— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
Amos 7:7-17; Luke 10:25-37
While our daily news seems saturated with catastrophes from all around the world, there’s always a great story if we look for it. Like two weeks ago in Hall County, when a Chick-Fil-A customer-mother in a car in the drive thru lane frantically started calling for help. Her 6-year-old had gotten his seatbelt wrapped around his neck and his face was losing color. A high school employee was hailed as a hero by WSB for leaping out of the drive thru window, then using his pocket knife to cut the boy free from the choking strap.
Or…the 8-year-old boy about the first of March dangling from a ski on Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, Canada. Twenty feet up, his father was holding on to him. As anxious skiers watched the situation unfold, a group of five teenagers jumped into action by grabbing a piece of netting and holding it under the boy…obviously having to coax him and his father to turn loose of each other in order for the teenagers to catch him from below with their net.
Two days before the 4th of July, three men were fishing in the gulf about ten miles off the coastline from Saint George Island, off the coast from Apalachicola, Florida. The water was rough that day—three-foot swells. Experienced boat people, out of nowhere, four eight-foot swells in a 20-second period hit their 27-foot boat capsizing it. Life jackets were quickly pulled from the boat and before the electrical system went dead, they were able to radio their coordinates in a Mayday call. While the closest coast guard rescue unit was three hours away, another fishing boat with four persons was just coming in from an all-day red snapper trip. Exhausted themselves for the rough water, and a day on it, they told each other, “we have no option; we’ve got to go get those guys,” which took two hours in those treacherous waters.
Superheroes? Good Samaritans? Jesus told something like those stories once. It was just a made-up story by Jesus to illustrate what it means to be a Superhero. Superheroes are fictitious characters, like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man who protect the public and right wrongs. Present day people who are committed to righting wrongs in our world and qualify for the Superhero and Good Samaritan category are those like the guys fishing who went back into dangerous waters for their rescue, the Canadian teenage skiers who quickly snapped into a creative rescue mode, and the Hall County teenage Chick-Fil-A worker. All put themselves on the line to help and solve life-threatening problems rather than become a gawking bystander who preferred not to get involved. Even my Jennifer, while having lunch with a friend in a nice Newport News, Virginia, restaurant full of diners, performed the Heimlich maneuver once on a choking man as everyone else just stared.
Let me tell you about Jesus’ superhero. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he got into a testy conversation with a local lawyer. Jesus was often dogged by persons (particularly clergy-types and lawyer-types) trying to make his teachings seem weak or flawed.
“What is the greatest commandment?” the lawyer asked.
“You’re the lawyer,” Jesus said. “What does the law say?”
“The law says to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself,” responded the lawyer.
“Well, there you have it,” Jesus said. “Love God fully and your neighbor as yourself and you will have the abundant life.”
But the lawyer was not going to let Jesus off the hook so easily. “Ah, but you need to be more specific with your terms. Precisely, how do you define ‘neighbor?’”
It was in response to this exchange that Jesus told one of his most famous parables. Though it is not the story of the fishermen off Saint George Island, it is similar to it.
“A man was traveling on the road to Jericho when he was mugged by robbers. So, like the three men who had just been a victims of a terrible boating accident, here is another person in serious trouble. Nothing unusual about that. The Jericho Road was a dangerous place to be traveling. Nothing unusual about that either.
But here is the disturbing part of the story. Two people who could have helped, whom we would expect to help—a priest and a Levite—both religious people came upon the man in trouble but did nothing. Absolutely nothing. They intentionally avoided the man, walking on the other side of the road. This would be like saying the pastor of a prominent church in Northeast Georgia and a White County law official saw a man who had been beaten up and robbed in the parking lot of Ingles and did nothing.
“Down the road,” Jesus said, “came a Samaritan.” Remember, Jesus is a Jew and the lawyer is a Jew, and probably the robbed and wounded man in Jesus’ story is also a Jew. Even the other characters in the story—the priest and the Levite—are Jews. But, here comes a Samaritan. The Jews and the Samaritans had quite a bit of racial history. “Hatred” would be the more accurate term. They usually had nothing to do with each other. They were enemies, of sorts. They despised each other. Not only would neither of them help the other. If injured, neither would probably have helped the other. It was this Samaritan who was moved with compassion and cared for the injured man, even though the two were enemies.
“So now you define the term ‘neighbor,’” Jesus said to the lawyer. “Which one proved to be the neighbor in this story?”
The lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to use the word “Samaritan” and mumbled, “The one who showed mercy.”
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus said.
So, before we think the story is just about getting everybody to go out and be a “Good Samaritan”—go be kind to someone else, show a little compassion for the person next door—we need to consider it more closely. If the moral of that story was that simple, Jesus would have simply stated that a man was in trouble and three people passed by. The first one didn’t bother to help. Neither did the second. But the third person helped the man in trouble. He would have left out the Samaritan business and said, “Be like the third man.” But his parable isn’t that simple. The one who was the most unlikely to help is the very one in the story who helps, and that makes this story more difficult to accept. That’s the first problem with the story
The second problem with the story is that head knowledge about doing the right thing is usually not enough to get us to do the right thing. Hearing a story about a Good Samaritan is usually not enough to get us to actually be a Good Samaritan.
Robert Wuthnow, a professor of religion and sociology at Princeton University, once conducted research on why some people are generous and compassionate and why others are not. His conclusion was that compassionate and generous people had experienced compassion and generosity in another person that resulted in compassion toward other people. An encounter with compassion and generosity, in other words, had a transforming effect.
The story of Jack Casey was told, a story of a rescue squad worker who had little reason to be a Good Samaritan. Jack was raised in a tough home. His father was an abusive alcoholic. Jack said, “All my father ever taught me was that I didn’t want to grow up to be like him.” But something happened to him that brought about a change of attitude. As a child, he had to have surgery. The experience of being alone before surgery created much anxiety during the short period before his operation began. A compassionate surgical nurse standing beside his bed reassured him. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” When Jack woke up, she was the first thing he recognized. She was true to her word and right beside him.
Years later as a paramedic, Jack was sent to the scene of a highway accident. A young man was pinned upside down in his pickup truck. As Jack was trying to get him out of the wreckage, gasoline was dripping down on both of them. The rescue workers were using power tools to cut the metal, so one spark could have caused everything to go up in flames. The driver was frightened, crying out how scared he was of dying. Remembering what had happened to him long ago on the operating table, Jack used the same compassionate pattern he had experienced in the nurse who would not leave his side.
“Look, I’m right here with you. I’m not going to leave you,” Jack said to the pinned truck drive. Jack said that when he uttered those words, he remembered the nurse who had used those same words in reassuring him as a child.
What the lawyer in Jesus’ encounter discovered and what we discover too is that a person can’t stand on the sidelines and figure out how to be good. We can’t stand on the sidelines and try to define who our neighbors are. We are often helpless to be Good Samaritans on our own strength. At some time in our life, we are the person lying helpless and wounded by the roadside…we are the ones in a capsized boat. And, along comes someone, some good Samaritan, whose face becomes the very image of Jesus himself, who speaks to us, lifts us up in his or her arms and takes us to a place of safety. The mental image of Jesus must be our example. Ongoing encounters with the living Christ are what we need to change our habits, our patterns, and our attitudes, our very lives.
For those, Lord, who have been a true “good Samaritan” to us in our time of need, despair, or humiliation, we are most grateful. For those who have reached out to us when we felt all alone and lost, we pour out our thanksgiving. O Christ, be the image of Compassion we need to change the world around us. AMEN.
7This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; 9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
10Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'” 12And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
14Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,15and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16“Now therefore hear the word of the LORD. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” 17Therefore thus says the LORD: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.'”
25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “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.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”