The Trayvon Martin Case: What Would Jesus Say to Sanford Florida, You, and Me?

I have done all I could to avoid writing about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It seemed obvious that there was no need for one more voice to be put into the cacophony of anger, confusion, and dismay over what is at the bottom line an unbelievably  painful tragedy for two families. But two things have led me to the conclusion that it was time. One is a book I have been reading called Think Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is a psychological study that, among other things, details the universal human reaction to not having all the information. We are notorious at jumping to conclusions and filling in the gaps of information and we usually do it in the worst possible ways. I found myself constantly reflecting on the various reactions to each tidbit of news that comes out in this case and felt I was watching a real-time display of Kahneman’s work. People have jumped to conclusions about both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the man who shot him. The second reason it became clear that I needed to address this issue is that I have heard very little from the Christian community, with the notable exception of an amazing presentation on racism by Tim Keller and John Piper. If anyone should be speaking to issues of racism, violence, and a community in turmoil, it is followers of Christ, because we should understand better than anyone, that ultimately when we all stand at the foot of the Cross, the savior who bled on it and died, did so for black, white, yellow, European, Asian, African, Latino, and all the other possible delineations of people. Jesus bled equally for you and me, for Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

If anyone should be speaking out it is the Christian community because this tragedy has the potential to either tear us apart or motivate us to come together and finally defeat this ugly beast called racism. The only way I know to defeat racism is through the power of God that comes only through a life changing relationship with Christ. And be certain that when I speak of racism I am speaking of how people of every race are to some degree racist. I am not saying that everyone is a racist. I am saying that no race, creed, ethnic group or gender is without people in it who treat those outside their group with disdain, hatred, or even violence. The sinners that we are means that we all battle with the propensity to trust our own kind and be suspicious of those we think are different. Racism has its roots in our sin which is why only a relationship with Jesus, the one who washes away our sin, can ultimately defeat our racist attitudes.

In processing all that is swirling around us I was taken back to a series of sermons I preached years ago. The basic idea for them came from John Ortberg who did a series of “What Would Jesus Say To…” messages. As Sanford Florida has come into an unwanted spotlight   I wondered what would Jesus say to Sanford, and all of us, about what we are experiencing. A few things came to mind:

Jesus would surely say, “weep with those who weep”. (Romans 12:15) True compassion must in some way impact your heart in the same way it impacts those who are in pain. Trayvon Martin’s family is feeling incredible pain and they are weeping. But George Zimmerman and his family are also in pain and weeping. Certainly the pain is different but it is no less real. And Jesus didn’t say to weep with certain people who weep, and don’t weep with other people because you have a problem with them. As followers of Christ we don’t have the option of being selective about to whom we show compassion and mercy. You don’t have the freedom to opt out of weeping with Trayvon’s family because you think he first struck George Zimmerman causing George to shoot in self-defense. You also don’t have the freedom to opt out of weeping with George Zimmerman because you think he hunted down Trayvon because he racially profiled him and forced a confrontation. First of all, none of us know what really happened in that fateful 60 seconds. We may have some idea. We certainly have lots of people filling in the blanks with speculation, usually speculation based on their preconceived notions and not objectively on the evidence. Secondly, even if we did know, we are still not given the freedom to opt out of weeping for and praying for, both families.

Jesus would say, “Take the log out of your own eye” (Matthew 7:5) That wonderful saying was part of Jesus telling us that before you start trying to get a speck of dust out of another person’s eye you need to deal with the huge log protruding from your own eye. In other words, we all have this propensity to be able to point out the slightest flaw in another person while being completely blind to our own huge shortcomings and faults. So before you start blaming Trayvon for being a hoodlum or George for being a racist (of which you have no real knowledge to base either conclusion, so I refer you back to the jumping to conclusions presented in Kahneman’s book) take a long and deep look into your own soul. What kind of anger, hatred, bitterness, and even latent or not so latent racism resides there? What are your issues that are driving your reaction to all of this? Do you have a general distrust of all white people? Are you immediately cautious around black teenage males? Do you tend to blame problems on “those people” whoever “they” are? Even the best of us are still tainted by sin and have to be vigilant in guarding our own hearts and subsequent reactions.

Jesus would say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) When Jesus first said this, people tried to manage the expectations by limiting who qualified as “neighbor”. Jesus made it clear that your neighbor is whoever happens to be around you at any given moment. For those who wondered what it meant to actually love your neighbor Jesus made it clear that sacrificing for them and serving them in their need is loving your neighbor. At this moment, Trayvon Martin’s family and George Zimmerman and his family are our neighbors. They each are in a time of need. The needs are somewhat different, yet very similar. They need to know they are loved and that people who love them will stand with them to give comfort and strength. It has nothing to do with what version of the story you believe or who you believe. Loving your neighbor has everything to do with the fact that while you and I were still enemies of God, Jesus loved us enough to go to the Cross in our place. That love from God compels us to love one another, even when it hurts.

There is much more that I am sure Jesus would say to Sanford and to all of us, especially His followers. I suspect He would be calling for us to take steps in our own lives to knock down barriers, open up dialogue, reach across the racial divide and find out that “those” people are in the end, people. People like you. They hurt, they fear, they laugh, they weep, they dream. They do all the things you do and experience life just as you do. I think Jesus might also say that when the Trayvon Martin case fades from public prominence, and it will, followers of Christ must not let issues of racism, equality, love for neighbor no matter their color, fade from prominence in how we live. Check your heart and then check your actions. What are you doing to show the love of Christ to people who are unlike you? What are you doing to show that following Christ really does make a radical difference in how we relate to one another. What are you doing to show that we all stand as equals before the Cross of Christ?

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:26-28

Love Your Neighbor; Or Not

In a tragic and ironic twist a modern-day Good Samaritan is left to die on the side of the road instead of being helped by the people who pass him by. The phrase “Good Samaritan” has come down to us from a story told by Jesus. In the tale an unknown man is beaten and robbed and left for dead by his attackers. The story is found in The Gospel of Luke 10:25-37. As the man lay beaten on the side of the road he is ignored by a Levite and a Priest, two religious leaders. He is finally helped by a man from Samaria, our Good Samaritan. That Samaritan would normally have been an adversary at best and a sworn enemy at worst. However on this day he showed what it meant to love your neighbor and that was the point of Jesus story, to show us that whoever we come across who has a need is our neighbor.

Recently a woman was being attacked on a New York street. Coming to her rescue was Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax. The woman was able to escape as a result of the Good Samaritan Mr. Tale-Yax. Tragically, during her rescue, Tale-Yax was stabbed several times. He collapsed on the sidewalk, bleeding. During the next hour and a half more than 25 people walked by him. They were all caught on camera as several even stopped and looked at him. At least one man leaned down and shook him but ran off when he saw the pool of blood on the sidewalk beneath his body. The whole time it is obvious from the film that our Good Samaritan was still alive. Eventually he bleed to death.

The story of this fallen hero is not unique and it is not isolated to New York City. Jesus was able to tell the Good Samaritan Parable and give it such a lasting impact because it is all too common, then and now, for people to ignore those in need even if they have to step around them to do so. What made this story particularly unique is that Tale-Yax had tried to break that cycle of personal isolationism by helping a woman in trouble. He refused to ignore the desperate plight of his “neighbor” and acted in a most Christ-like way. He gave his life, not for a friend, but for a person he had never before met.

The additional tragedy is that many will use what happened to our modern-day Good Samaritan as their justification for not getting involved. Rather than being motivated to act in the future because of the callous lack of action by two dozen people, many will pull further back into isolation. “You never know what is really going on and what may happen to you if you try to help”. “It’s best not to get involved”. “You need to think of yourself and your family first”. Certainly the priest and Levite in Jesus’ story used such statement for their own justification. For many of you it will sound wise and prudent to mind your own business and the death of Mr. Tale-Yax serves to reinforce that. My friends, that is an even bigger tragedy. That is evidence of a life lived in fear. Fear of what might happen. Fear of the cost. Fear of the unknown. Fear of hardship or struggle or danger.

Maybe Mr. Tale-Yaz should have ignored the woman being attacked. Maybe he should have crossed to the other side of the street. But what if the next day he read a headline that told of the death of a woman on that corner and of the man who crossed to the other side of the road refusing to help? What then? I suspect that he would have not been able to live with himself knowing that he could have saved her, even at risk to himself. I wonder what the two dozen people who passed by Mr. Tale-Yax felt when they saw not only the headlines, but the video of themselves passing him by? Would their fear from the previous day have been replaced by guilt and shame? Which do they now wish they lived with, the unknown repercussions of loving a neighbor or a lifetime of guilt?

Time and again the Bible calls us to “fear not”. Why? Because it says, “God is with us”. We are told that two people are better than one for if one struggles the other is there to help. When you walk in a relationship with God you are never alone. It doesn’t mean that nothing terrible or painful will never happen to you. It simply means that He is there with you to help you through it. That is all we need ask or hope for, that God be with us at all times to carry us through whatever comes our way. That includes sometimes doing hard things to help and love those around us. It is an effort to love your neighbor. It is sometimes dangerous. But it is extremely Christ-like. People used to have “WWJD” bracelets. It was a big fad for a time. “What Would Jesus Do?”. The answer is simply. He would love His neighbor no matter the cost, no matter the risk, no matter the danger.

Oh, one last thing. Don’t be the kind of person who reads this story, bemoans how bad the world is and who wrong those two dozen passers-by were, and then goes back to life in your little Christian bubble. The easiest thing in the world to do is point out what others should have done and then retire to our own safe haven, thinking we are fine and wonderful simply because we can see what someone else should have done. Why not go out your front door, look the left and the right and ask God what you can do to love your neighbor today. Loving your neighbor and taking a risk seldom requires putting your life at risk. Usually it just requires that we get up off the sofa and open our eyes.

Haiti, the Future, and You

At some point the attention of the world will move away from Haiti. It will happen for any number of reasons and probably a combination of them all; disaster fatigue on our parts, some new item will hit the news and replace Haiti, the drama of rescues will subside, the slow work of rebuilding is just not compelling news, or simply we want to get back to our own lives. However, the pain of the people there, the work needed to restore lives, and the opportunity to show the love of Christ will continue for years, maybe decades, to come. With estimates of 200,000 dead this approaches one hundred times as many dead as 9/11 or Katrina. The physical devastation makes Katrina and Hurricane Andrew look manageable.

So how does the Body of Christ respond once the media attention has died and the initial disaster relief is over? Let’s consider what a provocative Christian response would be and make a decision now to do just that. In order to help Haiti in a positive way it will be important that rebuilding happens in cooperation with local Haitians. The world could come in and rebuild everything and leave Haiti with all new infrastructure but no sense of self-worth as a people or ownership of their lives. We would simply be continuing what has become a “welfare-dependent state” that is forced to look to the rest of the world for its sustenance. What needs to happen is for Christians to connect with other Christians in Haiti and come along side them, working together to rebuild their country and their lives in ways that allow them to own the process and the results. We need to go as servants not as the answer people who will solve all the problems.

So where do we start? First we need to look to those groups who are already connected in Haiti that are helping Haitian Churches impact their communities. Through those groups we can come alongside our brothers and sisters who live there, know the community, know the needs, and will carry on the work of Christ when no foreigners are around. We need to help those locals be seen as the ones doing the real work and we are serving them. Groups like Churches Helping Churches, New Missions, and IsleGo are already doing this. They are helping local Haitian Churches make an impact for Jesus. The best thing we can do is commit to help them do that.

Second, we need to have followers of Jesus from all over the world connect to organizations like this and then go to Haiti. They don’t need you there today. There are plenty of first responders and other trained disaster relief people getting there. In fact there is a backlog of people trying to get on the island. But what about four or five months from now? Would you be willing to forgo your plans for a two-week summer vacation and instead go to Haiti for two weeks and serve? Would you be willing to commit to that for the summer of 2010, 2011, and even 2012? That is provocative. That is Christ-like serving.

Third, would you be willing to ask others, even people who are not following Christ to join you on such a mission? Yes even those who do not follow Jesus can be used by Jesus for his glory. Not only that, but Jesus has a way of bringing people into a relationship with himself by first getting them to server others in just such situations. I saw a family of four go on a trip to rebuild homes in Mississippi with a dozen other Christ-followers. On that trip the entire family came to Christ because of the love they saw demonstrated and because Jesus used that trip to break down their walls.

This is certainly one of the greatest disasters in the Western Hemisphere in some time. But it is also one of the greatest opportunities we have had to demonstrate what it means to “Love Jesus With All Our Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength and to Love Our Neighbor as Ourselves”. That is what being a Provocative Christian is all about.

Provocative Bible Verses: No One Lacked Anything They Needed

Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. The Book of Acts 2:45

If there was ever a passage that ran counter to our culture of accumulation then this is it. The first generation of followers of Jesus made sure that no one who was a part of their new found family of faith ever lacked the basic necessities of life. Nobody in that first church in Jerusalem ever went without a meal, or a roof over their head, or a cloak to ward off the cold. They did not have all of their wants and desires met but they did have all of their needs met. In essence what was taking place is that God was working through His people to fulfill the prayer that said, “Give us this day our daily bread”.

Anyone who had something extra turned that extra into a blessing for others. People who had some property, sold the property to buy food for people who were hungry. People sold furniture and bought clothing for people who had threadbare garments. Those who had homes opened those homes to others who had none and took them in, fed them and made them part of the family. The list of acts of kindness is a varied as the life situations people found themselves in.

Given that this is such a radical act we must ask the question, why did they do it? Why would people sacrifice their own comfort and security for the sake of others? Let’s be honest. Most of us are willing to give out of our excess to people in need. We are willing to give out of our comfort as long as it does not cause any real discomfort for us. Most of our “sacrificing” for the sake of others is really not much of a sacrifice. We give away that which we would never miss anyway. So what caused those first followers of Jesus to be so provocative?

Let me answer that question by first asking you a question. If your son or daughter was suddenly homeless and out of a job would you open your home to them, even if it meant their spouse and children moving in for a undetermined amount of time? I suspect the answer is yes and I know that some of you have done just that. If not that exactly you have done something similar for a family member. And that is the point. Those early followers of Jesus understood that they were ALL family. Calling one another brother or sister in Christ was not some religious platitude. They really meant it. If God was indeed their father and Jesus was their brother, then they were all family. That meant taking care of one another as family. You sacrifice for family. You go without so family can have their needs met. You do it because you love your family. Jesus said that the world will know that we are His family, His disciples, by the love we have for one another.

What a difference it would make if we lived out that example today. People in the first century became followers of Jesus because they saw the love the first Christians had for one another. It would be no different today. If we in the church showed that kind of love for each other you would see a revival unlike  any thing you could ever imagine. Not only that. You would see a smile on the face of Jesus because His brothers and sisters had finally figured out how to be family.

Is Your Faith Relevant, or Provocative?

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16

There is a great deal of talk among Christians these days about the need to make our faith relevant. I understand the desire, in fact for a long time I said that same thing myself. The fact is, most people just don’t see a need for Jesus in their lives. The desire to make Christianity relevant, in large part stems from the realization that in this Post-Christendom world in which we live, people just aren’t paying any attention to what Christians have to say. The assumption, probably correct, is that what we are saying just doesn’t relate to their lives. There is a great deal of truth here. The average westerner really doesn’t care about our eschatology, (when and how we think Jesus will return), or about our differences over the physical presence of Jesus in communion, or a whole list of other things we spend so much time talking about.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think having a correct Biblical understanding of these things is important. And I love few things more than studying them and helping others understand them. But that is not the focal point of being a Christian and certainly not what the non-Christian is searching for. So we have properly tried to switch the focus to questions that are relevant to them, things like how to have a good marriage, raise your kids, deal with hardship, and a host of other topics. So we have made the faith “relevant” to their lives.

But I must confess that there is a growing discontent in me over what the result of all the effort this move to relevance has wrought. I get the feeling that a relevant Christianity as it has evolved in recent years is somehow lacking real punch. It just seems way too tame and respectable. It is not a faith that reaches out and grabs people who observe it in others. When I think of the word relevant, I think of people having a discussion about some topic and a point comes up and someone says, “Hey, I think this bit of information is relevant to what we are talking about”. As such, that relevant thing just becomes one more piece among many that helps you reach your conclusion or settle and argument. So I wonder if this relevant faith that we have been promoting isn’t just one more “bit of information” that people add to the smorgasbord of their world view, in order to get by just a little easier? And I wonder of our relevant faith hasn’t become something that the non-Christian is able to take or leave with equal ease.

That leads me to the idea of provocative Christianity. A faith that really rocks is one that like Matthew 5:14-16, provokes a response from people. It is that shining light on a hill that draws people, it compels them to look and see. In fact it is a faith that leads them into a worship of the Father. Let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.

A truly provocative faith is one that demonstrates itself in service to others in that name of Jesus. It is a self sacrificing faith that looks for ways to be the hands and feet of Jesus for others. It comes out of what Paul says to the Philippians that we are to consider others more important than ourselves and in this way be just like Jesus. It is really what Jesus meant when He said that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we love someone with real action, servanthood exercised in humility, then they will want to know our God and worship Him.

There is a power in living a provocative faith that goes way beyond making Chrisitianity relevant. But it comes at a price. It is the price of sacrificing ourselves for others. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this means some sort of death defying sacrifice where you push someone out of the way of a bus and you get killed instead. It is much less dramatic than that. It is as simple as returning the extra change a clerk gave you that was more than you were suppose to get. It is giving that young couple with the new born baby, two passes to the movies and a coupon for free babysitting on a Friday night. It is inviting that international student to your hme for Thanksgiving dinner and simply setting an extra plate. It is tipping your server 20% and asking if there is anything in their life you can pray about. It is asking your neighbor if you can pick up something from the grocery store for them when you know they are sick. The list could go on and one. But these are the kinds fo things that will eventually provoke a response of worship from people who see your light shine in Jesus name.