Essays and Sermons

I first walked through the doors of this church, more than thirty years ago, bringing my daughter Nicole to her first day of pre-school. My son Dominique also attended here, four years later. I came again in the late present a Montessori based, Christian education program at the heart of which were the Parable stories that Jesus told -and especially the Parable of the Good Shepherd.

Sophia Cavelletti, the creator of this approach, used to say that a few parables, learned well, were enough to see us through the journey of life. And the Parable of the Good Samaritan is among those she felt important to tell and remember.

I know the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables. But, as with any classic story, just because we’re familiar with it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth hearing again. We might see something we had overlooked before, or note anew, something we’d half forgotten. And, of course, we can find ourselves in new contexts, where we do well to hear the story’s message once again. Parable stories are both windows and mirrors really.

Let’s talk about the window first. How, through parables, we can peer back into the first century. Catch a glimpse of the questions and issues with which a community was wrestling. The question, nagging them then, as it still nags us today was, “What does God expect of us?” How do we live in a way that honors the fount of all that is and was and ever will be, a God we believe to be source of love and compassion?

Now sometimes that question – “What does God expect of us?” – was asked rather fearfully, as it is, even today. People worrying about whether after this life, they’ll have done or believed enough of the right things to enter into eternal heaven. But it can also be the question of people who believe that eternal life can begin even here, even now. That Godly living – meaning living in a way that reflects compassion and love – can give peace, create a space for perhaps a piece of heaven, here on earth.

In today’s parable the legal expert or scholar, who asks the question, knows what is required for eternal life, at least cerebrally: To love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind and his neighbor as himself. But he pushes Jesus to be more specific about just who his “neighbor” is. He wants to be clear for whom he needs to feel responsible.

That’s actually a very human question – to give this legal scholar the benefit of the doubt. I heard and interview this week on Diane Rehm with Shankar Vedantam, (Shahn-KER, Vee-DON-tum), who until recently wrote the Human Behavior column in the Washington Post. He was talking about his new book – The Hidden Brain. He said our brain has developed subconscious ways to help us survive. Ways so deeply hidden in our brains that we aren’t even aware of them.

One of those, is the ability to block empathy for the needs of too many people. Social service organizations, NGO’s, all kinds of charities have figured out by experience, what science can now prove – that our sense of empathy and compassion are best evoked by the singular. Our brain will not respond with as much empathy to the thought of a million starving children in Africa – as it will to the “poster” child, stomach bulging, empty food bowl held out for food, tearful eyes pleading with us for help.

That’s why the parables work too. They draw is in to one story. So let’s look again at that story.

First, we have the traveler, bleeding, bruised, left for dead along the side of the road that led from Jerusalem to Jericho – a particularly dangerous road, especially in those days.It’s only about 20 miles between the two, but with Jerusalem at 2300 feet above sea level and Jericho, near the Dead Sea, at 1300 feet below sea level, we’re talking a precipitous drop of 3600 feet. Which meant a very steep terrain, with twists and turns around bends where bandits could easily hide.

Was he traveling alone? Was he traveling after dark? We don’t know. The text doesn’t say – but that might have been the case. But it’s possible this victim, might have been somewhat, or even mostly, responsible for his predicament. I’ll come back to that later.

Then we have the priest and the Levite. Both see the stranger, there on the side of the road, but they “pass by on the other side.” I was struck, when I read the passage again this week by how tersely Jesus tells this. Just two short sentences in quick succession. But, you know, he probably didn’t have to say much more than that, to those first listeners. They would have known what the dilemma was for the priest and the Levite. Would have known that they might well have been on their way to Jerusalem, to serve their designated week in the Temple. The priest to offer sacrifices, the Levite to tend to the sanctuary. (Most often this “tending” meant polishing the vessels and cleaning the sanctuary, but there are some sources that suggest some Levites might also have been musicians or singers who participated in the singing of the psalms.)

If either the priest or the Levite had touched a dead body (and they might only know that after they had tried to help the man) – they would be considered unclean. That meant they wouldn’t have been able to enter the sacred Temple before engaging in purification rituals, which might well have kept them from their duties.

Now it can be easy for us, two thousand years later and from a different tradition, to judge – condemning what seems like a glaring lack of compassion. But those first listeners would have understood the problem better than we. On the one hand – the obligation and desire to stand pure, in the presence of the Holy God, in order to offer praise and sacrifice. And, on the other hand, to obey the commandment to care for the afflicted, the oppressed, the stranger.

I suspect, Jesus did intend to raise the issue of which one was the better choice, ultimately. He regularly challenged rigid, religious customs and laws that at times did more harm than good. As when they chided him for healing on the Sabbath for example, or sitting at table with prostitutes and tax collectors. But though those early listeners might have heard his point, the fact that the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side would not have been nearly as disturbing as the Samaritan, stopping to tend to the wounded man. That did not fit their stereotype of Samaritans.

We call him the Good Samaritan now – but then, the label Samaritan would have meant just opposite. Those first listeners would have been repelled by the mere mention of a man from that region. Samaritans were Jews that had intermarried with other ethnic groups – and so were considered a “mixed breed.” They had refused to help rebuild the Temple after the exile, choosing instead to worship at Mt. Gerizim, using different rituals. The Jews considered them a hostile people. So the last thing those early listeners would ever have expected was for a Samaritan to stop, to touch, to go out of his way – to care.

That’s the window. And now the mirror.

In Children and Worship, or the Worship Center, as we called it at Christ Community, we place materials for telling the parable stories in boxes which we wrap in shiny gold paper. When we tell the story, we bring the box, from a shelf to the circle where the children are sitting and begin to explore it, running our fingers, gently, reverently, across the top, the sides, wondering aloud if this might be another parable, like the other bold boxes were. Then, looking down into the reflective gold paper we say, “You know, I think this might be a parable because, look (!), I can almost see myself. And parables are like that. Sometimes, in a parable, you can almost see yourself.

And what do I see when I look into the mirror of this parable? These days I see a Tea Party march. Or rather I hear it, on the radio, when a journalist asks a woman protestor, “Who pays for your health insurance?” And the woman screams, screams into the microphone, “I do!”

Maybe you’ve heard that clip. National Public Radio (NPR) kept replaying it, unfortunately I think, as an ad to show the breadth and balance of their coverage. But, every time I hear it, I feel my stomach twist.

I am deeply saddened these days. Saddened by what seems to me to be an American individualism that has little sympathy for “the neighbor.”

Who was it that said our greatest strength is so often also our greatest weakness? American individualism is what built this country. That “Yes I can”, never-give-up spirit has made this country a great one. But the underbelly of that strength, the weakness, is that if we attain a certain level of success, we think everyone else should be able to do it too. It’s an “ I’ll-take-care-of-mine, you-take-care-of-yours” attitude.

I feel the undercurrent of that in the health care debate.I’m not talking about whether or not you are for a specific bill, or even specific parts of the bill being thrashed out in our legislature. I mean the whole question about whether, if we have health insurance, do we have to worry about people who don’t. It’s hitting closer to home lately. Who doesn’t know someone who has been laid off from work? Or been let go?

Some of you may even have faced that reality. More and more, people we know, are either uninsured or are having to self-insure at great financial cost. How do we justify the fact that when my daughter’s one year old son began to have a deep chest cough, which might mean the beginnings of pneumonia, she and her husband didn’t have to think twice about getting him to a doctor, getting whatever medications were needed, and it cost them only a reasonable co-pay?

Whereas another family, just down the street, without insurance, tries to wait out the cough, hoping against hope that in the next few days the child will be better, because the mortgage is due this week and of course there are groceries to buy, and the car payment next week. I know a young woman who is bi-polar. She takes medications, that thankfully, provide the emotional stability many of us take for granted – but they cost her $700 a month. Her husband has been out of work for almost two years and about six months ago she was laid off from her job, in a doctor’s office. She recently found part time work at a local hospital, but now she has no insurance coverage. They can’t afford her medications and still keep up with the mortgage and buy food. How do they choose?

And even if she or her husband do find work with insurance benefits, as it stands today, she would likely be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Are people like these our neighbors? Do they have a right to ask us to share in the burden of their care?

Education is another arena where I wonder if we have lost a sense of who our neighbors are.

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio.A large city – with good public schools, which I attended. I remember being surprised, when I moved to Holland, after marrying Bob, to find here, a large, separate, private school system. It seemed to me that having a separate system, in a community this size, meant you were likely to skim off, a good number of parents and children who placed a high value on education.

Parents who might not be eager to vote for school bonds or other additional taxes to support schools other than their own. I know a man, who took a tour of the Holland Christian High School recently. He learned that over thirty million dollars of private funds were raised to renovate the school, which had been built originally in the late ‘60’s.T here was a new auditorium, new tennis courts, a Starbucks-like coffee spot where students could gather, between classes. And in the classrooms, he was blown away by the way a teacher was able to teach a roomful of students at three different levels – almost simultaneously. The teacher sent lessons and responded to each student according to his or her needs, via laptops.

After the tour, he couldn’t tell enough people what a superior education the school could offer their children and grandchildren.But then – he told me – a day or so later, in the middle of the night, he woke up and thought to himself, “But what about the other kids? The ones whose parents can’t afford the tuition? Or don’t feel comfortable sending their kids to a private religious school?”

He said he has decided, that from now on, when they come from the private school to ask for funds, which they do often – he will continue to give to them. He is impressed with the education they can offer. But he’s vowed to donate an equivalent amount, as well, to this area’s public schools.

What does being neighborly have to do with seeing that all of America’s children have access to equal resources? Maybe even equal access to higher education?

One more – because I know the list could go on and on. Immigrants. Especially illegal immigrants. What do we owe them?Anything at all? They’ve come illegally. Some people say that if we care for them, give them the benefits of education, health care – we’ll just encourage more to flow over our boarders. Others say – they take our jobs.They work for less, and don’t complain, because they don’t want to get caught.

Some of you may be familiar with T.C. Boyle’s novel Tortilla Curtain. In this book Boyle tells the story of two illegal immigrants, a husband and wife – Candìdo and Amèrica (the spelling of her name, intentional I suspect, to remind us that America is a nation of immigrants).

Candìdo and Amèrica can sometimes go days with little or no food, at times resorting to scavenging in garbage cans, worried that they will not have the strength to work eight hours in the heat.Boyle contrasts them with two other characters, also a husband and wife, who live in a gated community. They start their day with low fat yogurt and fresh berries and a daily jog, knowing how important exercise and good diet are for a youthful appearance and healthy longevity. Towards the end of the book, Candìdo and Amèrica are growing desperate. They don’t dare report to the police that Amèrica, pregnant, has been raped. Nor do they dare report the theft of the few hundred dollars that they had manage to save, buried in the ground in a coffee can. Money they had hoped to use to move somewhere safer than the sheltering rocks of an arroyo, before the baby is born. No money for that now, no money to even try getting back to Mexico.

And when the baby is born, there in the cold night, in the shelter of the arroyo – it’s hard not to think:Mary, Joseph…Jesus.

So who is our neighbor? It’s not a dumb question, or even an unfeeling question. It’s a real question. And we can’t care for everyone. So perhaps, as I heard someone say, we are not morally obligated to do what we cannot do.

But you know the ironic thing? Jesus never did answer the question when he was asked. Instead he turned the question inside out, asking instead,“Which of these three was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

Do you hear what he’s doing? He’s saying, don’t worry so much about discerning who is not within the circle. Who is Jew or Samaritan, who is deserving or not, who may or may not have brought a situation upon themselves. He’s saying: Change the question. Change your perspective. Change your thinking.

You’re wasting time in fact. Time better spent reaching out, touching, caring ­– making a difference.

Ask anyone who has played the role of Good Samaritan at some time in his or her life – be it to a stranger or a neighbor or member of the family. Ask them if in the midst of caring and sharing, did they not catch a glimpse of heaven – here on earth?

Eyes to see then. That’s what Jesus wanted for his disciples, his listeners and his followers ever after. But not eyes to see whether another is worthy, deserving. Rather eyes to see the opportunity to be neighbor to another.

Let me close with these few lines from a poem – by Mary Oliver:

Someday I am going to ask my friend Paulus,
The dancer, the potter,
To make me a begging bowl
Which I believe
My soul needs

And if I come to you,
To the door of your comfortable house
With unwashed clothes and unclean fingernails,
Will you put something into it?

I would like to take this chance.
I would like to give you this chance.(emphasis mine)

(from the poem “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass” , in her collection entitled Evidence, 2009 Beacon Press)

And in closing, may I offer this Benediction – once given by Dr. Edmund Jones:

“Life is short. We have not much time to gladden the hearts of those who journey with us. Therefore, be swift to love, make haste to be kind.”

This sermon meditation was offered on January 31, 2010 at First Presbyterian Church, Holland, MI