A Measured Life

Preached at Grace UMC this morning. An audio recording will be available for listening tomorrow.

“A Measured Life”

Last Monday I spent several hours working in the garage, unloading boxes and trying to organize it. While I worked I listened to podcasts. One recent favorite of mine is from Malcolm Gladwell, author of books like David and Goliath  and Outliers. His podcast is called Revisionist History. The episode I listened to the other day was recorded a couple of weeks ago- it was called “The Big Man Can’t Shoot.” Wilt Chamberlain was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. On March 2, 1962 he scored 100 points in a game, the most ever in a professional game. One of the amazing stats of that game, recounted by Gladwell, was that Wilt went 28/32 from the free throw line. Normally he was a 40% free throw shooter; but on that night he changed his technique and shot nearly 100%. What was the difference? He shot the free throws underhanded.

That episode of Revisionist History wasn’t about Wilt Chamberlain’s record setting night. It was about what motivates people to act in ways that are unexpected, even contrary to character or societal norms. Most basketball players, nearly all of them, shoot free throws over handed, like this.. It’s an unnatural form that is very inefficient. One player who shot free throws exclusively underhanded, was another Hall of Famer, Rick Barry. Barry had a couple of years in the NBA when his free throw stats were 94 or 95%. He was one of the all time great shooters. But even that reputation, and those stats, cannot convince others to shoot free throws under handed. Even Wilt Chamberlain after his 100 point night went back to shooting them the old way (and returned to his 40% form). Why? Because players-- men and women-- think shooting free throws underhanded is unnatural. They use words like “sissy” to describe it; or when I was a kid it was called “granny style.” Not sure if my Mema ever played basketball, but whatever!

To explain this phenomenon of not doing something unusual, but proven effective, because of how one would be seen by others, or to put it another way, why we feel silly doing something uncommon, Malcolm Gladwell interviewed sociologist Mark Granovetter, who talked about his theory he calls Threshold. When thinking about why a normal, law abiding person would join in a riot, for example, the answer is not in what a person believes-- something that is internal-- the answer is external; it’s about peer pressure. Different people have different thresholds, and understanding social context is important. Some are more easily inspired or tempted than others. A person with a low threshold is likely to join in with the crowd immediately; a high threshold person will resist as long as possible. Wilt Chamberlain’s threshold for shooting free throws granny style was low; he did it effectively for a short time but gave it up because he felt silly. Rick Barry’s threshold for shooting underhanded was high; he didn’t care if others thought he looked silly. He cared about the results.

So this lawyer comes to Jesus with the motivation of testing him- never a good idea. “Teacher,” he says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). “You know the law,” Jesus responds. “What do you read there?” The lawyer repeats the Shema, to love God with heart soul mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. “You have answered wisely,” Jesus says. “Do these things and you will live.” “But who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. Jesus responds by telling a story, possible one of his most well-known, and most misunderstood: The Good Samaritan.

Firstly, let me say the word ‘good’ does not appear in the text. In Jesus’ day, no Jew would consider any Samaritan good. Samaritans and Jews were enemies, going back generations. The Samaritans intermarried with the Assyrians and sided with them in wars against the Jews. They built their own temple and did not support the rebuilding of Jerusalem or Solomon’s temple after the exile. At the end of Chapter 9 of Luke, two of Jesus’ disciples try to teach Samaritans about Jesus and are expelled from the village. In John Chapter 4 Jesus himself openly welcomes hostility by having a conversation with a woman at a Samaritan well. But Jesus challenges the deep-seated racism and bigotry between Jews and Samaritans by having one of them be the hero of the story. This is radical stuff, and it is amazingly relevant after the events in our country this past week.

So this guy is attacked and left for dead in the ditch. A priest and a Levite both assumed the man was dead. Not wanting to render themselves unclean by touching a dead body, they passed by on the other side of the street. The text doesn’t judge them harshly, and neither should we. They represented the established way of religious life at the time. But the Samaritan did not pass by. He stopped. He poured wine on the wounds. He bound them. He put the man on his own donkey. He took him to an inn and stayed with him overnight. The next day he gave the innkeeper two days’ worth of $$ for any expenses incurred, and promised to repay any further expenses. The audience would have been shocked by this story. We know the lawyer was-- Jesus asks, him: “So tell me, smart guy, Who was a neighbor to the man in the ditch?” The lawyer cannot even voice the word Samaritan. All he says is, “The one who showed mercy.” “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.

The events of this past week were devastating. An African American man was killed by police in Baton Rouge outside of a store where he was selling CDs in the parking lot. Another African American man was killed by police in Minnesota after a traffic stop. Protests spread throughout the country, and here in downtown Dallas there was a protest. Police officers walked alongside protesters, taking pictures with them, talking with them. And then a sniper opened fire, killing five officers, wounding several others, including two civilians. The heartbreak, the fear, the anger we have all felt this week has been tangible. Mass killings happen on a weekly, in some places daily, basis. Tensions between different racial communities are palatable. Just last night on Twitter #justiceinfivewordsorless was trending at the same time as #whiteprivilegemeans. And some of the posts on those hashtags were just awful. Social media has given all of us an outlet to say, often in disguise through anonymous identities, things we would never to say to someone’s face.

I served for three years on the North Texas Conference’s Anti Racism team, so I am very familiar with the concept of white privilege. I am not threatened by it. In my context as a United Methodist pastor, I know I have white male privilege. I would have access to just about any of the 300 or so churches in our conference. I would be considered normal, especially by folk who didn’t know me well. Others, women and ethnic minorities, do not have access to the same pulpits. They are not considered the standard, and are treated as other. The idea of white privilege does not mean whites are made to feel guilty for past failures like slavery; it means we are often given the benefit of the doubt by those in power. I have been pulled over by the police many, many times in my 30 years of driving, but I never fear for my life. Others do not have that experience. They have to train their kids what to say and do if they encounter the police. They fear for their kids’ safety when they go out. On the Anti Racism team we defined racism as prejudice + power. Those who deny racism’s reality often think only of prejudice- judging others based on their race. But racism also has to do access to decision making. What all of us, especially white people, must realize is that racism is a sin, a prison, that confines all of us. We all need to work together to achieve freedom for everyone.

In the Amos text, God is shown as holding up a plumb line to a wall. I am not an architect or an engineer, so I had to do a little research to understand the parable. A plumb line is a string with a weight on the end. It measures the vertical on an upright surface. You can make one-- here’s help from youtube clip. Hold it up to an upright surface and see if it is properly aligned. It’s a way of measuring. In the text God holds the plumb line up to a wall as a way of measuring Israel’s faithfulness: “Look, I am going to measure my people Israel by a plumb line; no longer will I overlook their offenses” (Amos 7:8). Spoiler alert: the forecast isn’t good. In the Samaritan parable, the man himself is the plumb line. Jesus says the measure of our life is whether we are a neighbor to those in need.

The Samaritan is moved with compassion, an overwhelming need to help another who is hurting--regardless of the person’s ability to reciprocate, or even to express thankfulness. Frederick Buechner said, “Compassion is the knowledge that there can never be peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy for you.” This is what fueled the man’s unexpected, radical, outrageous actions in the parable. And in the world of brokenness and hurt in which we live it is what must drive us. Compassion. Compassion for those who suffer meaningless violence when trying to protect others. Compassion for those who grieve and suffer. Compassion for those whose lives are taken from them because of the most innocuous offenses. We have to stop asking self-justifying questions like, “Who is my neighbor, then?” and know that every person is a child of God, with intrinsic goodness and value and is worthy of respect. The parable does not challenge us to believe rightly-- it challenges us to act justly.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Do this and you will live.”
“Go and do likewise.”

Like the Samaritan in the parable, you and I are the plumb lines in our world today. We are the ones God sends out into the world to determine where injustice, hate, violence, poverty, and whatever other sinful barriers exist between people. We are called to go and do. Remember the concept of Threshold? The Samaritan had a high threshold, not concerned about societal norms and practices. He didn’t care what others thought of him. He didn’t care that he was expected to be the villain of the story. He didn’t care that society dictated that he stay away and take care of his own. He was the plumb line for the man hurting in the ditch. If not the church, who will be the plumb line for so many of our brothers and sisters in our nation, even our own town, who are hurting today?

It’s been a painful, emotional week. We have seen the face of evil in our lives all across our country. But we cannot cross the road and follow the well established patterns of life. Racism, privilege, power, violence and evil have for too long been the norm. Let’s be the plumb line for our nation and our world. There can be no peace and joy for us until there is peace and joy for all. Go and do likewise. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.6