to despise their half-breed cousins in Samaria. The blood between these groups was so bad that Jews were not safe to travel through Samaria; even discounting the difficulties with finding food and lodging, physical attack was a real possibility. So the Eastern route from Judea to Galilee became the established route. But not for Jesus, not on this day. He heads straight through Samaria.

You know the story; we need not rehearse it in full detail. Jesus and company reach the Samaritan city of Sychar around noon. They are tired and Jesus rests by Jacob’s well there while the disciples head into town to try to find something kosher for lunch. In their absence a Samaritan woman comes to the well for water. And you know all the implications of that. This woman is a social outcast who will not or cannot come to the well in the early morning hours with the other women of the village; she comes late and by herself. We find out later that she has a very dubious sexual history – five previous husbands and a current live-in lover. And Jesus does the unthinkable: “Give me a drink,” he says to her, violating several social taboos at once: associating with a Samaritan; speaking with a woman, especially one of poor character; offering to drink from an unclear water jar or bucket or skin.

You know that a dialog occurs in which Jesus offers her living water and reveals himself as the Messiah. And in the midst of that dialog over where and how you are supposed to worship God – on Mount Gerazim as the Samaritans insist or in Jerusalem as the Jews contend – Jesus says,

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (John 4:21-23, NRSV).

And with these words Jesus answers the question, Do you really care about the Samaritans? Yes, my Father cares – I care – for all those who will worship in spirit and truth; I care for them and I seek them out. I care enough to reveal my identity to this very broken Samaritan woman and to offer her the life-giving water of rebirth in the Spirit. Jew, Samaritan, even Gentile – it makes no difference. Each must be and each can be born again of water and the Spirit, and each can become a true worshiper of the Father. Yes, I care about Samaritans.

Well, OK, fair enough. But Jesus, do you care about the Samaritans as much as you care about the Jews, or are proximity and relationship important to you, too? With the possible exception of the Great Commission, the gospels leave this question relatively open. Jesus’s ministry is almost exclusively with the Jews. But Paul tackles this question – it’s central to his theology and vocation – in his magnum opus Romans, the epistle lesson appointed for us this day.

In the opening section of this letter Paul argues that all people – Gentiles and Jews alike, and we can include Samaritans, here, if we like – are sinners and are in rebellion against God. There’s his dismal summary in Romans 3 that begins, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one,” and continues, “All have turned aside, together they have become worthless.” This is Paul’s candid assessment of the human condition before God. But at this point I want to ask him, Paul, is this how God really considers us – as unrighteous, as worthless? As soon as this question occurs to me Paul answers it, in the epistle lesson appointed for us this day from Romans 5.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:6-8, NRSV).

Does God really consider us as unrighteous, as sinners? Well, yes, undoubtedly he does because that’s the truth of our condition and God majors in truth. But worthless? That’s another matter entirely. While we were truly weak and sinful and unrighteous God proved that we were not worthless in his eyes – he demonstrated that we are of inestimable worth: while we were sinners Christ died for us. If you ever doubt your worth, if you ever doubt God’s love for you, if you ever doubt that his unfailing disposition toward you is grace and blessing, look to the cross. See Jesus there, and seeing, bless God

for your creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for his immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace and the hope of glory (The General Thanksgiving, BCP 101).

So, yes, Jesus loves Samaritans – as much as he loves Jews. And, in fact, we are all Samaritans: outcasts, half-breeds, unrighteous, ignorant, sinners. But, go figure: God’s got this thing for Samaritans. He loves them to death, to the death of his only-begotten Son. That’s what Samaritans are worth in God’s eyes.

But God’s love – it’s truth and power – are more remarkable still. Though God loved us while we were yet Samaritans, he did not leave us as Samaritans – outcasts, half-breeds, unrighteous, ignorant, sinners. His love transformed and transforms us; his love justified us, reconciled us, and brought us near. Hear Paul.

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Rom 5:9-12, ESV).

You’ve seen the commercials on television -- I think Ronco was the first – commercials that make an offer almost too good to be true – and all for only three payments of $19.99 – and then almost breathlessly say, “But wait! There’s more. If you order today…”. That’s Paul’s theme in this text: But wait! There’s more! If you think you were loved while you were God’s enemies – and you were – wait, there’s more! His love has justified you by the blood of Christ; how much more now that you are his son or daughter will you be saved from wrath on the day of judgment. If you think you were loved while you were alienated from God, a love proved by the death of Christ – and you were – wait, there’s more! His love and death have reconciled you; how much more will you be saved by his life within you. And so we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, more and more and much more.

Because of his great love toward us, because although we once were, we no longer are Samaritans, we live not in fear of God and his judgment but in the grace of God and his mercy. And this love both frees us and compels us. It frees us to live boldly in the grace of God, to commend our lives into his keeping, to love and serve others as Christ has loved and served us, to live in confidence and without fear, to say with Paul,

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that [and there it is again, that glorious theme], who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:31b-35, 37-39, ESV).

And such love compels us – compels us to obedience, not from fear of punishment but from the desire to love him as he loves us, from the desire truly to be God’s sons and daughters and Christ’s brothers and sisters, from the desire to be like him. For, in our own moment of truth

we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.

And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:16-19, 21, ESV).

Because we are loved with God’s love, with a love stronger than death, we are free to love, we are compelled to love – to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Because we are loved with God’s love, with a love stronger than death, we are free to obey, we are compelled to obey this, his commandment, “that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (1 John 3:23, ESV). For us, this is the moment of truth: will we accept his love, will we return his love, will we share his love?


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