Proper 10c, July 14, 2013

July 15, 2013

Touched By A Neighbor
Luke 10:25-37

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He 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. 35 The 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.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

A Jewish Rabbi went to get his hair cut one day and when he stood up to pay for the haircut the barber said, No, you are a man of God and this is my contribution to your good work. When the barber got to work the next morning there was a bag of fresh bagels at the door and a note from the rabbi expressing his gratitude for the nice haircut the man had given him. Later that day a Catholic priest droped by for a haircut and once again, when the priest went to pay the barber said, No, you are a man of God and this is my contribution to your ministry. When the barber arrived for work the next morning there were a dozen warm donuts at his door and a note from the priest thanking him for the fine haircut. Later that day a United Methodist minister dropped in for a haircut, and once again, when he went to pay the barber said, No, you are doing God’s work and this is my contribution to your ministry. So, when the barber showed up for work the next morning there were a dozen United Methodist ministers waiting for him to arrive.

I don’t know – there’s just something about this morning’s scripture that cries out for some acknowledgment of this possibility of being surprisingly inhospitable. There’s no doubt that Jesus was trying to expand the concept of neighbor for this legalistic scribe, and I’m guessing the man got more than he anticipated when he asked Jesus to share his understanding of who he understood a neighbor to be.

I read a few short commentaries on this passage and more than one of them indicated that this story is far more than a simple morality play that was told by Jesus to encourage us to be nice to strangers. And they generated quite of few sentences to back up their arguments that we shouldn’t just reduce this story to the message that we should come to the aid of those who are in trouble, but I wasn’t persuaded by any of those arguments to see this story in any other way.

I guess they were primarily arguing that we are doing far more important work than we may understand it to be when we engage in the work of compassion for desperate people, and that it’s particularly holy work when we cross social boundaries to do that work, but honestly, I don’t see any kind of hidden message in this story. I think Jesus surprised the original listeners to this story, and it is still a compelling story, but the surprise factor has been overshadowed by the familiarity factor. The Billy Graham Foundation can call their disaster relief organization The Samaritan’s Purse, and everyone knows what that’s about.

The contrast between the inaction of the religious men who should have reached out to the man who was in need and the action of the man who was the least likely to behave with compassion is unforgettable. The message in this story is clear. If you want to be in touch with God’s eternal life you need to reach out and touch wounded strangers.

But I’m speaking as a religious man who makes judgements every day about who to help and who to ignore. If I were to speak for very long on this story what you would hear is how I try to justify walking past some people who are injured by the side of the road because that is what I choose to do sometimes. I don’t feel good about that, but I’m not delusional about the extent of my goodness. Honestly, when I hear this story I can identify with any of the characters in this story. I have known myself to play every role and harbor every attitude that is portrayed in this story. I’m guessing we all can. But this story reminds me of who I want to be, and what a beautiful thing it is when people do the heroic work of expanding the concept of neighbor.

I always thought of my grandfather, Tom, as a good man. I knew him to be an honest person and a friendly person unless he was annoyed, but I never really thought of him as a compassionate person. I generally experienced him more as someone who generated expectations for other people than as a person who tried to meet the expectations of others. I was around him a lot as I grew up and he and I got along very well because I always did whatever he told me to do.

My sister and I recently sold my father’s retirement clubhouse (it was sort of an office and a shop), and as we were cleaning it out my sister found some letters in one of the drawers of his desk that were addressed to my grandfather. There were five letters from four different German men who had been prisoners of war at a camp that had been set up in Wynne. I guess there were a number of POW camps set up within the United States during the war. We actually haven’t been able to read one of them because it’s written in German, but the other letters reveal an appreciation for the kindness and generosity of my grandfather as well as an appeal for him to help them. The letters were written after the war had ended and the men were back in Germany and living under very harsh conditions.

I’m going to read one of the letters to you because I think it represents the spirit of neighborliness that Jesus sought to generate. I should add that my grandfather didn’t miss church very often. Now he expected it to end at 12 o’clock and he was known to duck out if he found it to be going on too long. I never sensed that he let his religion get in the way of his business, but these letters indicate to me that he pretty much got it. Here’s our best understanding of what one of the men wrote: (But first a short disclaimer – this letter was written during a time when the sharing of cigarettes was considered to be a symbol of hospitality and not the nasty avenue to all kinds of cancer and death that we now understand them to be – so children, please keep in mind that I am in no way advocating the use of tobacco!)

March 12, 1948
Dear Mr. Murray!
When you get this letter you will be much surprise and don’t know of whom it is. Though I introduce again at first. Once I was a prisoner of war and lived at the camp in Wynne for about a years time. The last two months of my staying in Wynne I worked for you, sometimes in your big garden for picking strawberries or cleaning the field of your farm and sometimes working by your pond where the ox frogs quacked with their dry voices. Yes I remember very well too this things when you brought us Coca Cola and other refreshments and food for dinner. And still today I hear your words saying we have done a good days work. I am the blonde fellow who worked together with Hans Keindle, the only fellow who spoke English, if you remember. The last work we have done for you was to build the weekend house on the hill near the spring. But in the meantime a lot of years have gone. And I think you cannot remember to me.

When we left America we thought we would sail to Germany. No, in the contrary, we were unloaded in Liverpool. There I stayed for another 19 months and in January of this year I was discharged after a long time as a prisoner. Now I am in Germany and at home. I haven’t had a good life as a prisoner, but when I saw the conditions in Germany where I live, I would like to go back to America at once. Because it is no life here it is a starvation. Maybe you don’t believe the story I tell you, but it is true and if it doesn’t change nobody knows what and when the end is and how it looks. There is nothing to buy and less than nothing to eat. When I came from England I had no suit and no shoes to find just the battle dress I wore on my body. The things I had before the war were taken. The time I lived in Wynne we didn’t get a lot to eat at the camp. But everyday I worked for you you brought us a good meal sometimes made by your wife and cigarettes. You always had a nice word or a joke for us and we could be laughing once again and you helped us over some bad hours of our prisoner life.

But now I am no prisoner and all the same and I ask you for a favor. I told you the present conditions and I think you will help me now too. I will be very glad and thankful to you if you could send us something. I use everything because I have nothing. Mainly food, cigarettes, tobacco, clothes or other things you would like to send. If you can disperse with anything I would never forget it.
Please excuse my bad English, but I am just a beginner. I hope you can read my writing. With the kindest regards and with best wishes for you and your wife.

Werner Lohr

I’m really proud to read you this letter. It makes me feel like my grandfather was able to see beyond the false boundaries created by nations and see neighbors, but primarily what this letter does is remind me how God endlessly provides us with opportunities to step out of ordinary life and to touch eternal life.

Every time we come face to face with a person who is struggling in life we are presented with an opportunity to find eternal life. This is what the lawyer wanted to know from Jesus – how do we find eternal life? And to answer that question Jesus told him this unforgettable story.

We are all currently playing roles in someone’s unforgettable story. I think we all know what role we wish to be playing – and by the grace of God we will.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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