Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for January 27, 2018
I noticed a bumper sticker on the rear window of a minivan parked in the Chase Bank parking lot in Ballard. What Would Jesus Do? Since Ballard is not exactly a major center of Christian piety, the sticker got my attention. (For my non-NW friends: Ballard is one of the most atheistic neighborhood in the US.) I then noticed another sticker right next to the What Would Jesus Do? sticker. This adjacent sticker had been damaged and hard to read. I looked closely. It was also a Jesus sticker. It read, “Jesus would drive in the RIGHT lane except to pass.”
I laughed and laughed. Only in Ballard—or Fremont—would I see a bumper sticker citing Jesus in support of proper freeway driving technique. They should have included one of the famous quotations by Jesus about traffic management:
“Nathaniel 13, verse 8: When you take your donkey to town, do not take up the whole road. Leave room for your neighbor to pass.”
Bartholomew 4:6. “You hypocrites! You prohibit donkeys in the temple out of regard for God, but tie your donkeys in narrow streets making passage impossible for your neighbors. Fools, do you not know that obstructing your neighbor who is made in God’s image is the same as obstructing God?”
Of course, I’m making up these “quotations” from Jesus. Jesus never said anything about traffic management in Jerusalem or in Seattle. Jesus never said or did anything that would offer a distinctly “Christian” approach to driving.
When we ask the question, What would Jesus do?, very often there is no specific example in the Gospel that provides a straightforward answer to the question. Instead, Jesus becomes a stand-in for our highest ideals. The name, Jesus, gets wrapped around our ideas of what is noble and wise and compassionate. Jesus was wise, compassionate, honest, good. When we ask, What would Jesus do? We are asking what is the wise, compassionate, honest, good thing to do and our answer to the question says more about us than it does about Jesus.
I faced this hermeneutical challenge as I worked on this week’s sermon.
I began with pictures in my head. Quinn, Joel, Bryden, Orin, Alex, Cara, and Kara. Each of these persons was born with special challenges. Each of them has received intensive therapeutic intervention and each requires and will always require special help. We cannot fix these people. Not if “fix” means getting them to a place where they will be able to manage their own lives without special assistance.
These people are not going to grow up and take care of their parents. They are not going to earn enough money over the course of their lifetimes to pay for their care. Some will never manage their own money. Some will never speak. Some will never be able to change their own diapers. Not even if they live to be sixty years old. They will not become “productive members of society.” They will always be takers. Always.
With these people filling my mind’s eye, I asked the question: What would Jesus do?
When I took this question to the Gospel I immediately ran into a problem. In the Gospel, Jesus solved every physical, material problem he faced. Paralyzed for 38 years—no problem. Jesus made the man’s legs work. Blind? No problem. Jesus cured the blindness. A son who had demonic fits or seizures all his life? Not to worry. Jesus fixed it. Jesus solved every physical, material problem he encountered. Miracles were routine.
So when we looked at my collage of images of friends with severe challenges and asked what would Jesus do, the first part of the answer was easy: Jesus would heal them, fix them, make life easy for them which gives us no help at all. Because our friends cannot be fixed. Our friends have genetic disorders, chromosomal abnormalities, severe learning disabilities, and profound mental illness. And we cannot fix them. We cannot do what Jesus did. We cannot do what Jesus would do.
Jesus healed people. We are left to care for them. Jesus fixed problems. We manage problems. This is our life as the people of God. This is our life as the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus has placed among us people we cannot fix.
I have friends who attend the Bethel Church in Redding, California. This church specializes in miraculous healings. My friends have witnessed miracles. They experienced for themselves healing from incurable conditions. I love their stories. I do not deny the occurrence of miracles. But the town of Redding still has a hospital and it is not empty. Redding has assisted living facilities and people are not moving from assisted living back to independent living. Even in the neighborhoods surrounding Bethel Church there are children with severe disabilities. Even in the Bethel Congregation itself there are families serving as caregivers.
When we consider our children and friends and neighbors and parents who have special needs and we ask what would Jesus do? The stories of healing in the Gospel are not especially helpful. Because we cannot fix the people we know.
A few weeks ago, I listened to a theologian who expressed great admiration for the provision in the law of Moses regarding gleaning. According to the law, if you had a grain field, at harvest time, you were obliged to leave the corners unharvested. After you did your first gathering, you were prohibited from going back over the field a second time to make sure you had gathered every last stalk of grain. Instead, those unharvested corners and missed stalks were to be left for poor people who had no fields. Once you were finished with your harvest, they could harvest those corners and gather any grain that had been dropped in your harvesting process.
The theologian applauded this approach, making a veiled political point, saying this divine method of helping the poor meant no one got something for nothing. The poor people experienced the dignity of work.
The theologian was correct as far as he went. Those who can work, should work. But he left out Quinn, Joel, Bryden, Orin, Alex, Cara, and Kara. If my theologian friend ran the world, a lot of people would die because they are unable to go out to the fields and gather. They are unable to cook. They are unable to turn on the water faucet. They cannot change their diapers, even at age 25.
Most of us have heard the phrase, “Give people a hand up, not a hand out.” Certainly, where we can, we should give a hand up.
One of the proudest moments of my life came during a performance by a brilliant musician who had been close friends with my sister back when we were kids. This singer paused in her performance and publicly thanked me for giving her a hand up. It happened during her freshman year in college. She was floundering, academically and socially. Then she attended a coaching group I led. She embraced a number of good habits. She got her feet under her. Grades and social life improved. She developed a solid spiritual life and went on to a great career. She credited her turnaround to that coaching group.
I love the story. I gave a little help and it seems to have made a big difference.
But the story is useless—maybe even worse than useless, maybe even cruel—if I tell it in front of someone whose child will never speak or someone who is in college only because of the special assistance provided to blind students. My friend had the capacity to take care of herself, with just a little bit of temporary support. She got “fixed.” That’s wonderful and completely irrelevant when we consider the needs of Quinn, Joel, Bryden, Orin, Alex, Cara, and Kara.
A friend is visiting us from Texas. He has a brother with schizophrenia. The brother began attending a church. The church embraced him. They demonstrated authentic “Christian” caring. They made him a part of their church family. They helped him with rent occasionally. Helped him find jobs. Took him on mission trips. For a number of years, this church’s embrace of Paul’s brother was a perfect example of the power of a loving church. They were a beautiful church. And life for Paul’s brother was better because of the care that church provided. Then the brother went off his meds—meds he had been taking for years. He quit all medication, completely and permanently. His mind went out of control. He ended up hospitalized. People from the church—still demonstrating the love of God—went to see him. But he sent them away. He was hostile and fearful. He broke off all contact with the church because voices in his head warned him they were aliens out to get him.
They still loved him. They could not fix him. Still they loved him. That’s what the church of Jesus does.
Late Friday night, my friend Paul was asking me about today’s sermon. I explained my difficulty. I could not think of any problem Jesus could not fix. So how did I get at the question, What would Jesus do, in the context of people we cannot fix.
Then it came to me.
When Jesus was hanging on the cross on that final Friday afternoon, he looked down at the small group of friends who were gathered. In the group were Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his most intimate disciple, John.
When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple he loved standing there, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that time, the disciple took her to his own home. John 19:26-27
The problem Jesus’ mother faced could not be fixed. She was a widow and soon to be childless and faced decades of life with no one and nothing. What could Jesus do? What did Jesus do?
He asked his most intimate disciple to take care of her. Till the end of her life. Forever.
This is the picture of God’s will for us in the face of those we cannot fix. Let us care for them. That’s what Jesus would do.