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Sunday, June 30, 2019
Scripture: Deuteronomy 24:17-22 & John 4:5-15
“I Wonder…” Summer Sermon Series
Rev. Dale C. Swihart, Jr.

I Wonder… why some Christians quote parts of the Bible which support their views, while ignoring those which do not?

I think it is safe to say that many of you are old enough to remember Bob Dylan’s infamous words, “The times they are a changing.”   While the song was written as a protest during a time of social upheaval, it is still relevant. In truth, the times they are always a-changing.

A few of you know that I enjoy fly fishing.  It has been said, “You never step into the same river twice.  The water that surrounds you one moment is quickly downstream and the water that was above you soon will surround you.  Life is like a flowing river.  To be alive is to change, especially when it comes to our attitudes.

Since confession is good for the soul, let me share some of the challenging attitude changes I have faced in my lifetime. Since each of us is a product of the environment, the culture, the mores, which surrounded us as children, change can be hard. Growing up in a small, rural, post-World War II era, all-white community, certain attitudes were deeply ingrained.  I didn’t realize I was a bigot until in college I cringed when I first saw an interracial couple; I didn’t  realize how much of a male chauvinist I was until while in seminary I was challenged by women trying to break through doors long held closed by the church they loved; I didn’t  realize how homophobic I was until my senses were offended seeing same sex couples showing physical affection. Changing attitudes and breaking the grip of our upbringing is difficult.  Sometimes it takes a lifetime.

Perhaps there is no more important challenge we face as humans than moving past our first few years of life.  Psychologists tell us that so much of the human personality is hardwired by the time we are 5 years old.   For some, growth and maturity never move beyond the “me first, terrible twos.”  Much of what we learn from family and teachers as children becomes gospel for the rest of our lives and some of us never grow past those years. I recall a beloved college professor telling me, as with great confidence I regurgitated information I had heard in Sunday school, “Dale, part of my job is helping my students  unlearn much of what well-intended  Sunday school teachers taught them.”  Re-learning early lessons of life can be hard, especially when those lessons are reinforced by society.

Now don’t  get me wrong, there is a great deal of good foundational stuff learned in those early years. Faith, love, loyalty, courage, hard  work,  morality,  patriotism,  empathy…it is  a long list. ..these are important values.  However, let us also not overlook the reality that hidden away in those positive virtues can be seeds of prejudice and hatred.

I am troubled by the path our country is on right now. We are being encouraged to return to and embrace our childhood, more self-centered, instincts. Public policy is being forged to protecting narrowly defined self-interest. Hatred and selfishness are winning out over empathy and compassion. What is even more troubling, good Christian folks are not only accepting, but are actually promoting this. People who are part of a faith that is based on grace, unconditional love, hospitality, self-sacrifice and humane living are sitting back and letting it happen. We are being told that our self-preservation and most basic animalistic needs outweigh the welfare of others. We  are  being  taught  to  treat  with  disdain  and suspicion,  those  who  are strangers, who look different,  or have different  beliefs  and lifestyles. We are being urged to  use certain  parts of scripture to prosecute and persecute, all while ignoring other parts of the Bible.  We are forgetting the example of Jesus who was able to step outside the norms of his society and embrace those he was told to shun and hate.

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is powerful on different levels.  On a spiritual level, Jesus sensed that something was missing in the woman’s life and he helped her find it. On a social level, it reminds us that God’s kingdom is not defined by human-made boundaries and restrictions. You cannot build a wall, real or perceived, to stop human concern and compassion. In reaching out to the Samaritan woman Jesus broke down social barriers erected by his people.

It was considered improper for a man, especially a teacher, to approach an unknown woman. If the text  is to be believed, the woman was a polygamist. Most  importantly, good Jews did not associate with Samaritans. Samaritans were considered half-breeds and traitors by devote Jews. It was a social divide marked for hundreds of years. It went back to the time when Israel was divided into two kingdoms. During times of foreign occupation, some people in the north were much more accommodating to their foreign occupiers and even intermarried with them. To the Jews in the south, that was an abomination, a betrayal of the faith. In addition, while the Jews from the south were deported into exile by the Babylonians, those in Samaria stayed home.  A final source of tension arose during the reign of Alexander the Great who rebuilt  a temple which had been destroyed in the northern kingdom. Faithful Jews believed that the only true temple was in the south, in Jerusalem. The tensions ran deep and Samaritans were not only hated, but shunned. They were seen as unclean, corrupt people, even though they worshiped the same God and traced their ancestral lineage back to Abraham. Association with a Samaritan was forbidden. Jesus knew these social, cultural and religious restrictions.

Yet there was Jesus, openly talking with a Samaritan woman. He sensed that something was wrong in her life and even in the face of social norm and Jewish law he was willing to reach out and help her, giving her “living water.” Helping this woman was more important to Jesus than what his religion told him about her. Human decency and compassion  must not be restricted  by social norms. In the end, this outcast woman believed in Jesus and became his ambassador to her community.

It is hard to overcome our upbringing, what our families, teachers, society, even our government has told us to believe, or how to act. However, when that upbringing and those policies contradict what Jesus taught and lived, we have to pause and take a second look.

The  book of Acts has two wonderful stories of conversion, where followers of Jesus stepped outside what they had been taught to see a new way of doing things. Paul, on the Road  to Damascus, was converted from Christian-hater and persecutor to an apostle of Jesus and became his greatest missionary to the Gentile world. Peter, upon having a vision realized that the young church was wrong in demanding circumcision before baptism. He came to understand that Gentiles also had a place in the church. Both of these great church leaders had a change of heart that led them to help build a church which was more inclusive.

As we look at the world today, let us not look at it with blinders on. Let us not succumb to human instincts which tell us to be suspicious of anyone who is different, horde for ourselves everything we can, put a fence around everything we own in order to keep others out, or close ourselves off from the pain and suffering of the world. That may be what our self-centered instincts tell us to do, but it is not what Jesus calls us to do. Paul told the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” We must not let biases rooted in our most primitive selves govern our lives. There was a reason why ancient Israel had laws about helping the widows, orphans and strangers. It runs contrary to human nature to leave behind a portion of the harvest. It runs against human nature to extend to the foreign stranger the same justice your people enjoy. It was also a strong reminder that at one time the Israelites had been strangers in a foreign land and God provided for them. Now it was incumbent upon them to provide for the strangers in their midst. My friends, at one time all of us were strangers in this land.

Yes, I am deeply troubled by the direction we are going as a people and nation. We can and must do better in welcoming the stranger and protecting the rights and dignity of each and every person. A photo published this week may actually have begun to re-shape attitudes toward migrants from Central America. The picture of the drowned El Salvadorian man and his toddler daughter has put a human  face  on  the  immigration  crisis. For too long immigrants have been vilified and demonized, when all most of them want is a place to raise their children which is free from violence, and a chance to climb out of poverty. Who among us does not want a better life for our children? We have been told to hate and mistrust these people, yet the vast majority of them are Christians, just like us. I find it rather ironic that America’s greatest export is a vision of a land of freedom, abundance, and opportunity. Yet when impoverished, abused and enslaved people of the world want in, we say “no.” When we wholesale demean immigrants, we demean ourselves, because we are a nation of immigrants, built on a wonderful diversity.

We must change attitudes in this country which prevent us from seeing our common humanity. It is hard work casting off the negative baggage and prejudices we have been taught; sometimes it does takes us a lifetime, but it can and must be done.

During my career, I spent a lot of time directing camps. A favorite camp song was David Mallett’s, Garden Song (Inch By Inch). The song is a reminder that it takes a lot of work to make a beautiful garden.  (Video)

This nation still has the potential to be a beautiful garden for the world to see, a garden of welcome, equality, freedom, love, acceptance, diversity, tolerance and generosity. We can make it happen – inch by inch and row by row, we need to change attitudes, starting with our own. It takes a lot of patience and hard work, but with Jesus helping, one by one, we can reverse the direction things are going.

Whenever I have the opportunity to preach in this sanctuary I get to gaze upon some beautiful art, especially portrayed in the balcony window. In a way it is a picture of a garden, with Jesus in the center.  If you have not looked at it, take a moment, before you leave, to study that window. Each Sunday, as  we  leave  this  place, that  window  is  a reminder  that  Jesus  welcomes  all  people, regardless of social standing, race, gender, nationality…and as followers of Jesus, we are called to go out into the world and do the same.