September 1, 2013, Pentecost 15 – Risky Behavior
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I had an uncomfortable experience this week, one that left me feeling a little bit embarrassed and a little bit violated. Mostly I think my pride got a bit scuffed up, which is probably a very good thing. Without going into unnecessary details, I found out that someone I had tried to help betrayed my trust. And that has left me wrestling with a lot of questions about my own actions and motives. Basically, it all boils down to one question: what should I learn from all this?
If I took the sensible worlds-eye view of it all, I would see that I really need to be much more careful about trusting people. I’m way too quick to believe anyone that comes to me, and way too ready to offer help, without making sure I’m not being tricked or scammed or manipulated. It’s just plain good sense – it’s good stewardship, in fact – to minimize risk and maximize the resources I have to work with. If I help the unworthy, then I won’t have anything left to help the worthy. And that all makes perfect sense.
It makes sense, but it isn’t really what Jesus tells us to do. He tells us to follow his example, and Jesus never was one for minimizing risk and avoiding waste. Jesus taught and healed and set people free from the things that bound them; he traveled all over the countryside and spent himself day after day, and never once did he give any evidence of trying to be practical. When he healed, he would often command the person to keep quiet, but they always ended up blabbing all over the place so that he and his twelve pupils were mobbed, unable to find enough peace to eat or sleep. When he fed thousands of people with the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, they tried to take him by force and make him king, pretty much ignoring everything spiritual he had tried to teach them. When he raised Lazarus from the dead, publicly, the Jews got up a posse to kill Lazarus as well as Jesus. And in the end, after all the giving and healing and comforting, he was left alone, betrayed by one of the twelve, and abandoned by everyone, including the other eleven. If he had wanted to display a sensible ministry strategy for our example, Jesus could have used a much better campaign strategy.
Instead, Jesus teaches us ridiculous things like, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” When we are called to be followers of Jesus and children of God the Father, we are called to a life of risky behavior. People tend to be fairly comfortable with the Ten Commandments, pretty much everyone can agree that people are better off when we all obey them. It’s just a better world if people don’t lie and kill and steal and cheat on their spouses. It makes sense. The world’s definition of a good person, smart, self-sufficient, generous – within reason, hardworking, trustworthy: that makes sense to us, and it seems to go along with God’s law pretty well. It’s not easy as a rule to distinguish between a good Christian and a good non-Christian, because the basic working definition of a nice guy fits both of them. But Jesus really upped the ante when he came to show us –not just tell us – how he meant for us to really fulfill the law of God. Jesus’s definition of a good Christian is a little harder to swallow than the usual definition, and it is a whole lot more costly. When he described his disciples he said things like this: “Blessed are the poor; blessed are the powerless; blessed are those who grieve; blessed are you when you are persecuted, when people call you names and hate you.” What if the real danger for the world is not confusing a good Christian with a good non-Christian, but rather confusing a good Christian with a complete idiot? Because I think that’s when we are really beginning to walk the narrow way Jesus is trying to lead us into.
In Luke this morning, Jesus was attending the world’s most awkward dinner party. I am not a party person; in fact I can imagine hell being a series of cocktail parties, where we have to chat amiably with people we don’t like for eternity, so I have great sympathy for the position Jesus was in. One of the important Jews had gotten together a group of his cronies and invited Jesus to a dinner, where they could inspect him carefully and try to catch him in a religious faux pas or two. They invited a man with a very obvious ailment to be there – and it was the Sabbath Day, of course – so that Jesus would make the great blunder of desecrating the Sabbath by healing. We didn’t get to read that part this morning, but we began to read later on when Jesus began to make some observations of his own. I’m sure he made absolutely everyone very uncomfortable by his remarks about people trying to pick the best seats for themselves, but the thing that I want to really look at is what he said to his host. “When you give a party like this,” Jesus said, “Don’t invite your friends and family, people who can repay your generosity. Instead, invite people who can’t repay you: the poor, and the lame, and the blind, and the crippled. Then you will be blessed because they can’t repay you.”
I can’t even imagine how crazy that must have sounded to the people who were gathered at the party that day, but I know that it sounds pretty crazy to me. If we think about it, who can really hear what Jesus said that day? Do we ever hesitate to invite our friends over for dinner or dessert, because we know we’ll be repaid – not just because they’ll have us over in return, but because we’ll enjoy it, because they are people we love to spend time with. And do we ever consider instead inviting that strange person we see wandering around town, carrying shopping bags and dressed in bizarre clothes, someone who doesn’t seem to bathe very regularly and who certainly is a little mentally unbalanced, who will take up a good twenty minutes of our day if we say hello and let a conversation get started? Did Jesus actually mean we should let that person into our home – and not just let that person in, but invite that person in – because we know perfectly well that once we do that we’ll be flooded with requests for help and for rides – all kinds of awkward things. And we know that that person has taken advantage of others who have shown kindness, and we know that not everything this person says can be trusted. I’m thinking of a specific person that is on my mind and heart, but I know that you are thinking of others, because there are millions of people out there just like that.
And the question is: is Jesus for real here? Does he really expect us to do all the crazy things he says? I think the short answer is “yes, he does.” But I suspect we all live in the long answer, where maybe we are ready only to take the first baby steps toward that narrow way that looks so much to the world like insanity – or, worse, like stupidity. I know that I am very far from living out what Jesus wants to teach us here. The good news is that God loves his children to make a start at learning. I imagine that when we take the risk of reaching out in even the smallest of ways, our Father is as delighted with us as we were when we watched our babies take their first stumbling steps. We will no doubt look to the world like the greatest of fools; we will no doubt be taken advantage of; we will no doubt cast our pearls before swine sometimes. But what difference does that make if we look down and see that we are walking in the footprints of our Lord who walked this way before us?
The new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, seems to me to be a wonderful example of exactly the kind of risky behavior Jesus wants us to learn. Chosen to be the spiritual father of a church that is plagued by scandal and accusations, Francis has chosen not to go the safe route of upholding the respectability and authority of his office. Instead, he throws caution to the wind and literally steps into the crowds, as Christ did. He does crazy things like riding on buses instead of in limousines, and kissing the feet of a Muslim woman in prison. The world doesn’t quite know what to make of him, but so far the world seems to be attracted to him. They are seeing a little glimpse of Christ, and it is something new to a lot of people, more’s the pity. The world will be just as likely to turn on the Pope and laugh him to scorn or threaten him or attack him viciously when he treads on too many toes, but it won’t matter as long as he is walking the road the Master laid before him.
I want to be very clear that there is a place for discernment, and there are times when we are right to draw the line with a person who is manipulative or deceitful. There are times when it is right to end a relationship – even a marriage – with a person who is hurting you or someone else. Love never forces a person to be a victim, and real love doesn’t allow another person to continue living in a way that is harmful to themselves and the people around them. The risk Jesus calls us to take is never that kind of sacrifice, because that is not love. In a world full of abuse and domestic violence, that can never be said too plainly.
But what is also true, and what we often fail to see, is that the measure of our actions can never be whether it pays off in this world. We are all too ready – I am certainly all too ready sometimes – to hide behind the façades of “good stewardship” and “good witness to the world” in order to avoid the risky business of being fools for Christ. The writer to the Hebrews tells us, “Don’t fail to show hospitality.” And the word for hospitality doesn’t have anything at all to do with shining our candlesticks and putting out some potpourri so we can show our guests a pleasant time. Hospitality in the Greek means literally “love for strangers”. It means that we are to show love to all those we see as “the other”, all those people that are scary or uncomfortable or embarrassing to have dealings with. And the passage goes on to say that sometimes when people show hospitality they entertain angels unawares, as Abraham and Sarah did. Of course, that also means that sometimes when we reach out to strange people we will find they are just as strange and unpleasant as they looked, and we may well end up looking like fools, getting cheated, or even getting hurt. But love never fails to be rewarded, because Jesus himself acknowledges and receives all love, no matter how small: even as small a kindness as giving someone a drink of water. He receives every act of love as kindness to himself.
And that is why we can risk everything in love: because in Jesus Christ we already have the love of the Father, which can never be lost or destroyed or stolen, and which is all we could ever want or need or hope for. As the writer to the Hebrews said, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” The contempt of the world need no longer have any hold over us, because we are called to have the mind of Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” You may not be called upon to invite the lame and the blind into your home for a dinner party this week. Then again, you may. But you will be called upon to take risks in other ways: to give to someone with no hope of receiving anything in return, to show compassion to someone who is in a hole of their own digging, to let go of something that is rightfully yours – only listening to the Spirit can guide you along this narrow way of risky behavior. We are rank beginners, but we belong to Jesus Christ, who walked every step of that narrow way before us. And so, I challenge myself and you, let us go forth into the world this week, and let us be fools for Christ.