Sunday, July 14, 2019. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
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We’re continuing with our summer sermon series this week, entitled “Bearing One Another’s Burdens.” The summer theme comes from last week’s reading from Galatians 6, where Paul tells the Galatians to bear each other’s burdens, which fulfills the law of Christ. Last week, we talked about how ‘bearing each other’s burdens’ leads us to understand that Christian freedom is not freedom from other people, but is actually freedom for other people, always oriented towards the common good – oriented towards those who are suffering, and towards those with whom we disagree.
Bearing one another’s burdens fundamentally involves a turn to your neighbor.
Colossians 1, which Pam just read for us, describes the Christian life as “bearing fruit.” Paul writes, “Just as the gospel is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard the gospel and truly comprehended the grace of God.” Paul wants the Colossians to “bear fruit in every good work as you grow in the knowledge of God.”
Bearing fruit means that you and I are like trees or vines, which are planted in the love of God, nurtured with prayer, fellowship, study, and service, and pruned by the daily challenges that come to us in life. Anyone who has done any gardening at all can tell you that the process of ‘bearing fruit’ cannot be rushed. It’s a process, a journey. You do not force fruit to come out of the tree; you cannot yank fruit out of the vine. You’ve got to patiently tend the vine, give it time, and allow the underlying forces of life within the vine to bring the fruit forth.
Bearing fruit is an image of growth, of abundance, of energetic life and vitality. That is what God wants to do in your life.
Little Collin, who was baptized today, has joined up with the fruit-bearers, an ancient stream of people who seek to bear fruit for the world. From this point forward in Collin’s life, he is part of a people who are trying our level best to align our lives with God’s will in the world, which will, over time, yield fruit for the well-being of the world.
Just as we are wondering what it might look like to bear fruit, Jesus drops the parable of the Good Samaritan into our laps. And this parable teaches us that, for disciples of Jesus, ‘bearing fruit’ – just like bearing each other’s burdens – involves a fundamental turn to your neighbor.
A lawyer stood up and asked Jesus what is involved in eternal life, abundant life, the life of heaven. As a good rabbi, Jesus directs him to the Torah. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” This lawyer is a good student, for he gives a good answer: “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor.”
Love God, love your neighbor. That’s the heart of it. It’s as simple as that, and it’s as demanding as that.
Eternal life, for the disciple of Jesus, is inextricably tied up with your neighbor. There is no eternal life apart from our neighbors. Eternal life, according to this text, is not an individual matter. A question about eternal life is what triggered the parable of the Good Samaritan. Eternal, abundant life is not something we can get on our own. We get there together.
For the disciple of Jesus, the neighbor is sacred. The neighbor and the neighbor’s wellbeing are tied up with our own. Other texts in the New Testament go even further to identify Jesus with the neighbor. “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.” For disciples of Jesus, the face of your neighbor is like the face of God.
The Greek word here for ‘neighbor,’ plesion, is derived from the word for “close by.” As in “your neighbor” is the one who is close by. We are to love whoever happens to be close by. That is the one we are to love; that is the one who is the proximate face of God. The next time you’re on the Metro, or sitting in a coffee shop, or standing in line at the grocery store, take a look around you, and imagine that, when you look into the face of your neighbors, you are looking into the face of God. See what that feels like. See how that reshapes your feelings towards them. I will tell you, it can take your breath away.
Just to be sure, this lawyer wants to push for a little more clarity, just to be sure he knows where his neighborhood’s border stops. “And who is my neighbor?” he asks. Where’s the boundary, where’s the border, where does my neighborhood stop? Whom am I to love?
And this is where it gets really interesting, and where I think Jesus puts us all on the hook. Jesus could have given him a policy, or a rule, or he could have given him some formula for determining the outer limits of your neighborhood. But instead, Jesus tells a story. There was a man, who was walking down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a roughly 15-mile trip that was known for being rather dangerous. The man got mugged and left for dead on the side of the road.
Two good religious people, a priest and a Levite, approach him but pass by on the other side. Then a Samaritan comes along, changes his plans, stops, bandages the man, and takes him to an inn, where he pays for him to be taken care of.
The priest and the Levite had their religious jobs to do, but the Samaritan bore the burdens of the wounded man. The priest and the Levite stuck to their pre-planned agendas; the Samaritan turned aside to his neighbor, his plesion, who was in need.
A key ingredient to understanding the power of this story is that Jesus’ Jewish listeners would most likely not have been fond of Samaritans. Samaritans were an enemy. There was animosity, hundreds of years old, between Jews and Samaritans. One author has compared the tensions between Jews and Samaritans at this time to the tensions between Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia, or between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Jesus’ choice of the Samaritan to be the hero in this story was not an accident. You get a sense of the grumbling this would have generated when Jesus asks the lawyer who was a neighbor to the wounded man. The lawyer mutters, “The one who showed him mercy.” He cannot bring himself to say “the Samaritan.”
So for disciples of Jesus, ‘bearing fruit’ has everything to do with how we relate to our neighbors. But according to this parable, it is two groups of neighbors in particular that we must orient ourselves towards. First, our neighbor is the one in our midst who is in need, who is vulnerable, like the wounded man on the side of the road. Lewinsville’s leaders have articulated the over-arching purpose of our congregation, our WHY, in a way that is entirely consistent with this parable. Lewinsville exists “to love and serve God by responding to human need.” In every situation, the Lord draws his disciples’ attention to human pain, to human need. Who is your neighbor in need? When you think about your circle of friends and loved ones, who are the ones in need? When you think about the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, where does Jesus draw your attention and your heart? When you reflect on the overall U.S. economy, who are the vulnerable ones? What might it look like to turn aside, like the Samaritan, to respond to their need?
Secondly, according to the parable, our neighbor is also the one who could be characterized as our enemy. Samaritans and Jews were not friendly with each other. They did not associate with each other. Yet Jesus pointedly makes a Samaritan the very model of a good neighbor. Who are your Samaritans? Who are the ones that make you grumble? Who are the people that you may have ancient grudges or difficulties with? When you think about our current polarized climate, who are the Samaritans to you? When you think about your personal relationships, who are your Samaritans? According to Jesus, they are the face of your neighbor. And the face of a neighbor can be the face of God.
Disciples of Jesus are summoned to bear fruit, like trees that are planted by streams of flowing water. The life of disciples is a life of energy and vitality and abundance, and the way we bear fruit, according to this text, is by turning to our neighbor. To God and to God alone be all the glory, Amen.