A Baptismal Meditation delivered by Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 6, July 15, 2001, dedicated to Courtney Anne Batchelor on her baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
It was a beautiful morning as our group set out for the Dead Sea this past February. We had started the morning in the chilly and cold waters of the Jordan River as many of us renewed our baptismal vows. Having done so, we headed south with hopes of seeing the excavations in Jericho, with the Dead Sea as our eventual destination that day.
Midway through the morning, we passed through checkpoints designating our entry into the West Bank. Not long after, we came to the Jericho Road. And that road had been closed. It was deemed too dangerous to travel. So, we never caught sight of Jericho - literally buried in the mountains 15 miles away.
As we stayed on the main highway, I wrote in my journal, "today, I experienced the Jericho Road. Like the people of old, I was told - it's too dangerous to travel. Stay off. Find another passage to Jerusalem! It is haunting how little history changes over 2000 years. I will pray for the travelers of the Jericho Road today."
Although I was approaching Jericho from the east (not the west) as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the expressed concern and impending dangers were similar. In the time of Jesus, thieves and criminals would escape Jerusalem by going over the mountains toward Jericho. Once over the mountains, they entered a high desert region where rocks and boulders were plentiful and food, water, and life-sustaining resources were scarce. Bands of bandits would work together to overtake unprotected travelers on this narrow footpath through the high mountains down to the city of Jericho. Just this setting for the parable would have sent chills through anyone listening!
And with this setting Jesus begins his answer to the question from the lawyer - "who is my neighbor?" "A man was traveling the Jericho Road . . . " when he was assaulted, stripped, beaten, and left half-dead. (Again - imagine listeners nodding and nudging each other saying under their collect breath `Of course, what else would you expect on that road?!') Also traveling were two religious men - one a priest and one a Levite (a slightly lesser order of priests in the temple). Exercising prudent conduct, they went by on the other side of the road. After all - he could have been faking the injuries to draw them into a trap - a common ploy on the roadsides of old (and our fears of roadside travelers even today). (Again, the audience offers wry smiles about the failures of the temple leaders who were looking out for themselves).
But then Jesus offered the real shock. A Samaritan passing by, saw the wounded man and was deeply moved. He stopped, poured soothing oil and ana septic wine on the victim's wounds and he bandaged them. Picking up the man, he placed him upon his own animal and brought him to an inn, where he watched beside him overnight. In the morning he left money and told the innkeeper that any other expenses incurred for this man should be put on his tab and he would reimburse him upon his return.
A Samaritan, in the ears of the listeners, was an alien. He would have been "dead" to them, for the Samaritans to the Jews of Jesus' day, were considered heretics, outside the law, and they were forbidden by the Jews to worship in the temple. In fact, when Jesus asks the lawyer, "Which of these was a neighbor?" the response comes back, "the one who showed mercy." The lawyer cannot bring himself to give voice to the word, "Samaritan."
No doubt after this story, many of the crowd following Jesus went home from this storytelling time shaking their heads and muttering aloud, "That Jesus is way too liberal for me. He could have told that story without bringing in those no-good heretics, the Samaritans (With a spit!). He should have said Gentiles, that would have been easier to swallow!" That's right, the Samaritan is a no-good, do-gooder in the eyes of those close to Jesus.
But resurrecting the dead was what Jesus was all about! The neighbor was not the expected Israelite, but the despised Samaritan. Yet, the neighbor concept is one which takes two people to function. In his book, The Misunderstood Jesus, Clyde Fant writes:
The unknown, unnamed, race-undesignated, religion-unspecific, faceless stranger by the roadside became the neighbor to the Samaritan. The lawyer wanted to know the limits of his responsibility. As far as he was concerned, the circle of neighbors, with its obligations, couldn't get too small for him. Jesus, refused to define neighbor, that is, those we are obligated to help. Rather, he defined the neighbor-relationship; anyone, anywhere, in need, faceless, raceless, religionless - whatever - and anyone who cares to help - become neighbors. (The Misunderstood Jesus, p. 140).
Clyde Fant goes on to say that the real lost key in this, and other parables of Jesus, is human sympathy. Human sympathy is a belief in which mutual human need, rather than human superiority, is an expressed and lived value in relationship. As such, the one who may have been perceived as the alien is brought into the center of the family. The Good Samaritan, who most likely had experienced persecution himself, did not allow questions of race, religion, or social class to affect his decision to live and act mercifully. He remembered the times when he was needy and wounded and went to the side of someone who was suffering.
Much of our lack of sympathy is real due to a short memory. Were not most over-demanding mothers and fathers once headstrong children themselves? And have you not made huge mistakes in judgement sometime in your life, which could have messed you up permanently had not someone stepped in and shown mercy and sympathy?
As a Senior in my spring semester at Macalester College, I encountered a professor whose mercy and human sympathy outweighed anything else he taught me. Professor Kim taught a course called "Physics 101." It was known on campus as "Physics for Boneheads." I was busy that spring writing my senior honors thesis and playing with my friends one last time before graduation. As I went in for the final, I was totally unprepared. I either failed or barely passed the final. With a D, my grade point average would drop me from Magna Cum Laude to Cum Laude. Following the test, I went in to apologize to Dr. Kim for my lackluster performance and to ask if he could allow me to write a paper for extra-credit (or something). He asked very gently, "Tim, what it is you really need?" I explained the class standing piece. He said, "Do not be afraid. You will be fine."
As it turned out, he gave me a "B" for the course (a grade which I clearly did not earn). When I stopped him at graduation to thank him and ask why, he responded with a smile, "you needed grace and compassion more than you needed Physics. Thank you for the time you spent working so diligently and so well at our college." Although this story pales beside that of the Good Samaritan, Dr. Kim does not pale in the depth of his human sympathy. While I remained a Bonehead in Physics, Dr. Kim gave me the lasting memory of in the school of compassion and sympathy.
He gained his spirit of sympathy in his homeland as a child. Dr.Kim grew up in Korea during the Korean war. Each day, he witnessed the bombing of his homeland. In fact, he told us, his interest in Physics started as a child while watching the bombs leaving the planes and trying to calculate their trajectory as they headed for the earth. As a professor, he never practiced superiority, but rather he practiced sympathy.
"Superiority is a disastrous attitude. Wherever and whenever human beings feel themselves superior to others, sympathy becomes impossible. Superiority forgets its dependence on others. Superiority forgets the helping hands of the past and its many birthrights and inheritances, social as well as physical, that allowed for superior feelings in the first place. When one element of society looks down on another, both groups eventually will only be magnified." (The Misunderstood Jesus, p. 145).
On the other hand, when we learn the lessons of sympathy, we become compassionate persons. One of my other teachers, the late, Fr. Henry Nouwen wrote:
"For a compassionate person nothing human is alien; no joy or sorrow, no way of living, no way of dying . . . Through compassion it is possible to recognize a man's craving for love in our own heart and his cruelty in our own impulses; to see our hope for forgiveness in our friend's eyes and our refusal in their bitter mouths. When they kill, we know we could have done it; when they give life, we know that we can do the same." (In Search for Silence, ed. Elizabeth O'Connor, Waco, TX: Word, 1972, chapter entitled, "Generation without Fathers," p. 62).
The Road to Jericho is still a dangerous road. And as Christians, we still live in a faith which calls us to resist and in fact - reject - the partisanship in our churches and in our society that separate people - blood issues, money issues, social class issues, race issues, sexual orientation issues - even if to do so is risk our friendships, our livelihood, our future. We say we would lay down our lives because of our faith in Christ, but is that really true? Not when we remain largely unable to say certain words or even face difficult responses in the name of sympathy and compassion - in the name of Jesus Christ.
From his prison cell sixty years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ's large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and showing real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the suffering of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered. (Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. E. Bethge, New York: Macmillan, 1971, pp.13-14).
And Jesus asked, "which one of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him (and to all of us),"Go and do likewise"(Luke 10:36-37). Amen.
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