Feels like a bad day.

I don’t very often title the messages I give on Sunday mornings. There’s nowhere to put the title, really, and there is no need. But I wrote a title when I wrote these words, because it seemed like the thing to do.

Three things to remember when it feels like it must be the worst day of your life.

We know that feeling. Sometimes we say, “This was the worst day.”  And we know in our heads that for all the times we feel it, it’s only true once. I mean, you can’t have a hundred worst days. There can only be one. And so most of the times that we feel that this must be the worst, we are wrong.

chevy and andrewAnd on that one worst day, I’m not going to be reminding you of anything. If I’m with you, I’m going to be sitting with you, saying “I’m sorry” and being more present than preachy. So this isn’t for that day. This is for all the other days we think feel like the worst day.

And the first thing to remember on that day is this: You aren’t as alone as you feel.  

One morning, Elijah stood on a mountain. God asked him why he’s there. And Elijah replies in a way that we often feel:

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Armies, but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life.”

It’s a message that feels like it’s been written and rehearsed and polished and revised. It’s the kind of message that, when we are working on it, is prefaced by, “If I ever get a chance to talk to God, I’m going to tell him what I think.”

Which is, of course, exactly what Elijah had been doing for the previous 40 days.

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I’ll tell you more about Elijah and the other things to remember on what feels like the worst day of your life this week. But for now, I’d like you to go read that story for yourself. 1 Kings 19:9-18

 

Sarah gets an assignment.

“So what does the Samaritan do for the beat up man?” Sarah asked.

“Apparently he doesn’t check on his religious affiliation,” Carol said. “The Samaritan stops by the man, cleans him up, anoints him with oil, (which was like putting salve on his wounds) loads him on a donkey to carry him to safety, and then covers the cost of his recovery. He gets the man ready for travelling again.”

Sarah looked at her watch. “I hate to say this, but I have to get travelling, too. Can we keep going next week?”

Carol nodded. “A couple more minutes, and then I have an assignment for you. Because you wanted to do something amazing, remember?”

Sarah laughed. “You always remember those kinds of statements. Go ahead.”

“What James and Jesus are doing with this interplay around the royal law is drawing a deep connection between what we say and what we do,” Carol said. “If we say we keep the law, we have to love our neighbor, or we’re lying. If we say love our neighbor, we have to be very open to uncomfortable definitions of the neighborhood. If we say we love our neighbor, we have to do something, or we’re lying. And doing something can be costly.”

“But it is significant, right?” Sarah said. “Rescuing people beat up by the side of the road is part of the royal law? But I’ve never seen a beat-up person.”

“Have you ever looked?” Sarah squirmed.

“Here’s a project for this week,” Carol said. “It won’t be hard. As you are going about your business, as you are on your normal route to work or travel or coffee, look along the edges. Look for someone who is too bruised to act. And then act. It could be someone in the food line who is counting their money too carefully. It could be noticing that the yard that was always so carefully tended by that old lady is not as nice as it was last year. It could be noticing the vacant look in the eyes of the receptionist just before she comes back to the present and smiles.”

Carol looked over Sarah’s shoulder. “It could be noticing that couple trying not to cry at that table in the corner.”

“How long has that been happening?” Sarah whispered.

“Not long after we walked in, she got a call,” Carol said.  “They whispered a bit and then have been sitting very still.”

“So what does a Samaritan do?” Sarah asked.

Carol was brief. “Walks over and says, ‘Are you okay?'”

“But that feels invasive.” Sarah was uncertain.

“But isn’t it the royal law?” Carol said. “And it’s closer than building an orphanage.”

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A prayer from this weekend.

“God, we need your forgiveness for anger and for the ways that we provoke it. We need your forgiveness for hatred, which has been part of our lives almost as long as there have been humans. And which has been wrong that whole time. We need your forgiveness for racism of all kinds, but particularly the kind that denies we are each made in your likeness and are loved by you. People are dying because of anger and hatred and racism. We ask for your courage and your compassion and your conviction to bring to the places we live and work and think.”

Sarah, Jesus, and James.

Carol kept explaining the parable of the beaten man. “The first two people to walk past the man were people who would have known what the law said about helping your neighbor. They were a priest and a Levite, both employed in the temple, both aware of the commands to love. But both were also aware of the risk in touching someone sick. They would have been ceremonially unclean if they had helped him. They would have been kept from their work for God for several days.”

“But how do you resolve that?” Sara asked. “If making God happy means going to church all the time, but when I go to church all the time I don’t have time for doing what might make God happy, what do I do?”

“That states the question that James raises very well.” Carol said, referring back to the beginning of their conversation. “James was looking at the tension between saying that you believe God and then acting as if you don’t. He’s already given the principle by talking about the royal law. If we love our neighbor, we are doing right. If we are favoring the rich and ignoring the poor, we are not.”

Carol sipped her coffee. “Then James tells a story, like his brother Jesus had. Imagine that you know a person from your church that is hungry and cold. You are both people who follow God, who know the spiritual things to say. And imagine you say to the person, ‘be warm and well-fed.’ And then you turn back to your life without given them a sandwich or a coat.”

“Imagine you are like the priest or the Levite,” Sarah said.

“Exactly.” Carol nodded. “Which takes us back to the story Jesus told. Jesus offered another alternative. He creates a third person in the story, a Samaritan. A person separated from the Jews by culture and by religion. There is no one we hate more than someone we think has a warped practice of our religion.”

“It’s in every newscast from every part of the world.” Sarah sighed.

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[to be continued]

Sarah and the parable

Carol continued her story. “A man was walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was about 17 miles, about a day’s journey. We have no idea why he was walking. In fact, that doesn’t matter. This was a story Jesus was telling. The details he leaves out don’t actually exist.”

Sarah took a swallow of coffee. “What do you mean?

“This is a parable.” Carol said. “It’s a story that Jesus is telling, a made-up story, to make a point. The details he includes are to help illustrate, the details excluded never actually happened. It seldom helps to say, ‘What would have happened if?’ because that would have been a different story.”

Sarah shrugged. “Whatever. What’s the point he was trying to make?”

Carol smiled. She was always trying to show how to read the Bible even as she was explaining teachings. She knew that Sarah wouldn’t remember everything, but her way of reading would rub off.

“Jesus is trying to answer the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?'” Carol said. “Jesus had just agreed that ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ was the second most important commandment. A man trained in Jewish law, including interpretations of this very statement, was trying to determine what boundaries Jesus put around the neighborhood. So Jesus tells about the man who was walking the 17 miles to Jericho.

“Along the way, he is mugged. The man is left stripped and beaten and bleeding. No one argues with that part of Jesus’ story, so it must have been a common occurrence. ”

“And three men come along,” Sarah said. “And only the last one helps. A mayor, a doctor, and a little boy. I remember that from VeggieTales. But I also know that it was a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. It feels like the setup to a joke.”

Carol nodded. “It wasn’t a joke, exactly, but Jesus was picking on the people listening to his answer.”

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[to be continued]

Sarah gets confused.

Sarah just stared at Carol. Finally, she asked, “How are sandwiches and prayer and significance and love and the royal law connected? I mean, in your head.”

Carol smiled. “Let me get it out of my head. See if this makes sense. We hear the phrase ‘love your neighbor’ all the time. As neighbors, we want it to apply to us. Which is perfectly understandable. Because we crave love. When we scold someone for not loving neighbors, we are, at least sometimes, saying ‘you aren’t loving me.'”

Sarah nodded. “Right. I get that part. When someone starts ranting about ‘those people’, I want to raise my hand and say, ‘you mean people like my friend Carol?'”

“And you fill in my name because if they don’t love me, they may not be loving you?” Carol leaned forward. “And because it would be really scary for you to say ‘you mean like me?’ We don’t want to risk that kind of openness, particularly since we’re broken.”

Sarah shook her head. “What does openness have to do with brokenness? And sandwiches?”

Carol broke her scone in half and pushed the plate across the table. “Here, have something to eat.”

Sarah shook her head. “I’m not hungry. I’m just wanting you to make some connections.”

Carol smiled. “I am. But I need to tell you a story to tell you a story to get to your question. Is that okay?”

Sarah picked up the piece of scone. Carol was a good teacher, but there was going to be time to eat this.

“The picture Jesus uses to talk about this royal law was a broken man,” Carol said. “Do you remember the story about the man who was mugged and left for dead?”

The question came too quickly. Sarah’s mouth was full of crumbs. She mumbled something.

Carol laughed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to surprise you. Let me tell it, just for review.”

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You can read the story Carol’s referring to. Samaritan.