Deeper Cuts from “The One with the Good Samaritan”

Yesterday, I preached a message in our series, “Little Stories with BIG IDEAS,” about the Good Samaritan.  If I’m not mistaken, I think it was the first message I’ve ever preached from this passage.  I have the tendency to shy away from really known and often preached passages of the Bible.  For me, I enjoy finding that passage or angle that no one has considered… to bring something really fresh and different and insightful.  Obviously, this is probably easier when dealing with a passage of scripture that is less familiar, unlike the Good Samaritan parable.  That one story has become so well-known in our culture that if we just hear the word Samaritan, we automatically think “good.”  Just consider the number of projects, hospitals, outreach organizations, etc… named “Good Samaritan” something.  So to bring something fresh and unique to that well-worn story was a daunting task.  (You can check out the video of the sermon here.)

As is often the case, I usually end up with more material than I could ever present on a given Sunday morning.  Sometimes it’s because it just doesn’t fit with the overarching thought I’m trying to convey; other times it’s just too much stuff, and something has to get cut.  Periodically, I’m going to attempt to offer some of that material here.  We’ll call it “deeper cuts.”

I’m really mesmerized by the characters in this parable (from Luke 10).  Perhaps its just an oversimplification, but we can catch a glimpse into the beauty of God’s love when we compare and contrast the players in the story.  Consider how each character acts towards the man on the side of the road.  The robbers harm him by robbing and beating him.  The priest and the levite harm him by inaction and neglect.  Only the Samaritan acts in a favorable way by bandaging his wounds and paying for his stay at the inn.  The robbers act in selfish gain.  The priest and the levite act in self-preservation.  The Samaritan acts in self-giving love and care.  Consider the state each character leaves the man: the robbers leave him half-dead; the priest and the levite leave him unhelped; the Samaritan leaves him safe and cared for.  Finally, consider how the man might react toward each character’s potential return: fear and terror toward the robbers; bitterness and anger toward the priest and the levite; and devotion and hope in the anticipation of the Samaritan’s return.

But that’s not all that I’m left pondering with this passage.  Certainly, we are called by Jesus to play the part of the Good Samaritan as we journey through life.  As Jesus says, we are to “Go and do likewise.”  And yet I’m left deeply trouble by the danger of the Jericho road.  For while the robbers and the priest and the levite are clearly playing the role of an antagonist in this story, surely they are not without the possibility of redemption.  If there is grace available to heal the beaten and robbed, surely there is grace available to transform the robber.  And if love can bandage wounds, surely love can bandage the self-preserving, self-righteous tendencies of the religious elite.

As followers of Jesus, we look forward to and participate in the rescue of the beaten and the robbed.  But we must also look forward to and participate in the transformation of the road itself.  What does a world look like where men women are no longer being beaten, robbed, taken advantage of, neglected, ignored?  Where robbers become innkeepers and priests become Samaritans?  The unidentified man on the side of the road isn’t the only character that needs healing, for there is something deeply broken inside both the robber, the priest, and the levite.

What does it look like to be a conduit of healing grace for both victims and victimizers?  The abused and the abusers?   But not only that, but then to bring the same healing to the communities and structures that produce both robbers and priests?


Afraid of the Dark

I grew up in a holler in southern West Virginia.  If you’re not familiar with the term “holler” then you probably don’t know anything about apple butter festivals, muddin’ and snipe hunting either, so I’ll forego mentioning those in this post and just focus on the story.  A holler is basically a valley between two mountains wide enough to put a trailer and a driveway.  In my holler, we lived in the middle.  My mamaw Rosie lived about 100 yards in front of my house, and my uncle and aunt lived about 100 yards behind.  No one lived beside us, because after all, we lived in a holler.

As a kid, I often had to run errands between these three places.  Most of the time, this just meant I had to pause Super Mario Brothers and accomplish my required chores before returning to jump on that duck on world 6 to get all my extra men.  There were times, though, when this chore struck terror in my heart.  (Sidenote: I’m afraid of the dark… or rather, I prefer the light.  Is that so wrong?  Should I be ashamed?  I am a child of the light, and I don’t prefer total darkness.)  It can get really dark in the hollers of West Virginia, so I had to psych myself up.

“You can do this.  There aren’t really wild animals, mountain lions or black panthers that will attack you.  No bad guys are hiding in the woods.  You can do this… you’re 18.”  I had a vivid imagination, with the tendency to ramble and get off track.

Anyway, my antidote to these fears was to make lots of noise.  I would sing songs (“Some glad morning, when this life is o’er… #southerngospelkidproblems) or even rap (“Stop, Collabroate and listen, Ice is back with my brand new invention… #90skidproblems).  I was convinced something was lurking in the shadows.  Something bad, and terrible, and ferocious that would either eat me or torture me, and neither thought was too pleasing.  Again, vivid imagination.

When the fear would reach a braking point, and it always reached a breaking point, an electrical impulse would fire and my body would surge into a dead sprint.  I would run as fast as I could, completely assured that I was indeed faster than any animal or evil villain that would chase after me.

The only exception to this rule was when I had a friend sleeping over at my house.  When they joined me on this walk “through the valley of the shadow of death,” I was a completely different person.  I would talk, laugh, and cut up.  I would even attempt to scare them.  But I wasn’t scared.  For reasons unknown to me at the time, having another human being walk through that dark holler in the night with me made the wild animals and evil people leave me alone.

Can you identify with that?  Have you ever been in a situation that was frightening and fear-inducing, but then the fear subsided when another warm-blooded human body joined you.  Just having somebody there, knowing you didn’t have to be alone in the dark, was enough to calm your anxiety, silence the terror and free your heart from the grip of fear.  I’ve come to recognize this as the power of presence.

God knows how we’re all wired.  He drew up the schematics, He created the wires, and He knows what’s inside.  He knows that when we get alone, we’re more prone to experience fear, anxiety, worry, stress and terror.  Especially when we’re alone, and its dark.  Darkness is not limited to physical darkness, intense as it may be.  It can be dark emotionally, when the depression rests on your heart and fear grips you like a vice.  In the dark, physical or emotional, humans are capable of a tremendous amount of terror, fear and anxiety.  But just having someone we trust in the room with us… the power of presence.

Jesus’ last few words in the book of Matthew highlight a reality that I think we forget far too often.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

His last sentence on the planet: “I am with you… always.”  The last word Jesus gives is a promise of His continuing presence.  “I am with you” is a formula given to God in the Old Testament.  It reminds us, at the end of the book, that Jesus is still Emmanuel, “God with us.”

And He is with us always.  Literally, Jesus promises to be with us “all the days.”  His presence will be with us day by day by day.  He has promised to be with us, day in and day out.

And that’s good news, even when it’s dark outside.

What preachers can learn from American Idol

Quick!  Name 5 American Idol winners who’ve achieved true success worthy of being called an “American Idol.”  I’ll help – Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood… and so far, that’s about it.  Not great, but I guess 2 out of 11 isn’t bad.  However, to be the show discovering America’s next pop sensation, batting just under .200 isn’t great.

Now to be honest, I’m a fan of the show.  My wife and I faithfully watch it ever year, including this year.  We have our favorite contestants, cheer when they make it through and bemoan the state of this generation’s musical tastes when they are eliminated.  I check weekly to see who the haters are pushing and complain that the site even exists.  I genuinely like the show, but when it’s over, I ‘unfollow’ my favorites on twitter and pretty much forget about that crop of could-be’s.

Why?  How can I be so invested in a person for several months, but then check out on them just as quick when the season wraps up?

I think it has something to do with singing cover songs.  A cover song is a new performance of a previously recorded/released song, usually by someone other than the original artist.  Often times, the original recording is seen as the definitive or “authentic” version, and all other attempts are merely lesser competitors or tributes.  There are occasions, albeit rare, when the cover becomes more popular and well known than the original, i.e. Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

Here’s what I think happens.  As the audience, we get used to hearing our favorites wail away on previously recorded songs.  They may make changes to the melody, instrumentation, style… but we identify with them through these songs.  We form opinions about them – who they are and what kind of artist they’ll be – all through songs with which we have already connected.  For example, I really like Candace, in part because I really like Mary J. Blige.  When Candace sings, she often reminds me of Mary J. and that makes my fond of her.

The problems arise when our favorite idols are no longer singing songs we already recognize.  We can’t say, “Wow, Candace really put a Mary J. twist on that old standard,” when she’s singing an original song.  We struggle to be as excited as we once were, when we had the familiarity of the cover song to bridge the gap.  In other words, we got to know and like you as a cover artist, not an original artist (no matter how “original” the arrangements may have been).

This is especially true and applicable in the arena I find myself most often – church and teaching/preaching.  See, my generation of preachers and teachers have a massive amount of “coverable” material at our disposal.  There are plenty of sermon sites out there with downloadable, ready-to-preach sermon series available.  To be honest, this is incredibly helpful.  In my situation, having graphic and video resources available, often times for free, make the presentation of the message that much better.  Not to mention how reading through other sermons have helped me become a better sermon-writer.  It’s a great tool.

Yet, there’s a dark side to this too.  If we (as preachers and teachers) aren’t careful, we can morph into little more than cover preachers, putting a little spin or tweak on this Groeschel message or that Furtick sermon.  We preach it and the applause comes.  “What a great message!”  “How do you come up with that?”  “God really spoke through you today.”  These comments, which should bolster our confidence actually do the opposite.  They push us deeper and deeper into cover preaching.  We lose our confidence in our own words and grow to rely on the tweaked words from this podcast or that Open resource.

I know what that feels like.  I get the pressure of feeling like you have to have something great every week, something profound, something funny.  But you didn’t get into this thing to be a cover artist.  There’s something inside you that God wants to get out and into others.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Use the resources you have available – books, podcasts, downloads, graphics, etc.  No one cares if you get help from these places, ideas and points.  But please, don’t loose your voice.  We need to hear from you, the one God called into this fray.  He wants to use your unique perspective, your unique thoughts, your unique voice to speak into the lives of those around you.  You are not an echo.  You are a voice!