The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams- July 14, 2013 – Proper 10, Year C: Luke 10:25-37
Several years ago a now well known experiment was conducted with seminary students. Researchers gathered a group of seminarians in a classroom and told them that each of them had to do this assignment. Their assignment was relatively simple, pretty basic. They were told to record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The catch was that the recordings were going to be done in a building on the other side of the campus, and because of a tight schedule, they needed to hurry in order to get themselves over to that building.
Now while the students didn’t know this, on the path to the other building the researchers had placed someone to play the part of a man in distress; he was slumped over, coughing and very obviously suffering. The seminarians were on their way to make a presentation about the Good Samaritan, right? – So what happened when these students encountered this man in need? Well, almost all of them rushed past without acknowledgement. One student even stepped over the man’s body as he hurried on to teach others about this parable.
Now none of these were Episcopal seminarians, of course. I should have ended the story that way – “and then an Episcopalian stopped, took care of the hurting man, carried him to his, got him help, paid for his care and provided him with shelter for the night!” Ta da! And then we could let out a loud cheer or something and feel extremely good about ourselves.
But this passage is about us too. As big as the hearts are in this place, and there are big hearts here, we are just as likely as most to pass by someone like the man in this story who had been beaten and left hurting by the side of the road. And while there is undoubtedly room for improvement as individuals, as a society we’re becoming ever more notorious for the passing by that we do.
But there are good reasons why we keep moving, right? At least that’s what we tell ourselves. For one thing, stopping can be dangerous. That was certainly true on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. And it’s true of many of our roads today. So helping can truly be risky and we don’t want to make the situation worse by getting hurt ourselves. Not to mention that maybe it’s the guys own fault he’s over there suffering – maybe he took too many risks, or didn’t try hard enough, or maybe he isn’t trying hard enough right now! Plus (and this is a big one) we’re busy – and helping takes time. There is always something to which we’re on our way (just like the seminarians in the experiment.) There is always something very, very important to which we’ve already committed and often it’s something good. It’s not like we’re on our way to rob a bank and just can’t spare a minute! Nor are we likely to go over and kick someone in need or anything like that. So, its’not like we’re busy doing more bad in this world. It’s just that often when faced with this kind of situation, we have to keep moving – we’re headed to something that is more safe; we’re on to people who are actually expecting us, sticking to our original plan. And if we’re really honest, we need to say that we’re always on our way to do something that in our assessment matters more. . . Besides, there are other people who will stop. . . Or that hurting person will find his own strength, get up on his own and seek out the help that he needs.
But here’s the thing – we hear over and over again in the gospels that nothing matters more than that person by the side of the road, or those people on that margin, or those folks hugging on to that edge for dear life, or that group that’s been stuck over in the corner for so very, very long.
“What’s the most important thing I can do?” the lawyer asked Jesus. He even framed it in terms of his own eternity, “What can I do to inherit eternal life?” he wondered. Now we can question the man’s motives. We can wonder what kind of trap he was setting for Jesus. We can even argue whether or not eternity is something that has anything to do with “earning”, thereby invalidating the question itself. Or we can just hear his question and let it be ours. We can hear the question and let it be our question. This parable is a parable about many things, but I do think that at its core, it’s a parable about priorities. “What’s the most important thing we can do?”
Now I want to mention Trayvon Martin here, because it’s a story that happened by the side of a road in Florida. Right here in our country. Right now in our day. And a very difficult verdict in this case came down last night. If you haven’t already stopped to listen to this story, you need to, we need to. Over the course of the next many days and the next many months we need to listen because it has to do with race and it has to do with young people and it has to do with fear and it has to do with extreme and unnecessary violence. This story has to do with how dangerous the road can be for some, how afraid of each other we have become, and how often we resort to violence in response to that fear or as an inappropriate expression of power. I also think that this story is a very real example of how law alone will not teach us or lead us in ways of mercy. I realize that the Trayvon Martin story is in some ways a very complicated story, but it also very clearly, very painfully in heartbreaking ways exposes our failure to live as neighbors.
What’s the most important thing we can do?
“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,” the man replied after Jesus asked him what the law said about what matters most. “Well, do that,” Jesus told him, “and you will live.” Notice that Jesus didn’t say “know that and live,” or “teach that and live;” he didn’t even say, “believe that” and live. “DO THIS and you will live,” Jesus said.
And the same is true for us. It’s not as complicated as the lawyer in the parable was trying to make it. It’s not as complicated as we make it, or our lives make it, or the history of our country, or the structures in our society make it. It is not even as complicated as our own rationalizations or our fears make it out to be. We are all neighbors. Period. We are neighbors with us and neighbors with them. Neighbors with the people in the middle of the road, by the side of the road, going the other way on the road, with those who travel the road wearing hoodies and those who don’t. And what matters most is that we love God and them, all of them too.
May we be given the strength to notice and to stop, to mercifully reach out, and to help. May we be the neighbors God has called to be.