Jesus: the Hood Ornament for Our Self-Importance

Viridiana Martinez shared the following photo on her facebook page this past weekend:

If the bottom text is too fuzzy for you to read, the whole billboard says, “We follow Christ, so it’s basically a win/win for you to follow us.” The arrogance of this advertisement is astonishing. I get that this particular church is trying to make a play on words since the word “follow” probably refers to following the church’s actions online on twitter or some similar network. But this sign captures an attitude that a lot of us Christians seem to have about the relationship between our faith in Christ and our self-importance. Instead of renouncing our self-importance as followers of Christ submitted to His will (which is what it actually means to “confess Jesus Christ as Lord”), many Christians blaspheme their salvation by seeing their faith in Christ as the reason why other people should look up to and follow them.

In many ways, this is the story of Western Civilization. At least between 1492 and somewhere in the mid-to-late 20th century, Jesus has served as a hood ornament for our triumphant march across the globe to conquer and enslave other races. In all of the royal proclamations claiming the land of the New World for the kings of Europe, the land-grabs were explicitly justified by the purpose of establishing Jesus Christ’s reign over the territory conquered. I’ve read the journals of the Spanish conquistadors. They really did believe that killing and enslaving native Americans was the way to share the gospel with them.  It’s horrifying but it really happened. It’s hard to tell how much cynicism was involved in the theological gymnastics they underwent to justify genocide.

The challenge to us today as Christians, particularly in white evangelical churches, is that we have inherited theology that has been warped to justify the sins of the past. The “family values” movement for instance was launched in the early 1970′s by the same segregationist church leaders who had just been bulldozed by the Civil Rights Movement. That doesn’t discredit the very legitimate concern of trying to keep teenagers from getting pregnant and ruining their lives. But when my “family values” become the basis for my feelings of moral superiority and my excuse for not loving my neighbor whom I have deemed “immoral,” then they have become squarely opposed to the whole purpose of Christianity both in my personal walk with Christ and in the social transformation of establishing God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.

Let me put it plainly. Jesus died to save us from the imprisonment of our self-righteousness. As long as we keep cataloging all our actions as proof of what good people we are, we can never enter into the joy of communion with God, because that joy depends upon being able to interpret whatever good deeds we’ve happened to do in life as gifts from God to us rather than resume bullet-points that we can use to argue  God into accepting us. By trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior, I am set free from needing to prove my own righteousness. If on the other hand, I view my professed faith in Jesus as the legitimation of my self-righteousness (as many Christians do), I haven’t been saved at all but have turned the antidote for my fallen sinful condition into the source of my damnation. In the Bible, it says there’s one unforgivable sin: “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” There are many different interpretations of what this means, but I think we blaspheme the Holy Spirit when we glorify ourselves for whatever good the Holy Spirit accomplishes through us, when we feel compelled to say, Follow me because I’m doing it right. If I cling to the need to be important, have followers, etc, I am actively resisting God’s effort to transform me into a vessel of His love for the purpose of creating a world where His mercy reigns.

A good litmus test for whether Christians have actually accepted God’s mercy and the fact that they don’t deserve it is to see how easy they find it to judge other people whose lives they know nothing about, whether it’s gay people, undocumented immigrants, Palestinians, or any of the other modern-day equivalents of the 1st century Samaritans whom Jesus championed not because they were uniquely great people but because of how much his fellow Jews hated them. It’s one thing to confront people we know and care about regarding some sin or shortcoming in their lives if we think it’s hurting them. But when we rail against “those illegals,” “those gays,” or “those Arabs,” we’re not taking some kind of moral stand against sin; we’re just feeding the insatiable appetite of our self-righteousness and building a wall against the healing power of God’s mercy in our hearts. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35  describes the mindset of far too many Christians in our country right now. For those of you who don’t know the story, a servant gets forgiven a debt by his master and then he goes and beats up another servant who owes him money. That kind of perverse hypocrisy is precisely what we engage in when we see Christ’s sacrifice as the justification for our self-righteousness rather than liberation from self-righteousness.

If we have really accepted God’s mercy through Christ, then we will treat and talk about other people with mercy. And not only that, but we won’t go around looking for other people to follow us. We will instead follow Christ into the world and seek His face in the eyes of other people whom we serve. Our goal as Christians should be simple: to be Christ to others and to see Christ in others. The first part doesn’t mean that I need to be the world’s savior; it just means I should be a servant to all in imitation and obedience to Jesus’ example. The second part doesn’t mean that other people are perfectly sinless like Jesus; it just means that Jesus cares enough about even the least of His brothers and sisters that whatever we do to them, we’re doing to Him. So let’s follow Jesus and stop looking around to see if other people are following us.

If You Want to Be Good, Be a Samaritan First!

Sermon for 7/11/2010
Text: Luke 10:25-37

If you want to be good, be a Samaritan first. Most people reading the Good Samaritan story put the focus on being “good”; I want to put the focus on being a Samaritan. We can do all the good in the world; we can stop and help every person with a flat tire on the beltway; but unless we have a Samaritan heart, the good that we do won’t do us any good at all.

It’s hard to get past a surface level reading of the Good Samaritan story since everybody knows it. Even people who don’t go to church know when they hear “Samaritan” in the news headlines, it’s a story about a nice and helpful person. So I could just say, “Y’all know the story; don’t be like those other Christians who walk past the bleeding man on the side of the road; be a good Methodist and put him on your donkey.”

The problem is that back in Jesus’ day, Samaritan didn’t mean nice person. Jews hated Samaritans, and it wasn’t just racism. They had several centuries of reasons.

Let me give you some background. After Solomon died, ancient Israel split into two kingdoms – the north and the south. The northern kingdom was a lot wealthier and more successful militarily than the south, but the south stuck closer to its spiritual roots in Yahweh, the God of Abraham, since the south had Yahweh’s great temple in Jerusalem. The northern kingdom was more religiously “cosmopolitan”; they prayed to Yahweh some of the time, and Baal and Asherah other times. Despite its early success, the north made some bad choices that led to its being conquered by the Assyrians, who renamed the whole region Samarita. The Israelites who resisted the Assyrians were deported and sold into slavery. But the ones who disguised themselves by selling out the God who had brought them out of Egypt for the new gods of their conquerors – they became Samaritans.

Meanwhile, the Judeans in the south kept their faith and held their holy city of Jerusalem even under Assyrian siege. When Judea finally fell to Babylon a century and a half later, the Judeans went into exile until the Persians took over and let them go back to rebuild their temple. When the Jews came back home from Babylon, they found this group of Samaritans claiming to be their distant cousins and claiming to have the same religion even though they had disfigured it beyond recognition.

Samaritans were not just a different race; their quarrel with the Jews was not just a misunderstanding; the reason that the Jews were so upset with the Samaritans was that while the Jews had suffered through exile and persecution due to their religious beliefs, their Samaritan cousins had sold out their God to save their own skin.

The reason I gave you all this historical background is so that you would understand how utterly bizarre it was for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of his story. What did this descendent of heretic sell-out traitors have in him that the pious, devout priest and Levite didn’t have? Something was in the Samaritan’s soul that caused him to be “moved with pity” when he saw a man bleeding on the side of the road.

About a year ago, I got myself in a bind that helped me understand this story. The kids in my youth group loved to eat at the flea market, which they called the “pulga” in Spanish. The problem with the pulga was that it had a gravel parking lot with some really sharp rocks. So when we went to the pulga in the church van one searing hot afternoon, we got a flat tire and didn’t have a lug wrench big enough to change it. Several cars away from us was a Hispanic man who was loading his little girls into their car seats. My teenagers ran over to him before I could stop them and asked for help

Now I would have been irritated if I had just buckled up my kids’ car seats, but he just got his AC running and came over to survey the problem. I explained that we needed an abnormally large lug wrench. He said to give him twenty minutes and he would take his girls home and bring back his whole socket wrench set. I tried to stop him but he told me he wasn’t working that day and had nowhere to be. So he went home, rushed back, and we found a socket big enough to turn the nuts. The nuts were so rusty that we had to put two tools together to get leverage. It worked to get the nuts off but in the process we broke his tool. I offered him $10 to help pay for the cost, but he wouldn’t accept it. He said that other people had helped him before and he was happy to do the same.

I wanted to make this incident into a teaching moment so I asked the youth to turn off their ipods and reflect on why this man did what he did. “That’s easy,” they said, “he’s Mexican!” (which makes a little more sense if I tell you that 90% of my youth were Mexican-American).

I was a little disappointed in their response, but as I was driving them home, my mind started turning over what they had said. Is there something about being an immigrant in America today that’s similar to being a Samaritan in Judea 2000 years ago? The analogy isn’t perfect, but I think there is one. Just like Jewish people had a reason to be mad at Samaritans, many people who look like me have a reason to be mad at immigrants, at least illegal ones. And just like the Samaritan in Jesus’ story probably had nothing to do with his ancestors’ betrayal of Judaism, the Hispanic man who helped us might not have been illegal, but because he spoke no English, my mind put him in a box just like Jesus’ Jewish audience put all Samaritans in the same box.

I’m not interested in getting into the politics of immigration any more than Jesus was interested in talking about the history behind the conflict between the Samaritans and Jews. What I will say is this: the priest and the Levite faced a similar disadvantage to the one I have. They had the privilege of being God’s chosen people in the same way that I have the privilege of being a citizen of the best country the world has to offer right now born into a stable middle-upper class Christian family. Why is this privilege a disadvantage? Because the world I have always lived in is a fair place where people who stay in school and work hard grow up to have successful, stable families of their own. Since I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood where people get beat up, and it doesn’t fit with my view of how the world’s supposed to be, I’d rather walk across the street and let someone who knows what they’re doing take care of the bleeding man.

Either that or I do stop, because I’m trying to prove how mission-minded I am. Maybe I’ve got latex gloves, blankets, and band-aids in my car just in case I see a bleeding man on the side of the road. But if we look closely at this story Jesus told, the point is not whether my church has an effective outreach ministry to people who get beat up by robbers and left for dead. What Jesus wants to know is whether there’s enough space in my soul for the Holy Spirit to move me with pity. Or have all my theories about the world and my need for it all to make sense closed me off to every attempt God makes to light a fire under me? Can I be “moved by pity” like the Good Samaritan was? Not unless I become a Samaritan.

I think that’s what Jesus is saying here. And the reason I think that is because Jesus became like a Samaritan in His own life and death. That’s why I included the Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah in today’s reading. “He was despised and rejected by men… Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” The reason early Christians knew that Isaiah was talking about Jesus in this passage is because Jesus’ decision to become a hated outcast is central to how He saves us.

We think we understand Jesus’ cross. We put it on our diagrams and in our four spiritual laws, and think that’s all there is to it. It’s become for us like a giant credit card we swipe on our way into heaven. But what does it really mean that the Creator of the universe, “who was by nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing… and became obedient to death on a cross”? The cross was the ultimate shame in Roman culture, the form of death reserved for petty thieves and scoundrels deemed unfit for a Roman sword, in other words, the Samaritans of the Earth.

See, the cross is not just a payment for sin. Jesus is the ultimate Insider who knows every word that comes out of our mouths before we even think about saying them. But when the ultimate Insider becomes the ultimate Outsider by going through the most disgraceful thing a human being can possibly go through, it means that other outsiders can see that we’re not alone. We can tear off the masks we’ve put on for other people and wear our shame openly since our Creator wore the world’s shame openly on the cross. We can be Samaritans because our King let Himself be a Samaritan so we could take up our crosses and follow Him.

Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’ call to take up our crosses, but I suspect we misunderstand what it means. We think that taking up our crosses means committing to a certain number of hours a week of church work. We’ve reduced the cross to self-sacrifice. But carrying a cross wasn’t just a sacrifice; it was a “symbol of suffering and shame”; people spat and threw things at Jesus while He was carrying His cross.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” what He’s saying is you don’t have to be afraid of your shame anymore. “I died for you to free you from all the things you’re so embarrassed that other people will find out about you, the things about you that might make other people treat you like a Samaritan. Now accept the freedom to stop trying to prove that you’re not a Samaritan when you know good and well that you are!”

Did something happen in your past that you’re not proud of? It’s okay; take up that cross and follow Jesus! Do you have to take pills every morning to keep from getting depressed? That’s fine; take up that cross and follow Jesus! Is your kid not meeting all of the learning milestones that the pediatrician says he’s supposed to? Take up that cross too and follow Jesus! Taking up your cross means giving up the lie that everything in your life is going just fine, making peace with the fact that you’re a sinner who Jesus died for, and taking the risk that other people might treat you like a Samaritan.

When we’re not willing to take that risk, we end being like cranky Hank from Pastor Ed’s sermon last week. The reason people like Hank are so cranky is because they’re scared to admit that they don’t have it all together. It’s my nervousness about my own flaws that makes me want to judge other people. But when I admit that I’m a hopeless sinners and I trust Jesus enough to take my shame to the foot of His cross, then I can be free like that Good Samaritan – liberated from caring what other people think so the Holy Spirit can have its way with me.