"Love That Asks For Nothing"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/12/1998
Amos 7:7-17; Luke 10:25-37
I remember a great romance that took place between Rosalee and Ronnie, two of my classmates at Bladensburg High School. They could be seen together constantly. They would walk together on their way to class, sit together in the cafeteria and longingly cuddle at their lockers or in the stairwells. Teachers always had to keep an eye on them.
But one day word circulated among our classmates that Ronnie and Rosalee had broken up. From that day onward they never looked at each other again. They never spoke again. They avoided each other by walking down different corridors while on their way to class. Both of them had been thoroughly convinced that their love was authentic. Whatever it was they were experiencing, what they called "love" did not survive their first major conflict. Such an experience can cause teenagers to have many questions.
In the adult world we have all known couples who divorce and still remain intimately connected for years. Often the interaction between divorced parents at their son's or daughter's wedding is quite similar to the response of Rosalee and Ronnie. The wedding of their son or daughter requires their presence. In some cases, both have not been in that role for years. While everyone at the rehearsal tries to overlook what is painfully obvious, divorced couples often find it difficult to hide their unresolved feelings even though they both may have remarried. The competition and the posturing between the two can cause a number of awkward moments. Where has their ability to love gone?
Jesus understood well this apparent memory loss among people when he was approached by a teacher of the Law. The lawyer asked a question that has been in the minds and hearts of people of every generation. He said, "What must I do to receive eternal life?"
Jesus did not answer him directly. Jesus responded with a question. He asked, "What do the Scriptures say?" The lawyer was quick to recite the two famous passages from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind," and "Love your neighbor as you love yourself."
Jesus praised him for citing those teachings and said, "Do this and you will have eternal life." Wanting further clarity, the lawyer asked another question, "Who is my neighbor?" It was this last question that inspired Jesus to place his answer within the well known parable of the Good Samaritan.
Each one of us here this morning knows what the Hebrew Law said. We know what Jesus taught. We know what we "should" do. We all have "excellent reasons" when occasions arise that make love most difficult to express. We have heard people say, "My husband left me and three children for a much younger woman." "My supervisor demands more of me than anyone else in the office. Because of her I hate my job." "My Dad and Mom have no confidence whatsoever in my judgment. They are always telling me, 'Be careful! Be back at a reasonable hour! Who else is going to be there? Are his or her parent's going to be home?'"
Sometimes it does not take that much for us to realize how often we cannot express love each time we have the opportunity to do so. Knowing the poverty of this skill level in most people, Jesus chose the most radical story to teach his understanding of what love looks like when it is being lived.
Jesus verbally took his listeners down the well known road between Jerusalem and Jericho. It was a road riddled with favorite hiding places for robbers. A traveler was beaten up, stripped of his clothing and left for dead. A priest walked by the wounded man and did not respond. Next a Levite came upon the man. He too did nothing. Finally, a Samaritan arrived. Because of his kindness and generosity to a stranger, the memory of this Samaritan has influenced countless people through the ages. Most states even have Good Samaritan Laws.
Jesus deliberately chose his hero from an ethnic group most despised by the Jews. He challenged his listeners to examine themselves as he asked the lawyer to choose among the three. "In your opinion," Jesus asked, "which one of these three acted like a neighbor toward the man attacked by the robbers?" Based on what he had already told Jesus, the lawyer had to choose the Samaritan.
Jesus took the issue of love right to the people. "Who is in your life right now that you find difficult to love?" All of us can easily ask ourselves this question as well. There is no question that for the Jews it was the Samaritans. The Jews could not be in the presence of Samaritans or touch them without being made ritually unclean. Can you imagine? Yes we can because we can "feel this way" with people we know.
Once there was an attorney who was in the process of a very messy divorce. His wife had had an affair and he found out about it. He went to a counselor whom he knew as a long time friend. Their exchange was most interesting.
The lawyer said, "This is the most blatant thing I have ever seen. She left his letters lying around the house so that I would find them. She had him over to the house while I was there. She wants the children. She wants half my practice. She wants the house. What am I going to do?"
The counselor said, "You have to be right, don't you?" He said, "What?" The counselor said, "Look at you. Your practice is floundering. You haven't eaten. You are not sleeping. You are losing weight at an unhealthy rate. How is your needing to be right helping you?" He said, "But, I can't cave into all her demands?"
The counselor said, "You must forgive her. She made a mistake. She felt lost and she thought that she could find happiness with someone else." "Forgive her!" he said, "She wants half my income!" The counselor said, "Give her more than half." He said, "Give her more?!" The counselor said, "It will come back to you. It will come back to you. You have to communicate love to her even if she wants to spend the rest of her life with someone else. This is what love is. This is what love does. You are going to have to do this sooner or later or your life will continue to erode. Why not do this now? You have to let her do whatever she feels she needs to do. BUT you have an obligation to yourself not to let anyone or any circumstance destroy you." Are we prepared to hear about love when it asks for nothing and gives everything in a context as sensitive as this?
This parable of the Good Samaritan is about what one person did with someone right in front of him. We can easily become distracted by the graphics of the parable. The fellow in the ditch was stripped, beaten and near death. What happens if we change the form of the one in front of us? What happens if the person in front of us has made a mistake, like the attorney's wife? Suppose the person in front of us has not chosen to grow up or does not possess the best communication skills? The form in which the person comes does not matter. This parable has but one message, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." And who is your neighbor? Jesus responded that we are that neighbor when we extend love with no limits.
The minute we wish to walk by on the other side, by not returning the call, by not answering the letter, by not being kind, by remaining aloof, by becoming bitter, we are revealing ourselves. Circumstances do not create us; they reveal us. The Buddha once said, "You are not punished for your anger, but by your anger." Each time we do not love, we further damage ourselves like that attorney was doing when his wife found someone else to love.
The ultimate question, "What must I do to be saved?" is not a matter of good deeds as the lesson appears to imply. Jesus was not teaching a life of being good when he said, "Go and do the same." Rather he was teaching that we must grow to the point where there is no one we cannot love and minister to. We learn how to love this way by dealing with one difficult person at a time. Jesus was teaching his listeners that if a Samaritan they despise could show compassion, caring, and generosity to a stranger, so could they.
What did that Samaritan have that many people do not? He was carrying within himself a spirit that knew love. He was not filled with suspicion, fear, and all the "what if's" that too many of us have. If we do not have love inside us, we cannot give it away to someone else. Opportunities to love will come to us in many forms.
Some years ago a woman was dying of AIDS and her priest came to visit her. He found her very depressed. She said to him, "Father, I have disappointed everyone who has ever loved me. I have made a terrible mistake. I can't undo the damage I have caused. I know that because of that mistake I will suffer a most horrible death and after I die I will remain in Hell."
The priest looked away from her and said, "Tell me about the picture on your dresser. Who is that lovely girl?" The woman said, "She is my daughter." The priest said, "If she ever made a mistake in judgment, would you abandon her? Would you refuse to go to her if she had a need?" She said, "No, I would be there the minute I learned about it in spite of how ill I was." Then the priest said, "I happen to know that God has a picture of you on His dresser."
How could the priest respond so beautifully? He possessed the love that requires nothing from the one being loved. There is never any need or purpose for judgment. He simply had no room for all those thoughts that would have prevented love from showing. Within the priest there was only room for kindness, caring and compassion.
Throughout his ministry, this is how Jesus was able to give such quick responses when he was confronted by questions that were obviously meant to embarrass him or place him in an awkward position among his listeners. This is how Jesus was able to look at those at the foot of his cross with such compassion. He saw them as the Samaritan saw the man beaten and left for dead. Again it does not matter the form in which people come or even what it is they have done to us. How to be a good neighbor remains the same. Love is the spirit of compassion that asks for nothing.
How often do we think about the words we pray every Sunday morning, "Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven?" How might that condition occur on earth? The entire issue of salvation is summed up in seven words that oddly enough are found in the Book of Proverbs. Those seven words are these, "As you think so shall you be." When we have the same compassion that was inside that Samaritan, for us the Kingdom will come on earth as it is in Heaven. There simply cannot be any other kind of thinking where the spirit of love reigns. The joy and peace that Jesus was teaching is that we can experience and give away right now a loving presence that asks for nothing.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful God, we thank you for remaining in the midst of creation radiating who you are. Your love teaches us how to open our eyes to the needs of others. Your love instills confidence. Your love erodes the foundations upon which our fears are built. Your love forever seeks to reassure those of us who feel like a branch that has become detached from the vine. Your love inspires us to reach beyond our known limitations. Your love frees our spirits from ever again attaching our identities to what cannot enhance who we are. Your love invites us to experience eternity now. Your love encourages us to go forth in a world, sowing the seeds of your nature in the gardens of others. We gladly go forth without expecting anything, content to allow the outcome of all things to remain with you. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal God, what a joy it is to gather again and renew our faith with each other. Amid all the distracting elements of life, the losses we experience, and the occasional drifting from the character qualities we hold precious, thank you for reminding us that you are only one thought away. All we have to do is open ourselves to your presence, and you come to comfort, to reassure, to gather us up -- as the missing sheep we sometimes feel we are -- and you place us back into the fold.
Sometimes we drift unintentionally and imperceptibly until an experience tells us that we have been away too long, that we have no answers for something that has happened, that we cannot answer our children's questions, nor can we find peace.
Remind us through all of life's experiences that the loving spirit by which we live is the most precious of all gifts that we can give to the world. Remind us that it is this spirit that Jesus lived and gave to everyone until the moment his physical life was taken away from him. Help us remember who you created us to be and who it is Jesus taught us to become. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .