(sermon preached 7/10/16 at St John’s of Mound ELCA.)
I was standing in the self-help section of my local bookstore the other day. The shelves looked disheveled, riffled through. Brightly colored hardcover books, promising just a few habit changes will bring you success, make you lose 30 pounds, help you gain personal acceptance, help you be more productive, teach you how to slow down, how to empty your closet and fill your bucket. I saw how I could get over my anxiety, how I could quit smoking, how I could start working out, and why I should eat kale.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever purchased a self-help book. It’s okay. You are in a safe place.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever purchased a book that promises, “You can achieve ABC in just 30 days if you XYZ.” Have you picked up a book with the author and his smiling face, nice looking suit, on the cover, inviting you to become a better you? There’s no shame in wanting to improve. It’s probably a good idea to want to increase your happiness, improve the quality of your life, decrease health concerns. If you’ve ever purchased one of these books, you’re not alone. In fact, the self-help industry receives $10 billion a year. I know I’ve contributed $128 this year to the cause.
My favorite self-help book experience, back when I used to work in a bookstore, was the customer who ordered 4 different books on how to declutter her life. I wanted to say, “I’ll save you $60 and help you declutter- don’t buy those 4 books.”
Our old testament passage is from the book of Deuteronomy and has been used in what is called the prosperity gospel. Often times, you can find prosperity gospel books in the self help section of the bookstore.
“and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings.”
The prosperity gospel teaches that God wants you to become wealthy and that he has prescribed a way for you to become wealthy. If you follow his commandments, you will be rewarded with good things. A nice home, a nice car, honor roll students, a golden retriever that walks nicely on leash. Your success is God’s way of putting a gold star on your report card for life. But this is taking the verse out of the context it was written in. It’s essentially making the bible a self help book.
But the bible isn’t a self help book.
The bible is a story of how God is madly in love with the world and goes extra lengths to make that love abundantly clear.
This text was written to a displaced and oppressed people. These people were slaves who just recently experienced their emancipation from Pharaoh. And if there is any correlation between the release of the Hebrew slaves to the emancipation of slaves in the American South, their ultimate freedom didn’t come immediately. African Americans are still fighting for their fair treatment in this country. And technically, they were freed 153 years ago.
Our old testament text for today was a sermon Moses gave to the people of Israel, after they had wandered the desert for 40 years. He brought them together and said, “We had this old way of life, enslaved, then wandering. Now we are going to establish ourselves. God has given us his word, he has given us the Law, and we are now going to put down roots. Things are going to get better.”
This isn’t a promise that God is going to make these people rich. This isn’t a verse we can take out of context and say that God is going to reward us for going to church and being good little Christians. This is a text that identifies who the people of God are, who God is, and that this God is a God we are in relationship with. Even more, this text is binding us together. All of the “yous” in this passage are plural.
“You all will prosper.”
“The commandment is near to you all.”
The Israelites, and even us today, are all in this together.
This week, our gospel text is a very well known story, that also reminds us that we are all in this together.
A lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to gain eternal life?”
Jesus responds with another question, “Well, what have you read in the law and how do you interpret it, dear lawyer?”
The lawyer responds by quoting Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus confirms that the lawyer knows what he’s talking about. He says, ‘Yes, do this and you will live.”
Do this and you will live.
I want that. I want to live.
The lawyer wants to live, too.
The lawyer asks Jesus, “So, who is my neighbor?”
If this is a matter of life and death, I need to know who my neighbor is.
Jesus tells a parable. There was a man who was beaten and robbed and left for dead.
A priest notices and walks on by.
A Levite notices and walks on by.
Then a Samaritan notices, and was moved to compassion. He used his own money to patch the man up, to get him a safe place to rest and to heal.
Jesus asks the lawyer, “So, who acted as a neighbor?” The answer was obvious.
But the lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer is implied, the man left for dead is our neighbor. He is our responsibility.
The Good Samaritan went above and beyond what is nice.
Last week, as I walked into work, I stepped around a man passed out on the sidewalk. That was nice of me. I checked to see if he was breathing. That was also nice of me. But I didn’t get him breakfast, or take him to an AA meeting, or offer to pay for a hotel so he could sleep it off in comfort. Nope, I just walked around him and thought to myself, “He’s not my responsibility.” I wonder what it would have been like to be moved to compassion so much that I would have been compelled and unsatisfied until that man on the sidewalk was safe, healthy, and sober.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live.
This past week, two more men were left by the side of the road.
Well, when I say, “left by the side of the road” it makes the events sound too passive.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and dumped on the side of the metaphorical road by those in power. They were left there and they died. They were left there by a system that says, “My life is more valuable than your life.”
Many white people filed by clicking their tongues, saying, “Well, they had it coming.” They walked by the man in the ditch and said, “Well, the officer was just doing his best.” White people walked by and said to each other, “What was he doing with a gun, anyway?” The white people sighed and said, “Well, he was just black at the wrong place and the wrong time.” The white people shook their heads and walked on. Not one of them stopped.
No one said, “Oh! You’re black! Let me protect you from this system.” No one said, “Let me surround you while the storm of racism threatens to destroy you and your family.” No one said, “I believe you.” No one said, “I believe you when you say that injustice happened.” No one said, “I believe you that he shouldn’t have been killed.” No one said, “I believe you that you are scared that this might happen to you or your sons.”
Self-help books seem to make our problems all about us. I gained these 40 pounds, so I need to lose the 40 pounds. I want to be a better person, so I’m going to become a better person. But self help doesn’t go far enough.
The more I think I’m responsible for myself, the more I am isolated, and my neighbor is isolated. The more I think my neighbor is responsible for himself, the more he is going to be isolated and the less likely he is going to receive help. My neighbor is my responsibility. Your neighbor is your responsibility. We are responsible for each other.
The first step of solidarity, is to say, “I believe you.”
We can’t stand by and say this is just a black problem. That people of color need to help themselves or read a book, or change their habits, or become a new you, or become white. We, as white people, can’t sit in our safe houses and safe cars and only offer our thoughts and prayers to those affected by the violence in Orlando, in Baton Rouge, in East Tennessee, in Minneapolis, in St Paul. We can’t just sit here and think about it and pray about it. This violence is happening to our neighbors.
And our neighbors, the safety of our neighbors is our responsibility. This requires more action from us than just thoughts and prayers. Though thoughts and prayers are so needed right now.
As the Rev Dr Martin Luther King jr wrote as he sat in the Birmingham Jail,
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Let me repeat Dr King’s poignant words, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” So, when Philando was shot in St. Paul, we are indirectly shot. Our trust in the system should be broken, too.
Are you overwhelmed? Are you like me, just treading water and praying for inspiration? What can we do? Is there anything we can do? How can we dismantle this deadly system? Is it possible for us to fix it?
The Gospel should compel us to fix it. The bible tells us that with faith we can move mountains and it’s time to move this mountain.
Let me read our old testament passage once again for us today. This time, I will read it in the Common English Bible, to give us a fresher perspective.
This commandment that I’m giving you right now is definitely not too difficult for you. It isn’t unreachable. This mountain is movable. We can do this. But it’s going to take all of us participating- not a single person in this space can duck out.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live. Better yet, do this and THEY will live.
God has called us to be agents of peace. God has called us to protect those who are vulnerable. God has commanded that we be his protective arms around all his children, especially God’s children of color. And this isn’t too difficult for us. The word is very close. It is in our mouths. The word is in our hearts. The word is waiting for us to do it.
Peace, equality, hope, healing, dismantled racism, it’s all possible. It’s all at our fingertips. We have been equipped to make this change. God is very, very close to us. The spirit is in all of us and we are the answer to all those thoughts and prayers. God is using us as the answer to all those thoughts and prayers. God is calling us to make a difference. We will make a difference because God will answer our prayers and God will answer the prayers of our black brothers and sisters.
As Reverend King said, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.” All humans have the desire and the calling to be free.
And those of us who are free- it is our privilege to bring about God’s freedom to all people.
It is our privilege to do God’s commands.
It is our privilege to put our arms around God’s black children and say, “We want to make this better for you. We will make this better.”
The Lord your God will help you succeed in everything you do.
We prosper because we are doing God’s commands, which are all about caring for one another and looking out for the outsider. This week, look for the outsider. Look for the men in the ditch. Look for opportunities to bring about healing into this world.
We have got to “Be the change we want to see in the world.” It is a matter of life and death. Do this and they will live.