Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Ditch

A reflection on Luke 10:25-37 for Proper 10C

The phone rang, it was a colleague of mine, she had something she wanted to discuss with me and wondered if we could talk over lunch. A few days later while we ate our salads, she told me about Dorothy, a single mom with a young daughter, living on disability and public aide. Dorothy’s husband was murdered a number of years ago, no one knows the circumstances surrounding that death. But in the years since Dorothy has become a scrapper – one who knows how scrape by on very little. My colleague assured me that she had visited Dorothy; that her situation was legitimate and that what she needed was some assistance now and then until her daughter was out of high school. Up to this point my colleague was providing that assistance but now she was leaving her church and moving out of state. She wondered, since the woman lived near my church, if I could help? I thought I could, and I thought my church might want to help too. So I took Dorothy’s situation to our governing board, called a vestry, and we talked about it. In the end we agreed to help with monthly groceries and PACE bus passes. At first the congregation was all in a tizzy with their willingness to help. We held food drives and had people bring in chicken and hamburger, cereal and cheese, vegetables and fruit. Sometimes, when church members were really busy we collected a fund and I had PeaPod deliver her groceries. I ordered PACE bus passes and they were mailed to her house. We collected food for her Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners. We gave her daughter clothing and school supplies. I even bought her daughter’s senior year high school year book. All told we probably helped Dorothy and her daughter for five years, maybe more.

It wasn’t all great though. It was tiring work. There were days when Dorothy had needs beyond what we could give her. On those occasions she’d call me repeatedly at all hours wondering if I could help with one more thing. I had to lay down very clear limits with her. And whenever I sent a parishioner over to her house I warned them, she will ask you for more. She will want a ride someplace or she will want money or she will want something. Her needs were endless. They were real needs, but they never stopped. I told parishioners to just give her whatever it was they were delivering and tell her that this was all we could do right now. Over and over we had to place limits on what we could give her and when and how we would give it to her.

Helping is curious thing. It makes us feel good to have helped another. Helping can change lives and make the world just a little bit better. But helping can also burn us out, wear us down, and make us cynical. The help we offer is not always appreciated. Often, the need for help in this world seems endless. And now today, more than ever, with the Gulf Coast oil spill, the economy that has crumbled, two wars overseas, famine and civil war in many countries around the world, children orphaned to AIDS and other disease. I could go on and on. In a world of so much disaster and tragedy it’s easy to understand why the Levite and the priest might walk on by. Maybe they had already helped too many people. Maybe they had overwhelming concerns of their own. Maybe they were cynical and burned out and tired. Maybe they were just in a hurry or didn’t want to touch someone who was beaten and dirty? Maybe they felt it wasn’t their problem.

Some people help though, not out of a desire to assist the other, but out of a need to boost their own ego. Oh, see, aren’t I a good person, look what I’m doing for YOU. I have so much and you have so little, and I’m so great because of what I am doing. Of course the thinking behind this can be much more subtle while at the same time being more about boosting the ego of the person helping than it is about actually caring for the other.
Such is the premise of the book, “How Can I Help” by Ram Dass. Some of you might remember Ram Dass from the 1971 best seller, “Remember Be Here Now”? Well in “How Can I Help” he takes a deeply spiritual and rather profound look at the nature of helping. Through telling story after story of people helping others he points to the real depth and intent of helping - that the person doing the “ helping “ is almost always the one who ends up actually being helped, changed, transformed, in ways they least expect. But even more important is the reality that helping is a mutual act – each person participates in the helping and the being helped. In other words helping is really about building relationships of mutual care and compassion.

This is part of what Jesus is pointing us to recognize in this story from Luke about the Samaritan and the man from Jerusalem who was beaten and left for dead. If we were to have heard this story in Jesus’ day from Jesus himself we would understand that the beaten man is one of us, you or me, beaten and left on the side of the road to die. Prestigious people in our community walk by but do not stop to help. Like the priest and the Levite, these prestigious people are too important to be bothered with a simple person and their suffering. We would anticipate, though, that one of our neighbors, one of our friends would come and help. But none come and no one stops to help. No one comes, that is until this stranger walks by, this Samaritan. For us, like the man in the story, the Samaritan would be the person we most despise and are most afraid of. A person who we think is dangerous, an enemy. And Jesus’ point is as the Samaritan shows compassion for the beaten man in the ditch, we too need our enemies to have compassion on us. And we are to show compassion on our enemies. Strong words. This is not a nice little story. It’s a tough teaching.
We need not just individuals to have and show compassion but groups of people, entire communities and nations, to have compassion for one another. The heart of this reading is to realize that such compassion begins when one person’s heart is moved to love the other, and from that whole groups of people can follow. Jesus tells us that having compassion on the stranger is how we inherit the kingdom of God.

But what is the kingdom of God? Is it some reward that we are trying to earn in the future, in the life we hope to live after this one, if we are found worthy? Again, I think Jesus points us to see the kingdom of God in a richer context, as a place that is both here now and yet still to come in the future. The kingdom of God can be manifested right now –whenever the peace of Christ and the love of God – abide in and through us. It is also a kingdom that will never be fully realized in our lives, in this world, but will reach its fulfillment in the age to come. It is a both/and kingdom.

So, it’s a both/and kingdom; and we are invited, by the grace of God, and the love of Christ, and the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit, to be a part of the kingdom coming into fruition. We are called to participate in this kingdom of God through acts of love and compassion.

During World War II Corrie Ten Boom and her family participated in the Dutch Underground Resistance Movement by hiding Jews in a secret room in their house. Eventually she and her family were arrested and sent to a prison camp where her father and one sister died. Corrie was released some time later and continued her work to help others. She was a Christian woman and writes this about ministry and service to others:

“It seems to be that all of us Christians are called to be healers. It’s so easy to hurt, to do harm. How much better to heal. No, we do not have to go to medical school. We can just go to the clinic Christ sets up, learn about love, about caring for everyone, even the most lowly, learn to put our fears aside and reach out to touch even the worst untouchables. But we can be
healers too in our own relationships, in our homes, in our places of employment, in our community. If we look, we will find wounds everywhere for which we can bring some healing balm, some word of hope, some act of love and caring, some prayer of intercession. (from Lindy on the website:

The way we help others need not be grand. It need not be something that wears us out. And, while feeling good about ourselves may be a nice perk from knowing we have helped someone, it is not the reason we help. We don’t help with the intent and purpose of boosting our own egos and find our meaning in life. We help because that is what it means to be the hands and heart of Christ in the world.

Helping, showing compassion and love for others, is what we are called by God to do. We do this because its how we build community, its how we create the Body of Christ, its how we bring forth God’s kingdom now and in the future. It’s a profound question we are to ask ourselves, How can I help? And the answer is simple, look carefully around you, you’re bound to see someone in the ditch of life.

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