You’re George McFly!

If you had a DeLorean time-machine, what period of history would you like to visit?

In the 1985 classic, Back to the Future, Marty McFly, a 17-year-old high school student, is accidentally sent thirty years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his friend, the maverick scientist Doc Brown.

The fascinating thing about the movie is how it came into existence. The idea for the movie came from Bob Gale. He co-wrote the script after coming across his father’s high school yearbook. He wondered if he would have been friends with his dad if they were in school together. This idea was the beginning concept for Back to the Future.

I have asked similar things about people of history. Would I have like the music of Elvis if I was hearing it the first time? Would I have thought going to the moon in 1969 the greatest of ideas? Would I have stood up for the Jews in Hitler’s Germany? Would I have marched for Civil Rights in the South during segregation? Would I have shouted “Crucify him” or claimed him as Messiah when Jesus walked among us? Would you?

It is a tough question to answer without actually being present in those moments. Our hope is that we would be on the side of love and justice. We hope that we would stand on what is right. We like to think that we would have saw something in Jesus that would have convinced us that this travelling rabbi truly was the savior of the world.

We can’t travel back to the past and place ourselves in those situations to see what type of response it provokes from us but we can know something about how we would respond by examining our current actions toward the injustices and hatred in our current world.

What is your response to the brokenness of the world? What is your answer to the division that exist? Is your first response one of blame? Ignore? Hide? How intentional are you in trying to understand the issue from all the different sides? Have you ever attempted to put yourself in the shoes of the other person? Tried to see the struggle from their perspective? Examined an issue from the viewpoint of the person you disagree with?

There is a story in scripture where Jesus finds himself in the middle of the day at a well located in the Samaritan city of Sychar. The scripture says, “Jesus tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’” (John 4: 6-7). A lot is going on in this passage. First, Jesus is in a place of needing something from someone else. He is tired. Secondly, the person available to meet his need is someone his culture considers nonredeemable and unacceptable. The person is also a female that is not a relative and that makes this conversation all the more shocking. She acknowledges the situation: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria” (John 4: 9)?

This encounter turns out to be a life changing experience for the woman. In the end she goes back to her hometown and says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he” (John 4: 28)?  We are told that many Samaritans – those considered enemies of the Jews – believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. And it all started because Jesus – the Son of God – expressed a need for water. This place of intimate vulnerability allowed him to connect with her on a level that gave him permission to speak into her need for living water. The story gives us a powerful image when we are told that before she goes into town to tell the townspeople about Jesus, she “left her water jar” (John 4: 28). If her empty water jar represented her lack of connection, she no longer needed it. She found connection through the vulnerability of Jesus. If Jesus is willing to take this approach to connecting with someone his culture considers wrong, how much more should we?

A young expert in Jewish law comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25)? Jesus replies by asking him what does the law say and the young man says, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10: 27). There you go, says Jesus. Do that and you will be alright. But needed to justify himself – justify why we are not required to love the minority,  the liberal, the conservative, the Republican, the Democrat, the immigrant, the Muslim, the one so different than me – wanting to justify himself, he asks, “Who is my neighbor” (Luke 10: 29)?

Jesus tells a story. A story that makes the main character and the hero of the story a Samaritan – someone his culture would not consider a good neighbor. It was the Samaritan that takes care of the Jewish victim. There were righteous people in the story but they passed by on the other side when they saw the pain of the man in the ditch. It was the Samaritan that restores him back to life and gives him back his dignity. At the end of the story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers” (Luke 10: 36)? The Jewish religious scholar could not even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” He just said, “The one who had mercy on him” (Luke 10: 37). Yea, go do it like that, live your life like that, Jesus says.

The question is how? How do we begin to love the neighbor that is so different than us? How do we begin to make a connection with someone who is not like us? How do we build the bridge necessary for reconciliation to happen? The key is in how Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. He says, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The “yourself” phrase brings to mind a powerful tool that we have as human beings. It is the power of empathy.

Our Summer at the Movies series we will be looking at the power of empathy. How do we possess it? How do we identify it? How does it make us better human beings? Today’s message is simply an introduction to the need for empathy in our lives. The next two weeks we will explore how do we live from a place of empathy. This is going to enrich your relationships – marriage and friendships. It will help you in getting along with your co-workers. But most importantly I believe this lesson is exactly what we need as a society today. How do we begin to connect with the “Samaritans” of our world and build a bridge to better understanding and deeper compassion? Empathy will be our guide.

Let’s start with a definition of empathy. Empathy is connection. Empathy is the ability to feel our way into another’s place of pain and hurt. Empathy empowers love. It creates a moral demand on the heart. Brene Brown says, “Empathy is a vulnerable choice because that means I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

 

Empathy doesn’t require a “fix it” approach. Empathy is simply about the connection. When someone is facing a challenge or dealing with a difficult situation, they are not usually looking for a magic response that will fix everything. They are looking for someone who can help them not feel alone. They know you don’t have the answers. But what they want to know is do you have the connection. This is what it means to show empathy. Empathy is what it looks like to love your neighbor as yourself.

In the end, Marty has gotten his parents back together. But before he could do it he had to live in their world and connect with his dad. George McFly thanks Marty for all the advice but in reality all that Marty did was help George live into his true self. Before the scene closes, Marty encourages his parents to show some sympathy to his 8 year old self.

Empathy is being able to see the world as others see it. We will be talking about how to actually do that in the upcoming weeks. But my challenge for you this week is start the practice of looking at the world through a different lens. Everyone was given glasses on their way into worship today. I want to invite you to put those on. As you watch the news, scan twitter, or question why your Facebook friend puts all their intimate business online, simply ask yourself the question, “Why does he or she act that way?” “Before you rush to judgment ask yourself, “What is it in them that is causing them to respond in that way?” Before you give your opinion ask yourself, “What would you do if that was your child? Spouse? Friend?” Empathy is being able to see the world as others see it. Now look around. See how much cooler everyone looks when we all look at the world through empathetic eyes.

Next week we will dig deeper into empathy and examine steps to practically live it out. Let’s pray.

 

 

 

 

(Sermon preached at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville Georgia on Sunday, July 21, 2019)

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Do Unto Others

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7: 1 – 14)

do unto othersI was invited to a United Methodist Church when I was fourteen years old. I made a commitment to put Jesus at the center of my life when I was fifteen years old. I heard the voice of God calling me into ordained ministry when I was seventeen years old. The United Methodist Church has been the lighthouse that has pointed me in the direction of God’s kingdom my entire adult life.

It would be foolish to think that things are not going to look differently in a few years. The truth is regardless of what happens to the people called Methodist, the entire Christian movement is going to take on a different look for our children and grandchildren.

When it comes to the way we do church the question that keeps me up at night is “Who will never be reached if we only do this?” If we only do church the way that it is currently being done, who will we be missing? I know people who will never step foot in the doors of this building. I know families who will never come to know Jesus by walking through the big, wooden, beautiful, and yet for some, intimidating doors.

What concerns me is that as we continue to debate issues of human sexuality, we are losing a whole generation of people. We are missing out on our opportunity to share the love of Jesus with many people because they are turned off by our squabbling and by our missional insistence that this is the only way church can be done.

I don’t want you to hear that I am saying this is not important. How we understand scriptural authority and  interpretation and life experience is vitally important. Since 1972, when the church set parameters in the Book of Discipline for ministry to, with, and by homosexual people, The United Methodist Church has struggled with this matter.

The 2016 General Conference – legislative body of The United Methodist Church – took a major step toward trying to resolve the struggle when it approved a Commission on a Way Forward to be appointed by and make recommendations to the Council of Bishops. The Commission was charged with finding a way forward for our church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. The hope is that decisions made in 2019 will allow the 2020 General Conference to focus on our mission and shared ministry. With the theme “God is Able,” the delegation will meet February 23rd through the 26th to discern God’s will and direction for the future of The United Methodist Church. If you want to learn more, go to http://www.ngumc.com/gc2019. [i]

The writer of Matthew’s gospel in the New Testament is concerned with the identity of his Christian community. The author represents a group of Jewish Christians who are no longer welcome in communion with the Jewish people. It is post-70 AD and deep division is developing between the Christian and Jewish community. This deep division is also playing out internally. There is a critical spirit and judging of one another that is threatening to divide the community. Only in this gospel is the word “church” used. And much like today, they are a community of believers trying to figure out exactly what is it that the word “church” means.

Fred Craddock tells the story of the first church he served near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was during his tenure that the community exploded with laborers brought in to work at the newly developed nuclear plants. The young pastor wanted to attract the workers to his church. But there was a problem. The church didn’t want them.

After service one Sunday, Rev. Craddock called a meeting of the church’s leadership and presented his plans. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one church member said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon.” It was decided that they would take a vote on the following Sunday.

At the outset of the meeting one week later, one of the church members said, “I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county.” It was quickly seconded and passed.

Years later, Fred Craddock returned to the area to show his wife the church that he once served. The parking lot was full; cars, trucks, and motorcycles surrounded the old structure which now sported a sign that read “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” Unable to resist, the Craddocks walked inside and saw the old pews lining a wall, and the organ pushed into a corner. The space was filled with different sized tables which were filled with people filling themselves on pork and chicken.

Dr. Craddock leaned over to his wife and whispered, “It’s a good thing this isn’t still a church… otherwise, these people couldn’t be in here.”

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye” (Matthew 7: 1 – 3).

 Matthew warns before we start throwing stones make sure you are aware of your own failures and need of God’s forgiveness. He wants there to be some hesitancy when it comes to identifying and naming faults in other people. If Matthew was around today, he might tell us that if we keep at it there might a sign hanging on our front door that reads, “BBQ: All You Can Eat.”

The rule we know as the Golden Rule is given in this context. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s best. We are all in need of God’s forgiveness. We should not deny in others what is required of our self.

It reminds me of the story in the bible where a group of righteous men interrupt Jesus in his teaching to bring before him a woman they caught in the act of adultery. They asked Jesus if her punishment should be stoning because that is what is written in the law of Moses. Jesus ignores them at first and starts doodling on the ground as though he doesn’t hear them. But when they won’t let it rest, he says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Then he decided to doodle some more.

One by one they leave. Jesus is left alone with the woman. He says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

This brings us back to the Gospel of Matthew: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7: 12). The Golden Rule reminds us in a world where we will do whatever it takes to be right, don’t forget to also be compassionate.

A form of the Golden Rule is found in all major religions. There is a famous story told in Jewish circles about the rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus. A non-Jew came to him and offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. Rabbi Hillel stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest us commentary. Go and study it.”

What makes the rule golden is the context of Christian love. The Golden Rule only works when an investment in relationships is made. It requires of us to consider how someone else would want to be treated. It demands of us to look into our own hearts and see what inflicts pain and then refuse to inflict pain on anyone else.  In the gospel of Luke, the Golden Rule concludes the paragraph that begins, “Love your enemies.”

The Golden Rule is given in the context of love, mercy, forgiveness and how to live in the context of a Christian community. It requires the imagination of putting oneself in the place of another person and seeing his or her needs. It requires an act of courageous love.

A few years ago in Duke University Chapel, Bishop Will Willimon shared a story of a man named High Thompson. Thompson had recently been the recipient of an honorary degree at Duke. In 1968 Thompson was a young helicopter pilot flying patrol over the countryside of Vietnam. On March 16th of that year, Thompson and his crew were flying over the village of My Lai. Down below they observed a nightmare taking place. An American unit, in the midst of war’s madness, had lost control of discipline, reason, and humanity. They were slaughtering unarmed civilians in the village, most of them women, children, and elderly men. As would later be determined, more than 500 individuals had already been executed.

Seeing what was taking place, Thompson landed the helicopter between the troops and the remaining villagers. At a risk to himself, High Thompson got out of the helicopter and confronted the officer in charge. He then airlifted the few surviving villagers and radioed a report of the scene back to headquarters. As a result, likely sparing the lives of thousands of villagers.

On the day that Thompson received his honorary degree he was asked how did he find the courage and strength to do what he did. He said, “I would like to thank my mother and father for trying to instill in me the difference between right and wrong. We were country people raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia. One thing we had was the Golden Rule. My parents taught me early, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That is why I did what I did on that day.”

Jesus knows that as soon as we are born that our inclination is to look after only ourselves. We don’t always have the interest of our neighbors in mind. We don’t care for those who need to be cared for. We don’t treat others the way we would like to be treated or even the way we would treat Jesus if he was standing in front of us.

Jesus also knows that when a group of Christians get together to make decisions on the future of the church and the mission of the church that we don’t always act in ways that reflect the light of Christ. So, before we make any decisions, I believe Jesus would say, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” I don’t know about you but I am not quite ready to hang up a sign that reads, “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” What about you? Amen.

[i] Read more at www.ngumc.org/gc2019

(Preached on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville, GA)