Lord Jesus, you instructed us to love others. Give us the grace, the courage, the energy to do as you command. Chide us when we pass by on the other side. Help us to see in the faces of others, the face of our neighbor. Remind us that, in serving the least and the neediest of our neighbors, we are serving and loving you. Amen.
They really weren’t bad guys. The priest and the Levite in our parable for today were not evil men. They had very good reasons for doing what they did, even if they did make the wrong choice. We have heard the parable of the Good Samaritan so many times – literally dozens of times if you are someone who grew up in a church, that we think of it as a simple tale about good and bad, right and wrong. But rarely are Jesus’ parables simple. Rather they are almost always layered with meaning.
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, much like many of the highways in present day Iraq . Bandits and robbers frequented this road. When the priest and the Levite came upon the injured man they had good reason to believe that this was in fact a trap. A man lying helpless on the side of the road may not be helpless at all but only a decoy set out as bait for an ambush. Who among us if we were walking by ourselves on a lonely street in our very own city wouldn’t at least consider avoiding a homeless man lying on the sidewalk for fear that he might be dangerous? Secondly, the man in the road might have been dead. As a result, the priest and the Levite, faithful members of the religious establishment, “walked by on the other side” to avoid ritual contamination from contact with a corpse, contact that would have kept them from their sacred duties. They were not bad men, they were only prudent men. Making the right choice in this situation was not obvious or easy. They couldn’t help every person in need, this was not their business, it might be a trap, it might keep them from their work and it was better to be safe than sorry. Who can blame them?
Not too long ago I came upon a list of American soldiers who had been killed in Iraq . Out of curiosity, I printed out the list. I was surprised to realize that it took several minutes for my speedy little printer to print out page after page of long lists of names. When it was done I took those pages and I laid them out on the steps of the parish house. Starting on the first floor I placed one page on each step and then worked my way up. When I was finished the total number of sheets traveled 2/3 of the way up 3 floors. It was overwhelming. I walked up and down those stairs reading the names and the dates. Of course I knew the figures reported on the news of the soldiers who had been killed in this war but it was quite another thing to see all those names laid out in that way. I realized that while I knew the facts, the daily round of reports and casualty figures had completely hardened me to the reality of what was taking place. Three killed one day, two killed the next – they had become nothing more than numbers, statistics, I felt nothing as I heard them. I had become numb and that numbness was not broken until the names of all those men and women were literally placed in my path and I had to walk by them every time I went anywhere in the parish house.
Aren’t all of us a little numb? Not just about the war but about the needs of so many we hear about all the time – the hungry, the homeless, the sick and the poor. Sudanese refugees, Ugandan aids victims, the victims of floods and earthquakes –we are bombarded by facts and figures, one news report after another. Countless worthwhile organizations want our time and our money but after a while they all begin to sound the same. We become acclimated to so much need. We are inundated and we become numb. And it is hard to love your neighbor when you are numb, when your neighbor is only a statistic. But you can’t blame us, we aren’t bad people. Let’s be prudent. We can’t help everybody, much of it is none of our business and besides we have other responsibilities, responsibilities we dare not ignore. Sound familiar?
The priest, the Levite and the Samaritan were travelers on a journey, their own individual journeys. They were traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho for their own individual reasons. But they had a choice to make when directly in front of them they stumbled upon this person in need. Two of them walked by the stranger, moving to the other side of the road, while one of them stopped and took the risk to be compassionate.
You and I are on a journey, our own individual journeys. We are traveling through this life with individual goals and agendas. And who is our neighbor? At the least, our neighbor is the person right in front of us who needs our help. Perhaps we can’t help everyone but the least we can do is show compassion to the person and the people God places in our path. And yet how often do we walk by on the other side? The brother-in-law who is killing himself with alcohol but it is none of our business and so we say and do nothing. The co-worker who is depressed, in serious financial trouble or desperately lonely but we ignore him/her because we have our own problems to deal with. The homeless man you always see on your way to work or who hangs out in your alley – have you ever spoken to him, do you know anything about him, could you imagine how it might be possible to show him compassion?
We have to do something to break out of our numbness, to wake us up, to help us see not just the road ahead but the people on that road who need our help, who need our compassion. If your life journey has brought you through a struggle with cancer, what are you doing to those placed in your path who are also struggling with cancer? If your life has brought you through a divorce what are you doing to support others who are also coping with the disintegration of their marriages? We are nothing if we cannot or will not take the risk to live with compassion.
On Tuesday it will be the tenth anniversary of our church’s fire. July 13th, 1994 was the date when St. James’s literally became the wounded traveler. Fire ravage us, stripped us of our sanctuary and (many thought) left us half dead. But we were blessed by the compassion of so many people who came to our aid. The fire fighters, represented by many sitting here today, risked their own safety in battling that blaze and because of their efforts at the end of the day we still had our beautiful steeple, our priceless windows, our Sunday school building and our parish house. God bless you, we owe you a great debt of thanks.
And it was our brothers and sisters from Beth Ahabah who ensured our long term survival. In our lesson, the Good Samaritan picked up that wounded traveler, took him to an inn and nursed his wounds. The good people of Beth Ahabah picked us up and took us into their spiritual home having the great love and compassion to allow their house of God to become our house of God. In spite of the long history of bigotry and persecution of Jews by Christians, the people of Beth Ahabah took the risk to be compassionate – to literally love their neighbors as themselves. Before the fire was out they had made the decision to share their space with us for as long as we needed. Thank you for taking that risk, thank you for giving us that gift, thank you for loving this neighbor.
And finally, we cannot forget all those who worked so hard and gave so generously to rebuild this place. The Good Samaritan gave his own denarii to care for the wounded traveler. Many, many people gave so much to rebuild this place again, to help us rise from the ashes. And we are more beautiful and better equipped than ever. All those who rebuilt this church were in essence building our future. Thank you.
But remember the old saying – to whom much is given, even more will be expected. Through the compassion of many we have been restored and healed. Now we must go and do likewise. Not just offering our good will and charity in ways that make us feel good . . . but a risk filled, sacrificial giving in places unexpected. Because for our faith to have any meaning it must be embodied in each one of us, performed by all of us, practiced every day of our lives, and acted out with compassion. It isn’t enough to simply believe. For while knowing the will of God is the greatest knowledge and finding the will of God is the greatest discovery, doing the will of God is the greatest achievement of all. Amen Adapted from William Willimon.