The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10
July 10, 2016
The Rev. Glenn Chalmers
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
It was a busy Friday afternoon in New York. We were just finishing up serving our last few guests at the soup kitchen run by my former parish. With fifty volunteers and over a 1000 meals served, everyone was ready to head home.
Then the unexpected happened.
A teacher from the school across the street came bursting though the door. “We need your help,” she said. “One of our students left the school and got lost. He’s only 12 and he’s autistic.”
The thought of a vulnerable child wandering around the heart of New York City sent most volunteers scrambling out the door to join in the search. A brief description of the missing child, Joey, was passed among store owners, pedestrians, and a growing number of police officers. Every minute the boy was not found only heightened the anxiety and fear we all shared.
What happened next has been celebrated every May 18th for the past four years.
A man noticed a young boy looking very confused. And the boy was edging off the curb onto a very busy West Side Highway. So the man took the boy by the hand. Seeing his confusion and his tears, the man dialed 911. Joey was found – found just in the nick of time.
The man who reached out to Joey was Leo. One of our regular soup kitchen guests. A man who calls the streets home. A man who has been in and out of trouble with the police who increasingly move the homeless along in a neighborhood rapidly gentrifying.
It was Leo that saved Joey and Joey’s mother has never forgotten it.
When she offered money to Leo, he refused. Asking instead that the money be donated to the soup kitchen so people can be fed.
So every year on the anniversary of that day, Joey and his mother present Leo and me with a check for the soup kitchen in gratitude for a life saved.
Joey, autistic, uses a keyboard to communicate. Last May, he punched out letters and two sentences. “Thank you,” he typed, “for saving my life. Thank you for giving me a second chance.”
Every time the Gospel story about the Good Samaritan rolls around, I think of Joey and his mother. I think of Leo and our guests. I think of that remarkable afternoon in May.
In today’s familiar Gospel, a lawyer who was present asked Jesus to clarify what he meant by neighbor. He wanted a legal definition – one he could refer to in case the question of loving one’s neighbor ever came up.
The writer and preacher, Fredrick Buechner, put it this way: The lawyer in this episode presumable wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”
Well, what that lawyer got in response was a story. A very familiar story. The story of the Good Samaritan.
It’s not as easy to wrap your head around this parable as you might think. The characters in the story were deliberately cast by Jesus to deliver shock value. And that shock can get easily lost in translation.
The fact that a Samaritan emerges as the hero of the story – the one who reached out to the injured man – not the respectable priest or Levite – is nothing short of scandalous. Samaritans were despised by respectable Jews.
It’s hard to convey the original impact of this story.
Some modern interpreters suggest the original Biblical cast of characters of priest, Levite and Samaritan be re-cast. As priest, rabbi, and terrorist. As social worker, doctor, and child molester.
You can fill in the blanks as well of possible cast members in the attempt to convey the shock value of the original script.
Whatever we come up with, one thing is certain. The cast of characters and their roles come as a surprise. The hero of the story is the most unlikely character of all.
God comes where we least expect God to be.
In the self-justifying lawyer and the outcast Samaritan; among refugees and those who want to keep them out; among those in need and their caregivers; among the respectable ones and the outsiders; among the Leos and the Joeys.
No one is beyond the reach of God’s love.
No one is incapable of exemplifying the love of Christ.
Expect the unexpected.