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8th Weekend after Pentecost, July 9 & 10: "Am I a Neighbor?/All Lives Count"

Eighth Weekend After Pentecost (C/RCL): “Am I a Neighbor?”/ “All Lives Count”

Luke 10:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

July 9-10, 2016

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ

            Maybe the Good Samaritan Law isn’t named very well after all.  I looked up a definition and came up with this:

“a law that exempts from legal liability persons, sometimes only physicians, who give reasonable aid to strangers in grave physical distress.”

I’m sure that word reasonable has a specific meaning in U.S. case law, but the aid given to the mugged man in this story from St. Luke is anything but reasonable.

That’s the point.

            You know the story.  A traveler (who has no business traveling alone on that notorious section of highway between Jerusalem and Jericho, a twisty, turny, sharply descending road full of blind curves and gullies for bad guys to hide in) is, not surprisingly, attacked by robbers who take all his belongings, even his clothes, then beat him up and leave him for dead.  Eventually other travelers come along.  The first two are religious professionals, a priest and a Levite, both of whom serve at the Temple in Jerusalem. 

They come along at different times, but their reaction is the same: cross the road, hug the shoulder, pass as far away from the victim as they could.  ‘Could have been a couple reasons.  They could have worried he wasn’t a victim at all, but a decoy, someone made to look injured to lure unsuspecting “good Samaritans” into helping him.  In that case, the would-be rescuer would become a gullible victim, a role no one wants to play.  Another possibility: the man might be a genuine victim who died from the assault.  In which case he was a corpse, beyond help.  According to Jewish Law, if either the priest or the Levite touched a dead body, he would become ritually unclean and unable to perform his Temple duties for the next week.  (If they called in to report they couldn’t serve, would the boss really understand?)

Someone has pointed out that if they were headed from Jerusalem to Jericho, like the poor guy left lying in the road, they’d already done their job and were headed home anyway.  Someone else has pointed out that the answer to the question, “Why did the priest and the Levite cross the road?” doesn’t matter.  The only thing that interests God is whether they diverted from their schedule, delayed their trip, risked something, anything, to help the man and, clearly, they didn’t.  Uh oh.

            Do you remember why Jesus even tells this story?  (Remember, it’s a parable, an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, not a recounting of something that actually happened.)  A lawyer (not a modern-day “attorney,” but an expert in the intricacies of Jewish Law) asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus asks the man whose business is the Law, “What is written in the law?”

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  (Luke 10:27)

            That was a good start.  Jesus responded, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:28)  The lawyer’s still pressing for more, though.  “And who is my neighbor?”  (Luke 10:29) (No use wasting energy on people who don’t count – and many people of the day felt that their “neighbor” was limited to their fellow Jew.)  So Jesus tells the story in which the two guys who fall short of the mark are both in the lawyer’s peer group!  Lawyers, priests, Levites, shared similar professions and similar love of the Law.  In the story, they all miss the boat when it comes to the law of love.

            It’s the hated Samaritan, considered a religious heretic and treated like a social outcast, who “gets it.”  He’s not following any regs, dotting any i’s, crossing any t’s – he’s just practically and extravagantly caring for the needy stranger in the ditch.  Montefiore, a great 19th century British philanthropist, may have put it most simply and memorably:

“Who needs me is my neighbor.”

            Lord-willing, none of us would leave someone bleeding in a ditch.  But haven’t we all seen someone in some degree of need and kept going because we were late for an appointment, on a tight schedule, or afraid helping would complicate our lives too much, take too much time, or cost us money?  Maybe we were afraid the apparent need was a scam… and we’d become a sucker.  Or maybe we conveniently convinced ourselves someone more able would surely step up to the plate.  Especially when the memory haunts us, we can be pretty sure we should have acted instead of crossing to the other side of the road.

            Not all neighbors live next door.  Not all neighbors’ need is close to home.  Sometimes neighbors live far away; their need is very real, nonetheless.  Those with eyes to see and hearts to love recognize and address the neighbor’s need:     

  • The people of Canada recognize Syrian refugees as their neighbors.  Because private sponsorship is possible, there are more families and groups in Canada wanting and waiting to welcome refugees than there are refugees currently available to immigrate to Canada.  Love reigns over fear.

One of our Holy Trinity friends, Jonathan Martinek, invited me to the Belmar/Wall Rotary this past week, to give the invocation before he was installed as president of that club.  His remarks included these words about international “Good Samaritan” projects.

One of the projects that, pardon the pun, captured my heart was Gift of Life, a program that provides life saving cardiac surgery to children in the developing world that would otherwise die. I was working at a large medical device manufacturer at the time, and asked what I could do to help. The director of our District Gift of Life committee said they were planning a medical mission to Ukraine to operate on children who were being born with serious cardiac defects due to the ongoing effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. I reached out to my employer and soon had obtained a donation of $27,000 worth of sutures, dressings and other needed equipment. A team of doctors, nurses and other professionals paid their own way to Kiev, and FedEx generously donated the use of one of their planes to transport my donation along with equipment supplied by numerous other manufacturers. There were over 400 children on the waiting list for heart surgery. In a two week span, the medical team operated on over 50 of the most critical patients. All but one of the kids they operated on survived. They also trained local doctors to perform the procedures and left the donated equipment behind for them to use. In following years they repeated these trips to other countries throughout the world, saving lives through their charity, but also mentoring and sharing their professional expertise with local health care providers so that those countries could ultimately care for their own people… It was just people in the community getting together in the spirit of service to their fellow humans. It was a group of professionals making use of their personal connections and business networks to do good in the world.

… I have traveled pretty extensively in my life time and seen poverty both in America and abroad, but recently I had an opportunity through Whole Foods to participate in a Team Member Volunteer Program in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world. 90% of the people in that island nation off the tip of Africa live on less than $2.00 a day. We helped build an elementary school in a remote cocoa farming village where the people live a subsistence level existence without electricity or running water. This project was jointly funded by Whole Foods and one of our vendors… which sources cocoa in that village… This was another example of business people volunteering their time and resources to help people that they had never even met, simply because there was a need….

We are so blessed to live in the developed world, and to enjoy the lifestyles that we live in. But for the grace of God, any one of us in this room could have been born as THAT baby in Ukraine who didn’t make it off the operating table. Any one of us could have been born THAT child in Pakistan who contracted polio this year, and any one of us could have been born into poverty in a little cocoa farming village in Madagascar, living in a wooden hut with a dirt floor and drinking contaminated water from the river where people wash their clothing and their cattle. What we spend on our morning cup of coffee can feed a child in Africa for several days, or supply a nourishing meal for a family right here through our local food pantries. What we spend on our cell phones or cable TV bill over the course of a few months could cover the cost of open heart surgery on a child in Haiti or the Philippines. I’m NOT saying don’t have that coffee or don’t watch HBO… I’m just saying think about the little things you can do to contribute to a better world. We can all do small things that collectively have a great effect on the world. Sometimes all we have to do is ask. Back in 2004 when I called my boss at the medical company and asked for a donation to the Gift of Life mission, I was expecting a few boxes of sutures and a little bit of cash maybe, instead I got a tractor trailer load of supplies because, frankly, he had a bunch of product in the warehouse that had only 9 months shelf life remaining and hospitals in America refuse to accept anything with less than 12 months remaining on the expiration date. Those sutures where destined for the landfill but instead they went half way around the world and saved countless lives, simply because someone asked. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Think about that, “lose yourself in the service of others.” It’s easy to be sad by looking at the state of the world around us, but by losing myself in the service…  I found the things that bring joy and happiness to my life and make me a little less cynical about the world we live in. On that note, I respectfully say to all of you “Get lost!”

            The question the lawyer asked Jesus was, “Who is my neighbor?”  The question Jesus asked the lawyer is, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The question Jesus asks us is, “Are you a neighbor?”  “If not, why not?”  No excuses accepted.  Amen

Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham