Proper 10C 2019
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Kelly
Grace Episcopal Church, Radford, Virginia
There is a story of a priest I knew named Dan Edwards. He was traveling one day from Atlanta to Macon, Georgia in a terrible downpour. The rain made visibility difficult and traffic was sluggish. He came upon a hitchhiker who was under a bridge trying to keep dry. For reasons unknown to Dan he felt overwhelmed with the impulse to stop and pick up this hitchhiker though he never picked up strangers for safety reasons. Dan is not a big man and he was traveling alone that day. It is smart to be careful and safe. But Dan stopped anyway.
The stranger got into Dan’s car and Dan began to drive but he was immediately unsure he had made the right decision. The stranger was talking incessantly and rambling and not making sense. Dan knew enough about abnormal psychology to know this is a symptom of psychosis and has the nickname of “word salad” because there is a mix of words but no comprehensible sentencing coming out. So, Dan had a wild man in his car gesturing and babbling and Dan couldn’t understand the stranger at all. But Dan didn’t feel afraid of the stranger and kept driving. Somehow, through gestures and a short answer type of communication, Dan decided to stranger wanted to be dropped off at the next exit and headed that way.
Then suddenly, in the middle of all this chaotic jabbering and gesturing, the stranger became very still and calm and stopped moving around and stopped babbling. He calmly looked at Dan, made eye contact and said, “You sir are called to be a bishop.” Then he went right back to babbling. Dan let the man out where he wanted to go and never saw him again.
Dan had no aspirations of becoming a bishop and took this as a weird coincidence realizing that the man couldn’t have even known Dan was a priest since he wasn’t wearing clericals that day.
But when Dan got to his office the next day, he found out that he had indeed been nominated for the Bishop search in Nevada. A couple of months later he was being consecrated as the Bishop of Nevada where he was bishop until his retirement last December.
This is only one story of a large library of similar stories I have heard of people’s encounters with strangers. Many friends have shared with me similar experiences when they encountered a stranger and the Holy Spirit seemed to work in and between them in gentle ways. But in our culture we are taught to avoid strangers, where stranger is rhymed with danger, especially girls and women are taught to avoid strangers. So, I have spent my life struggling with today’s favorite gospel parable because while Jesus seems to say here, always stop and help strangers in need, that is a mixed message with what my parents and teachers taught me, which is to never even talk to strangers. I have obediently passed by on the other side of the road in such situations and each time felt the now familiar tugging of guilt and confusion.
Perhaps you have felt this same way. There are so many strangers in need and it seems dangerous and onerous to help them yet Jesus commands us to be Good Samaritans.
Well, let’s unpack that a bit.
First of all, what does it mean to be “good?”
To “be good,” as we usually understand it is to be the person who seeks the welfare of others. Be the person who gives without counting the cost. Be the person who serves joyfully with no expectation of thanks or recognition. Be good employees, good next-door neighbors, good parents, good children, good musicians and public servants and artists and volunteers and caregivers and bankers.
But Jesus actually says little about this concept of “being good.” Being good is actually written about much more in the Old Testament than the New when just following the law and keeping the rules was good. Jesus speaks of good works, but not really about our concept of “being good.”
In fact, we came up with the title to this parable long after Luke wrote it down and even longer after Jesus spoke it. No where in the scriptures is this story titled “The Good Samaritan.” We have come to call the Samaritan “good,” but Jesus points out only that we are commanded to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Thomas Merton is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. For most of his life he lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery near Bards-town, Kentucky. He was baptized an Anglican as an infant but denied belief in God most of his young life until a conversion experience when he was nearly 30. Then he got on track and became a priest and then a monk and wrote prolifically on spirituality and Christian ethics, so, he did a lot of thinking about “being good.”
But he had another sort of conversion experience later in his life at the age of 43. He had been in Louisville, Kentucky, meeting with his publisher. Afterward, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, as he walked through the shopping district of the city, he was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that he loved everyone around him. He described the experience in this way: I came suddenly to realize “that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” He saw the “secret beauty of their hearts” as he put it in his writings later. He said that it was as if they were all walking around shining like the sun. “If only we could see each other that way all the time,” he wrote, “there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed . . . I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
Merton, through this experience, moved from trying to be good to seeing the good in everyone all around him. He moved from a sense of isolation to embodying love for every other person he encountered. And he spent the rest of his life writing and speaking about this difference (among other things).
One of the challenges I face as a preacher is this summer season. You see, all of the readings during what we call Ordinary Time, that season between Pentecost and All Saints, all these readings are about discipleship. This is a long, long time of sermons about how to be good, how to act right, how to follow Jesus, lots and lots of sermons about being our best as Christians.
The problem is, I end up feeling like I stand here Sunday after Sunday wagging my finger at you and stepping on your toes. It begins to feel like a long list of all the ways we are bad, or fall short of being good.
So today I want, instead of admonishing you again, to do something different. Instead of once again comparing ourselves to each character in the story we call The Good Samaritan, I want rather to look at all the ways we are already good.
The parable, as Jesus taught it had several characters. We have come to understand that the priest and the Levite were bad, and the Samaritan was good in stopping to help the victim of a crime. But there are other characters in this story that we overlook each time we tell it in this way. What about the Inn Keeper? Did he think twice about taking on a wounded man? Was two denarii enough for this task? And then there are at least two robbers. And if you want to consider it a character, a donkey, or at least that is what we usually imagine the beast of burden to be.
But what about the lawyer who boldly asked Jesus the question of “how to inherit eternal life?” In so doing, this lawyer, though he is made out to be a bad guy himself, at least created the space for the most favorite of parables to be told by Jesus. And for that matter Jesus is a character in the story as are the rest of those crowded to hear Jesus’ response.
So, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Indicating the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan. (By the way, Samaritans were the most hated race among the Jews who were having this conversation.) The lawyer got the right answer when he said that the Samaritan was the one who showed mercy but I want to ask you another question this morning in reflection of this age old story. Which characters in this story are good? Which characters in this story are, in fact, lovable?
Merton would say all of them.
We cannot come to understand our own goodness until we are capable of seeing all people as lovable in the way that Thomas Merton did on the corner of Fourth and Walnut that day in Louisville.
And so, friends, I think we miss an opportunity in all of our summer parable readings when we merely compare ourselves with the characters in these parables as good or bad. We get tripped up when we admonish ourselves and each other for not measuring up to the examples in these parables of good Christian behavior. We miss the boat when we line up to feel guilty and get our toes stepped on on Sunday mornings.
Instead, I invite you for a moment to consider all the ways you are already good. Think for a moment about how we as a parish share in the good works that go on all around us every day.
You are good when you serve the needy in this community, when you support the food pantry or Our Daily Bread, or The Women’s Resource Center, or our campus Red Door ministry, Boys Home, our Haiti Collaborative, the Clothing Bank, Grace Rooms, To Our House, Elf Shelf and our Christmas Families. You are good when you serve this community through the school system, the Humane Society, Beans and Rice, Head Start, nursing homes, assisted living centers, childcare centers, Habitat for Humanity, Backpack ministries, medical ministries, prison ministries, the list goes on.
You already are good. You already have mercy. You already “love your neighbor as yourself.” You, in fact, already “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” I’m certain of it. So there is no need for us to spend our short time in reflection on Sunday mornings rebuking and reprehending each other. We are good enough. And we are loved. All of us.
What we need to work on is our ability to recognize the lovability in all other persons, even the priests and Levites among us who seem so negligible, even the dumb lawyers, the innkeepers, even the robbers.
Maybe if we work on this we can become open to strangers in a new way. Maybe if we are open to the nudgings of the Spirit we will experience moments like Bishop Dan Edwards and listen among the perceived craziness to the stranger who brings us a message from God.
Maybe if we recognize the good in ourselves, the good in each other, it will be easier to see the good in the stranger. We might even see good in those we hate, those we criminalize, those we fear. Then and only then can we begin to love as Jesus calls us to love.
 See Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace), 1948.