Gut Theology

(sermon 7/14/19)

Bones and Spock

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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A week or two ago, an old friend that I grew up with made a post on Facebook that too many Christians were supposedly making a mistake of letting their feelings and emotions guide their actions, instead of using their heads – and that that led them into bad theology and sin. What he wrote was really just a reflection of a dispute that’s older than Christianity, or religion at all, and that goes all the way back to our earliest human origins – the question of the relationship and relative importance of intellect versus emotion; of thinking versus feeling – Of Spock versus Bones; or in the verbal shorthand of our culture, of head versus heart. In our western society, we’ve tended to strongly favor head over heart, holding that intellect is superior to emotions – that intellect is based on data and logic; it’s supposedly objective; you can put it on a spreadsheet and write formulas for it; where emotions are supposedly soft, ambiguous, fuzzy; they’re unpredictable and therefore, inferior. They aren’t, my old friend would say, a reliable way to understand the reality of a situation, or specifically, a reliable way to understand God, or to understand what God wishes might be in a given situation.

You can see the head-versus-heart debate in the scriptures and in the early church in the debate over what was more important – professing the right things, or doing the right things; or as the theologians would say, the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Paul and James contribute a lot to that debate in the scriptures, and so do many of the ancient prophets, and Jesus certainly jumps into the debate with both feet. And when you look at what Jesus and the majority of those others had to say about the subject, you’ll see that they believed that both our intellects and our emotions are equally important parts of our having been created in God’s image. They’re both important kinds of intelligence. They’re both based on data inputs; different kinds of data to be sure, but important data nonetheless. And frankly, when you look at Jesus’ words and the totality of the scriptural witness, as much as it might upset our Western, supposedly objective, head-based sensibilities, if Jesus and the others did favor any one of the two over the other, it was generally the heart knowledge, the emotional intelligence, that took precedence over the head.

We see that in today’s gospel text, the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man had questioned Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. When pushed by Jesus to try to answer his own question about what it would take, the man rattled off the Law, the scriptural commandments that he’d learned in Sunday School when he was small that he was supposed to believe, and he’d apparently taken them to heart. But then Jesus pushed him further, saying it wasn’t enough to just say he believed these things were correct; he had to actually let his emotions kick in and put those intellectual propositions into actual practice.

In this parable that Jesus offered to explain his point, the first two people who walked by the beaten and suffering man, one of their own countrymen, both were upstanding religious men who professed all those same commandments as the man who had questioned Jesus – they could have rattled off the same list of commandments from the Torah, the Law.

We’ve all seen and heard of the horrible situation on our southern border right now, with refugees, asylum-seekers; men, women, and children; being detained in vastly overcrowded facilities and often being denied the basic essentials of health and hygiene. We’ve all heard about the obscene policy of forcibly separating children, even infants, from their parents. Recently, during a television segment discussing those situations, a well-known commentator on a national news network said that well, yes, it’s a sad situation and all, but actually, you know, those aren’t our children. This was the mindset of those first two men who walked past the beaten men in the parable and did nothing. It was a shame, to be sure, but it really wasn’t any real concern of theirs. He wasn’t their problem.

These two men couldn’t make the connection that the religious Law that they professed and said they believed in was really a call to act with compassion – with their feelings and emotions – and that sometimes, the right practice of the intent of the Law might require them to act contrary to the letter of that Law.

Jesus tells us that the third man to come along was a Samaritan – a foreigner, part of a group who were despised by the Jews, and vice versa. The Samaritan wasn’t a part of the Jewish religious tradition; for all we know, he may not have been an adherent of any religion at all. And he knew that on any other day, the man he saw lying in a pool of blood along the side of the road could very possibly have been a serious threat to him. He’d probably have hurt the Samaritan, thrown a rock at him, or worse, if they’d met on the street. Still, whether he was an adherent of the Jewish faith or not, the Samaritan had the same Law within him that was professed by the others who’d come along, but in his case, it was written on his heart instead of his head.

Our Bible translation says that the Samaritan felt “pity” for the beaten man. That’s an unfortunate translation that doesn’t really capture the full meaning of the word being translated, and it implies that the Samaritan felt a sense of superiority, and was looking down on the beaten man. But this word being translated actually means that he felt deep, extreme compassion for him. Today, we’d say that our heart ached for the man, or that our heart went out to him, or was broken for him. In Jesus’ time they’d have conveyed the same idea by talking about their inner organs, their intestines – their guts. In fact, that’s actually what this Greek word literally refers to; it means that the Samaritan felt a deep compassion to the core of his intestines, his guts, for the suffering man, his would-be enemy. The Samaritan allowed his emotions, his gut, to rule the day, to write his theology, and not his head. And this, of all the possible stories Jesus could weave, was the illustration that he used to teach what’s most important to God, and what eternal life is all about. Head theology is good and important, but only in so far as it’s interpreted and converted into “Gut Theology.”

It’s gut theology that we celebrate today, as we recognize and commission all those in this congregation who will be living out their faith by working with Habitat for Humanity this year. If you’re one of those workers, realize that you are all gut theologians. Realize that in God’s eyes, every one of you who frames a wall in the name of God’s love is as important a theologian as St. Augustine; every one of you who hangs a window or paints a ceiling is as important a theologian as John Calvin; every one of you who makes and distributes lunches is as important a theologian as Karl Barth.

This week our Puerto Rico mission trip workers – our Puerto Rico gut theologians – have come back safe and sound, and now, we’re commissioning another group of people to go out from here to put right belief into right practice. In several weeks, we’re gong to host an event to highlight some of the many ways that all of us can be gut theologians, and a number of the sermons between now and then will highlight some of those ways, too. It’s important that in some way or another, each one of us finds a way to convert right belief into the more important right practice – to become a gut theologians ourselves. Out of gratitude for the grace and the love that God has poured upon all of us, we need to hear the wisdom of our heads, but to act based on the wisdom of our feelings. To do anything less would be… well, illogical.

Thanks be to God.

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The Borders of Compassion

(sermon 8/6/17)

ice arrest

Deuteronomy 10:12-22

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.

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A while back, I was online and stumbled across a site that was selling T shirts. One of the shirts they were advertising that made me laugh was one that said, in big, bold print, “JESUS LOVES YOU” – and then below that, in smaller print, it said, “…But I’m His Favorite.”

There’s a little bit of that mindset in this passage from Deuteronomy that we heard today. According to the passage, God tells the Hebrew people that they’re especially chosen; that God loved and chose them and their ancestors alone. I’m going to say right now that I don’t literally believe that for a moment – that God really did only love the Hebrews and no one else. In fact, there’s plenty of Old Testament scripture that shows that to not be literally true. And since I don’t believe that, I certainly don’t believe that Christians have now replaced Jews as God’s exclusively loved and chosen people. That’s a particularly nasty and dangerous theological idea that’s caused unbelievable harm over the last two thousand years, and that we especially need to reject now, in our post-Holocaust world.

But rather than get stuck on that point in this reading, let’s consider the bigger point that’s being made. According to one place in the passage, God is saying, you, Hebrews, are special and beloved and chosen by God, whether exclusively or not – and because of that, you have a special, higher obligation to be attentive to God’s ways, and to do likewise in your own lives. In other words, yes, you’re chosen, but it’s a kind of chosen that comes with homework.

So what is that homework? That they must love the person in need, and the stranger in their midst; the foreigner living within their borders. They need to provide them with food and clothing, caring for their unmet physical needs. They need to do this, God says, because at one time, they themselves were in the same boat – they had been resident aliens in Egypt, exploited and kept in poverty doing hard physical labor for the financial benefit of others. In fact, the entire Old Testament Law, the entire Jewish faith, has this idea of being compassionate to the foreigner, the resident alien living within their borders, as a constant undercurrent. It’s an absolute essential tenet of the faith – and by extension, it’s an essential tenet of ours, too. So when we hear those familiar words of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” that are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore –
send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

When we hear these words, we know that they aren’t just a reflection of some of our most cherished national principles, they also reflect a core, non-negotiable, baseline principle of compassion within our Christian faith.

These days, it’s almost impossible to escape the topic of the stranger, the foreigner living within our borders. It seems like every day, there’s another news story about refugees or immigrants. An ICE crackdown that arrests and deports a dozen men in south Louisville, ripping them away from their wives and children. A proposed federal law that would could legal immigration and refugee entries almost in half. A state law that would prohibit cities, universities, and similar institutions from establishing themselves as safe havens for immigrants, and imposing stiff financial punishment on them if they tried to do so. Almost every night, another public statement of extreme isolationist, white-nationalist, alt-right ideology being spouted; men in suits offering up words that used to be reserved for men in hoods.

Well, this is the pivot point in the sermon. Some people might call it the “lettuce” point – the point where the preacher has laid out some situation, some problem, and then says, “So therefore, let us work harder to [fill in the blank];” “Let us go forth and be even more diligent about [whatever]. But I’m not going to do that today, because I know that you already get it when it comes to immigration and refugees. I’ve seen how this congregation has worked with Kentucky Refugee Ministries for years. I see the mountains of donated good that this congregation collects to help new refugee families get settled in. I’ve seen a Session that had the courage to take a stand against an unconstitutional ban on Muslim refugees and immigrants, and I’ve seen us host thoughtful community discussions on the topic. Every week, I see members of this congregation helping to teach immigrants English as a second language, and helping them prepare for their citizenship exams.

So today, I just want you to think about all those great things you’ve done. Be glad of the fact that together as a church family, Springdale gets it. And you’ve done it all because you’ve known and felt God’s love in your lives. You’ve heard, and lived the gospel – God’s good news of reconciliation and compassion for all people – and you’ve acted out of gratitude for it. And most likely, also because you remember some time when you benefited from someone else’s help, We may not have ever been slaves in Egypt, but all of us have likely known what it feels like to be in need.

So think about all that today. Recognize the good the you’ve done. Own it. Embrace it. Be grateful that you’ve been able to do so much.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that can just rest on our past achievements. We do always need to watch for ways to be just as compassionate in the future. See, I guess maybe there is a little bit of “lettuce” in this sermon after all. We should always be alert to new and unexpected ways we might be asked to show that there’s no green card in the kingdom of heaven; that God’s compassion knows no borders.

In 2003, on my fist trip to Montana de Luz, the orphanage in Honduras, I met Ramon. He was part of the bricklaying crew I was working with. That week, and one week every year for the next five or six years, I got to know Ramon. We worked together, ate together, laughed together. Once, he’d rushed to help me when I was hurt in a little accident. I was a guest in his tiny little home. I met his family. Simply put, Ramon became my friend.

About four years ago, I got a call out of the blue from Ramon. Through his broken English and my broken Spanish, he told me that he’d paid a coyote – a human smuggler – to take him on the very dangerous, and often deadly, trip north through Central America and Mexico, and to get him across the border into the U.S., where he could make enough money to send home to his family to keep them sheltered and fed and his children in school. But when they got to the border, the coyote changed the rules. Now, he wanted even more money to complete the job and get him across the border. Ramon was desperate. He didn’t have any money; he didn’t know what to do. So he called me, and asked if I might be able to send him $200 to help him get across.

I told him that as much as I’d like to help him, what he was asking was illegal, and that we’re a nation of laws, and that whether we like the law or not, we still have to obey it. So I told him no.

And I’ve been ashamed of my answer ever since. Every time I think of Ramon, I think of his face, and the face of his children. And I think of the poverty, and hunger, and destitution, and hopelessness that I allowed him to remain in. For two hundred dollars and so I could say I hadn’t broken the law.

I guess if there’s any “lettuce” in this sermon, I guess it’s this: let us always be on the lookout for ways to show compassion to the stranger, the foreigner in our midst, because it’s a bedrock teaching of our faith. And let us use our words, our voices, and yes, our votes, to keep immoral people from enacting unjust laws. Let us avoid becoming modern-day Pharisees, blindly obeying unjust laws that are already in place. Let us never be too timid to love the way that God has called us to. And let us always remember the great truth of another T shirt that was on that website I told you about. That T shirt was right next to the first one; this one said “JESUS LOVES YOU – But Then Again, He Loves Everyone.” And so he does.

 Thanks be to God.